Riches to Rags

The new filming of Thomas Mann’s Nobel Prize-winning novel is lush and compelling

TVR Books | Oliver Macdonald | February 2009

Beautifully-shot and very well-cast, the new German/American co-production of Buddenbrooks is a fine costume drama about the downfall of a family from a proud position of wealth, high social and civic status to virtual ruin. It is immensely watchable, if sad. Directed by Heinrich Breber and filmed on location in the north German city of Lübeck, it strikes a particularly strong chord now as the global recession threatens to produce many echos of similar misfortune.

Based on the novel of Thomas Mann – that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 – the film tells the story of three generations of a very successful Hanseatic merchant, Consul Jean Buddenbrook (Armin Mueller-Stahl). His world is success, or at least it seems: established family, prosperous company, civic recognition and so on. He is supported by his wife Bethsy (Iris Berben), who is driven by a sense of duty and discipline necessary to maintain her husband’s position.

The focus, however, rests on the next generation of the family: The three children, Thomas (Mark Wasche), Christian (August Diehl) and the daughter of the house, Tony (Jessica Schwarz). Here is the film’s greatest strength. We watch these three happy young children grow and mature into adult life with very individual characters, and the ensuing harmonies and conflicts: Thomas, the loyal older brother who grows hard under the weight of responsibility; Christian, the younger who unravels as he struggles to escape; Tony, a girl of spirit offered little choice but duty, fighting to stay human.

They are anchored – or is it chained – to the two pillars of tradition, The Family and The Company. Which takes precedence? Which should take precedence? What do they give to and what do they demand from others in each setting?

Should sons automatically follow their father into the family business or make their own way? Thomas follows duty and eventually takes over the company. Christian rejects it and chooses a life as an artist. There is a lot of room for inner conflict. What matters, Family or Business, Happiness or Duty, Reality or Appearances?

At the centre is Tony, a vivacious and beautiful young woman who loves her family and both her brothers. She briefly experiences her own perfect love but sacrifices it to do what is expected for the sake of the family – or is it the company, which needed an image?

Business starts to slide and as it does, the family’s spiritual and moral values disintegrate and material assets diminish rapidly. Death, the ultimate symbol of the end takes over, naturally in the case of the old parents, prematurely in the case of Thomas and tragically – and symbolically – in that of the child carried off by typhus. With the death of the boy, the future dies too.

Overall it is a deeply sad story, all too familiar in today’s world. The wealth, the greatness, a command of respect that is ultimately fleeting and enormously costly in terms of higher human values. All of this Breloer captures vividly, in a very intelligent screenplay he wrote in conjunction with Horst Königstein.

The story unfolds in scene after stunning scene of life among the haute-Bourgeoisie in mid 19th century Lubeck. Cinematographer Gernot Roll fills sweeping panoramas with energy, creating a dynamic flow between intimacy and grandeur that underlines the central dilemma of the story.

In another sense, it is also a film of a very great work of literature – Mann’s first novel, based largely on the fortunes of his own forebears. As in the case of other great family sagas such as Brideshead Revisited, Roots, or The Forsyte Saga, a 150 minute film can never replace the original literary work. But it can do justice to the core story, and be a good companion, which is certainly the case here.  A five star must see.

Other articles from this issue