Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden paints a picture of flawed genius
It’s always challenging to portray a beloved historical figure. Striking a balance between the truth, entertainment and the image held dear by adoring fans is never easy. Artists, however, make the job slightly easier as their works often stand alone, leaving their creator in the shadows. Such is the case with Egon Schiele, Austria’s most celebrated champion of Modernism. Death and the Maiden is the latest attempt to cast light on the man.
Following almost the entire span of his career, from shortly after he drops out of the Academy of Fine Arts to his death at 28 from the Spanish flu, Death and the Maiden is based on the eponymous biography by Hilde Berger and co-written by her with director Dieter Berner. The film pays meticulous attention to detail: for instance, all characters speak German with a thick Viennese accent. While this is probably accurate – Schiele was a stationmaster’s son from provincial Tulln, just north of the capital – it feels awkward because we like to imagine our artistic heroes as noble as the works they created; hearing them speak in vulgar dialect is not unlike depicting William Shakespeare with a Brummie accent.
Death and the Maiden certainly doesn’t sugarcoat Schiele: newcomer Noah Saavedra portrays the artist as an obsessive workaholic who is callous bordering on abusive towards the women in his life. And while he also shows that the artist could be charming in an awkward, goofy way when he wasn’t working, Schiele worked almost constantly, creating more than 350 paintings and about 2800 sketches and watercolors in his short life.
Schiele wasn’t so much a rake as highly self-centered and casually cruel: his muse/manager/live-in girlfriend Wally Neuzil (a show-stealing Valerie Pachner) is nonchalantly told while posing that she’s being set aside so he can marry the more respectable girl next door. Storming out, she crys that he doesn’t need her; Schiele gives chase, but only to insist that he does need her – to finish his painting. When she eventually returns, her cheeks streaked with tears, he calmly asks her to remove her clothes and resume posing.
His new spouse Edith does not fare much better: she objects to posing with her legs spread, insisting that she’s entitled to some dignity; Schiele merely sneers at her.
As for his younger sister, Gerti, the relationship was vaguely incestuous. She was his first model while they were still teenagers; they tease and wrestle as siblings do, even when she’s nude. When he sets her aside for the exotic and more mature model Moa Mandu, she retaliates by hooking up with one of his artist friends. Enraged, he dissolves the Krumau art colony and, later on, spitefully refuses to consent to Gerti’s marriage to his former friend. Yet Gerti is the only one who tries to keep Schiele alive when he lay dying.
Like many other young, talented men, Schiele was cocksure; when meeting his mentor and sponsor Gustav Klimt, Schiele is respectful of his older benefactor, but refuses to sell him a drawing, haughtily announcing he creates for art’s sake, not for money. When Klimt good-naturedly offers to trade him one of his own pictures instead, he only grudgingly accepts.
It is this unwavering belief in the infallibility of art that eventually does get Schiele in real trouble: unable to get models, he begins drawing children, leading to his arrest and a charge of abusing minors. The allegations are proven unfounded (Wally perjures herself to dispel any doubt), but he ends up convicted of pornography. This is where Saavedra truly shines as Schiele, delivering a passionate speech on the stand in defense of art. However, it fails to have an effect: the sketch the judge self-righteously burns in the courtroom indeed depicts a pre-teen model.
Ultimately, Death and the Maiden’s commitment to accuracy works against it: it sticks to the facts, recreating Egon Schiele as the sum of his experiences, never quite grasping his elusive nature. It is comparable to the artworks of the man himself: erotic, yet rough rather than sensual. The angular, contorted poses leave those depicted raw and exposed yet inscrutable. The more you see, the less you know, leaving the viewer unsettled yet mesmerized. And the artist, forever young.
Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden
(in German with English subtitles)
Starts Oct 7, Burg Kino
1., Opernring 19