I recently watched the film A Royal Affair (En kongelig affaere). There is much to question in its historicity, and much to praise in the acting of the three lead characters (indeed, their body language and tone of voice is so very expressive that one forgets the film is dubbed). However, most interesting to me is the film’s portrayal of the Enlightenment.
For most of the film, the audience seems to be fed a simple, didactic message: un-Enlightened, Christian values were barbaric madness, and were manipulated by wicked courtiers for their own selfish ends. Indeed, the film aims for a poignant contrast between the mad king and the ‘superstition’ of religion. Who is truly mad, asks Struensee of the scheming priest: the troubled king, or those who believe that the world was made in six days? In contrast to the wicked conservatives are depicted the film’s heroes – the physicians Struensee, and the queen Caroline, who hold Enlightenment, secular values and attempt to reform Denmark, trying to harness the good-hearted but fragile King Christian VII.
Yet, at moments towards the end of the film, this message seems to be undercut by something considerably more complex. I suspect that this is not the film’s intended message, and that I am reading it cross-grain; but, the deeper message (whether intentional or not) that can be extrapolated is far more interesting.
Underneath the film’s black and white portrayal of the progress of ‘good’ Enlightenment reform warring against the ‘evil’ of Christianity, can be glimpsed the failure of the Enlightenment ideology. At no point is this more evident than when Struensee is led to his execution. Mobbed by the populace his ideology sought to liberate, he screams at them that he is one of them. They ignore this ‘progressive’ perspective, and bay for his blood. His attempts to instil hastily a proto-Communist regime have ended in his downfall. One thinks of Tolstoy’s wife’s lamentation that, had her husband lived to see the fulfilment of his reforming hopes in the form of the terror of the Russian Revolution, he would have eschewed his radical ideology. Undeniably also, the ultimate theatre of the Enlightment Weltanschauung, the French Revolution, proved to be the performance of a tragedy. Human nature is not the naturally good, naturally wise, easily malleable force that Enlightenment values and Communist ideologies alike painted; righteousness does not rise to the top like cream. The rapid ‘liberation’ of the people led to chaos, misery and despair. History suggests that movements of ‘liberation’ need to consider the inherent depravity, selfishness, and short-sightedness of humanity, which is not rapidly or easily changed into generous, selfless wisdom.
Interesting also is Struensee’s earlier statement that he sees marriage as a limiting force that needs to be overcome, when contrasted to his subsequent monogamous love for Caroline and his perception of them and their daughter as a ‘family’. And, fascinating, in light of his continual attack on Christian beliefs, is his ambiguous statement when imprisoned “I have been thinking about God a lot these days.” Finally, it is notable that the reforms for which the film commends Frederick VI of Denmark, when he overthrows the ‘superstition’ of Denmark and brings it definitively into the age of ‘Enlightenment’, are in line with Christian values: abolition of serfdom, liberation of the peasantry. There is nothing uniquely Enlightenment in these values at all.
Does the film, then, really depict the success of the Enlightenment? Or does it gesture towards its ultimate failure? Surely, despite the didactic overtones of the former, it is better seen as doing the latter.