Jul 19, 2016

Ursula (1961)

If there is an avant-garde film that comes anywhere close to depicting the unhinged psychosexual nightmare the was the abusive childhood of uniquely inarticulate white trash serial killer Henry Lee Lucas—the genetically challenged fiend that inspired the eponymous lead of John McNaughton’s cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)—it is indubitably the ominously oneiric experimental horror short Ursula (1961) directed by little known subversive avant-garde auteur Lloyd Michael Williams (Line of Apogee, Two Images for a Computer Piece). Indeed, not unlike many serial killers and criminals in general, Lucas was abused by a single mother during his childhood and, like the poor little boy depicted in Williams’ film, he was forced to wear a dress (in fact, Lucas’ mother was a sexually savage prostitute that made her little boy watch while she was being sensually serviced by various strange men). Also like Lucas, the cross-dressing little boy in the film ultimately brutally murders his mother with a knife in what one might describe as an aberrant act of patently perverse poetic justice of the anti-Oedipal sort. Of course, judging by his later rather subhuman adult appearance, Lucas was probably never a pretty blond boy that could easily pass for a girl like the poor little eponymous lad in Williams' film, but I digress.

While Curtis Harrington (Games, What's the Matter with Helen?) began as an avant-garde filmmaker and became a master of the covertly queer hagsploitation subgenre, Mr. Williams, who is all but completely unknown today, should be credited for directing what is the first (and probably last) experimental Grande Dame Guignol film. Indeed, it is almost incomprehensible to think that anyone, especially an American, would direct an experimental horror film in the early 1960s featuring a little dude in drag that concludes with said little dude brutally butchering his bitch of a mother with the same exact knife that she just used to slaughter her sexually confused son’s new pet frog.  To be fair, Ursula is a fairly subtle and hardly graphic film, thus its particular brand of psychosexual perversity might be lost on many contemporary viewers who expect to see buckets of blood and guts. Of course, as a man that previously directed an experimental surrealist adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem Jabberwocky entitled Jabberwock (1959), Williams—an auteur that is even pretty much completely unknown among cinephiles and avant-garde film fetishists—was no ordinary filmmaker, but I guess one should not expect anything less in a country were art cinema is hardly respected and horror cinema is mostly considered titillating teenage trash. 

 While I am hesitant to go as far describing Ursula as a lost masterpiece, I certainly see it as a sort of important missing link of American avant-garde horror cinema that has yet to get its due as work featuring certain sexually subversive themes that predates works ranging from Frank Perry’s post-psycho-biddy classic Mommie Dearest (1981) to classic sexually schizophrenic slasher trash like Sleepaway Camp (1983). Indeed, despite the fact that he was one of the co-founders of The Film-Makers' Cooperative aka The New American Cinema Group along with Jonas Mekas, collaborated with pioneering female animator and filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute on her film The Boy Who Saw Through (1956) starring a very young Christopher Walken, and has worked with important queer cinema figures ranging from Warhol superstar Taylor Mead to raging kraut queen Rosa von Praunheim, American avant-garde authority P. Adams Sitney did not even make a single reference to Williams or any of his films in his supposedly comprehensive text Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, but then again he also forgot about important proto-counterculture auteur Peter Emmanuel Goldman (Echoes of Silence, Wheel of Ashes), among various other negligent omissions. Aside from James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s quasi-Expressionist Poe adaptation The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Harrington’s 1942 amateur teenage reworking of the same Poe story and Fragment of Seeking (1946), and a couple other examples, American experimental horror cinema is all but nonexistent, with Williams indubitably being it’s most criminally unsung auteur. Aside from Ursula, Williams also demonstrated a knack for the forebodingly cinematically phantasmagoric with esoteric cinematic poems like Opus#5 (1961) and Two Images for a Computer Piece (1969), with the latter featuring a notable original musical score by Vladimir ‘father of electronic music’ Ussachevsky. While I have not been able to track down his later longer cinematic works like Line of Apogee (1968) and Rainbow's Children (1975), Ursula seems to be his darkest and most daring yet, at the same time, most accessible and revolutionary film as a genuinely haunting homo oneiric celluloid nightmare made at a time when being a homo was more or less illegal and thus something to be petrified of, or so one would assume after watching the somewhat surprisingly unsettling short. 

