In 1928, Romanian writer, Max Blecher, was diagnosed with Pott’s disease–a type of tuberculosis that affects the spine. Over the next ten years, Blecher frequented sanitariums across Europe but was mainly bedridden. In his lifetime, Blecher was a well-respected writer, publishing novels and poems, corresponding with famous figures, like André Breton and André Gide. He died in 1938 at the age of 28. Before his death, he wrote a novel about his experience of illness and confinement. Entitled Scarred Hearts, it focuses on the patients of a sanitarium in France. In 2016, Romanian director, Radu Jude, adapted this novel into a film by the same name. It’s a film that is visually gorgeous but also unflinching in its depiction of physical suffering and disability. The coexistence of beauty and pain is part of the film’s strength, so too is the way in which it asks viewers to reflect on the precariousness of health and the vulnerability of the human body.
The film is set in 1937 and centers on a Blecher-like character named Emanuel who is also stricken with Pott’s disease and enters a sanitarium. This is a meticulously constructed period drama with cinematography so lush that scenes feel like vintage photographs come to life. The beautiful seaside location belies both the brutal content–sickness, death, the body’s disintegration–and the looming threat of the Second World War that will officially begin two years later. There are subtle allusions to the tension that permeates the region. Emanuel is Jewish and, in one scene, recalls a time when people shouted at him that Jews should die. During a party attended by the patients, one young man does a dramatic impersonation of Adolf Hitler, mimicking his exaggerated gestures and strident speaking voice. All the patients laugh, unaware of the horror that will be unleashed just a few years later.
The film is devoid of reverse shots or close-ups. Jude keeps us at a distance, eschewing the individual face for the glorious ocean vistas and richly colored interiors of the sanitarium. This distance allows us to look at the whole scene, not just at Emanuel himself but at how he is positioned within his environment, in the world around him. It’s also a reminder that we can never know what it’s like to inhabit another person’s body, especially a body enduring pain. Emanuel’s entire torso is encased in a hard, white cast; he has pus extracted from his stomach; he is confined in bed almost all of the time. He leads a life of stasis and immobility, and the camera shots themselves are long, static, unmoving. The camera is confined, just as Emanuel is confined in his body, at the mercy of an illness that will claim his life, just as it claimed Blecher’s life.
Despite Emanuel’s immobility and pain, he lives as fully as he can. The patients at the hospital gather together at night and listen to music and make out. They crack jokes and recite poetry. Emanuel falls in love with a young woman named Solange. She wears a brace on her leg that makes it difficult to walk, but she isn’t bedridden like Emanuel. The two of them like to lie together and kiss. Emanuel’s cast is no impediment to love-making, and they force their bodies into positions that create pleasure and release. The patients at the sanitarium are not in need of pity. They are not one-dimensional, and they are not defined solely by their disability or their pain. They are raucous and well-rounded, seizing life while they still have it, always aware that death could be around the corner.
While the film is steadfast in showing the vitality of the patients, it also doesn’t shy away from pain and the limited medical options for alleviating it in the early 20th century. Emanuel has no privacy. He is a specimen to be looked at by doctors. For almost the entire film, Emanuel is horizontal, lying in his bed, encased in a cast that will not let him move. He cannot walk. He is dependent on nurses to wheel him around. He cannot do anything for himself. The brief moments of joy do not cancel out the anguish of his loneliness and the excruciating torment of his condition. Throughout the film, quotes from Blecher’s own writings flash across the screen. They are short, poetic, and honest in their description of what it’s like to live such an isolated life, to confront the deterioration of the body, to cope with the reality of death at an early age.
As I watched the film, I thought about how vulnerable we really are, how illness happens to all of us eventually, how scary it is that, one day, our bodies can just stop working and there might be no cure for what ails us. One minute, we are healthy and the next we’re not. The membrane separating those two states of being–that of health and that of illness–is hauntingly thin. Blecher wrote from a place of pain and vulnerability, and Jude’s film takes us deeper into it, capturing the fear, the loneliness, and the unsettling truth of our own mortality.