New film sheds light on humanist Albert Schweitzer′s life | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.01.2010
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New film sheds light on humanist Albert Schweitzer's life

A movie about the "jungle doctor" Albert Schweitzer tells the story of a philosopher and physician who promoted peace during the Cold War, built a hospital in what is now Gabon and proved stronger than the CIA.

A poster of the film with Schweitzer in the forefront

The film focuses on a few crucial years of Schweitzer's life

"When I entered the film set in Port St. Johns, I felt like I had entered a time machine," said Harold Robles, who worked with Schweitzer in the Gabonese village Lambaréné in the sixties, and was invited to watch the shooting.

The production team had had a reliable template to work from: a documentary film from 1957 which offered first-hand insight into the life and work of the so-called "jungle doctor" and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

In 2009, it took the combined effort of 30 carpenters and 60 craftsmen to replicate the details of the African village for the film.

For weeks, the crew cleared the woods and set designer Tom Hannam had hundreds of trees, shrubs and even palm trees flown in, to create the right setting.

Authentic settings

In this scene from the film, Schweitzer examines a young patient

Schweitzer was best known for founding a hospital in Gabon

It wasn't just the Gabon village that was faithfully replicated, but Schweitzer’s study, as well as habits like hanging up papers with hooks on the walls to prevent them from being devoured by ants.

Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé, who plays Albert Schweitzer with a strong presence and passionate enthusiasm, also felt transported to the historical site of the events.

"I could get hold of the film documents and study exactly how Schweitzer moved, wrote, and played the organ," Krabbé said. "One day, I realized how much I had grown into the role: like Schweitzer, I did one thing while thinking about five other things that I had yet to do."

The movie was shot entirely in South Africa and in just under two months.

The film revolves around two settings: the New York of the early 50's, and the jungle village in Gabon, where the Alsatian doctor’s hospital was based.

Not a biopic

A scene from the film shows Hershey, who plays Schweitzer's wife working with women in the African village

Barbara Hershey won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for her role as the doctor's selfless wife

Avoiding the pitfalls of the biopic genre, the film refrains from squeezing all aspects of the life of the German-French philosopher, musicologist, organist, theologian and physician Albert Schweitzer into a cinematic puzzle.

British director Gavin Millar focuses instead on a few crucial years of Schweitzer’s life: the period from 1949 to 1954, the year in which he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of the "reverence for life."

The film also includes a flashback to the time before World War I, when Schweitzer built a hospital in Gabon at a time when there was a lack of everything – beds, nurses, medicines and bandages. His young wife Helen helped her husband selflessly and to the point of exhaustion.

Watched by the CIA

Schweitzer’s convictions were challenged during a lecture tour of the United States aimed at collecting donations for his jungle hospital.

His friend Albert Einstein – played in the film by German actor Armin Rohde – asked Schweitzer on behalf of his colleagues for support in the fight against the nuclear bomb threat back at that time. Schweitzer hesitated and became the victim of a deliberate slander.

The CIA suspected him of anti-American propaganda and communist activities. It decided to send a young agent masquerading as journalist Phil Figgis – played by Samuel West – to monitor Schweitzer's activities.

In Gabon, the government threatened to close down his hospital, but Schweitzer, assisted by his colleagues and patients, eventually managed to turn things around.

A shot of the film's setting showing Gabon by moonlight

The film faithfully reproduces the surroundings in which Scwheitzer worked in Gabon

Renowned cast

Director Millar has hired top actors for his latest film. Oscar-nominated Hollywood actress Barbara Hershey has already won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for her portrayal of the self-sacrificing Helene Schweitzer. Samuel West of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who has been praised for his roles in literary adaptations, plays CIA agent Phil Figgis.

Millar has captivated the audience with this film, which depicts a chapter of political history of the 20th century.

"Schweitzer was once famous and popular like Nelson Mandela – known throughout the world as a great humanist and philosopher," said Millar." Today, he is hardly known."

That’s something this movie is hoping to change.

Author: Heike Mund (rb)

Editor: Toma Tasovac

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