Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Ninth Gate (5 Stars)

This film, directed by Roman Polanski, is one of my favourite films. When I saw it in the cinema in 2000 it wasn't the first film that I had seen starring Johnny Depp, but it was the film that made me appreciate him. It immediately made Johnny Depp my favourite actor. Unfortunately, I no longer have this opinion. He's done too many long-haired comedy roles for me to take him seriously as an actor any more, sometimes as pirates, sometimes as native Americans. Even his recent serious roles, such as in "Transcendence", aren't as good as in his older films.

Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is an unscrupulous New York book trader who is hired to check the authenticity of a rare book, "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows", written by Aristide Torchia in 1666. It is supposedly a book that contains information on how to summon the Devil in person. Only three copies are still in existence. The wealthy collector Boris Balkan gives Dean one of the copies and hires him to travel to France and Portugal to compare it with the other two copies. As Dean investigates he finds out that each of the three copies has variations in the engravings. There are genuine versions, signed LCF, and altered versions signed AT.

Even though I've watched the film many times already, there were certain things that I've never understood until now. Today I didn't just watch the film. I listened to Roman Polanski's commentary for the the first time, and after that I read several interpretations of the film that I found online. Overall, Polanski's commentary wasn't very helpful in understanding the film. Mostly he gave anecdotes about the way he made the film. For instance, he said that whenever there's a close-up of Dean Corso's hands he didn't use Johnny Depp's hands, he used a stand-in. Unfortunately he failed to say why. Are Johnny's hands so ugly?

One of the things that I never understood about the film is the identity of the unnamed mystery woman who follows Dean wherever he goes. We first see her when Boris Balkan is holding a lecture, in which he says, "A witch is a person who, though cognisant of the laws of God, endeavours to act through the medium of a pact with the Devil". The camera focuses on her while these words are spoken, suggesting that she is a witch, but as the film progresses it becomes obvious that this isn't the case. Later in the film she teases Dean when he tries to find out who she is. When he asks if she's a student she first says Yes, but then later says that she's only a "sort of" student. Later still, after she saves his life he calls her his guardian angel, which amuses her, but she agrees.

Obviously Roman Polanski knew that this might not be obvious to the viewers, so this provokes him to make his most direct statements about the film's meaning:
"For those who don't get it, I would like to say a few words about the character of the girl in the film, who clearly represents the Devil. Even if it's not the Devil himself, she's at least his messenger, but she can be interpreted as the Devil, who takes an appearance more suitable for the work he has to do".
This ended my thoughts on the subject, until I read an online review of the film. (I read several reviews, but this one is the best). "The Ninth Gate" is based on a novel called "The Club Dumas" by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Polanski says of the book that it's too complicated, with interlocking plots, so the screenplay greatly simplifies it. That's acceptable. However, the reviewer has also read the book, and he tells us that in the novel the girl is very clear about who she is. She tells Dean that she was one of the angels who took Lucifer's side when he rebelled against God, but she now stands alone. This actually makes more sense, even in the film itself. She's a free agent who is sympathetic towards the Devil, but is prepared to make her own choices.

The other thing that I didn't understand was the film's ending. I thought it was leaving things open, not telling us how Dean's quest would end. The very opposite is the case. The final scene is Dean's enlightenment. I mean "enlightenment" in a literal way. Lucifer is presented as the light carrier, and in the final scene the ninth gate opens so that Dean can walk into the light.

I don't want to discuss the whole plot of the film, and I certainly don't want to repeat everything I read in Michael Howard's review, which I mentioned above. Let me just say a few things.

Summoning the Devil sounds like a person wants to follow a path of evil. That isn't the way the Devil is presented in the film. The Devil is Lucifer, the light carrier, who wants to give people the knowledge that God is denying them. In the film the reason for Boris Balkan's downfall is that he searches for power, not knowledge.

In Genesis 2:16 God tells Adam and Eve, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die".

The Devil, in the form of a serpent, contradicts this in Genesis 3:4, "You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil".

This was the first time that newly created man had to make a choice. God said one thing, the serpent said another. Who should he believe? He chose to believe the serpent. But who was telling the truth, God or the serpent? First of all, we have only one side of the story in front of us. The Bible is God's Book, i.e. it tells us what God wants us to know. If the Devil had written a book we could put the stories side by side and make a more objective judgement. But since I only have one book in front of me I'll base my judgement on that.

