The Seventh Chamber: Edith Stein, the Interior Castle and Auschwitz

Edith Stein: The Seventh Chamber is now available on DVD from Ignatius Press. This essay appears in a booklet included with the DVD.

By Steven D. Greydanus

The Seventh Chamber: Maia Morgenstern as Edith Stein

The Seventh Chamber: Maia Morgenstern as Edith Stein.

Edith Stein: The Seventh Chamber premiered in 1995 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the OCIC Prize from the International Catholic Organization for Cinema (Office Catholique International du Cinéma or OCIC, now SIGNIS), an award acknowledging achievement in “enhancing human values.” A special mention award (Elvira Notari Prize) was also given to the director, acclaimed Hungarian director Márta Mészáros, and to the star, Romanian Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern (The Passion of the Christ), who plays Edith Stein. The following year the film took top honors for cinematography at the Polish Film Festival.

Despite its well-known protagonist, the film’s original Italian title is simply La Settima Stanza, The Seventh Chamber — a reference to the “seven dwelling places” in Saint Teresa of Avila’s spiritual masterpiece The Interior Castle. Edith Stein is not even alluded to in the title.

What film about the life of a saint does that? It’s unusual enough not to name the saint in the title (Francis, God’s Jester [The Flowers of St. Francis]; Monsieur Vincent [de Paul]; Becket; The Song of Bernadette). Even A Man for All Seasons references Thomas More, if you know the line from Robert Whittington. (“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”) With The Seventh Chamber, if you know what the seven chambers are, you would think it was about Teresa of Avila. It’s an indication of the unconventional nature of The Seventh Chamber, which is not at all a conventional biopic of Edith Stein.

What would a conventional biopic of Edith Stein look like? It would probably begin with vignettes from Edith’s upbringing in a large Jewish family: lighting candles on the Sabbath, celebrating Pesach or Yom Kippur, perhaps listening to the rabbi at synagogue. The figure of Edith’s mother would loom large in these early scenes, as would the absence of her father, who died when Edith was not yet two.

We would recognize early signs of Edith’s lively intelligence and assertive independence — for example, her insistence on skipping kindergarten and joining school in mid-term. We would see her capacity for empathy, but also the questioning nature that would cause her, in her teenaged years, to lose her faith in God.

We would follow Edith’s discovery of philosophy, in particular the phenomenologist movement of her mentor Edmund Hursserl, and her grapplings with the philosophical problem of empathy. The First World War would make its presence felt; we might see her working as a Red Cross volunteer at the military hospitals. We would then see her rediscovery of religious questions, and above all her transformation after reading Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, in which she encounters the God of love.

After devouring a catechism and a missal and attending her first Mass, Edith would accost the pastor to baptize her, brushing aside his explanation about the usual period of formation with a request to be examined immediately. Her baptism on New Year’s Day, 1922 would follow. Still to come would be her lectures across Europe; the rise of the Nazi threat; her expulsion from the university in 1933 for her Jewish ethnicity; the diaspora of her family and her entrance into the Carmelite monastery at Cologne later that year; her taking of vows under the name Teresa Benedicta a Cruce (Teresa Blessed by the Cross); her transfer to Holland to escape the German authorities; her arrest in Holland by the Gestapo in 1942; and her arrival in Auschwitz and death in the gas chambers later that year.

Beneath the Surface

Although an excellent movie about Edith Stein could be made from the above outline, it is not the outline followed by The Seventh Chamber. The Seventh Chamber starts more or less at the penultimate sentence in the last paragraph, with Edith’s baptism. A surprising amount of the earlier material is worked in — not through flashbacks, as one might expect, but simply mentioned in conversation.

