David Warrilow’s neo-slapstick portrayal of the famously abstemious and abstruse philosopher Immanuel Kant, in Philippe Collin’s 1996 film, is almost balletic.Source: Pierre Grise Productions
The nineteen-nineties were a dead zone for the U.S. distribution of international and independent films. While a handful of flashy breakout hits were being widely hailed (and over-hailed), many of the best movies of the decade were left unreleased and largely unseen. One of the most distinctive and original films of the time, Philippe Collin’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant,” from 1996 (which has turned up on YouTube), is a delicious cinematic paradox. It follows the famously abstemious and abstruse philosopher as he’s anticipating his death, yet it’s a physical comedy filled with neo-slapstick intimacy—one of the rare cinematic heirs to the works of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton.
As promised by its title, the movie is a historical bio-pic set in a narrow time frame, but it opens enormous vistas by way of filigreed artistic imagination. The aged Kant (who died at seventy-nine, in 1804, in his native Königsberg) is played by the British actor David Warrilow, one of Samuel Beckett’s key interpreters (and a founder of New York’s Mabou Mines theatre company), and his collaboration with Collin in realizing both the character and the comedy is giddily thrilling. The movie’s images, which are severely constructed in a shadowy black-and-white palette (thanks to the cinematographer Jacques Bouquin), make Warrilow’s exquisitely subtle range of gestures, expressions, and inflections register resoundingly.
The first scene, of the philosopher enduring the visit of an artist who has come to draw his silhouette (by posing him between translucent paper and candlelight), sets the movie’s philosophical framework, along with its tone. While grumpily sitting still, Kant delivers an unsought lecture on his attempt to cure his troublesome cough by retraining his lifelong habit of breathing through his mouth. (“Divert! Concentrate!”) The strict intellectual subordination of the body to the mind—and the rigid, artificial, unintentionally absurd yet endearing repertory of daily habits and gestures that results—is the core of the movie. (Spoiler alert: as the title suggests, the body wins.)
For that matter, Kant’s rigorous discipline turns out to be contagious. Though he was unmarried, he didn’t live alone—he had a household and spent much time interacting with his friend and unofficial majordomo Wasianski (played by André Wilms) and the manservant Lampe (Roland Amstutz)—and much of the movie’s action is centered on Kant’s obsessional domestic routine and the petty agonies of its perturbations. (The script, by Collin and André Scala, is loosely based on the memoirs of the real-life Wasianski, as retold by Thomas De Quincey.) Each morning, Lampe awakens Kant with the same phrase (“Herr Professor, it’s time!”)—and undoes the cord leading from the bed to the doorknob in case the philosopher should awaken during the night and need to get out in the dark. He serves Kant a pot of coffee with a similarly fixed motto (“Herr Professor, here is the coffee!”) and—after the philosopher takes three quick slugs of it with the same three brusque gestures—hands him his pipe for a smoke and, soon thereafter, the newspaper. When the coffee is delayed, Kant vents his anger with derisive twists of metaphysical irony regarding deferred happiness and the comforts of death.
The film depicts Kant’s famous punctuality by way of his daily stroll through a park lane: a governess times the end of her entrusted children’s play, and a foreman the end of his workers’ break, according to when the philosopher passes by (followed by Lampe, a dozen steps back, who must carry a parasol whether or not it’s needed). Unyielding in his habits, his senses infinitesimally calibrated to register changes of routine, of temperature, and of environment, he’s similarly attuned to his own metabolism and the minutiae of his physical state, all with an overarching philosophical principle at stake, the maintenance of health in view of the preservation of life—and the pursuit of his colossal intellectual project, which, in his late seventies, remained in full swing.
In Warrilow’s almost balletic incarnation, Kant’s gait, affected poignantly by age and impinging infirmity, is a delicately hunched-over, stiff-kneed plod. After Kant suffers a fall, the scene of his retraining himself to walk is a virtuoso duet between Warrilow and Collin’s camera, with the philosopher’s deliberate back-and-forth trudge shown in a gliding closeup until he contentedly achieves a juking new swing in his step, with his cane flourished in the air.
One of the prime aesthetic joys of the film is Collin’s assertive and carefully calibrated, choreographic attention to parts of the body, to gestures, to the total physical constraint that Kant endures under the power of his own will—and to the irrational comedy that the exaggerated force of reason sparks. Kant’s unintentional bedtime antics—removing tight undergarments without removing his nightgown, tucking himself into a sleeping bag by pulling its string with his teeth—could be borrowed from Charlie Chaplin. Collin, with a precise graphic attention, makes much of Kant’s heaped-over body after a night of bad sleep, his hunched back while he riskily bends over the candle on his desk, and his dainty arrangement of seven string beans and two pieces of meat to display to a dinner companion the “mystery of Königsberg” and its seven bridges.
With all his hyper-rational calculation—and his coldly rationalistic treatment of those nearest to him—Warrilow’s Kant is a holy innocent, so raptly possessed by his ideas that he goes through life (except when vexed) with a twinkling eye and an impish smile, as if gleefully yet barely guarding a secret. Yet he’s a self-aware innocent, playing with a clock and mockingly miming the regularity of his own routine. He’s also a tenderhearted one, who’s moved to tears upon reading a letter from a despairing woman who thanks him for the consolations of his philosophy. Kant’s spirit of intellectually distilled simplicity impels him to pursue, literally and figuratively, the shortest path between two points, whether pushing through a lavish estate’s densely overgrown garden to reach the charming vistas of a reflective pool or slaking his sudden hunger, during a carriage ride, by hastily calling out to a child and buying, for a coin, a half-eaten roll and then devouring it.
Collin, a longtime film critic, is also a longtime music enthusiast (he has also directed television documentaries about music) who infuses the movie with his distinctive combination of cinematic and musical insights. At Kant’s dinner party for five friends, witty and wary discussions of Napoleon and his conquests are followed by a party song (with lyrics by Collin) that serves as a lofty homage to a similar scene in Howard Hawks’s “Ball of Fire” but replaces romantic sentiment with sardonic pessimism. As for the movie’s score, it doesn’t have one—instead, Collin inflects the action with audio clips from rehearsals led by the conductor Arturo Toscanini of pieces by Beethoven, Wagner, and Verdi. The effect of these surprising interjections (complete with the conductor’s voice) is to pose, insistently yet gracefully, the very premise of Collin’s directorial project—the possibility of access to realizing, with artistic immediacy, the creative inspirations of history in the present tense.
Ultimately, “The Last Days” is a movie about the body winding down while the mind is fully ablaze. Collin films its incidents with a whimsical sense of ellipsis, suspending them delicately between keen physicality and rarefied metaphor, between arch comedy and mortal pathos. The promised end similarly comes with a double dose of elision and dance, a gracefully infinitesimal gesture of desperate infirmity and a painterly tableau reminiscent of a sensual Fragonard landscape—vinegared with the terminally skeptical logic of an idealist to the end.