Perfume the Film Worth the Wait?

Over the next months Perfume, a film based on the internationally acclaimed novel by German author Patrick Süskind, will be shown in cinemas around the world. Already sparking controversial debate as it premieres in German theaters, its €50 million budget makes it one of the most expensive German films ever made. Was it worth the effort?

By Urs Jenny

When 'Perfume. The Story of a Murderer' has its debut in 700 German theaters next week, millions of devoted readers will finally get what they have supposedly been eagerly awaiting for the last 10 or even 20 years. Produced by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Tom Tykwer, the film is then scheduled to premier in rapid succession in almost a dozen other European countries. It will quickly become apparent whether the readers of the novel, published in 1985 and the most successful German novel, among both German and international readers, since Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" – 15 million copies published worldwide -- will rush out in droves to see the film and whether Süskind's loyal readers, many with only a fading memory of the book, will in fact appreciate the film version.

When the almost two-hour film, which is certainly entertaining but by no means light-hearted, reaches its climax, viewers experience how the young protagonist mounts a platform on the small town market square to be executed, but instead the crowd, high on an erotically imbued narcotic (the "perfume"), erupts into a frenzy of uninhibited embraces.

The tabloids would call it an "orgy" while the classically trained prefer to see it as a "bacchanal." As the camera pans deliriously and dizzyingly over the crowd, a euphoric rain shower bursts from the sky and slow motion film techniques distort a mob scene into something deliciously festive. The camera zooms in on the boy who instigated the whole thing, his face revealing three emotions in rapid succession: astonishment, delight and, finally, disgust. Some might see this performance as messianic; others as satanic or perhaps Dionysian. Most of all, however, it reveals the filmmaker's eagerness and to obtain a PG rating and yet still go down in cinematic history.

"Perfume" is the partly real, partly imaginary life story of a puny, unpleasant character who has been kicked around by fate but who, as a result of an entirely paranormal ability, suddenly becomes a sensation. With its protagonist an amoral and both brilliantly and dangerously obstinate outsider, the novel bears some similarity to two other German bestsellers published in the last two decades that were also made into films: Günter Grass's "The Tin Drum" (whose message may have encouraged Süskind) and ''Brother of Sleep" by Robert Schneider (who clearly drew some of his inspiration from "Perfume"). The film versions of these two novels also highlighted the difficulty convincing viewers to empathize and even like an unlikable protagonist, a task "Perfume" attempts to accomplish to the point of exhaustion. Although the film version of "Perfume" will never measure up to director Volker Schlöndorff's "The Tin Drum," which triumphed precisely because of its sheer lack of respect, it certainly holds its own with director Joseph Vilsmaier's "Brother of Sleep."

The Education of a Murderer

In a magnificent novel that's plainly bursting with life, Süskind tells the story -- in the manner of the classics but with an entirely contemporary sense of irony -- of a bastard who is born in the mid-18th century on the filthiest street corner of a stinking metropolis, Paris, and is literally left in the gutter by his mother. The boy ends up in an orphanage, where he is baptized Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and discovers that his lack of body odor makes him an object of hatred for the other children (who cannot smell him, which in Süskind's original German is a play on words, meaning they cannot stand him). But he also discovers that he has an unusually strong sense of smell and memory for odors -- a gift not unlike photographic memory or the ability of the autistic to remember pieces of music or mathematical problems.

Although the reader is unlikely to treat any of the anomalous traits of this clumsy, shy little fellow as "believable" in a realistic sense, Süskind, a seductive and virtuosic storyteller, develops his protagonist into a character who, in his disconcerting oddness, has managed to irresistibly capture the hearts of millions of readers. The story follows Grenouille, who not only lacks a sense of smell but is also apparently asexual, as he works his way through a training position in Paris and, almost self-taught, becomes a gifted creator of perfumes. Years later in Grasse, the French perfume capital in Provence, he carries out his dastardly and secret project.

With childlike innocence Grenouille murders 25 beautiful virgins without spilling a drop of their blood and then, like some alchemist of aroma, uses the artificially preserved smell of the corpses (reduced to 13 in the film) to distill a perfume that will delight and intoxicate whoever smells it, transporting them into erotic ecstasy. In his triumphant moment, Grenouille unleashes the "greatest bacchanal the world has seen since the second century B.C." on a crowd of 10,000 people.