Instead of flashbacks, there are surreal, allegorical sequences in which memory and symbolism merge and shift — most strikingly a dreamlike masquerade party flashback that we see after she has tripped on a flight of stairs and fallen on the floor. Even more seemingly straightforward scenes are not entirely realistic; the masquerade party flashback is flagrantly stylized, but even Edith’s fall from the stairs, and the way she lies on the floor murmuring to herself about the cross instead of getting up, suggests some departure from ordinary drama. Conversations seem to reflect a dreamlike, poetic logic rather than the rhythms of ordinary discussion. Recurring images run through the film: a cross falling into a puddle; a young girl watching Edith; doors and gates closing. Even ordinary scenes are framed with careful formalism, framed in single or double arches and partly eclipsed by pillars or trees.

Rather than stick to conventional drama or realistic narrative, The Seventh Chamber verges into expressionism, with stylized, non-literal interpretive conceits offering a blatantly subjective vision of its subject matter. While this is a cinematic approach many American viewers may not be especially familiar with, very likely (as a companion booklet to the film published by the Daughters of St. Paul points out) Edith Stein herself — a student and professor of literature and psychology as well as philosophy — would have had some familiarity with the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s: films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which depicted madness, and The Golem (1920), based on Jewish folklore. (One German Expressionist masterpiece, 1922’s Nosferatu, is among the 15 films recognized on the 1995 Vatican film list for outstanding artistic significance.)

One familiar cinematic point of comparison and contrast that may occur to some viewers is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — and not only because Morgenstern went on to portray the Virgin Mary in Gibson’s film. That Morgenstern has played two Jewish women saints bridging the old covenant and the new is in a way not a coincidence, since it was her role in The Seventh Chamber that brought her to Gibson’s attention. It is possible, too, that The Seventh Chamber influenced Gibson’s film in other ways.

For example, consider a shot in The Passion in which Morgenstern’s Virgin Mary, supernaturally sensing the nearness of her Son, lies prone with her cheek to the pavement as the camera sinks below the pavement into the cell below where Jesus stands in chains. Compare a strikingly similar shot and camera movement in The Seventh Chamber in which Morgenstern’s Edith Stein has fallen prone and lies with her cheek to the floor as the camera sinks below the floor, transitioning to the masquerade sequence (later the camera rises back up through the floor to find Edith still lying there).

The Passion of the Christ is shot through with expressionist flourishes, from Christ trampling the serpent’s head in Gethsemane to Mary’s flashback of the boy Jesus falling as Christ falls under his cross. More generally, Gibson’s whole film displays what could be called expressionist leanings in its heightened or artificial presentation of reality: the slow-motion falls, the exaggeration of the scourging and Christ’s battered state, etc.

In presenting the Passion in a heightened, symbolic way, Gibson seeks to bring out the inner meaning of events rather than merely dramatizing what a detached observer might have seen. In general he does this with imagery that is readily understood by Christian viewers — but occasionally his conceits resist easy interpretation, such as the satanic baby cradled in the Tempter’s arms during the scourging.

In a similar way, The Seventh Chamber brings a level of artifice and symbolism to events in Edith Stein’s life in an effort to dramatize the inner meaning of the events and of her life as a whole. Although the imagery in The Seventh Chamber is seldom if ever as flagrantly non-literal as Gibson’s infernal infant, it does sometimes present interpretive challenges.

Take the opening baptism scene, which opens with a black-draped figure approaching a church — presumably Edith herself, almost appearing habited already, though it is only the style of dress. Inside the church, Edith sits in a pew. The priest says the words of baptism, but strangely we don’t see Edith being baptized. Then the church door seems to blow open, and outside stands a bedraped (habited?) figure.

Who is this figure? Edith herself is still in the church; it cannot be her in a literal, direct sense. Nor can it be a random stranger; too much is made of it. Does it represent Edith in some way? Is it perhaps her future (as a nun?) or her past (the pre-Christian life she has left behind)? If it is her future, does it anticipate her future from the day of her baptism — or does it represent her looking back to her baptism from some later point? Or could it be someone else? Might it represent her mother, and the separation that now exists between them?

Here is my favorite theory: Perhaps it is Teresa of Avila, whose spiritual writings led Edith into the Church, and which provide the title and the structure of The Seventh Chamber. “Teresa took me by the hand,” Edith tells a jittery novice named Greta who comes to her on the eve of their profession looking for advice, “and asked me to cross seven rooms.” However we interpret that baptism scene, the imagery is meant to point beyond surface events. The significance of Edith’s baptism is not confined to what a camera would have recorded on January 1, 1922.

