This Oscars season—to the delight of English teachers everywhere, perhaps—we’re taking stock of all the ways poetry makes it onto the big screen. Verses have been adapted as film titles (The White Cliffs of Dover, Casey at the Bat, Howl), served as their centerpiece (Dead Poets Society), or were the catalyst for a poignant scene or powerful narrative, as in Sophie’s Choice (borrowing from Emily Dickinson), Four Weddings and a Funeral (W.H. Auden), or Raisin in the Sun (Langston Hughes).
And this year, it’s Rainer Maria Rilke’s (1875-1926) turn. The best-selling Austrian poet and novelist’s poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” and the letter “Requiem for a Friend”—a tribute to painter Paula Modersohn-Becker—take a star turn in Jojo Rabbit, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In this biting and poignant satire, a 10-year-old boy wrestles with nationalism and anti-Semitism as he comes of age in the closing months of WWII in Hitler’s Germany.
So why Rilke, and why now? To answer that, NYU News turned to Ulrich Baer, a University Professor of Comparative Literature, German, and English who is widely recognized as an expert on Rilke’s life and writing. The author of The Rilke Alphabet (Fordham, 2014) and Letters on Life: The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke (Modern Library, 2005; audio book recorded by Ethan Hawke), Baer recently edited and translated Rilke’s correspondence in a pair of volumes: Letters to a Young Poet (Insel Verlag, 2018) and The Dark Interval: Rilke’s Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation (Modern Library, 2018; audio book recorded by singer Rosanne Cash).
NYU News asked him about why Rilke resonates on the big screen—in Jojo Rabbit as well as in earlier films such has Only You (1994) and Igby Goes Down (2002)—and in the culture at large.
Why do filmmakers often weave works by poets like Rilke into their storytelling?
Rilke is one the few writers who gives us something like the very essence of poetry, which is to cast deeply felt emotions in highly resonant and memorably rhymed verse. Like poetry, film also works with repetition, echoes, and allusions—of images, sounds, forms, colors, and gestures—to evoke particular responses, such as excitement, dread, anticipation, compassion, sadness, and joy. That is probably why film works well with poetry to convey an artist’s vision.
Moreover, movies aim as much to create a mood and atmosphere as to convey plot and action. Poems also create an atmosphere that allows us to understand human experience and actions in all of their contradictions and depth. When it’s well done, using lines from poetry on screen can intensify the words that we normally encounter on the page but which had been intended to be spoken and heard aloud.
In Igby Goes Down, Sookie Sapperstein, played by Claire Danes, says: “Whenever I’m at a loss, I dip into Rilke.” How does his work speak to that?
Rilke thought that only two experiences get us close to the authentic nature of our existence: love and death, experienced as loss. Poetry can console by capturing loss in ways that seem to give the painful absence a place in time, which the poem represents via the wave-like pattern of rhymed speech. Poetry does not let us “get over” loss but shows how to integrate loss into existence without letting us become overwhelmed by it.
You’ve translated many of Rilke’s works from German to English—poetry and prose that were penned a century ago. How do you preserve his intent across time and language?
Rilke’s writings were immensely popular during his lifetime, and his 17,000 letters were addressed to individuals ranging from famous aristocrats who sponsored him to high school students and now-forgotten fans. I strive to capture the exceptional vividness of his language where even the most striking metaphors appear quite organic rather than scholarly, formal, or “poetic.” This means relying on contemporary English rather than aiming to create the patina of Olde English, which Rilke, himself a gifted translator from many languages, would have considered stilted and absurd.
For example, I changed a widely available 1934 translation by M.D. Herter Norton from “Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart” to “…plunges its roots into the deepest part of your heart” in order to convey the urgency and movement of Rilke’s “seine Wurzeln ausstreckt,” which in German has the sense of reaching for something, not just extending. I compared my version with French translation of Rilke’s letters, which were done by a translator who had worked for years with Rilke, to get it right.
Jojo Rabbit concludes with a line from Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.” What is the poet saying in this passage?
In the context of the movie, the message is that love can conquer hate, even if we will experience terrible loss. The poem further says that even the most extreme experiences and emotions will not last, and that sometimes just keeping faith in the passage of time—rather than worrying about it— can relieve us from pain which threatens to overwhelm us. I absolutely think that the filmmaker captured something essential about Rilke’s poetry, namely the belief that acknowledging the beauty and terror of a given moment allows us to experience the world fully, without being overwhelmed or overlooking much of it. The story in the film also dramatically captures Rilke’s famous line that if you love someone, you must set them free. The movie’s child protagonist has to learn what many of us never learn: that to love someone means to allow them their freedom to become truly themselves, rather than confine them to our image of them.
I also found it deeply moving to use Rilke in this film about the horrors of World War II, and whether innocence can be preserved for a German boy in a country committing such atrocities. For countless young Germans, Rilke had been the poet who conveyed hope in a better humanity. I spent the last two years reading Rilke to an ailing gentleman who had escaped Nazi Germany as a boy but retained his love of German poetry: Peter Stern, the founder of the Storm King Art Center in Orange County, New York. He was very ill for the last two years of his life but when I read Rilke to him, he seemed to relax and experience some joy for an hour or so. Jojo Rabbit conveys the hope that love can survive in the midst of terrible violence, injustice, and hopelessness.
What makes these words resonate in today’s political climate?
We live in very turbulent and, for many, upsetting times. Heed Rilke’s advice not to resist and fight against your own emotional responses but also recognize them to be temporary rather than permanent states. Once you recognize that even being furious, angry, or horrified are passing feelings, you are already well on the way to getting through and over them.