fb-pixel Skip to main content

Doc Talk: Escher aesthetics, extremist extrication, homelessness in Hungary

M.C. Escher, "Day and Night."©M.C.EscherCompany B.V.-Baarn/Kino Lorber

“I fear that there is only one person in the world who could make a really good movie about my prints: Me,” wrote M.C. Escher, the engraver of impossible objects, in 1969, as quoted in Robin Lutz’s inventive, wry, and enlightening M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity.”

Since Escher died in 1972, at 73, Lutz’s film will have to do. To enter the mind and understand the work of the artist Lutz employs a plenitude of Escher prints, many of them transformed into mind-boggling 3-D animation, as well as prickly and elucidating excerpts from the artist’s diary, lectures, and letters archly rendered by Stephen Fry’s voice-over narration.


Attending the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts as a youth, Escher was encouraged by his teacher Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita to pursue his talent for woodcuts. He was frustrated in his early efforts, when he would be “consumed by the desire to give shape [to] a grand idea without the ability to do so.” But he didn’t give up, in part because of the persistence of his visions, which Lutz dramatically re-creates. They include the artist’s reverie while listening to an organ boom out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in a Haarlem cathedral. The organ pipes stretch out of sight, and he is transported through the air in ecstasy. “And then,” Escher recounts, “I am admitted to hospital for observation.”

Later he sojourned to Italy, where he met his future wife and was inspired by the landscape and architecture, images of which would recur in his work. He left when his older son (who, now in his 90s, is one of Lutz’s interviewees) became too enamored of Mussolini and Fascism. Visiting Spain, he was captivated by the intricate geometric patterns decorating the Alhambra. The systematic repetition of a motif according to a system intrigued him, though he wanted to apply it to figuration, not abstraction.


All of these influences and others came to fruition during the years leading up to World War II. In the midst of the pre-war chaos, Escher’s focus turned inward, as he created images incorporating tessellated patterns of animals, people, and objects that merge and metamorphose into a system that seems to extend infinitely beyond the frame or into the center of the image. He was, he explains, “expressing endlessness in a limited plane.”

But the outbreak of war and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands stalled his productivity. He had to struggle to feed his family and keep them safe as he watched people starve in the streets and his Jewish friends, including his teacher de Mesquita, taken away to concentration camps where they were murdered.

These experiences affected Escher deeply, “Every now and then the image looms up before me,” he remarked about the ordeal, “birds of despair … flying on slow wings.” One of his first works after the war was “Eye” (1946), an image of his own eye with a skull reflected on the pupil — or emerging from within.

Then Life intervened. The magazine, that is, which did a profile of him in 1951. “Then the money came in,” recalls one of his sons. That and adulation and emulation. Lutz is lucid and inventive, showing how Escher’s images have been invoked and imitated even decades later, in movies and popular art. He shows clips of the infinite staircase in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010), derived from Escher’s vertiginous print “Ascending and Descending” (1960), and the deranged interior architecture in Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” (1986), derived from Escher’s “Relativity” (1953).


Toward the end of his life Escher was annoyed by all the attention he was getting from his late fame and was disdainful of his impact on popular culture, especially when his work was reproduced on album covers, T-shirts, calendars, and coffee cups. “I am increasingly disturbed by the many foreigners at my door and the growing amount of correspondence,” he complains in a letter to a friend. He notes that Mick Jagger asked him to do an album cover, a request he declined. “And by the way,” he writes, “please tell Mr. Jagger that I am not Mauritz [his first name] to him but … M.C. Escher.”

“M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity” can streamed beginning Feb. 5 via the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room. Go to coolidge.org/films/mc-escher-journey-infinity.

Swastika boot soles worn by a neo-Nazi, in "Healing From Hate."Big Tent Productions

Haters Anonymous

The insurrection on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., made plain how deeply the militant racism, hate, and violence have infected this country. To counter this scourge some propose empathy and compassion. In Peter Hutchison’s “Healing From Hate,” based on the book by sociologist Michael Kimmel, who is among those interviewed in the film, a handful of former skinheads, White Nationalists, and neo-Nazis have formed an Alcoholics Anonymous-like support organization called Life After Hate. In it they share their stories to help others who want to sever connections with the white-supremacist movement.


Life After Hate members, such as Frank Meeink, a former neo-Nazi whose life inspired the 1998 film “American History X,” confess to committing heinous deeds but they also recall brutal childhood abuse and other traumas and deprivations that helped shape them. As seen in the aftermath of the Capitol takeover, however, this right-wing grievance culture includes not just disenfranchised white people but the rich, privileged and politically powerful as well. What motivates these people? A telling conversation between a Life After Hate member and white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer suggests that there is more behind this plague than poverty, prison, addiction, and broken homes.

“Healing From Hate” can be streamed on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and other platforms. Go to www.healingfromhatefilm.com.

The City is For All activists protest in Budapest, from "No Country for the Poor."World Channel

Homeless shelterers

The housing crisis is a familiar situation in cities around the world: 30,000 people in Budapest have no home, and 400,000 housing units lie empty. But living on the street there is a crime, and those forced to do so are arrested. László Bihari’s documentary “No Country for the Poor” spotlights “The City is for All,” a group of activists and homeless people who employ the nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to rectify this injustice.

They link arms, in some cases with their arms inserted into pipes that can break bones if they are moved violently, to prevent police from evicting a mother and her children. The action fails, but the media coverage is effective. The group appeals to the mayor, to the courts, to parliament, with some success. Their tactics work, one of their leaders says, all they lack for more sweeping change are more people to stand up for what’s right.


No Country for the Poor” will air on World Channel and begin streaming on worldchannel.org Jan. 31 at 10 p.m. as part of the series “Doc World.”

Go to worldchannel.org/episode/dw-no-country-for-the-poor.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.