Das Erdbeben in Chili

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Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Das Erdbeben in Chili (1975) is a made for television film based upon a novella of the same name by Heinrich von Kleist. Both the film and the novella use the Santiago earthquake of 1647 as the centerpiece of a narrative that lambasts the hypocrisy of the institutions of church and state. Sanders-Brahms’ film adaptation broadens the scope of von Kleist’s political aims to include contemporary feminist ideologies.

From the very beginning Sanders-Brahms’ makes her modus operandi clear. Formally, Das Erdbeben in Chili is an exercise in minimalism. Das Erdbeben in Chili cuts from scene to scene with a calculated sense of economy that makes it clear that the intent is in the cumulative effect of these episodes rather than their own individual dramatic merits. Every scene is, in turn, exact in its content; Sanders-Brahms’ cuts in and out of scenes with a mature sense of prioritization. Das Erdbeben in Chili is a film about the systems that maintain the status quo.

In the first few minutes of Das Erdbeben in Chili Josephe (Julia Peña) is placed in a convent by her father for having had an affair with her teacher Rugera (Victor Barrera), a Mapuche. In quick succession Sanders-Brahms gives us all the images needed to tell this story in as little time as possible. Josephe’s father drags her to an iron gate where nuns quickly grab her, throwing her down into the courtyard. Looking on helplessly, Rugera struggles to keep Josephe in view. Don Asteron (Fernando Villena), the patriarch of his family, has made his decision.

Josephe, having taken the Holy vows and become a nun, gives into a hysterical fit of self-flagellation before the altar of the church. In Catholic terms she is married to God and is the subordinate of the Bishop. The oppressive structure of the patriarchal family unit is replaced by one of faith that is structured like a marriage. This scene lasts little more than a single minute in the film but manages to convey all of this.

Josephe soon gives birth to Rugera’s son who was conceived before Josphe took her vows. Regardless she is imprisoned for having broken these vows and must await execution. In two scenes Sanders-Brahms conveys the commonality of human barbarism. The first comes when Josphe has all her hair cut off so that the axe may find its place. The barber arrives as the scene begins and by scene’s end all that has transpired is some polite small talk. Less subtle than that is a short scene where the rich of Santiago arrive to watch Josephe’s execution. The rich line up and are escorted to reserved seats. The banality of these two scenes (small talk with a barber and reserving seats for a show) is what makes them so transgressive.

Throughout Das Erdbeben in Chili there are asides that give voice to indigenous and Black people in the community as well as the upper echelon of the Catholic church. These two opposing views are conveyed by characters in the periphery of the plot, often at the tail end of a scene or in cutaways. Black slaves and the Mapuche constantly curse the Spanish under their breath. This rage is juxtaposed by Sanders-Brahms’ depiction of the Catholic church as a hive of bickering capitalist bureaucrats more caught up in the matters of their wealth than in the spiritual wellbeing of the community.

On the day that Josephe is to be beheaded and Rugera plans to hang himself, the titular earthquake strikes. As Rugera and Josephe are saved from doom, the fragile peace in Santiago is shattered like so many of its buildings. The Spanish cry out that the apocalypse has come while the Mapuche scream that it is judgement day. The earthquake itself is rendered in a series of insert shots that follow a pattern of cause and effect. Given the budgetary restraints Sanders-Brahms faced, the spectacle of Santiago falling is quite affecting. And in the moments of its aftermath, when it seems that the earthquake worked as a sort of societal equalizer, Das Erdbeben in Chili even feels hopeful.

Just as that hopefulness begins to sink in Rugera gets a monologue wherein he describes his life with the Jesuits and the theories of Thomas Moore. Rugera is cut-off by a priest who invites Rugera and Josephe to come and pray to God for mercy. The utopia Rugera imagines and the hope von Kleist promised are obliterated quite literally under the heel of Catholicism. The fact that Sanders-Brahms stages this moment so literally lends it a kind of gallows humor.

Needless to say, Das Erdbeben in Chili ends tragically and bloodily. The institutions that the earthquake seemingly eradicated return and reassert themselves in the most spectacularly violent fashion. Immediately the parallels between Das Erdbeben in Chili and Sanders-Brahms’ previous feature, Unter dem Pflaster ist der Strand (1975), becomes apparent. Sanders-Brahms’ cinema is fixated on those moments where the yoke of oppression is overthrown and then somehow manages to re-attach itself. The clash between Sanders-Brahms’ feminist politics and the system in which she made her films is constantly felt, but never with more rage than in her two earliest features.