“EGON SCHIELE: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN”
A Fascinating Biographical Story
Egon Schiele (Noah Saavedra) was young, brilliant, seductive and is one of the most provocative and scandalous artists in early twentieth century Vienna. His life and work are stimulated by eroticism in a Bohemian era that was quickly coming to a close. His inspiration came from two women — his sister, Gerti (Maresi Riegner), and Wally Neuzil (Valerie Pachner), the woman that he immortalizes in his most famous painting “Death and the Maiden.” The beginning of World War I threatens Schiele’s artistic pursuits and leads to his eventual betrayal of Wally, his muse and one true.
Egon Schiele led a very interesting life. Scriptwriter Hilde Berger and director Dieter Berner unfortunately skim over the two most interesting aspects of Schiele’s life, his trial for pedophilia and his experiences in the First World War, are completely glossed over in favor of a superficial overview of more or less his entire adult life. (There are of course reasons liberal fans of Schiele would want to avoid these issues anyway).
The premise of the film is to follow his life and death in relation to five important young women, the title also referencing his most famous work of art. Scenes therefore alternate between his death from the Spanish flu and his relationships with the women who were important to him at various points in his life. The director uses frames in the beginning of the film with the viewer often looks at scenes through the frame of a mirror or that of an attic roof, which serves as Schiele’s studio.
We see a Black on stage in a cabaret as Death with a White woman, referencing the Death and the Maiden motif of Renaissance art and thus foreshadowing Schiele’s painting “Tod und Mädchen” and also fetishizing miscegenation and that which is symbolized in the act of miscegenation: the death of the European woman. It also serves as a precursor to the relationship between Schiele and French métisse Moa Mandu, played by Larissa Breidbach — a post-European woman — who also appears later in the cabaret.
Mandu fulfills every fantasy of the Black woman: both physically and mentally strong, passionate, and full of wanton sexuality. Right from the outset, she displays the stereotypical character traits that are overpowering for the female director of the variety revue. Schiele and his friends are of course completely taken with Moa’s joie de vivre and she accompanies them on their sojourn in the country, where her dominance over the male characters continues t. She wears male clothing and takes the male active role, pacifying both Schiele and his friends, one of whom she simultaneously takes to bed with Schiele for a threesome. This demonstrates the liberal bourgeois thought that stereotyping of the Other is a “thoughtcrime” when certain character traits are shown negatively light, yet a virtue when those exact same traits are lauded. In other words, stereotyping is only a negative if it does not fit the Leftist agenda. We are all the same and yet the Other is always better. Schiele and his friends within the film display these typical bourgeois sensibilities.
The other girl in Schiele’s life at this point is his sister Gerti, with whom he has an incestuous relationship. It is here, from almost the very beginning of the film, that the director introduces us to sexual deviancy and to the prospect of pedophilia. Gerti serves as Schiele’s nude model at the age of sixteen. We see a naked young girl playing in the bed with her brother. Mandu’s masculinity also develops the feminist aspect of the film and she is very much seen as a free woman, her Otherness frees her from bourgeois constraints and provides a contrast with the character of Gerti in this section. Gerti complains that Egon can do everything and she can do nothing. Yet actually, the women in the film are generally seen as rather free in terms of the ability to determine their own lives. They are victims of the circumstances of their own making, caused by their lust for this artist. Schiele des not invest them with emotion. As stated, there are two parts of Schiele’s life that are very much glossed over.
In the film, as in life, he is arrested for abducting a thirteen-year-old girl, who is very much dismissed as an innocent error of judgment by the director with the girl being seen as a willing accomplice and the relationship was innocent and non-sexual. We know from Schiele’s real life that he was attracted to very young girls and this particular episode ought to have been left more ambiguous, but the filmmakers wish to exonerate him while simultaneously showing us perhaps there is nothing wrong with pedophilia. We see this in the trial scene, where the judge burns one of Schiele’s artworks, a portrait of an underage girl naked from the waist down. This scene is closely foreshadowed by the scene in which Schiele is visited in custody by his girlfriend Wally
While the real Schiele was never convicted of the statutory rape of a minor due to the unreliability and lack of testimony of the alleged victim, he was convicted of being a pornographer. Another aspect of his life that is barely touched upon in the film is Schiele’s avoidance of being drafted during the First World War with his excuse again being his art. The only scene shown of military life is the conscription office, where he makes the excuse to the officer that he has a weak heart. I suspect that Schiele been more of a conservative or traditionalist archetype, no mercy would have been spared in making fun of his lack of courage.
Because the war is not covered, neither is Wally Neuzil’s fate. She is last seen going off to be an army hospital orderly after being left by Schiele in order for him to marry for wealth and stability. A last mention comes of her death in the war. There is irony in that the women in the film are emotionally dependent on Schiele, with the possible exception of his sister, who grows stronger throughout the film — although this could also be attributed to her marriage. The filmmakers were trapped into a somewhat anti-feminist narrative by their contradictions. Indeed, the film leaves us with an exposé of the Leftist mindset and Schiele’s attitude to women shows the liberal view that people are there to be used and abused and discarded when necessary. Schiele is as obsessed with money as he is with his art and covets the bourgeois lifestyle that the filmmakers simultaneously wish to deconstruct. Furthermore, for his trial, he manages to secure the services of an expensive solicitor through Wally. It is wealth that saves him and keeps him afloat. However, in the end the Spanish flu reduces him to poverty and kills him. His sister is forced to pawn her jewelry for medicine, but arrives back with it too late.
The film presents the Leftist obsession with the New, which is glorified for progressive ideals; yet this too deconstructs itself under close analysis. The whole film can be seen as Schiele’s search for the New, but as Schiele himself asserts of art at one point in the film that there can be nothing new. Nonetheless, while he was alive, he moves from one new conquest to the next, always searching for the New and that search ultimately destroys those with whom he comes into contact.
- Bonus Short Film – Nothing Happens (Directed by Michelle Kranot & Uri Kranot | Denmark & France | 11 minutes) It is freezing cold. Yet people have gathered on the outskirts of the town, waiting for something to happen.
- Deleted Scenes
- Interview with Director and Writer
- Casting and Rehearsal Featurettes