October 27, 2017
The Erl King (Le Roi des Aulnes) – France, 1929
There is an old adage that states that a page in a book is the equivalent of a minute of screen time. Therefore, if you told me that Marie-Louise Iribe’s The Erl King had been made as part of a wager, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. In fact, it would make perfect sense. Picture it: Two people sitting around, each challenging the other to do the impossible: base a film on German-writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1782 poem of the same name, a poem that contains just 8 stanzas and has 32 lines of prose in total. In other words, there’s not a lot there, certainly nothing that would make it seem like choice material for a 45–minute movie.
Yet this is exactly what Iribe did in 1929. As if to prepare viewers for the challenge ahead, the film begins with a view of the actual poem, and in those fleeting moments we see just how short it actually is. Knowing what follows, I imagine that more than a few viewers will shake their head incredulously, while the recurring thought it can’t be done rings through their heads. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the film follows the events in the poem rather faithfully. Sure, there are instances of poetic license, yet these only act as brief interludes before the next exchange between a father and his extremely ill son.
Having said that, I should also note the artistic choices made in this rendering. The Erl King, in the poem a mysterious - and perhaps imaginary - voice beckoning the boy to the netherworld, is given a physical form, first appearing as an eerie toad-like creature and then stretching out into a giant figure more closely resembling one of the Crusaders than the Grim Reaper. There is also the addition of a good fairy who objects to the Erl King’s efforts to take the boy and a family that offers the pair shelter after their horse collapses due to exhaustion.
Taken as a whole, it is hard to say for sure whether Iribe intends for the Erl King to be seen as a figment of the boy’s imagination or a genuine figure. Early comments by a woman who tends to the boy suggest the former; the multiple characters and elaborate attention to detail, as well as the director’s decision to give a physical form to what could be nothing more than the apparitions of a weakened mind, make the latter an acceptable reading of the film.
Which of these interpretations you accept makes little difference, for narratively, the film remains a one-trick pony, a rather elongated chase scene through a haunted forest, the conclusion of which is already common knowledge. Thus, without a question as to what its finale will be, the audience’s role, I suppose, is to assess how well the poem was translated into a film. We are supposed to notice the additions and marvel at the techniques used to create the harrowing journey only hinted at in Goethe’s poem.
And in this regard, the film is mostly successful. I was impressed by the film’s uncanny use of darkness and fog, and I particularly admired the way Iribe layers transparent impressions of the fairies and the Erl King over solid images of the father and son. This makes the Erl King and the world he inhabits much more realistic, for it establishes it as possibly existing in a reality in which the Erl King could appear to some, yet remain hidden to others. Overall, it’s very impressive camera work, and it almost makes up for the film’s narrative dearth and the repetitive nature of film toward the end.
The Erl King is one of those films that I admired more than I enjoyed. There simply isn’t enough to this version of The Erl King to make much of a lasting impact. In many ways, it reminded me of the recent Mad Max film, a film composed of one long chase without build up or explanation. Here, death simply wants the boy. Yet also here, like in many of today’s horror films, death has obstacles placed in front of it. It must simultaneously be something people can elude, while also being escapable. So, Iribe gives death human qualities. He has desires, disagreements, and disloyal servants; he must attempt great feats of physical endurance, such as wrestling an animal into submission and pursuing his prey on horseback. In this way, he resembles a Greek or Roman god rather than an omnipotent being who requires no physical form to achieve his goals. This worked for Bergman when he made The Seventh Seal. Here, it comes across as somewhat silly, as well as a little tiresome. Still, I hope people watch the film. It is extremely well directed and rather breathtaking visually. I feel confident in saying that Iribe was a skilled filmmaker, and I can only hope that more of her work has survived. (on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology)
2 and a half stars