Hawthorne's gloomy? Well, Wenders makes Hawthorne look positively cheerful! The film begins with Pearl about seven years old, and Hester is summoned to stand on the scaffold in what seems to have been some kind of annual ritual for the town elders and clerics to demand that she reveal the child's name. It's positively sadistic. At least Hawthorne only subjected Hester to one such public humiliation.
But it's Senta Berger's performance that makes this film such an absolute stand-out. She generally appears heavily wrapped up in clothing, and here's where the desolate Portuguese coast comes in so nicely, justifying such heavy clothing as protection against the wind and the cold. But it also comes across as if Hester is trying to wrap herself so heavily to suppress her own womanly sexuality. It's much like survivors of abuse, who often "overdress" in a form of psychological protection, almost as a kind of armor. And make no mistake, Hester is clearly a victim of abuse, condemned for her sexual expression and now reacting to that condemnation with such heavy self-defense against any emotional contact with those who have shunned her.
What this "cover-up" of her sexuality does is make it all the more impressive when Hester uncovers her hair and lets it flow down her back in the "forest scene" with Dimmesdale. For at least a few moments, this woman is finally finding some freedom, and it's especially impressive with that combination of gentleness and extraordinary beauty that Senta Berger manages to project as she "lets her hair down."
There's so many wonders to this film, especially with this wondrous performance by Senta Berger. I can understand that someone might dislike the constant background music. If I knew German and were trying to follow the dialog, I'd probably find it distracting. But since I'm simply following the subtitles, I actually found this constant background music a reinforcement to the extreme claustrophobic pressure on Hester's person-hood throughout this movie.
Yelena Samarina (whom Wenders apparently wanted for the role of Hester but was refused by his financial backers) is fascinating as "Mistress Hibbins," playing the role non-traditionally as the governor's daughter.
And Hans Christian Blech is also a fascinating Chillingworth, but his is not the traditional demonic portrayal of the betrayed husband. Instead, he's the "rational" investigator, the kind of "scientific detective" who would tear wings off a butterfly to see how the creature will react. All in all, he's actually even more evil than Hawthorne's portrayal, evil in a coldly and unemotionally "scientific" kind of way.
The one flaw in this movie is Lou Castel as Dimmesdale, who I actually think is the most difficult of all characters to cast in any of the film versions. The problem with Dimmesdale is that he can't be a "hunka hunka" (like Gary Oldman in the 1995 version with Demi Moore) or you wonder why he doesn't just take charge of the situation and set everything to rights. On the other hand, he can't be such a wimp that you start wondering whatever it was that Hester saw in this poor slob in the first place. Well, Lou Castel certainly doesn't err on the "hunka hunka" side, but I for one do wonder what any woman would see in the Dimmesdale that he portrayed!
I'm biased. I adore Meg Foster and think her performance in the 1979 TV-miniseries is the greatest portrayal of Hester imaginable. Unfortunately, the 1979 miniseries, though literally faithful to Hawthorne's novel, was flawed by its length which resulted in a loss of intensity. The Wenders version, on the other hand, is painfully and claustrophobic-ally intense, and Senta Berger's performance is one that draws the viewer literally into inhabiting Hester's own person and viewing all of Salem through her eyes.
You'll find VHS tapes of this on eBay. The video isn't as sharp and crisp as I might like, but since it hasn't been reissued in a better version, be happy for what you can find and snap it up as soon as you can. This film is an absolute glory.