An Interior Drama

Although the film does not demand it, we may take a cue from the imagery of the opening credits, even before the baptism: a great black steam engine chuffing toward Auschwitz, scored to a wailing Jewish chant. Of course the train (and with it the chant) comes back in the end. Technically, then, the main part of the film, from after the opening credits up to the climax at Auschwitz, is in flashback. It is possible to watch the film as Edith’s reflections on her life on the train to Auschwitz. Seen in this way, the narrative’s variously more realistic or more dreamlike vacillations could reflect Edith’s changing mental state on the train.

Throughout the film we find Edith being cross-examined over and over — by her mother (Adriana Asti); by a former colleague turned Nazi functionary, Franz Heller (Polish actor Jan Nowicki, with whom the director was romantically involved), who reappears again and again like the Accuser; by her family members as she departs for Carmel; by the Mother Superior; by her sister Rosa as her mother dies.

Over and over Edith is told that she has betrayed her family and her people; that she is motivated by ego, by thirst for power, by opportunism; that her faith is meaningless; that her actions are devoid of love. At times the accusations contradict one another: Heller accuses her at one point of converting in order to escape the fate of the Jewish people — but later accuses her of the opposite, of arrogantly seeking martyrdom and sainthood.

Here too questions of realism may be felt. Would Edith’s mother really have leaped so quickly to the charge “You have betrayed us like Jesus”? Would Heller really have co-opted Edith’s lecture for his self-indulgent insinuations — and if he did, would he really have brought up her lost cross, and whether she later found it again? Perhaps this is how the drama plays out in Edith’s mind in her last hours, full of symbolism and metaphor. Perhaps it is Edith who cross-examines herself over and over. By the same token, Edith crying out “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” in response to her mother’s charges seems more like the cry of a heart looking back on a painful memory than something she would have said at the time.

Any way you slice it, it’s a difficult film. If the main part of the film is in flashback, then the masquerade sequence is a flashback within a flashback — and within that there are further flashbacks or reveries, filmed in black and white, involving Heller and Edith’s admirer Hans, both of whom we see dancing with Edith at the masquerade while a band of musicians in skeleton costumes plays.

Notably, the music in the masquerade sequence is very much of a piece with the melancholy but jaunty melodies that crop up throughout the score (by Italian Jewish musician Moni Ovadia). However, only in the masquerade sequence the music has a diegetic or in-story role, in connection with the skeleton band. (Film elements are “diegetic” if they are part of the story world, or “diegesis”; diegetic music is music coming from a source in the story, music that characters can hear. For the most part the music in The Seventh Chamber is non-diegetic, that is, background music standing outside the story world, added by the filmmakers for the viewer’s benefit.) At times the jaunty score clashes dissonantly with the onscreen imagery, as when it plays over the horror of the Kristallnacht or “Night of Broken Glass,” the pogrom riots of November 10, 1938.

The diegetic use of this music in the masquerade sequence serves to highlight this sequence as a sort of key to the film, since it is as if the skeleton players’ music flows out into the rest of the film. If we view the film as a flashback in Edith’s mind, then the remembered music from the masquerade may be running through Edith’s thoughts as she reflects on her life.

As Edith dances with Hans, she muses darkly about a friend who committed suicide, and warns Hans against suicide. Heller recalls previous advances upon Edith, and the cross ripped from her neck falling in a puddle. Then he cuts in, dancing a violent tango with Edith and bandying lines from the play Don Carlos by the German writer Friedrich Schiller. Heller quotes the king’s promise of peace by the sword, to which Edith responds with Rodrigro’s rejoinder that it is the peace of the grave. Then Edith dances alone, and either she or Hans contemplates an embrace and a kiss which does not actually occur here. The sequence ends with Edith dancing alone.

