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Reviews: The New Republic Online

FILMS: Bringing Out the Dead
by Jesse Lichtenstein

"The Periwig-Maker"
14:45
Director: Steffen Schäffler
Producer: Annette Schäffler

In 1720, the bubonic plague broke out in the port city of Marseilles. To slow the spread of the disease, London responded with Sir Robert Walpole's draconian Quarantine Act, which greatly restricted maritime commerce and the free movement of goods and people throughout the country. The quarantine was controversial and economically crippling, but the lawmakers' extreme response is understandable. This was, after all, the same disease that had produced the Black Death in the fourteenth century, during which 25 million people perished in Europe alone. During the dark span of 1664-1665, the "Great Plague" had carried off another 70,000 to 100,000 Londoners, and it is to this moment in epidemiological history that the sibling filmmaking team of Steffen and Annette Schäffler turns for the setting of "The Periwig-Maker," an Oscar nominee for best animated short film.

"The Periwig-Maker" takes its text from the literary fruit of the 1720 plague scare: Daniel Defoe's now little-read 1722 masterpiece, A Journal of the Plague Year. The father of modern journalism, Defoe was a newly successful novelist (Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719). He was a boy of four or five when the Great Plague struck London; he was spirited away to the country, but surely some of the horror of those times remained with him. His book, which purports to be the diary of a saddler who remains in London through the epidemic, is an amalgam of fiction, reconstructed fact, and real data, and may have drawn heavily on the recollections of his saddle-making uncle, Henry Foe (the Journal concludes with the initials H.F.). It chronicles the torments of the infected, the panic, the mass graves, acts of bravery and cowardice, the despair that became mundane, and, relentlessly, the numbers: the weekly bills of mortality.

Like H.F., the unnamed hero of "The Periwig-Maker" remains within the city, even as the sickness strikes his neighbors. It's never quite clear why he is compelled to stay: Mayoral decree? Business interests? A steady supply of cadavers' hair for his wigs? For whatever reason, he is unable to leave. He's hollow-cheeked and rail-thin, though seemingly young and in fine health. He sounds educated, even scholarly, and consumed by the questions the catastrophe raises. By candlelight in subdued interiors he grapples with them; pen in hand he pushes himself, bent on his lucubrations, as if his journal entries were his sacred duty or his salvation. The Schäfflers draw sparingly from the original text, offering deliberative morsels--more distillations, I suspect, than direct quotations of Defoe--in the form of voiceover narration. Kenneth Branagh, who seems to be recovering quite nicely from last year's self-inflicted musical-medley version of Love's Labour's Lost, gives good voice to the wigmaker's thoughts.

In 1665 a cruel and panic-driven law decreed that households containing an infection would be locked and sealed, imprisoning the sound with their sick until the threat had passed, no matter how many in the home might perish. One such household languishes across the street from our distraught periwig-maker. A woman's corpse is lowered from an upper window onto the death wagon; a little girl with radiant red hair emerges from the house and calls for her mother, only to be rudely returned to the blighted residence and padlocked within. This Charlie Brown fantasy girl, still vividly alive amid the death, her hair the brightest thing on the block, becomes a symbol for our diarist. She is reminiscent of the girl in the pink dress in another holocaust film, Schindler's List. Her presence indicts the indifferent, the callous, the timid, the helpless, the heartless. And her fate drives our narrator to a bizarre, desperate, and ultimately ambiguous act at the film's conclusion.

The stop-action animation at work here is delightful, though not for its pyrotechnics. There are none of these to be found, and there really is no place for them in such a somber story. Instead, we're treated to an essentially live-action palette of camera angles and framings, shadows and candlelight, and foreground-background tensions. The editing sparkles with a clean intelligence. The set, unpretentious, is nonetheless luxuriously rendered: it took seven months to build; each roof tile was wrought and fitted by hand, and period construction methods were reproduced on a miniature scale. And I, for one, remain awed when stop-action animation manages to evince those small movements that uniquely capture the intricacy and subtlety of the mechanics of the human body--when the person watching the movie reaches for her popcorn and is led suddenly to contemplate each muscle and tendon involved in the gesture.

