The Scarlet Letter Review
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary masterpiece has been a mainstay of cinematic adaptation from the time of silent movies, with versions by Carl Harbaugh in 1917 and Victor Sjostrom in 1924, right up to Roland Joffé’s 1995 version starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. The Scarlet Letter would however seem an unusual choice of film for Wim Wenders, particularly as it comes early in a career that had up to then been marked by more experimental, personal and minimalist material.
The novel and the film are set in Salem, New England in the second half of the 17th Century, where Hester Prynne (Senta Berger) has been condemned by the Puritan community of the town for the crime of adultery. Banished to live in a house outside the town, Hester wears the scarlet letter of her shame – an ‘A’ sewn onto her dress. Departing somewhat from the novel, in Wenders’ film version, Hester is given the opportunity once a year to confess in public the name of the father of the child, Pearl (Yella Rottländer), born through her illicit union. Proud and defiant, Hester refuses to give them satisfaction, belittling the authority of the town elders in doing so. They decide that it might be better to forgive her and try to re-integrate her into the community, but there are voices opposed to such an action.
Hester’s former husband, Roger Chillingworth (Hans Christian Blech), who was meant to make the journey to meet her in New England but has been absent for eight years, returns to Salem, and has the means to bring about forgiveness for Hester’s wrongdoing. There is however no longer any love between them, and Chillingworth decides instead to wait out and see if he can discover for himself the identity of Pearl’s father.
Wenders’ adaptation of a complex novel is an intriguing one, and he does put an interesting spin on the psychological make-up of the characters. Chillingworth here a doctor who has been living for the past eight years with the Indians, has discovered a less puritanical way of living, one that is closer to nature. As a doctor then he witnesses the contrasting way of living in the Salem community, where each of the characters is burdened by guilt and unwilling to offer forgiveness. The sickness that the puritanical repression has on their minds becomes evident in the physical ailments he has to treat. This is most apparent in the pastor Dimmesdale (Lou Castel), but it also has grave psychological implications for the young girl Pearl who has to grow up in this unhealthy environment, a victim of the sins of others, who compound their sins by not being able to forgive or show compassion.
While Wenders does to some extent bring out the psychological complexity of the characters in this way, and Robby Müller does some fine camera work, doing his best to make the coast of Portugal look like New England, the film nevertheless suffers from the Euro-pudding mix this inevitably entails. The international cast are all dubbed inexplicably into German, which certainly lacks authenticity, and the whole enterprise has the feel of a television movie, or The Little House On The Prairie. Worse, the music score is simply absurd, working against the emotional tone of the film.
The Scarlet Letter is released in the UK by Anchor Bay. The DVD is only available as part of their 10-disc Wim Wenders Collection boxset. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
A single-layer disc proves to be inadequate for the demands of the film. Although the print used is clear, sharp and relatively well toned, showing good detail even in day-for-night photography, and there are few marks of any kind to be seen, the digital transfer nevertheless exhibits a number of flaws. There is a certain amount of grain, causing dot-crawl, colours can occasionally look inaccurate and oversaturated, and there is some edge-enhancement visible. Macroblocking is prevalent, taking the form of motion blurring and some minor shimmering. On many scene changes moreover, the image judders noticeably, making movement look like it is in slow motion. A smaller display might be more forgiving of these flaws, but a large screen will clearly show its deficiencies.
There are two audio tracks presented, one Dolby Digital 2.0, the other Dolby Digital 5.1. I would assume the 2.0 mix is the original soundtrack and it is clearly the better of the two. The 5.1 mix tends to just squeeze the sound into a central channel mono mix, while the two-channel mix is rather wider and more open. Clarity is relatively good and there are few problems with the mix. Lip-syncing issues would appear to be more to do with the post-synchronisation dubbing into German.
English subtitles are optional. They are in a white font, using a thin typeface which is mostly adequate, but perhaps could have been given a stronger border to help distinguish it from brighter backgrounds.
There are no extra features on the disc.
Despite the fine camera work of Robby Müller and an interesting interpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic work of 19th century American literature, Wim Wenders The Scarlet Letter never seems to rise above its rather Euro-pudding nature. With a reasonably good-quality print of the film, the film would nevertheless be worth a viewing as an interesting inclusion in the Wim Wenders Collection, but Anchor Bay’s transfer to DVD of the film is rather poor, the single-layer disc causing noticeable compression issues.