Death, obviously, looms over the dance of Edith’s life. The tango with Heller to the music of the skeleton band, and the dueling quotations from Don Carlos, portray Edith’s quarrel with the direction in which Germany is going. The dance with Hans, the imagined kiss, and the final moments whirling alone suggest the choice before Edith between marriage and family or consecrated religious life.

The Seventh Chamber and the Interior Castle

We must step back and consider the big picture: the schema of the “seven chambers.” Although it is not until the climax that the “seventh chamber” itself comes into view, the explanation of the seven chambers comes somewhere in the middle, in a key sequence on the eve of Edith’s profession, as Edith offers company, instruction and advice to the young novice Greta, who doubts her own calling to religious life.

In the film’s most serene extended sequence, Edith explains to Greta Saint Teresa’s account of the seven chambers, based on the saint’s vision of the soul as a castle formed from a single diamond or crystal. This castle, Teresa wrote in The Interior Castle, is filled with chambers on all sides, with one central chamber — the seventh in Teresa’s enumeration, though she alluded to many others — representing the innermost realm of final nuptial union and intimacy with God. To reach this state, one must progress by stages through various outer chambers or stages of spiritual development and discipline, in the process stripping oneself (or being stripped) of exteriority and attachments to passing things, coming to belong ever more completely to God.

Although Edith’s account of Teresa’s schema in the film is far from precise, the idea of spiritual progression toward final union with God is powerfully dramatized by the film as a whole. (The text of The Interior Castle is available online. So is the text of Stein’s The Hidden Life, in which she expounds upon St. Teresa’s seven stages of spiritual development, though without the metaphor of chambers or a castle.) The climax of the film — a powerful sequence that has been widely distributed online — represents Edith arriving at the “seventh chamber” through the camp gate at Auschwitz and the corridor leading to the gas chamber.

Edith’s martyrdom is depicted both as a passion sequence and a transfiguration of grace. The train tracks approaching Auschwitz bring her into darkness and also into light (essentially the same shot is filmed both ways). Walking naked to her death, she is stripped of all dignity by her enemies — and divested of all earthly attachments in preparation for union with God.

The presentation of Edith arriving at the “seventh chamber” at Auschwitz opens the door, so to speak, to viewing the film as a whole as a spiritual progression through Teresa of Avila’s interior castle — and in fact the film offers confirmation of this reading. The film is punctuated by dramatic, sometimes forceful openings and closings of doors and gates, often marking the beginning or the ending of a stage in Edith’s life.

One sequence conspicuously draws attention to this structuring device by stringing together shots of three doors we have already seen, all slamming shut — and then repeating the shots again: six door closings, perhaps representing six chambers on the path to the seventh chamber of nuptial union. The three doors in this sequence are the door of the church in which she is baptized, the university gate that slams shut behind Edith after she has been terminated as a lecturer for her Jewish blood, and a gate inside the Carmelite monastery at Cologne.

Other significant door openings and closings in the film include the monastery door at Cologne opening to admit Edith and closing behind her — and opening and closing again when she leaves to flee to Echt, Holland; and the doors of Carmel at Echt opening first to admit her, then to suffer her departure at the hands of Nazis bringing her to Auschwitz.

Is it possible in these openings and closings to find an underlying structure of seven “chambers”? Perhaps, though the boundaries of any such structure are unclear and could be debated.

One way to track Edith’s spiritual progression through the film would be to follow critical moments of sacrifice in which she is required to leave a stage of her life behind — moments of sacrifice or “death” to some part of herself. One by one she is divested of the things she cares about, until at last she approaches the seventh chamber naked and unencumbered.

It may also be noted that Edith’s spiritual journey is closely paralleled by repeated interactions with two supporting characters, each of whom represents a part of Edith’s heritage that has become, in one way or another, a problem. First, Edith’s strained relationship with her mother, whom she loves but who regards Edith as having betrayed her people, typifies the problem of Edith’s Jewish identity, which she always professed to uphold, though her conversion has posed an obstacle for her Jewish admirers. Second, Heller’s confrontational, aggressive attitude toward Edith reflects the dilemma of Edith’s identity as a German in a Germany that rejected her.

