Plot summary [wikipedia.org]
The narrative opens in the decade before World War I. We are introduced to the central protagonist of the story, Hans Castorp, a young German. We encounter him when he is in his early 20s, about to take up a shipbuilding career in Hamburg, his home town. Just before beginning this professional career he undertakes a journey to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, who is seeking a cure in a sanatorium in Davos, high up in the Swiss Alps. In the opening chapter, Hans is symbolically transported away from the familiar life and mundane obligations he has known, in what he later learns to call the flatlands , to the rarefied mountain air and introspective little world of the sanatorium.
Castorp’s departure from the sanatorium is repeatedly delayed by his failing health. What at first appears to be a minor bronchial infection with slight fever is diagnosed by the sanatorium’s chief doctor and director, Hofrat Behrens, as symptoms of tuberculosis. Hans is persuaded by Behrens to stay until his health improves.
Hans W. Geissendörfer’s film of Mann’s great novel meets its challenges well. It’s long, like the book, and it’s discursive, like the book, but it works in cinematic ways too. The director’s screenplay solves the most nagging problem of adapting THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN–how to deal with the long monologues of Settembrini and others–by simply reducing them to their essence. Yes, a lot is left out, and we really only get a taste of what the garrulous characters are all about, but this seems the best solution. There is a lot in the novel that lends itself to a film treatment. Some sources tell us that no expense was spared in bringing the Berghof Sanatorium to life, and this certainly shows on the screen. Readers of the novel should be pleased with this aspect of the realization: a Grand Hotel for the sick and dying, where nearly every manner of psychological and philosophical drama is played out in some way. This is a sumptuously mounted film–to be taken seriously, it could be no other way. The cast, too, is well-chosen and up to the task. As the most important figure, Christoph Eichhorn has a full grasp of Hans Castorp and he never falters. Numerous minor roles are filled with fine detail by superb performers. Uncle James Tienappel, Dr. Krokowski, Cousin Joachim Ziemßen, the devoted Fräulein Engelhart, the hysterical Marusja, all come to believable life. In major roles, Rod Steiger, Marie-France Pisier, Charles Aznavour and Flavio Bucci inspire no criticism either. Steiger (dubbed in German, as are several others), perhaps unexpectedly, avoids exaggerating his Mynheer Peperkorn while capturing the over-sized visions of the character. The beautifully filmed imagery in this film is underscored by a strong musical score by Jürgen Knieper. It evokes Mahler, Wagner and Strauss, without ever actually quoting them, and enhances the fin-de-siècle mood. English speakers had to wait a long time to see this made-for-TV film. It has been worth the wait. [mackjay]