The fifth collaboration between writer/director von Trotta and beautiful leading lady Sukowa, both icons of the German New Wave, finds them in a nunnery. Specifically, they have combined forces to tell the life story of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century Benedictine nun, a woman of many talents and mystical visions. Throughout her career, she composed music that remains distinctive among medieval works, wrote plays and poetry, authored several books that described her visions, and oversaw the Benedictines’ production of illuminated manuscripts. She was also an herbalist who used her knowledge for medicinal and ecological purposes. Within the male-dominated hierarchy of the church, Hildegard figured out how to use diplomacy and strategy to achieve her aims. It is for all these reasons and more that Hildegard has become a subject of renewed study for feminist scholars in recent decades. Not much is known about Hildegard’s early life: Born only a couple years before the turn of the millennium, Hildegard was a sickly child who was prone to visions and, at the age of 8, was given – or tithed – by her parents to the church. She grew up in the monastic life, and her accomplishments began to earn notice after 1136, when she was elected to be the magistra
of her community by her fellow nuns. Von Trotta and Sukowa create a very nuanced study of Hildegard, one that imbues the figure with human foibles in a number sufficient to keep at bay any hagiographic impulses. Envy and competition are shown to be issues with which Hildegard and the other sisters struggle (although, to be fair, the nuns probably didn’t view them as “issues” so much as sins). Nevertheless, Hildegard is clearly portrayed as a forward thinker: She argues with her superior, Abbot Kuno (Held), and instructs her self-flagellation-prone sisters and brethren that “God wants mercy, not sacrifice.” Another time, she condemns the “double standard” (there’s that 21st century terminology again) that allows a monk to remain cloistered after he impregnates a nun. Her plays, during which the nuns doffed their habits, costumed themselves in white silk gowns, and let down their hair, caused some conniptions among the more ascetic Benedictine monks, some of whom already had reasons to resent Hildegard’s shining light. Light, however, is exactly what is missing from this biopic. Von Trotta’s film is informative, instructive, intriguing, and polished, yet it finds no ecstasy – religious or otherwise. Though these nuns can sing, they are no singing nuns – which is a good thing, for sure, although a little more pizzazz wouldn’t hurt.