Bringing life to M.C. Escher

A Documentary
Directed by Robin Lutz

The big shock in Robin Lutz’s documentary, M.C. ESCHER: Journey to Infinity, comes early. The creator of so many mind-bending woodcuts didn’t consider himself an artist. When rock star Graham Nash told the creator of all those mind-bending images that he was an artist, Escher refused the label and called himself a mathematician. Believe it or not, that actually makes sense. One would have to understand considerable geometry, algebra, and probably trigonometry to create those pictures.

Like most baby boomers, I fell in love with Escher’s work in the psychedelic ’60s and ’70s. You could look into the prints and see an infinite universe folding into itself. Black birds flying left turn into white birds flying right. Staircases go in all sorts of impossible directions. Hands drawing themselves.

And yet, Escher found no joy in his newfound celebrity status. The old Dutch master hated how hippies and others treated his work – especially the way they printed his creations with extremely bright colors. I’m sure that if Escher was alive today, he would be horrified by the many body tattoos and movie sequences (Labyrinth, Inception) inspired by his work.

The filmmakers also alter some of his pictures, but not with fluorescent hues. Instead, they animated some of Escher’s most famous works. It’s not overdone, and helps to show how the mathematics made the art. Escher said that he would have liked to animate some of his work, but he didn’t think it would be economically feasible.

Maurits Cornelis Escher found inspiration in Italy in the 1920s, where he married and had children (his wife would later have serious dementia). They left Italy when Escher realized that his ten-year-old son was becoming a fascist. The family moved back to the Netherlands. The family survived the Nazi occupation by keeping their heads down as their Jewish friends disappeared. He was diagnosed with cancer in the early ’60 and died in 1972 – at the height of his unwanted fame.

Instead of a conventional narration, British actor Stephen Fry reads from Escher’s own biographical writings – in an English translation, of course. It’s easy to forget that it’s not Escher’s voice. For additional information, two of Escher’s sons – now old men, – occasionally add more information. They speak in Dutch with English subtitles.

I should mention that this is not a new movie, or an American one. It was originally released in the Netherlands in 2018. What we have here, I assume, is the English-language version.

A wide selection of music keeps the film going. The composers and performers include Bach, Chopin, Glenn Miller, Hans Zimmer, and Crosby Stills, Nash & Young. This is one entertaining documentary.

M.C. ESCHER: Journey To Infinity will be available Friday at the Rafael and the Roxie.