Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s time again for me to review another film nobody’s seen or heard of from a prominent and still-working female director who is nearly unknown these days outside of her native Hungary because of the general unavailability of her work. Márta Mészáros has been making shorts, documentaries, and feature films since the 1950s, with 64 director credits and numerous international awards to her name, including the Golden Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival for Adoption (1975), the Grand Prix at the 1984 Cannes Films Festival for Diary for My Children (1984), and the Gold Plaque at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival for The Last Report on Anna (2009). The film currently under consideration here, The Seventh Room, came to me through interlibrary loan of a DVD issued by Ignatius Press, a large U.S. publisher and distributor of Catholic books, magazines, videos, and music. As one might expect from a publisher who does not specialize in film releases, the barebones DVD derives from whatever print was available—in this case, a print from Italy with all of the actors dubbed in Italian. Despite enduring the deteriorating images on the well-worn library disk and the lost vocal performances of the international cast, I found The Seventh Room a thoroughly mesmerizing experience.
The Seventh Room tells the true story of Edith Stein, a German Jew, atheist, and philosopher who converted to Catholicism in 1922, became a Carmelite nun named Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, died in Auschwitz in 1942, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Stein was led to her conversion and vocation after reading the works of St. Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Spanish reformer of the Carmelite order; the title of the film references the last of the seven rooms of spiritual growth the Spanish saint posited, the stage when a person reaches a firm, all-inclusive worldview for which she or he may be willing to die. Mészáros alludes to Stein’s eventual entry into her seventh room by opening the film with images of trains and archways, which have become iconically linked with the Nazi death camps.
Mészáros’ approach is a very personal one, offering a complex look at Stein (Maia Morgenstern, a dead ringer for Edith Stein) that seeks to explicate the sharp turn of a worldly life of family devotion and professional acclaim to a severe, cloistered pursuit of spiritual perfection. It is nearly impossible to glimpse a soul, and Mészáros doesn’t really try, but the engaged and convincing performances she elicits and her effective use of light and imagery provide a compelling portrait of a saint in the making.
Morgenstern’s Stein is forceful and passionate in her work and in her relationships with her beloved family, especially her mother (Adriana Asti). She is truthful to a fault and unafraid of criticizing the rising Nazi Party, even when a beloved student of hers starts innocently sporting a swastika lapel pin from her “youth group,” yet she is made unsteady when a former colleague (Jan Nowicki, then Mészáros’ husband) taunts her and suggests she has won acclaim as a philosopher because she slept with her professor, famed phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. The introduction of this likely fictitious colleague whose thwarted romantic feelings for Stein and inferior professional standing transform him into the worst kind of enemy—a member of the SS—offers a rather heavy-handed symbol of the perverted relationship between the Christian and Jewish worlds that Stein hoped to harmonize. Mészáros and Nowicki may have had Dr. Mabuse in mind when they developed the portentously named Franz Heller, moving from what looks like his attempted rape of Stein in a repeated flashback to complete criminality in his new skin, his SS uniform, a skull and crossbones on his cap.
The sequences of Stein as a novice in the convent offer telling details about the unsuitably of her previous life and current physical condition to the work she has ahead of her. Already 42 when she enters the convent, she collapses while scrubbing the stone floor on her hands and knees and repeatedly dips her sleeves and veil into the wash water as she tackles the laundry, seemingly lacking the common sense to roll up her sleeves or pin back her veil. The convent’s mother superior (Anna Polony, another lookalike, this time for St. Teresa of Ávila) is skeptical about Stein’s vocation, wondering if she is trying to escape the fate of her fellow Jews, but then she appears to watch over Stein, evoking the spirit of St. Teresa as a guiding force in Stein’s spiritual growth. This is especially apparent during final vows, when Morgenstern’s genuinely moving happiness at becoming a bride of Jesus reflects on Polony’s face, softened in recognition of the bond they now share.
In a time when a film like The Big Short (2015) is being hailed for making complex concepts understandable to nonexperts, I have to say that The Seventh Room outclasses it in every way. Stein’s niece asks her to explain phenomenology, and when assured that the girl really wants to know, Stein sits at the family piano, which is currently being used to stage plates of cookies, and starts to play it, explaining that it only becomes what it was designed for when it is played. Simplicity itself, but the point is so well made that the Stein family bursts into applause. In another cinematically lucid moment, Stein explains to a novice what the seven rooms are. Mészáros shifts her camera angles as each room is counted off and described; her lighting is dramatic, quite reminding me of a Rembrandt painting, with the contrast between shadow and light offering a visual metaphor for the gradual spiritual awakening the seven rooms represent.
Mészáros’ grip on the spiritual is matched by her evocation of the secular world that is stalking Stein. Stein’s first visit to her mother’s, in 1922, is marked by a long tracking shot that takes Stein down a street with a gift of tulips in hand to the double doors of her mother’s home. In the 1933 sequence, we get the same shot, the same tulips, but the walls on either side of the doors are defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, an economical and shocking representation of the changes wrought in German society. The secular intrudes upon the sacred in some surprising ways. A movie first for me was seeing the nuns discuss the upcoming elections in which they will vote, with Stein stumping against Hitler; when the time comes for them to cast their ballots in the voting box brought inside the cloister, the officials worried about Stein are told matter-of-factly by the nuns to leave her alone because she has already been denied the vote by the Nazi government. In a unique staging of the overly familiar Kristallnacht, Mészáros shoots down the halls of the convent dimly lit by the glowing red hue of businesses burning to ash outside (another portent of the Holocaust), suggesting the hell one of the nuns says has come to earth.
The film takes pains to assert Stein’s personal affirmation of her Jewish identity as equal to her devotion to Christ. The film is heavily scored with Jewish liturgical and secular music, the background soundtrack of Stein’s life. In addition, the image of her mother, who died while she was in the convent, appears to her frequently, for example, when the train carrying her and her sister Rosa (Elide Melli), an extern sister with the Carmelites, to Auschwitz passes through their home town of Breslau, as well as in her final moments, when her mother embraces her naked body in a room that resembles a gas chamber. Because Jewish heritage is passed through the mother’s line, this connection is significant; their final embrace, reminiscent of a pietà, represents the reconciliation of her Jewishness and her Catholic identity.
The final passage—the transport of Stein, Rosa, and a large number of Jewish children to Auschwitz—is strangely peaceful, but the pitiable vision of small hands reaching through the gaps between the boxcar timbers drives home the horror to come without the usual theatrics. As the camp guards sort their human cargo into the two lines that signal life or death, a close-up shot of Stein, her shaved nun’s head a vision of what all of the women in the camp will look like before their extermination, offers dignity to the murdered and the completion of her life’s task. The sure-handed, coherent vision Mészáros builds throughout makes The Seventh Room a cinematic treasure that deserves to be more widely known.