April 2, 2023


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Robert Schwentke explores corruption in the ancient story of ‘Seneca’

3 min read

In his dark historical comedy “Seneca,” Robert Schwentke explores themes of power, corruption and hypocrisy as he traces the Roman philosopher and playwright’s fateful final days following his bitter relationship with the tyrannical emperor Nero.

The film stars John Malkovich in the title role, Tom Zander as Nero and an ensemble that includes Geraldine Chaplin, Louis Hoffman, Mary-Louise Parker and Julian Sands.

The story of a morally conflicted, opportunistic character struggling with tyranny can be seen as a continuation of the theme at the heart of his acclaimed 2017 World War II drama “The Captain,” Schwentke said. Both “concern individual choices within a totalitarian system. They both deal with themes of cooperation, opportunism and survival, and how one can become stigmatized.

Schwentke says he was most intrigued by Seneca’s intense conflict, which he describes as a “complex character and a paradox”.

John Malkovich, Tom Zander in “Seneca.”
Filmgallery 451

He was famous as a Stoic philosopher, yet was among the richest men in Rome. “He was a moneylender; He owned countless properties and businesses and also, although famous as a moral philosopher, served one of Rome’s most notorious tyrants. The irony of a moral philosopher who was rich and growing richer raised concerns even in Seneca’s own time. Such paradoxes interested me greatly.”

Schwentke has always seen Seneca’s story as a grotesque comedy, noting that the Roman historian Tacitus, whose “Annals” served as a major source for the film, details Seneca’s last days but keeps the tone ambiguous. “It is not clear whether Tacitus cast the man’s final play as a tragedy or as a satire … or as a modernist melding of the two.”

The film is in that tradition, he added. “It is an acid satire on Seneca but also on aristocrats and their inability to deal with despots, tyrants; their inability to stand; How they crumbled in their faces. But it is certainly the tragedy of an artist and a philosopher who found himself inured to a corrupt tyrant and involved in murder and rampant immorality.

The story “doesn’t play in the register of naturalism or realism. It’s aggressively anarchist. That was always the idea from the beginning because I feel that Seneca’s story has a lot of relevance for today and his dilemma has a lot of relevance for today.

He cites corruption in today’s democratic system as an ominous example.

“I grew up believing that once we got out of the Enlightenment, and with Humanism, that was the way. I did not foresee the hollowing out of democracy, democratic values ​​that we are witnessing right now, mostly under the guise of defending and protecting democracy, ironically.

“I think both ‘The Captain’ and ‘Seneca’ are ways for me to deal with that shock.”

While writing the story, Schwentke could only envision Malkovich for the lead role.

“I wrote it for John, unbeknownst to John, because I wasn’t sure that there was actually a film in all of this, which was a feeling I had when I wrote ‘The Captain’. Those were both projects that I was very strongly drawn to but it took me a while to crack them and figure out how to translate those particular narratives into a film.”

“If John hadn’t joined us, I don’t think I would have made the film,” he adds.

“I worked with John on ‘Red,’ so we knew each other and I knew him as a fearless and very clever performer. He can switch registers on a dime — essential to the tonality of this film. Even though we shot him on target, he He brought out a lot of humanity in Seneca, and that’s quite an achievement. You feel for Seneca when he finally dies. It’s something that John was so adamant about, it’s not only funny, but also sad. He also has a wicked sense of humor that I really like. Appreciate it.”

“Seneca” premieres at a special gala in Berlin.

Schwentke is currently shooting the TV series “Helgoland 513,” an apocalyptic story about survivors of a global catastrophe trying to survive on a North Sea island.

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