Süskind's Subplot

If ambitious producer Bernd Eichinger had had his way, the world would have been able to marvel at his film version of the novel almost 20 years ago. But in 1985, when "Perfume" was at the top of SPIEGEL's bestseller list, the author was apparently utterly uninterested in a film project, despite the fact that Süskind and Eichinger were acquaintances and regulars at the same Italian restaurant in Munich's swank Schwabing district. Süskind appeared to refuse on principal. It had nothing to do with any aversion to film -- after all, Süskind, 36 at the time, first made a name for himself as a screenwriter (for Helmut Dietl's TV series titled "Monaco Franze") -- nor was it a result of the book's speedy and phenomenal success, which enabled its author to achieve financial independence.

The real reason behind Süskind's refusal to sell the film rights to his novel was that he was completely averse to the kind of publicity other successful young authors normally crave, publicity that entails being photographed and interviewed, giving readings, appearing on TV talk shows and commenting on current events. In a sense, all Süskind really wanted was to disappear, unnoticed, into the shadow of his work, an artist who would shun rather than seek the public eye, much like the legendary Bartleby. None of his subsequently published works could even remotely measure up to "Perfume," and his only public comment on a political controversy of any nature happened in 2003, when he wrote a letter of protest against Germany's spelling reform.

Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille attacks Karoline Herfurth in the movie 'Perfume. The Story of a Murderer.'

Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille attacks Karoline Herfurth in the movie 'Perfume. The Story of a Murderer.'

More than a decade after the publication of "Perfume," Süskind's resistance to a film project was made the subject of a comedy whose undercurrent of self-parody is neither proclaimed nor disputed by the film's characters. In Helmut Dietl's "Rossini," for which Süskind co-wrote the screenplay, the protagonist is an eccentric, notoriously publicity-shy author of a global bestseller who is even unimpressed by the prospect of a seven-figure Hollywood movie deal. The character's name is Jakob Windisch, and a producer named Reiter, a dead ringer for Eichinger when it comes to ambition, is determined, come hell or high water, to convince the reluctant author to sign a film contract.

Reiter has plans to make a "mega-blockbuster" out of Windisch's bestseller, which a jealous rival calls a "perfumed, pseudo-literary bit of fluff." But for Reiter the novel is "practically a license to print money! The film couldn't possibly be so bad that every asshole wouldn't want to see it!" But in the film Windisch, who normally never gives interviews, is quoted in the New York Times as saying: "As long as I am alive, my book will never be filmed."

One should never say never. No one knows why, but in 2000 Süskind abandoned his resistance to a filming of his novel, as if suddenly nothing mattered anymore. Some say that he had secretly been holding out for an offer from director Stanley Kubrick, who died in March 1999. Of course, Eichinger was eventually the one who seized the opportunity. The producer hasn't denied rumors that he spent €10 million of his own money for the film rights (a sensational amount that demonstrates his enthusiasm for the work), nor would anyone dispute that he cut no corners in the production, which, at an official price tag of €50 million, was filmed mainly in and around Barcelona.

Souvenirs, Kitsch and Kubrick

A special edition of the novel is being published in time to coincide with the film's release, along with an audio book version, two books about the film itself and, finally, a CD of the film's bombastic score, performed by none less than the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. But the real piece de resistance has to be an item that couldn't possibly be interpreted as anything but a parody of the usual marketing paraphernalia. It's an exclusive "Thierry Mugler toiletry bag of the finest red velour," which contains 15 delicate little bottles of an "olfactory interpretation of the film." Unfortunately, the item isn't available at movie theaters, but only in "authorized perfumeries." The filming of the book, apparently, has led to its theme being used to market perfume.

Bernd Eichinger can't stand the term "filming," because he, mistakenly so, sees it as disparaging. Where would film history be without the filming of great literary works? They can be as glittering as "Gone With the Wind" or as paltry as "The Da Vinci Code," which has nonetheless proved to be nothing short of a license to make money. Of course, there are rarer cases of films that are such unique and compelling works of art in their own right that their literary precursors are only of interest to specialists. One such work (to remain within the genre of films set in the 18th century) is Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon."

Bernd Eichinger has earned his reputation as an important European producer mainly through his solidly crafted film versions of sophisticated bestsellers, including "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco, "The House of the Spirits," by Isabelle Allende, Danish author Peter Hoeg's "Smilla's Sense of Snow" and, most recently "Elementary Particles," based on the novel by Michel Houellebecq. "Perfume" fits easily within this genre. But in choosing as his director the brooding and difficult Tom Tykwer, whose only hit to date has been "Run Lola Run", Eichinger demonstrated a willingness to take risks, as well as a sense of sophistication and consistency.

