Before I properly talk on the Richard Stanley 2001 documentary The Secret Glory, about Otto Rahn’s search for the holy grail, I wanted to mention that in the 10 years since the film Stanley has become quite taken with the legend himself and is actively searching. He wrote an ebook in 2010 called Shadow of the Grail. I mention this first because someone told me that Stanley should be an author more than a filmmaker, a point I disagree with because I think this film is as rich and transcendent as a great novel and second because though the film is a complete work on the life of Otto Rahn it functions as both satisfyingly complete and a good starting point. If I do my job with this intro, you will see why. But first a few excerpts from Shadow of the Grail, the first involving Stanley and his girlfriend at Monsegur and the second involving Stanley, his mother and the bleeding stones found in a cave of import to Rahn as depicted in the documentary.Montsegur, where Rahn spent much time in search of Grail:
As we started down the time worn steps we realized we were no longer alone in the castle. A newcomer was standing silently in the courtyard below, seemingly unperturbed by the gathering tempest. He wore a black, hooded cloak or djellaba and judging by his long hair and beard I assumed him to be one of the locals, some kind of far out hermit or survivor of the hippy wars, who had grown so used to the mountain’s ways that the thought of all that incoming voltage didn’t phase him one little bit. We got as far as the natural buttress just below the castle wall when the storm closed around us and lightning began to strike into the walls of the keep. Other bolts seemed to be licking horizontally at the flanks of the mountain below, close enough to make our hair stand on end. The cloud swirled about the peak as if the castle were somehow sucking in the lightning, four or five streamers of writhing white hot plasma intertwining at a time, reaching down out of the
vortex like a vast inhuman hand, and all the while a blinding light streamed from the keep’s doors and curiously angled ‘arrow slits’ – a light so bright I thought I might never see anything again. Warm rain squalled over us as night descended and we huddled together like trapped animals, trying to make ourselves as small as possible. Let’s face it, we know very little about lightning to begin with and if the ‘supernatural’ is merely the natural to the power of ten, then this was the genuine article. A single bolt of lightning can kill you without even touching you. The electro-magnetic pulse alone is enough to stop the human heart, even at a distance, and there were literally hundreds of thousands of volts earthing themselves within a few feet of us. The sheer existential terror of it came upon us
In 2001, my mother was diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of lymphoma, that led to the growth of tumours behind her eyes that slowly pushed them from their sockets and ultimately threatened the optic nerves. My mother is an author and illustrator by trade, but an artist to the core. Knowing that further attempts at surgery would possibly destroy her eyesight, I resorted to the only cure I knew. I told her to lie down and rest, while I put meteor blood in her eyes. She was so knocked out on her medication that she didn’t really know what was happening and later told me that she had dreamed there were angels standing around her bed, healing her eyes, a particularly strange admission as my mother is a staunch, die-hard atheist, who then, as now, had little time for the whole Rahn fandango, believing like most people that the Holy Grail should stay in the Monty Python movie where it belongs – which tends to rule out ‘placebo effect’ as a logical
explanation. Call it ‘coincidence’ then, but needless to say she made a dramatic recovery and a decade later the cancer is still in remission. Wolfram von Eschenbach puts it more baldly, simply stating that whoever has the stones or comes into contact with them,”will have eternal life and will be healed”.
These seemingly fanciful excerpts ape the style of the film. It is a very exciting film about a sensitive pseudo archeologist who has a dream of finding a this grail (According to Otto, the servants of Lucifer still search for their master’s lost diadem so that he might one day regain his rightful place in the kingdom of heaven. Searching from one lifetime to the next, down through the ages…). He gets funding from people who are far more brutal than him and is made to kill himself. This is a tragedy, told with operatic intensity. Notice how the music swells as this story of destiny plays out, sometimes the music is so loud it overwhelms the talking heads and one is forced to read the subtitles, akin to cranking the stero and reading a book, It is a very interesting effect I have not seen in a film before.
Also, like the best books, this presents a huge amount of information in a lucid manner for just under 90mins. The film is a whirlwind of information. But also like the best books, it is deeply personal to its author, in this case a troubled filmmaker, for the story of an artist being bullied into something and losing his life is somewhat like a filmmaker losing his soul to the money men.
I want to talk a bit here on the sense of tragedy because this was there from the begining of the story Otto Rahn “became a precocious scholar, assimilating the bare bones of German Romanticism through his avid childhood reading of Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology. He developed a passionate interest in the stories of Parsifal, Lohengrin, the Nibelungenlied and the legends of Jacob and Benjamin Grimm, fellow denizens of the Black Forest, whom Otto must have seen as role models in his chosen career as philologist and folklorist. While attending the University of Giessen, he was encouraged by his professor, Freiherr von Gall, to focus his studies on the history of the Cathars and in the summer of 1929 decided to pursue his studies on the ground in Southern France – or as Otto put it at the time: ‘My ancestors were witches and I am a heretic…. It is a subject that completely captivates me.’”
I have heard people state that the grail search is exciting but the homosexual thing and the Jewish thing was much less interesting. But those are huge issues when one is made to sleep with woman to preserve a race or one is sent to kill Jews. There is a dual nature at play here. Otto Rahn is selling his soul, rising in the ranks in a place he could not be a part of, searching for Lucifer’s cup while working in the Devil’s playground. I find the stuff about the grail very interesting but I also find the fact that he nearly married a woman
to fight off rumors only to flee instead and end up offed by pills (though Christian Bernadac believed that Otto had escaped Germany by assuming the identity of his dead brother, Rudolph, and survived the war to become the head of Coca-Cola Europe, a theory that has by now been widely discredited. Others insist that Otto found the Grail and with it the secret of life eternal although personally I suspect his remains are probably interred in the family plot in Darmstadt where they were transferred after the war.) just as interesting.
But the grail stuff is fascinating, particularly the trip to Iceland and his early funding from a misfit Countess, not to mention all the different factions who were interested in this thing. But it is all interesting from his niece’s use of his SS uniform, to Rahn’s idea of a United Europe to his chilling reason for becoming a Nazi:
“One has to eat.”
The film is shot in an interesting way, read hues, the music, great use of archive footage and talking heads that speak to the granduer of the themes and are never dull. In short, a great documentary.