know Gauss’s bell curve and you know Humboldt’s monkey. They were two of the most celebrated intellects
of the Nineteenth Century German states. In addition to a common patron, Austrian
Daniel Kehlmann’s fictionalized dual-biography suggests they also perhaps shared
an intertwined fate. Adapted for a big,
big screen by the novelist himself, Detlev Buck’s Measuring the World (trailer here), has its
American premiere this Friday as the opening night film of German Currents 2013 in Los Angeles.
Friedrich Gauss was born into desperate poverty, but the boy’s stern
schoolmaster recognized his remarkable gift for mathematical analysis. With a
name like Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, the future
Prussian naturalist-explorer was clearly a child of privilege. However, the
Duke of Brunswick supported both lads’ education at an early age.
Gauss and Humboldt meet by chance as children, Measuring splits into two wildly divergent narratives. A
mathematician in the purest form, Gauss will spend his life within the German
states. He is difficult by nature, yet somehow the uneducated but supportive
Johanna consents to marry him.
Meanwhile, Humboldt embarks on a Latin American expedition that will
make his name. His most significant companion will be his colleague and uneasy
friend, Aimé Bonpland, the French botanist. As the title suggests, both men
will take vastly different approaches to quantifying our earthly bounds through
their work. Eventually, the Humboldt and
Gauss will meet again in their twilight years, carrying the baggage of two
a prestige period production, Measuring has
a surprisingly idiosyncratic sensibility. With its archly ironic narration and
fits of absurdist humor, the film often feels like a distant cousin of Gilliam’s
Munchausen. Visually, it is often
quite inventive and the sheer scope of its wanderings is rather impressive.
Yet, there are some nice quiet moments shared between Florian David Fitz and
Vicky Krieps, as the Gausses. At times, Albrecht Abraham Schuch risks veering
into Fraser Crane territory as the adult Humboldt, but Jérémy Kapone’s earthier
Bonpland helps compensate for and undercut his mannered fastidiousness.
one of the most recognizable faces in Measuring
for American audiences will be Karl Markovics (lead actor in Stefan
Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters), who
is quite good in the very supporting role of young Gauss’ teacher, Büttner. Cineastes will also be intrigued to hear the
film was lensed by Krzysztof Kieslowski’s longtime cinematographer Sławomir
Idziak. Measuring does not look like
a Kieslowski, but it has a distinctive sheen nonetheless.
With Idziak and his talented crew, Buck immerses
viewers in an era Americans do not often have the opportunity see on
screen. Granted, Measuring is somewhat inconsistent in patches, but when it works,
it works on a very high level. Recommended for fans of cerebral historicals,
like Longitude and Pillars of the Earth, Measuring the Earth screens this Friday
(10/4), kicking off this year’s German Currents at Egyptian Theatre. It should
also be noted in closing: Measuring is
one of three Match Factory films screening as part of the celebration of German
cinema, along with Gold and Layla Fourie.
Labels: Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich Gauss, German Cinema, German Currents '13