Notably, Edith’s mother appears seven times in the film — each time bearing witness in a way to one of the sacrificial turning points that mark the seven “chambers.” Heller, meanwhile, appears six times — once for each of the first six chambers — and after the sixth chamber he disappears from the story, unable to follow Edith into the seventh and final chamber.

Charting the Seven Chambers

Edith’s journey begins, of course, with her baptism. In embracing Christ, Edith faces rejection by her family, especially her mother — as we see immediately afterward when Edith returns home via train to Breslau to tell her mother what she has done, and faces her mother’s accusations that she has betrayed her people. Later, during a lecture, Edith is harangued by Heller, who charges that her actions are motivated by pride and desire for acclaim, which he says are “typically Jewish” (ironically contrasting with her mother’s charges). According to Edith’s account of the seven chambers, in the first chamber the soul is “attached to the world” but “walking toward conscience.”

The next significant transition involves the loss of Edith’s place in the world, particularly in academia, due to increasingly oppressive antisemitic policies. Anxious to avoid Heller in a university corridor, Edith hurries away, slips on the stairs and falls into the surreal vision of the masquerade party, where as described above Heller confronts Edith, in a distorted, dreamlike way, with Germany’s future. After this, Edith meets Hans and turns down his marriage proposal, giving up plans of a domestic life of marriage and family. This is in keeping with the nature of the second chamber, in which one “fights attraction to the world.” During this stage Edith returns home again and is alarmed to find her mother missing. Shortly after, she is relieved to find her at the synagogue where the local Jewish community is discussing options, particularly emigration.

The next time Edith encounters Heller, he casts philosophical aspersions at her faith while at the same time urging her to leave Germany for her own safety. Edith, however, is unmoved and even laughs at him. Later, meeting her mother at her father’s grave, she confesses that she has resolved to enter Carmel, a plan that her mother begs her not to tell the rest of the family. At the same time, she is grieved by her mother’s inability to forgive her, but consoled that she still has her mother’s love. At this point, having reached the third chamber, Edith is “ready to accept suffering” and to “renounce the world,” though she is “not yet strong enough.”

Edith must then bid farewell to her mother and family at a final Sabbath meal, both because most of her siblings are going abroad and also because she is about to enter Carmel — a decision none of her family understands, and which they reject (except for a young niece, who lovingly accepts without understanding). The doors of Carmel open, ushering Edith into the fourth chamber, in which “intelligence and memory weigh down the soul” and “must be renounced” — as indeed Edith struggles with her devotion to philosophy and writing, which her spiritual authorities will not allow her to practice.

Lying supine in her cell, in throes of passion, Edith cries out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” At this, her mother seems to stand before her — marking, apparently, a moment of spiritual transfiguration. Until now Edith’s time in the convent has been fraught with adversity and torment — but from this point on she is at peace. She is ready now to take her vows, marking her transition from novice to consecrated religious. As if recognizing the change in Edith, her superiors allow her to return to the practice of philosophy and writing, even though she professes no need to do so.

It is here, on the eve of her profession, that the novice Greta arrives at her cell — and Edith, explaining the seven chambers, explains that in the fifth chamber the “lay world has no hold” on the soul, who has renounced all. “That’s why I’m happy here,” she adds — a clear indication that Edith has in fact reached the fifth chamber. As further confirmation, it is at this point in her account, between the fifth and sixth chambers, that the filmmakers insert the dramatic sequence of slamming doors — a dividing point between the five chambers we have seen and the two that remain ahead.

Edith’s serenity is perturbed only by the next appearance of Heller, who arrives at the monastery on the day of an election to collect the nuns’ votes — an election that Edith, as a Jew, cannot participate in. Later, Edith’s sister Rosa, who has joined Edith in Carmel, meets privately with Heller to beg him to use his influence on Edith’s behalf — whereupon he tells her, yet again, that they must leave the country.

