The ’70s produced a slew of movies that feel like drug experiences caught on film, and Steppenwolf belongs on any list of these head-spinning cinematic trips. Adapted from German writer Hermann Hesse’s novel about a despondent man’s journey into his own subconscious, the picture uses animated sequences, music-driven montages, and primitive electronic visual effects to simulate various regions within the mind, and everything is shown through the prism of a protagonist who’s losing touch with reality. It’s heady stuff, to be sure, and also quite depressing and humorless; while not an outright pain-fest in the David Lynch mode, Steppenwolf is singularly strange and unpleasant.
Max von Sydow stars as Harry Haller, a man caught in an unusual sort of a midlife crisis: After a long career as an academic, Harry has determined that he’s losing the war between the human half of his soul and the “wolf” controlling the animal side of his soul, meaning he’s no longer suited to interact with normal people. Roaming city streets every night in an aimless haze, he discovers the entrance to something called “The Magic Theater,” a place “for madmen only,” so he ventures into this bizarre new realm and encounters all sorts of surrealistic sensations.
As the movie drifts back and forth between the theater and Harry’s now-altered everyday life, Harry experiences casual sex that challenges his morality, drug use that affects his perceptions, and dreamlike encounters with historical figures like Goerthe and Mozart that shake his understanding of the universe. Obviously, straightforward plotting is not the priority here, so Steppenwolf is a bit of a chore to sit through simply because there’s no overarching sense of momentum or purpose; rather, the thrust of the piece is Harry’s painful attempt to wrestle with life’s big questions.
To put this cerebral concept onscreen, writer-director Fred Haines uses jarring aural and visual flourishes. The soundtrack features freeform-jazz keyboard freakouts that sound like the prog-rock band Yes tuning up before a concert, and the crude video effects placing Harry into two-dimensional backgrounds have the vibe of music videos from the early days of MTV. However, these stylistic touches might have had greater impact if the movie didn’t feel impossibly pretentious. At one point, Harry says the following mouthful to Goerthe: “You clearly recognized the utter hopelessness of the human condition, but you preach the opposite—that our spiritual stirrings mean something.” The literary aspirations of the line are admirable, but overwritten language of this sort doesn’t exactly work as cinematic drama.
Haines also falls into the predictable trap of creating scenes that are as interminable to watch as they are for the characters to experience. In one such vignette, Harry joins a surreal dinner party in which people barely speak to each other while a super-loud clock ticks off the passing minutes; then, after someone makes a joke that isn’t funny, everyone bursts into riotous laughter. There’s a lot of vivid stuff in Steppenwolf, particularly the sequences with animation and puppets that recall Terry Gilliam’s famous Monty Python cartoons, but the constant onslaught of unhappiness and vagueness feels self-indulgent, as if Haines considered it pandering to clarify his vision before committing it to film.