Robert Schwentke Examines Modern-Day Corruption, Hypocrisy in Ancient Tale of ‘Seneca’
In his dark historical comedy “Seneca,” Robert Schwentke explores themes of power, corruption and hypocrisy as he traces the fateful final days of the Roman philosopher and dramatist that followed his souring relationship with the despotic Emperor Nero.
The film stars John Malkovich in the title role, Tom Xander as Nero and an ensemble cast that includes Geraldine Chaplin, Louis Hofmann, Mary-Louise Parker and Julian Sands.
More from Variety
How Ukrainian Docmaker Alisa Kovalenko Lost and Found Her Faith in Film After Fighting on the Frontline
'Suzume' Director Shinkai Makoto on Hand-Drawn Animation and the Importance of Original Stories
Nostromo Pictures Partners with Beta Fiction Spain to Launch Marcel Barrena's Doc 'Hermano Caballo' (EXCLUSIVE)
The story of a morally conflicted, opportunistic character grappling with tyranny run amok can be seen as a continuation of the subject matter at the heart of his acclaimed 2017 World War II drama “The Captain,” says Schwentke. Both “are concerned with individual choice within a totalitarian system. They both deal with the theme of collaboration, opportunism and survival and how tainted one can become.”
Schwentke says he was most intrigued by the stark contradictions of Seneca, who he describes as a “complex character and a paradox.”
He was famous as a stoic philosopher, yet among the wealthiest men in Rome. “He was a money lender; he possessed countless properties and businesses and, also, though renowned as a moral philosopher, he served one of Rome’s most notorious tyrants. The irony of a moral philosopher who was rich and getting richer raised concerns even in Seneca’s own time. That kind of paradox interested me a great deal.”
Schwentke always saw the story of Seneca as a grotesque comedy, noting that the Roman historian Tacitus, whose “Annals” served as a major source for the film, details Seneca’s final days but leaves the tone ambiguous. “It is unclear whether Tacitus cast the man’s final drama as a tragedy or as a satire … or as a modernistic melding of the two.”
The film is very much in that tradition, he adds. “It’s an acid satire on Seneca but also on the elites and their inability to deal with despots, tyrants; their inability to stand up to them; how they crumble in the face of them. But it’s also of course the tragedy of an artist and a philosopher who pimped himself out to a corrupt tyrant and became complicit in murder and rampant immorality.”
The story is “played out not in the register of naturalism or realism. It’s aggressively anachronistic. 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 points to the corruption of today’s democratic systems as an ominous example.
“I grew up with this belief that once we had come out of the enlightenment, and with humanism, that the way was up. I did not foresee the hollowing out of democracy, of democratic values that we’re witnessing right now, mostly under the guise of saving and protecting democracy, ironically.
“I think both ‘The Captain’ and ‘Seneca’ are ways for me to deal with that shock.”
In writing the story, Schwentke could only imagine Malkovich for the lead role.
“I wrote it for John, unbeknownst to John, because I was not sure that there was actually a film in all of this, which was a feeling I also had when I wrote ‘The Captain.’ They were both projects that I was very strongly drawn to but it took me a while to crack them and figure out how to turn those particular narratives into a film.”
“If John had not joined us, I don’t think I would have made the film,” he adds.
“I had worked with John on ‘Red,’ so we knew each other and I knew him to be a fearless and very nimble performer. He can switch registers on a dime — essential for this film’s tonality. He brought to Seneca a lot of humanity despite the shots we take at him, and that’s quite an accomplishment. You feel for Seneca when he finally expires. That is something that John was very adamant about, that it’s not just comedic but also tragic. He also has a wicked sense of humor that I really appreciate.”
“Seneca” premieres in Berlinale Special Gala.
Schwentke is currently shooting the TV series “Helgoland 513,” an apocalyptic tale about the survivors of a global catastrophe trying to survive on the titular North Sea island.
Best of Variety
2023 DGA Awards Predictions: Steven Spielberg Favored for ‘The Fabelmans’; Competitive TV Races With ‘House of the Dragon’ and ‘Rings of Power’
The Mastery of Martin Scorsese: Ranking All 25 of His Narrative Features, From ‘Goodfellas’ to ‘The Departed’
Emmy Predictions: Directing (Limited Series) - Could Hiro Murai's Episode from 'Station Eleven' Split the Difference Between 'Dopesick' and 'The White Lotus'?
Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.