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Playing Around

Pipe Organ Dreams: Music looms large in the life of troubled 19th-century musical genius Elias Johannes Alder (André Eisermann).

A musical prodigy grows to tortured adulthood in German film 'Brother of Sleep'

By Rob Nelson

THE GERMAN melodrama Brother of Sleep might well contain the most bizarre scene of any film this year. A preteen boy is lying naked on a sheet of rock in a remote Alpine village circa 1800, when he begins to receive psychic visions of his future sweetheart being born. Blades of grass start to creak like old trees, the sky turns the color of volcanic lava, and the camera does a Psycho-style pirouette out of his inner ear.

The sound effects are weirdly subjective: a fly buzzing, a whip cracking, a single leaf plopping on the surface of a lake. Soon, the boy starts to twitch and scream, holding his ears to block out an increasingly chaotic aural montage of church organ music and the newborn sweetheart's piercing cries.

The scene is meant to depict the boy's spiritual epiphany, although it seems more like a series of outtakes from a David Lynch movie. This interplay of horror, mysticism, soap opera and camp forms the perverse melody of Brother of Sleep, which follows a musical genius through a life of artistic triumphs and romantic disappointments.

As adapted by Austrian author Robert Schneider from his own florid novel, Brother of Sleep is, in many ways, a typical film portrait of the artist as a tortured wretch, proving yet again the maxim that passionate music-making and passionate lovemaking don't mix. Indeed, the film can't help reverberating familiar notes from Amadeus and Farinelli.

The style, however, is something else again. Moments of intense surrealism bump against the cruel details of early-19th-century village life; the ingratiating plot twists are accentuated by dialogue that wouldn't seem out of place in one of Saturday Night Live's medieval parodies ("They say the devil has cold sperm," one character remarks). Albeit performed in period costume, Brother of Sleep seems the very definition of postmodern cinema.

The film opens with its genius protagonist literally coming to life through music. Emerging stillborn, the infant Elias Johannes Alder is miraculously revived by a midwife's humming. Almost immediately, the boy begins to display uncanny gifts for both music and clairvoyance that scare his fellow townspeople. Classmates tease him for claiming to actually feel the notes from an organ penetrating his skin, and even his own mother is made to shiver from his precocious intelligence and gold-tinged eyes that earn him notoriety as the devil's son.

To the viewer, he seems more a victim of circumstance. Although Elias enjoys a brief period of musical renown in early adulthood (at which point he is played by André Eisermann), Brother of Sleep makes it clear that this prodigy is fated to suffer the town's horrible fear and prejudice. Thus, the film becomes a study of how one's talent and personality are invariably shaped by the surrounding environment--in this case, how they're stifled by it.

The fact that the characters seem dwarfed by the gorgeous Alpine landscape is therefore no coincidence. Director Joseph Vilsmaier (Stalingrad) is a former cinematographer who continues to shoot his own films, and his majestic wide-screen images here evince a cosmic irony: The hills are alive with the sound and fury of predestination.

THERE'S A distinct God's-eye perspective in the director's mix of mountainous helicopter shots and blaring church hymns--but in the context of a film about the cruelties of fate, these convey not reverence so much as wrath. Everything in the frame seems imposing. Likewise, once the hypersensitive Elias gets stuck on Elsbeth (Dana Vávrová)--the woman whose presence he'd felt as a child, but who is "intended" for another guy (Detlef Bothe)--the outcome of the narrative is foretold. Experiencing a torturous vision of his soul mate engaged in a hayloft tryst, the musician is brought one measure closer to his own personal crescendo.

What's most surprising about this tragic story is that it's also extremely funny, with several scenes delivering the cheesy appeal of a "scandal movie" from the '50s. This effect probably isn't unintentional. The dialogue between Elias and Elsbeth during their surreptitious carriage ride seems more enjoyably clichéd than bad writing or poor translation would allow--He: "Your face is hot." She: "I'm thirsty.") And when Vilsmaier crosscuts between the aforementioned hayloft encounter and Elias furiously banging out his latest church hymn, the overemphatic style suggests a certain bad-taste pun--that the musician has been preoccupied with his own organ.

Still, the film's real pleasure isn't its humor so much as its overall excess, the tone it projects of several major chords being struck at once.

Brother of Sleep (R; 127 min.), directed and photographed by Joseph Vilsmaier, written by Robert Schneider, and starring André Eisermann and Dana Vávrová.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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