Written by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Basil Creighton
Updated by Joseph Mileck and Horst Frenz
Written and Directed by Fred Haines
Though he may appear to be a mild-mannered 47-year-old author on the outside, Harry Haller is a man torn asunder on the inside. He sees his higher self, his human component, at constant war with the Steppenwolf (the wolf from the Steppes), his base desires. While part of him reads poetry and loves classical music, the other is lustful and prone to thoughts of violence. Each part of his personality checks the other, leaving Harry absolutely miserable. Compounding his sadness, all he can see around him is a stupid, childish humanity licking its wounds from the Great War and readying itself for another, more devastating go 'round. Life being so unbearable, Haller has decided to kill himself at 50 years of age. But strange things start to happen....
Harry notices an advertisement for The Magic Theater and is given a copy of Treatise on the Steppenwolf, a pamphlet which describes him so well as to address him by name. He meets a girl named Hermine who determines to make him fall in love with her, so that he will kill her. Some dance lessons, some cocaine, some hot loving by a gal named Maria, and Harry is finally able to enter The Magic Theater.
Each door in the Theater leads to a possible reality. One leads to the war with the machines. Another to a world of lovemaking. Yet a third shows the rather nasty Taming of the Steppenwolf. Each door has some philosophical lesson to teach Harry (and by extension the reader). Eventually Harry is taught to find more humor in life and leaves the Theater uplifted.
I know how terribly hippy-dippy my description of this sounds, but it surprisingly works. Hesse was 50 years old when he wrote Steppenwolf and we can read the book as his literary-therapeutic means of dealing with a very real Weimar Weltschmerz. Of course, his open endorsement of sex, drugs, laughter, and music would ensure that the young and rebellious would find a place in their hearts for the novel, too.
Haines' film is a nearly flawless adaptation of the text. The skeletal plot of the book is retained, and attempts are made at visualizing Haller's various dreams and hallucinations. While the movie is shot on film, much of the effects work is done on video. This visually identifiable transition in media actually adds to the presentation. Where a modern filmmaker might drown the film's finale in CGI, Haines takes a more minimalist (and likely budget-minded) approach. The sense of the uncanny this provides is fantastic in every sense of the word.
Of particular interest is the Treatise sequence. Books nested within books tend to kill momentum. Think about how the political lecture in 1984 grinds the plot to an absolute halt for pages on end. Well, Steppenwolf's Treatise does likewise (and for a much larger chunk of text, relatively speaking). In the film, this section is visualized as a Terry Gilliam-styled animation sequence. It's the first time the film makes a major break from basic stylistic convention, and it's a good way to warm up to the idea that things are gunna get a little lysergic during the next 90 or so minutes.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Max von Sydow perfectly embodies Haller; he is moody without being melodramatic, lustful without being lecherous. The supporting cast are all able to hold their own. Having Pablo offer Haller coke with the line "You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need" is a potentially fourth-wall-breaking move (in a bad way) that's just subtly spoken enough to work. (I had to rewind the tape to make sure he said what I thought he said.)
Give both book and film a chance. The book is slow-going for the first hundred pages, but the final fifty give some small reward. To really appreciate the film (and get some of the more obscure symbolism...if that's possible), you need to have read the book. At the very least, you'll know where the 60s acid rock band got their name. And why only a band with that name could honestly sing "Born to be Wild."