An Impossible Task

Tykwer's fondness for expressive images gives the film energy and style and a sort of ornamental bravura, but the fact that Tykwer has to struggle with its weightiness is a result of the constraints imposed by the need to remain true to the original literary work. There are too many instances where images parading past in a succession of fireworks illustrates piecemeal what the booming voice of the narrator (Otto Sander) then brings into context. As a result, the production rarely manages to liberate itself from the constraints of someone else's fantasy.

In its most dramatic and spectacular moments the film is gripping, inventive, richly detailed, consistently lives up to its high standards and is almost lovingly indulgent in portraying the craft and milieu of perfume production. Dustin Hoffman delivers a theatrical, tragicomic and thoroughly brilliant performance in the role of the aging, worn-out perfumer Baldini, Grenouille's teacher during his apprenticeship in Paris. During Grenouille's period as a journeyman in Grasse, Alan Rickman plays the protagonist's most dangerous adversary and the delicate, porcelain-like Rachel Hurd-Wood the most intimate target of his murderous intentions.

The problem that the film's three screenwriters (Eichinger, Tykwer and Briton Andrew Birkin) are simply unable to solve lies in the fundamental nature of the protagonist who, of course, can only be portrayed on the screen as the world sees him. His obsession with himself makes Grenouille come across as the most radical of loners, a man who remains taciturn even in the face of the most gruesome torture. To clarify the problem, Eichinger calls him "a protagonist whose soul is inaccessible because he has no feelings."

No feelings? For heaven's sake! Although this characterization is more or less true in the film, it's completely off the mark when it comes to the novel. In his work, Süskind uses page after intoxicating page of lyrical, vibrating language to describe the process in which the protagonist, after inhaling the tiniest molecule of aroma, experiences the immeasurable wonders of a garden or the curls of a young girl. But the camera has no access to this enormous inner universe beyond Grenouille's constantly sniffing nostrils. We only get the occasional glimpse into his inner world through the voice of the narrator and the heavy, tumultuous and symphonic score (composed by Tom Tykwer).

As he follows his nose southward on his journey from Paris to Grasse, Grenouille pauses on a peak in the French Massif Central mountains, the "magnetic pole of the greatest possible loneliness," to escape from himself. The film, understandably so, takes little time to pause in places where there is no significant action, but in doing so it glosses over key elements of the book.

In the novel this interlude, the story's ironic core, spans a period of seven years in which Grenouille lives in a cave in the mountains and, like another version of Oblomov, the protagonist of the eponymous novel by Russian writer Ivan Goncharov, often spends "upwards of twenty hours a day dreaming into space, in complete darkness, complete stillness and complete immobility." His dreams run the gamut from sweet visions of paradise to dizzying fantasies of omnipotence to horrible fears, a true bacchanal of the imagination. These are the years in which Grenouille matures into an artist, and in which he realizes that he must use his art to "relinquish his inner life, which he believed was more wonderful than anything the outside world had to offer." Perfume is his message.

Now that this film exists, Süskind's Grenouille has a face, a rustically coarse, big-nosed, big-eared and expressive face -- a face that is not easy to love. Who knows what young British actor Ben Whishaw would have been able to do with the role of Grenouille if the film had deliberately opened itself up to the dimension of fantasy? Instead, the protagonist, who is meant to exude an air of seduction and fascination, remains distant. The viewer is left to imagine -- but not experience -- his satanic, messianic or Dionysian side.

Never Say Never

There are readers who adore the cinema and yet make a wide berth around the filming of their favorite works of literature. There are writers (from Thomas Mann and Max Frisch to Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass) who have accepted troubling compromises in the filming of their works. And then there are those who reject the very notion of their novels being committed to celluloid as a "coarse, narcissistic insult."

One of these writers once explained, expressing his own feelings and perhaps also those of his readers, that he was simply against the whole thing. In his words, he was "fundamentally opposed to the idea that imagined characters can be transformed into roles, that roles must be played, that actors will play these roles, essentially occupying them and making them their own, the end result being something else that is occupied and possessed once and for all, and that one's own imagination is embodied by the clearly delineated figure of a real person."

Those were the words of Patrick Süskind -- ten years ago.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.

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