Let's analyse the serpent's words. He said that Adam and Eve would not die after eating the fruit. This was incorrect. Adam died 930 years later. Was the serpent lying? Maybe, maybe not. It could just be that the serpent didn't know that eating the fruit would lead to death. After all, it was God who created man, not the serpent.

Going on to what he said next, the serpent was correct. Adam and Eve's eyes were really opened after eating the fruit. They knew the difference between good and evil, like God, and the first thing that their newborn conscience told them was that nudity was wrong. They quickly covered themselves with fig leaves, but even that wasn't enough. When they saw God walking in the garden they still felt naked and hid from him. It's rather puzzling to me why nudity should be described as evil, but let's take the story at face value. The serpent said that eating the fruit would open man's eyes, and he was right.

There's still something wrong with the story though. If you ask a typical semi-religious person today what God wants from us he would say something like, "God tells us what's right and wrong and wants us to do what's good". But that's not the lesson of Genesis 2 and 3. The serpent wanted man to know what is good and evil. God wanted man to be innocent and do whatever he wanted, not asking questions of morality. God wanted man to be naked, the serpent wanted man to see that nudity is wrong. But God accepts man's new knowledge. God gave Adam and Eve clothing made of skin, which probably meant killing an animal to provide for them. He also barred access to the tree of life. "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22). This tree had been previously allowed. Man's biggest mistake in the Garden of Eden wasn't eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it was that he didn't eat the fruit of the tree of life first.

The story told in Genesis 2 and 3 shows that the Devil wanted to enlighten man, whereas God wanted man to remain ignorant. If that is still the case today it's understandable that enlightened man doesn't want to follow God.

Of course, the Devil is accused of lying throughout the rest of the Bible. For instance, in John 8:44 Jesus says of the Devil, "There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies". Nevertheless, some might choose to follow the Devil, despite being cognisant of the laws of God. That's something that we can decide with our own free will. But one thing is for certain: if you choose to follow the Devil it can result in negative consequences, because God is the stronger of the two.

Here are the engravings of the nine gates placed in their correct order (1-4-3-6-7-5-8-2-9). For these pictures I had to rely on images I found published on the Internet. Not all of the images below are the genuine LCF versions; some are the altered AT versions. If you look at the pictures carefully you can find the signatures to tell them apart.

In picture 3 there should be an arrow pointing upwards in the quiver.
In picture 6 the man should be hanging from the other leg.
In picture 8 the man with the club should have a halo.
The genuine version of picture 9 is shown in the screenshot at the beginning of this post.

1. To travel in silence
4. by a long and circuitous route,
3. to brave the arrows of misfortune,
6. to fear neither noose nor fire,
7. to play the greatest of all games
5. and win, forgoing no expense
8. is to walk the vicissitudes of fate
2. and gain at last the key
9. that will unlock the ninth gate.

This is what I didn't properly understand while watching the film in the past. The nine gates are steps that have to be followed to reach the goal, full enlightenment. Boris Balkan tried and failed, due to the ninth engraving being a forgery. Dean Corso succeeded, with the help of the green-eyed girl.


  1. That's an interesting article. Now I want to see the film. Did you see that the maze in the second picture is impossible to solve?

    1. Yes, I noticed already. I'm an avid maze and puzzle solver, so I checked straight away. I don't think it's a mistake, considering the details that went into the design of the pictures. There must be a significance to it being a blocked maze. Maybe the dice at the side offer a clue? You need luck to get through?

      I was tempted to write more about this film, in particular the similarity of the nine engravings to Tarot cards. Maybe I'll write about that next time I watch the film.

  2. An excellent article even though you sided with the wrong side. The argument could be made that what the god of the bible is trying to keep man away from is the fact that he, like all things is also god. All is one.
    From that perspective, the Christian god is the real snake in the grass.

    1. I'm not taking either side. I'm using the Bible because "God's book" is the only side of the story available to us. As I pointed out, even relying on God's side of the story alone the Devil isn't as unconditionally negative as he's portrayed by modern Christianity.

      According to the story, man wasn't God, he was a creation. The act of eating the fruit of the tree would make him like God. Unfortunately, man didn't eat the fruit of the other tree, which would have given him immortality and made him completely like God. The Tree of Life wasn't barred at first. Access was only blocked after the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was eaten. Since it was God who blocked the way, Satan is the only one who we can ask for help getting to the fruit. He might not be able to do this, because God is more powerful.

      That's what I understand from the Bible alone.


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