Saturday, November 30, 2013

Propping Up Rembrandt in a Circa 1980 East German Film

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching Barbara starring Nina Hoss, in which she plays a doctor in 1980 East Germany who has been sent to a provincial hospital following her request to leave the communist state. In one scene, Hoss visits a colleague's lab where he draws her attention to a print of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp from 1632, which is housed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

The colleague sets up the scene:

I'd like to go to The Hague. That's where the Rembrandt is. Didn't you notice anything? The painting. The man lying there is Aris Kindt. He's just been hanged for theft. It's Doctor Tulp giving the anatomy lesson.

They should have cut open the abdomen first.

But they dissected the left hand instead.

There's a mistake. The hand is wrong. It's the opposite one. It's the right hand and it's too large.

I don't think Rembrandt made a mistake. You see the atlas? It's an anatomy atlas. They're all staring at it. He is, he is, they all are. And the hand is painted like a depiction in the atlas. Rembrandt includes something that we can't see, only they can: the depiction of the hand. Due to this mistake we no longer look through the doctor's eyes. We see him, Aris Kindt. The victim. We are with him, not with them.

On The Moveable Fest website there is an interview with the director, Christian Petzold, about the meaning of this scene.

...I did some research in art history and many people are talking about the wrong arm [being dissected] and then I note this whole picture is made by Rembrandt in a time where the modern time starts and the modern time means [Rene] Descartes, Hadyn, all the new philosophy, Napoleon and the French revolution and at this time, the people said, we make the fate of our own. There is no God anymore. We heard that God is dead. And we can build up societies, we can build up democracy...And these guys [in] this Rembrandt picture are scientists and like Dr. Frankenstein, they want to rebuild their Gods. This is also a symbol for communism and for capitalism. But in this part, it’s communism. They want to build up a society and when you build up societies, the victims are everywhere. The blood is flowing because for them, society is a laboratorium. So they kill this man who’s a thief, they open his body — he stole three potatoes — because they need fresh flesh. They lost their empathy.

Click here to read the entire discussion - Interview: Christian Petzold on the Skillful Seduction of “Barbara”

Barbara is available for streaming on Netflix (with subtitles). Watch the trailer here: