The Pied Piper (1972)


(director/writer: Jacques Demy; screenwriters: Andrew Birkin/Mark Peploe; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: John Trumper; cast: Donald Pleasence (The Baron), John Hurt (Franz), Jack Wild (Gavin), Donovan (Pied Piper), Cathyrn Harrison (Lisa), Michael Hordern (Melius), Peter Vaughan (Bishop), Keith Buckley (Mattio), Roy Kinnear (Burgermeister); Runtime: 90; Sagittarius/Goodtimes; 1972-UK)

“This version of The Pied Piper is not exactly told as a children’s fable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This version of The Pied Piper is not exactly told as a children’s fable. It is the retelling of the Robert Browning poem of the piper (Donovan) who rids Hamelin of its rats. This English speaking film placed in the able hands of the renown French director, Jacques Demy, reveals a gripping story of evil in the Middle-Ages, a time when 75 million people across Europe died of the plague. The film tells of the corrupt church and local town administrators, working in cahoots. Their maniacal plan coincides to support a papal war in Italy and for the town to build a huge cathedral for itself — all this in the midst of the bubonic plague of 1349, which the church interpreted as part of God’s master plan.

In northern Germany a caravan of Gypsy performers, led by Mattio (Keith), stops to pick up a musician (Donovan). They are trying to reach Hamelin for the wedding celebration between the lordly Franz (Hurt) and Lisa (Cathyrn), the wealthy burgermeister’s fourteen year old daughter, but are refused entry to the city because of fear that they might be carriers of the plague. In the hamlet, Lisa is in a coma. A delegation of clergy is there to give her the last rites but the burgermeister summons, as a last resort, the aid of the town’s outcast, the Jewish alchemist, Melius (Hordern). The alchemist states that the girl is not going to die. She doesn’t have the plague, but needs rest and music. The church delegates leave in a huff, accusing the Jew of causing the plague and dabbling in work that goes against God’s will. Soon a piper’s soothing music, coming from outside the gates of the hamlet is heard. It revives the young girl, encouraging the burgermeister to summon the piper, who tells the messengers sent to retrieve him that he will not enter unless his Gypsy friends can also enter the hamlet.

Gavin (Wild) is the crippled helper of Melius, idolizing and looking to him for paternal advice and wisdom. He is in love with Lisa, who is a few years younger; but is helpless to stop Lisa’s marriage to the very evil, self-serving 30-year-old Franz. Franz does not love Lisa, but insists on the marriage as a means of getting a dowry from her family. Franz acts this way because his family desperately needs that money, while Lisa is just a little girl who doesn’t seem capable of loving anyone, at this point of her life.

The baron is sinisterly played by Donald Pleasence, who has taxed his subjects to the limit and now must devise ways to get more money for his fiefdom. Franz devises a plan for the Pope to recruit soldiers from the townspeople. He does this by forcing the alchemist to come up with gilded gold, which the baron will use to give to the hamlet’s teenagers as an incentive to join the Pope’s army in Italy. In the meantime, their fathers will stay home to build the baron’s cathedral. In this unholy bargain, the Pope gets the soldiers from town to fight his war and in return will supply the rest of the money needed to finish the cathedral.

At the wedding celebration the rats are present everywhere. The piper offers to get rid of the rats, if the burgermeister gives him $1,000 guildas. When the piper plays his tune and the rats all march out of the town and are drowned in the river, the burgermeister foolishly thinking that the crisis from the rats causing the black plague is over and reneges on his promise. As a result the piper plays his tune again and all the children, including Lisa, leave with the piper, disappearing with him to wherever he is leading them to. The only one who can’t make it, is the crippled Gavin. He leaves town with the Gypsies, since his mentor was burned at the stake by the church Inquisitors.

This version of Browning’s poem is well-told and sensible and probably a lot like it was meant it to be conveyed, but somehow it looks flat on the screen like it was a B-movie. The actors were robot-like and the story lost its chills, even if the story itself remained chilling.