Recently I wrote an essay on an unusual film about an unusual saint: Edith Stein: The Seventh Chamber, newly available on DVD from Ignatius Press. The project required me to watch the film a number of times—more often than I would usually watch a film before writing an essay—and the more I watched it, the more I came to admire and appreciate it.
Maia Morgenstern (the Blessed Virgin in The Passion of the Christ) plays Edith Stein from the day of her baptism to her martyrdom at Auschwitz. Although the film refers to her Jewish upbringing, loss of faith and atheism, pursuit of philosophy, and discovery of Teresa of Avila, whose writings led her to the Catholic Church, all of this is in the back story.
Why? Because the film contemplates Edith’s life in terms of the “seven chambers” of Saint Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. In a key sequence in the middle of the film, just before taking her vows as a Carmelite nun, Edith explains to another novice Teresa’s account of the seven chambers, based on the saint’s vision of the soul as a castle formed from a single diamond or crystal. This castle, Teresa wrote, is filled with chambers on all sides, with one central chamber representing the innermost realm of nuptial union and intimacy with God. To reach this state, one must progress by stages through various outer chambers or stages of spiritual development and discipline, in the process stripping oneself (or being stripped) of exteriority and attachments to passing things, coming to belong ever more completely to God.
This idea of St. Teresa’s interior castle and the seven chambers is the structural and thematic key to the film. (I think that St. Teresa herself even makes a brief, uncredited appearance, right in the beginning.) Certainly the idea of spiritual progression toward final union with God is powerfully dramatized by the film, which gradually strips its heroine of more and more. Upon her baptism, she loses her mother’s approval and acceptance; with the rising tide of Nazi power, she loses her position as a lecturer, and eventually her family, most of whom flee Germany; in entering Carmel, she gives up the career she could have had outside of Germany. Eventually she is forced to leave her fatherland and flee to Holland; then she is taken out of Carmel and begins her journey to Auschwitz. The film boldly depicts the gates of Auschwitz and the corridor leading to the gas chambers as the entrance into the “seventh chamber,” the climax and resolution of all the film’s tensions and themes.
Directed by acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros, it’s a challenging film—one that offers a stylized, expressionistic interpretation of its subject rather than conventional drama or realistic narrative. Memory and symbolism merge and shift in surreal, allegorical sequences, most strikingly a dreamlike masquerade party flashback that we see after she has tripped on a flight of stairs and fallen on the floor. Even more straightforward scenes aren’t entirely realistic. The opening credits play over footage of the train to Auschwitz, suggesting that the whole film could be seen as a flashback. I like to think that the film depicts Edith Stein looking back on her life on the train to Auschwitz.
At its 1995 Venice Film Festival premiere, The Seventh Chamber won the OCIC Prize of the International Catholic Organization for Cinema (Office Catholique International du Cinéma or OCIC, now SIGNIS), an award acknowledging achievement in “enhancing human values.” A special mention award was also given to the director, acclaimed Hungarian director Márta Mészáros, and to Morgenstern (The Passion of the Christ), who plays Edith Stein. The following year the film took top honors for cinematography at the Polish Film Festival.
It’s a film that needs some unpacking—unpacking I’ve made an effort to provide my essay, which is included in a booklet with the DVD. (You can also read it at Decent Films.)