It goes without saying that music is a complex subject. The strong feelings invoked, the interpretations and the influences that a particular piece has are almost infinite, especially when dealing with one of the masters of the art such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Erbarme Dich – Matthäus Passion Stories attempts to unpack this subject, making a study of the titular Erbarme Dich and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The film’s field of investigation is wide, looking into not only the piece itself, but the experiences of those moved by it.
The complexity of the music is mirrored in the complexity of the film, its purview of reactions reflecting the intricacies of Bach’s music. Its basic essence is a series of interviews with artists moved by Bach’s Passion, punctuated by excerpts from the work. This may sound simplistic, but the interviews cover a wide range of subjects, from abortion to loss of faith, from religious reactions to homosexuality. In a post-film interview, director Ramón Gieling discussed how he sees the suffering of Christ portrayed in Bach’s Passion to be comparable and relatable to all human pain, and this universality is very apparent within the film. This is especially noticeable in the sequences of the film’s chosen audition of the St Matthew Passion – a selection of homeless people. Their reactions to the piece and its relationship with the hardship in their lives is highly moving, and certainly warrants their otherwise unusual appearance in the film.
Each of these interviews, and the performance of Bach’s work, are fraught with emotion, but it is their connections that are the most interesting and innovative aspect of the film. None of the sequences are particularly linked to the next, except thematically. An interview about a hardship in someone’s life is followed by a transcendent piece of music, then another completely different interview; a rehearsal; a montage of real-world images. The Passion and its themes are what connect these disparate segments, while the constant change gives the film an almost stream-of-consciousness experience. Gieling claimed to be highly influenced by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and the same sense of narrative freedom seen in Godard’s later works is evident in Erbarme Dich. This should not, however, be taken as a warning for those who find some of Godard’s work impenetrable, as Gieling’s film is far more interested in emotion, and is thus a more accessible piece.
Though the film has plenty of virtues which may be extolled, it is not perfect. The stream-of-consciousness style of narrative can at some points feel a little aimless, and may test the patience of those hoping for a more straightforward documentary. The main problem, however, is a series of title cards that appear on occasion throughout the film. These are quotes from various sources, such as Gieling himself or philosopher Emil Cioran. Some of these quotes appear odd choices for a film about a highly religious piece of music, such as one claiming God to be man’s greatest invention. These quotes seem to be there only as a shock tactic, or to derail any abject piety that may be inferred. While these may seem ill-fitting additions, they do not spoil the film.
Erbarme Dich is overall a unique and interesting film. Its structure is innovative and intriguing; its themes and content are wide-reaching and moving. While the screening I attended was a one-off festival showing, when the film receives a wider release I will definitely return to it, and I would recommend you all to do so as well. While it is not perfect, its imperfect beauty is still highly emotional and engaging.