Thursday 17 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #14: Simon Magus (1999)

Somewhere on the border between Germany and Poland, somewhen on the border between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we find a small community of Jews. Boards over doorways leave forwarding addresses. One reads simply: Amerika.

Outside of the village stands a hovel. Painted on its door: Moved to Hell.

The only house thus still inhabited.
This is where Simon lives, Simon the pathetic, Simon who shovels shit and begs for alms by doing magic tricks and threatening to curse the land. Simon talks to the devil, he says. Local children find him funny, and are punished by their parents for talking to him.

Because he's so pathetic and childlike, he's not counted one of the Minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish men over 13 required for synagogue worship, although he's had his Bar Mitzvah. They just don't want him there. He's smelly. He's disruptive. He changes the words of the prayers. But if one more family moves away, he will have to be included or there will be no synagogue, and no one is quite sure how to take that.
The Devil has one milky eye.
Simon (prolific character actor Noah Taylor), orphaned, receives no more than toleration from his community. His behaviours, the illness that consumes him, the voices he hears and the hallucinations he experiences, set him apart, but like many who grow up with illnesses of his kind, his adulthood is stunted. No one understands what he's seeing and hearing; because no one really understands, he receives no real empathy. Because he receives no real connection, he becomes stranger, never learns how to communicate. And the cycle continues.
Do you read, Dovid?
Still, without even knowing it, Simon becomes the centre of a quiet struggle between the Jewish and Gentile communities. An enterprising farmer, Dovid Bendel (Stuart Townsend, wide-eyed and idealistic), realising that the nearby railway has killed commerce in the town, goes to the kindly, literary-minded squire (Rutger Hauer, playing a Twinkly Rutger Hauer) and suggests that the Jewish community build a railway station. The squire offers the land to Dovid at a bargain rate, on condition that Dovid read and discuss his recently-published poetry collection. You may surmise that I like the cut of the squire's jib.

However. All unknowing, a virulently anti-semitic businessman of the region, Maximilian Hase (Sean McGinley) has the same idea. He makes an offer for the same patch of land. He offers four times as much, but has no time for the arts.
The Devil.
The situation reaches a head when the Devil comes to Simon in person (in the shape of Ian Holm), first as a tinker, then as a leper, and then as an eyeless nightmare creature painted in Hebrew lettering and grown from the earth of Simon's hovel overnight like a mushroom. Through threats and enticements, the Adversary – and it's never established how imaginary he is – engineers Simon's estrangement from the Jewish community. He sends Simon to the Catholic church in the gentile part of town, where he asks to convert, offering him money to save his soul.
You shall have all the chicken you want.
The priest tells the story of Simon Magus, the magician who tried to buy his way into apostlehood (one of my favourite characters from early Christian myth, and note to self: write about him a bit). But he accepts Simon and begins to school him for baptism. There Hase finds Simon, and realising he has someone who knows the Jewish community, feeds him chicken to get his allegiance. And then, for his amusement, feeds him pork. And then Hase tries to use Simon, first as a spy, and then as an agent in a terrible crime.

Simon Magus is a great film; perhaps it has one too many subplots (does the squire need a love interest?) and perhaps it drags a bit in the middle. Ben Hopkins, who directed and wrote, has a good eye and a fine grasp of feeling, and the film tugs at the heartstrings; it has this lonely melancholy. It aims to be beautiful. The one character with insight into this is the trader and barman, Bratislav (Terence Rigby). He is friend to all, without being part of any community.
A beer glass, that refills itself.
Bratislav: I'm not a Jew. Not a Christian. Neither fish nor flesh. My father was a bad Jew. Fell in love with a Gentile woman. And that's me. Belonging nowhere.
Simon: Who do you pray to?
Bratislav: I have this idea of God, Simon. He's a beer glass that refills itself, every time you drink it.
It is Bratislav who experiences the one undeniable miracle of the film, right at the end; it is he who offers gratitude that extends beyond the simple.
I have grown from the floor of your house, like a mushroom, nourished by your evil deeds.
Of course, the appearance of the Devil draws Simon Magus towards darker territories, but the Devil is not the source of the horror that informs the film. Halfway through, Simon goes up to the railway line, which he has never seen. Narrowly avoiding being run over by the train, he has a terrifying vision: the train is full of Jews, being taken away to Hell.

The symbolism is made as oblique as it possibly can be. But we're on the border of Germany and Poland, at the dawn of the twentieth century, and someone has a vision of a future where Jews are being taken to Hell on a train.

You know what that signifies. It's the central grief of twentieth century Europe. 
Simon's vision.
The bittersweet ending of Simon Magus can't efface that. One of the threads of folk horror that I've picked up while working through this project is that whether supernatural or not, folk horror is deterministic. It cannot be escaped, cannot be evaded. Protagonists end up consigned to terrible fates which were ordained from the beginning. But in this film, the deterministic horror is generational. They're building a station so that their community will thrive, and in a generation's time, the station will become the means of something so terrible that its horror cannot be approached in the film. We're looking at a community who, even though they (or at least, all but one of them) seem to come out on a point of hope, have the most terrible fate imaginable in store.

It's a context, an existent thing that defines the framework within which Simon Magus is made. We know this is a thing; we cannot make a film set in this place and time without its shadow looming. 

The subsequent condition of horror is grief; Simon Magus tries to imply the horror with the grief of a lonely man who isn't permitted to survive in the world, but who, although accused of evil, saves his people. He is one of the Tzadikim, the 36 just men of a generation, who save the world. But who will save the generation to come?