Through the narrator's struggle to determine the cause of the fathomless suffering he sees all around him, "The Periwig-Maker" returns us to an epoch in which 'superstition' and 'medicine' are, in large part, specious distinctions, and where people generally presume that divinity have a punishing hand in all calamity. The wigmaker is God-fearing, but not quick to ascribe to the deity what may be the work of more terrestrial agents. In his speculation he tentatively proposes a sort of proto-germ theory of infection, asking what a magnifying glass might reveal if one were to examine a sick person's breath condensed on a mirror. Might one not see "strange, monstrous and frightful shapes--such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils, horrible to behold?"

Though the movie strains to leave us with an uplifting final note, it never quite steps out of the shadow of death. It is a typical, and comprehensible, movement in the face of tragedy, this pointing to silver linings. Defoe made less of an effort--his H.F. talks of foolishness, of short memory and how quickly thinking muddies: a warning to his compatriots as a new wave of sickness loomed a port-of-call away. There will always be lag time between the advent of epidemic and the understanding of its causes and prevention. (Millennia passed for the plague: not until the 1890s did the work of A.J.E. Yersin and P.L. Simond reveal the pathogen at fault and its life cycle in rats and fleas.) The question is how we are to act in that interim--a question Defoe felt had not been satisfactorily answered. Livestock farmers today might echo his misgivings.

The Schäfflers do not reach for all of this, but they need not in a fourteen-minute film. By digging up this topic and this text, and by making such a lovely, haunting, understated, yet fully realized short film, the pair has given a recognizable human face, and human intelligence, to forgotten suffering. At the same time, "The Periwig-Maker" celebrates the diarist's longing to witness and commemorate the struggle. Which is, ideally, the filmmaker's longing as well.

JESSE LICHTENSTEIN writes frequently about Internet films for TNR Online.


Excerpts from an article in the Berliner Tagesspeigel:

[Following a paragraph about a film-maker in Mexico...]

...On the other side of the Atlantic, Annette and Steffen Schäffler stand in a studio in London thinking much the same thing: this can't be true. Over and done with. For months they had worked on the set for their animated puppet film, the model of a district of London finally ended up 10 meters long and 4 meters wide; they had just arrived in England with it in a delivery truck - and now the studio they had rented was simply too small. How could they find another one quickly?...

[snippets from the middle bit: the Schäfflers are in their early 30s; they had trouble finding financing in Germany for their film because it was to be filmed abroad and in a foreign language]

....An idea which developed into a fixation also came to Steffen Schäffler when he read the plague diary of Daniel Defoe, upon which he would later base 'The Periwig-Maker'. He immediately told his sister about it and the two of them, with the help of their family and assorted talent in their circle of friends, set about doing the painstaking work. "You don't ask yourself any more 'Why does it have to be specifically this story?' All of a sudden it's there. And there's no going back." The two of them took five years to breathe life into their main character, made of silicon and latex. He is a wig maker who barricades himself in his shop in 1665 in plague-ridden London, who ponders over the meaning of the plague - 15 minutes long, is exactly what it was meant to be: a technically perfect "carte de visite" (promotion) for the puppet-animation field - brilliantly animated with a dramatic narrative which one normally associates with a 'real' film, with the addition of the voice of the actor Kenneth Branagh. However, no one in Germany really wants to see it: among the 80 festivals at which 'The Periwig-Maker' was shown only three were German. Maybe it's too gloomy (melancholy), speculates Annette Schäffler. "But that's exactly what Kenneth Branagh thought was good right away - like most of the people with whom we worked in England." It was these people, too, who, in the last minute, found a studio which was big enough.

The Schäffler siblings have not only been an indivisible team on this project: they planned their education - he in directing and animation, she in production - with a view to working together in the future. They would love to continue to do so in the capital [Berlin]. "There simply are no really good animated films in Germany," says Annette Schäffler, "Maybe the Oscar nomination will help us to change that."
(Translation by Renata)