Feature film “Seneca”: Destruction of a thinker

Feature film “Seneca”: Destruction of a thinker

A feverish dream of a film: Robert Schwentke’s “Seneca” is a reckoning with intellectuals who put themselves in the service of despots.

Samuel Finzi in a pink suit grabs John Malkovich's neck with fingers made of fabric

Statius (Samuel Finzi) and Seneca (John Malkovich) Photo: World Cinema

It is reminiscent of the well-known words “Et tu, Brute?” after Shakespeare, when Robert Schwentke has his badly battered title hero ask “Have you abandoned me now too?” into the frightening emptiness. However, the questioner is not called Caesar, but Seneca (John Malkovich). Nor is he frightened, as the Roman emperor should be at the sight of his murderers, when he recognized a beloved friend in Brutus among them.

On the contrary, what shakes Seneca is that his would-be killer (Andrew Koji) has just walked away. Because that means that he is now finally alone after his followers have already turned away from him. That there really is no one left who could hear his last words. And for a philosopher, at least for one as worthy of recognition as he is, that is obviously a crueler thought than being the victim of a bestial assassination.

At least if according to the interpretation of the German director and screenwriter Robert Schwentke who undertakes a maliciously mocking destruction of the thinker, even wanting to deny him his status as such. By the time this final intention is presented in all its clarity in “Seneca”, a large part of the almost two-hour playing time has already passed. Until then, contradictory areas of a mind that had only become egocentric towards the end had been dissected.

Even stronger are the contrasts between the moods that the eleventh feature film by the filmmaker, who has been known primarily for shallow spectacles (“Determination”), runs through. With “Seneca” Schwentke has created a feverish dream of a film that not only breaks with the historicity of the material, when figures with sunglasses and electric guitars are shown or graffiti or electricity pylons can suddenly be seen in the background. But also with genre boundaries, sometimes in dizzying erraticness.

Child Emperor becomes a tyrant

It begins as a Pythonesque screwball comedy when Seneca, apparently driven by lofty ideals, despairs of the mental retardation of his pupil Nero (Tom Xander), who cannot remember even simple rhetorical advice. Just as the child emperor gradually develops into the tyrant he goes down in history as, the view of the title hero also darkens.

More enraged by the new impotence over Nero than the devastating conditions of Rome sinking into poverty and violence, he put on bitter plays for the empire’s bored elite (including many German actors such as Louis Hofmann and Annika Meier).

As soon as the plot turns to the modern interpretation of Seneca’s bloodthirsty tragedy “Thyestes”, “Seneca” suddenly shows signs of a darkly macabre horror drama – only to then lapse back into comedy, even into physical slapstick. Ironically, when the news of his death sentence is brought to the protagonist in the presence of the same “High Snobiety”.

Nero, provoked by said fuss and unnerved by the advice of his former mentor, gives him a merciless choice: use the night to judge himself or face a gruesome execution at dawn. In order to continue the legacy of the great Socrates, Seneca is known to have opted for the first variant.

The chatter of Seneca

But things don’t really work here. Seneca is probably more too proud than too stoic for his body to simply surrender to death. A sometimes disconcerting, sometimes hilarious tour de force through ancient killing techniques begins.

And yet it is the continuation of the above key sequence that remains from this film, because in it the mockery is taken to the extreme: in order to underline his protagonist’s desire to make a name for himself, Schwentke lets him continue speaking without an audience. Or better: gossip. About lamp metaphors, for example, which, like us humans, are lit and then extinguished again after far too short a time.

Until the cheap torrent of speech finally turns into a fan of powerless words. In a last step, the script, on which Matthew Wilder also worked, denies him even dying as a Stoic. Contrary to what Seneca teaches, he does not face death calmly. In a disturbing scene, the lurking camera of Benoît Debie (“Vortex”), which occasionally produces just as surprising shots here as in the collaborations with director provocateur Gaspar Noéhis face.

The picture gradually rotates until the face of Seneca, lying on the damp, cold stone floor, can be seen upright on the screen. It’s as if he, too, were upright for the first time towards the end of his life, when he stammers from fear, asks about his mother, utters a silent scream and thus has to take off his rhetorical suit of armor. Is it a coincidence that John Malkovich skilfully mimics a grimace at this moment that is reminiscent of the exalted facial expressions of former US President Donald Trump? Hardly likely.

Opportunism in the second row

Schwentke does not want to equate the thinker, who, contrary to the ideals of his own writings, was one of the richest men in Rome with the demagogue. This comparison is already reserved for the giant baby Nero, who is eloquently addressed repeatedly as “Mr President”.

But “Seneca” is a sardonic parable of the danger of becoming the person you surround yourself with. Even more: a pitiless reckoning with the opportunism of the “second row”, the intellectuals behind the despots who put themselves in their service and thus enable and secure their power.

The fact that “Seneca” is primarily interested in the present cannot be overlooked and lends a somewhat boring plot a certain relevance. But would that have required the agonizing level of cynicism? Ironically, for all its brilliance, the film also approximates what it surrounds itself with: the bluntly violent and jaded complacency it seeks to condemn.

Source link