After this, two major transitions occur in rapid succession: Edith and Rosa flee Germany to another Carmelite monastery in Echt, Holland, where in the very next scene (though in fact three and a half years elapse) the Nazis catch up with them, and they must leave Carmel behind for good, boarding a Nazi truck and later a train for Auschwitz.

At this point, en route to Auschwitz, Edith has entered the sixth chamber, the realm of spiritual betrothal. As she has described it, it is a “room of suffering,” yet the “allure of the outside world” has been left behind once and for all. As the train passes through Breslau, though their mother has died, Edith (with Rosa) seems to see her for a sixth time, standing on the train platform beside other figures from their past. Still later, the train comes to a stop, and Heller confronts and accuses Edith for the sixth and final time. Edith, however, is now beyond his taunts, and rather than defending herself or accusing him in return she simply asks his forgiveness for her own shortcomings.

And so at last Edith arrives at Auschwitz, and the seventh chamber — the chamber of nuptial union, about which the film Edith could tell Greta nothing. In the gas chambers, suffused by divine light, the film brings together Edith and her mother in a bold use of pietà imagery in which Edith’s Jewish and Christian identities, her spiritual way of the cross, and her troubled relationship with her mother all find their resolution.

Who Is Edith Stein?

What picture emerges from The Seventh Chamber of its protagonist? What does the film have to tell us about Edith Stein?

First, the film is emphatic that Edith Stein embraces Catholicism without in any way rejecting Judaism. She states this explicitly to her mother after her conversion, and shows it in a number of ways throughout the film (e.g., laying a stone on her father’s grave, in keeping with Jewish custom; whispering a Jewish prayer in solidarity with her sister Rosa). The wailing Jewish chant heard over the final scene, and the symbolic final image, imply that Edith remains a loyal daughter of her Jewish heritage to the end.

Edith also embraces her fatherland, Germany, with a patriotic fervor that is almost baffling to us. (How many Americans would hesitate to flee their country if the government turned against them?) Although she could continue her lecturing work elsewhere in Europe, or in the United States — and has, indeed, lectured in other countries — she insists that she will not leave Germany, even when her life is endangered. Eventually, after the Kristallnacht the danger becomes too great and she does leave, though she is ready to die. Edith has embraced the cross in her heart, and she is ready to undergo crucifixion.

We see Edith Stein the literary scholar, expounding upon the poetry of Goethe; Edith Stein the feminist lecturer, proclaiming (and demonstrating) that women’s capacity for achievement is equal to that of men. Edith Stein the phenomenologist philosopher is also here, and if her illustration to her niece about the piano doesn’t really go far in illuminating the concepts of phenomenology, well, I’m not sure anything would have. It should be noted that an exchange with Heller about “intuition” and faith means more than it may seem to, as “intuition” is a technical term in phenomenologist philosophy with a meaning quite distinct from its everyday use.

One can also find hints of Edith’s ideas about empathy, although this was such a major area of her thought — it was the subject of her doctoral dissertation and three additional treatises — that one would hope for more on this in a film devoted to her. As it is, the word “empathy” doesn’t even appear in the dialogue (at least not in the translation I’ve seen), which is not entirely unlike making a film about Einstein and not mentioning relativity!

One may question other elements in the film. Did Edith really object as a novice to the repetition of litanies as alienating to novices and contrary to intimate friendship with God? (I’m aware of no evidence of this.) Why do the filmmakers depict Rosa’s conversion to Catholicism and her entrance into Carmel solely in terms of Rosa’s desire to be with her sister?

In the end, perhaps it is Edith Stein the contemplative that is most clearly seen. The Seventh Chamber shows that for Edith it is only by knowing God that we know ourselves; only through Jesus that we know God; and only through the cross that we can know Jesus. Quotations from Stein’s writings are incorporated, such as a passage from The Science of the Cross, her treatise on the mystical theology of John of the Cross, in which she explains that “God does everything only because the soul has totally surrendered herself to him. And this surrender is the highest act of her freedom.”

A challenging, often fascinating film, The Seventh Chamber is a gratifying tribute to a great saint, though not a definitive or complete telling of her story. The door is still open for that film to be made.

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