Review of The Scarlet Letter:
Der Scharlachrote Buchstabe

Copyright 1994, Magill's Survey of Cinema by Salem Press



Directed by Wim Wenders, this German version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel was constricted by a low budget, which particularly affected locations and casting. Wenders's alteration to the story emphasize the unforgiving nature of the Puritan society and Hester Prynne's (Senta Berger) transcendence through service.


This film, the third feature directed by Wim Wenders, derives from two sources. The primary source is Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, published in 1850 and set in colonial America; in addition, Wenders made use of an intermediary scenario by Tankred Dorst and Ursula Enler. In his adaptation, Wenders ignores the initial "Customs-House" chapter that serves as a framing device for Hawthorne's novel but otherwise tells Hawthorne's story. Hester Prynne (Senta Berger) is sent to New England by her husband in Britain, who was himself delayed from joining her because he was captured by the Indians. When the husband (Hans Christian Blech) finally arrives in Boston two years later, he finds Hester the object of public scorn, an adulteress branded with a scarlet letter "A," and the mother of the child Pearl (Yella Rottlander). The husband, an embittered older man, takes the name of Roger Chillingworth and becomes a sort of physician and healer, obsessed with proving that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Lou Castel) is the father of Pearl. Over a seven-year period, Dimmesdale is debilitated by guilt and the knowledge of his secret sin, while Hester gains strength and public respect by doing works of mercy. The novel ends with a spectacle of public confession for Dimmesdale during a fateful "Election Day" ceremony. After making his public confession, the weakened Dimmesdale dies in Hester's arms. Chillingworth, ruined by his obsessive hatred and quest for revenge, dies "within the year" and bequeaths his property in England and the New World to Pearl. Hester leaves New England with Pearl but later returns alone to continue her life of atonement and public service.

In making THE SCARLET LETTER, Wenders felt constricted by the producers' budgeting decisions. The picture was therefore a frustrating experience because the director was forced into making many compromises. He originally wanted to shoot on location in North America, for example, but budget limitations dictated that the film be made in Spain instead. Wenders wanted to find authentic landscapes and period buildings in New England but had to settle for the Spanish seacoast and constructed sets that he believed were too obviously contrived. He also had found a Russian actress he wanted to cast as Hester Prynne, but the financiers wanted the better-known actress Senta Berger in this central role. Moreover, Wenders was not at liberty to utilize long-shots and extended takes which have come to be recognizable components of his visual style. The film is a study in frustration.

Even so, Wenders provides a well-conceived transformation of Hawthorne's classic novel. In structuring the transformation, Wenders follows the general course of the novel but makes several significant alterations, particularly in the presentation of character. Primarily, what Wenders adds to Hawthorne is a personal reflection upon the nature of Puritanical repression. To strengthen this motif, he elevates the character of Governor Bellingham (William Layton) to central rather than peripheral importance. As critic Richard C. Keenan has pointed out, Wenders' Bellingham represents a man whose innate sense of tolerance is in conflict with the narrow repression of the Puritan theocracy.

Wenders created a role for Yelena Samarina, the Russian actress he originally wanted to play Hester, by inventing the character of Governor Bellingham's daughter, who provides an alter ego for Hester in the film and serves a choric function, as when she urges Hester on the scaffold to abjure her stoicism, reject the community, and join her in the wilderness. This free spirit, almost demented in her assertion of natural impulses, has the irrational qualities of a witch. Like Dimmesdale, she seems compelled to share Hester's guilt and suffering. This invented character springs from Hawthorne's old Mistress Hibbins, who was, Larzer Ziff has suggested on the basis of period documents, the sister rather than the daughter of Richard Bellingham. In the novel, Hawthorne advances her years, whereas in the film Wenders makes her younger and more comely. Her treatment suggests that Hester is a sort of scapegoat, and that Hester's guilt is in fact the guilt and suffering of the community.

Hans Christian Blech is an unusual but effective Chillingworth. He is neither satanic nor overtly sadistic, as in the novel, where Hawthorne's Chillingworth comes to the symbolic Wilderness a vindictive seeker of curious knowledge. In the film he is weary rather than sinister: He appears to be a knowledgeable man of the world whose weathered countenance seems to symbolize his experience and wisdom. He is a doctor, a man of science primarily driven by scientific curiosity, yet somehow unable to fathom the human heart and human emotions. He is the spirit of science personified.

Hester was Chillingworth's wife in name only. Each freely acknowledges that there was no love between them, yet Chillingworth's awareness that Hester has loved and continues to suffer willingly for that love is a puzzle that Chillingworth cannot solve. If he is sinister in the film, it is because of his scientific detachment. When Blech's Chillingworth examines the chest of the sleeping Dimmesdale and discovers the branded "A," he exults as a scientist might who has found physical evidence to support a scientific theory. The physical scar on Dimmesdale's chest is a physical, pathological phenomenon Chillingworth can understand without fully understanding the emotional link between Hester and Dimmesdale and Pearl that has caused the scar to appear.

As in the novel, the character of Dimmesdale is caught between Chillingworth and Hester. Dimmesdale gradually weakens as the strength of these two other characters - Hester's stoic courage and love in the face of continued humiliation, Chillingworth's constant probing and obdurate persistence - drains him of his strength. Dimmesdale collapses on the scaffold where Hester has stood. The film presents Dimmesdale as a captive of the theocratic state and the mentality that sustains it: His existence is determined by the Puritan concept of pleasure as sin. For him, human love is a sign of spiritual weakness.

Arthur Dimmesdale is a typical Hawthorne character who is destroyed by guilt, not for any great crime, but for the guilt of being human. After Dimmesdale reveals the sign of his human vulnerability, the new governor cannot then permit him to rise as a man who has accepted his vulnerability and reconciled his failure. Under Puritan rules atonement is impossible. Dimmesdale has been victimized by a conspiracy against him by Church and State. Both the new governor and the deacon are with him at the end to keep him from surviving his ordeal after his confession on the scaffold, for the Puritans will not allow sin to be assimilated into human experience. Hawthorne has Dimmesdale killed by the pressures of society. Wenders makes the theocratic state more sinister than even Hawthorne presents it - utterly unforgiving, spiritually repressive, inhumanely corrupt. Thus, at the end, Dimmesdale is stifled by the Theocratic State. The film expands Hawthorne's story interestingly.

Despite the variations in the film, the difficulties with the script, and the production problems, Wenders has managed to capture in his version of THE SCARLET LETTER the essence of man's spiritual dilemma: Man can neither enjoy life nor escape from it. Like other Hawthorne characters, Dimmesdale commits the unforgivable sin of despair. Thus life becomes meaningless, painful, and ultimately unbearable for him. At the end, he can return neither to the Church nor to Hester.

At one point in the film, Senta Berger as Hester tells Pearl about Anne Hutchinson, who went from Salem to Providence, where life is different, and the community is ruled by another form of government. They cannot follow her, however, because the way is distant and difficult. They seem to be literally and physically trapped. Here Wenders, who has specialized in the cinema of isolation and existential entrapment, brings a compatible twentieth century sensibility to Hawthorne's novel. It is a better film than the director himself has conceded.

Copyright (c) Magill's Survey of Cinema by Salem Press. All Rights Reserved. THE SCARLET LETTER; DER SCHARLACHROTE BUCHSTABE., Magill's Survey of Cinema, 01-01-1994.