 Based on the vaguely autobiographical short story Miss Gentilbelle by writer and sometimes screenwriter Charles Beaumont—a man probably best known for penning many episodes of the original The Twilight Zone TV series whose tragic death at the premature age of 38 as a result of “a mysterious brain disease” seems like something that he might have penned himself—Ursula is pure celluloid Americana in the greatest and most fullest sense as a piece of organic yank horror that can only be compared to a handful of other cinematic works like Richard Blackburn’s criminally underrated Lovecraftian vampire lesbo flick Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and Don Coscarelli’s classic surrealist horror piece Phantasm (1979) in terms of contributing to a truly authentic and artful American horror film mythology that is completely outside the alien influence of the culture-distorters of Hollywood. Notably, Armenian-American NYU film professor Haig Manoogian, who acted as a mentor to a young Martin Scorsese and even produced his first feature Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), is credited as an ‘advisor’ on Williams' film. In fact, despite earning Williams the Bronze Medallion at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival (incidentally, he previously won the Silver Medallion for his short Jabberwock in 1959), Ursula is actually a student film, hence the completely unknown actors and composer. In my less than humble opinion, the film’s low budget and sometimes amateurish production values (including glaringly dubbed voices) ultimately work to its advantage, as Ursula, which feels like it is set in antiquated Anglophile realm that is equal parts Southern Gothic and Victorian Gothic, seems like the creation of a decidedly damaged young man that was less interested in trying to make a film to entertain people than to provide himself with therapeutic emotional release by documenting the decay of his own mind in a most visceral manner. Indeed, I do not know much about Williams but just by watching his fairly idiosyncratic horror short, which was notably made at a time when wholesome TV swill like The Andy Griffith Show was extremely popular, I would assume that that he had a sadistically bitchy mother who stunted him manhood and ultimately turned him into a woman-hating homo. 

 Undoubtedly, the central theme of Ursula is how damaged and broken things can never be fixed, especially when it comes to the mind. Indeed, at the very beginning of the film, tragic she-boy protagonist ‘Ursula’ (Calvin Waters, who has no other film credits aside from being the producer of an aborted reality TV show about an eponymous gay negro fashion designer entitled Living Life with Dwight Eubanks (2009))—a poor little lad who has been forced to live as a girl—accidentally tears a brand new dress he is wearing after falling from a tree upon being called to come inside by his supposed mother (Dorothea Griffin), henceforth leading to horrific consequence for the protagonist where he must learn a lesson about the impossibility mending. Naturally as a crazed cunt that wants to brainwash her son into becoming a girl, Ursula’s mother—a woman that is clearly too old to be his biological progenitor—is extra irked when he dares to do such a boyish thing as tearing his clothing whilst playing outside. After bitching to him like a sexually repressed witch on the rag, “Oh, you ungrateful child! Look at yourself – destroying your finery. Such a pity. It can never be replaced,” Ursula’s mother declares in a calmer yet all the more sadistic fashion, “Let’s play a little game about mending things, shall we?” and then demands that he go fetch his beloved pet parakeet. Although just a young and vulnerable child, Ursula realizes that his malevolent mommy has seriously unsavory intentions with his pet as he apologizes in advance to his bird by stating “I’m sorry little bird. I’m sorry” as if he already knows what will happen to it. Needless to say, Ursula’s mother slaughters the bird and even makes the boy protagonist hand her the knife that she uses to kill it with. In a scene that demonstrates Ursula’s seething hatred for his mother, Ursula thinks to himself “I hate you” while staring at her immediately after she kills parakeet. After killing the bird, Ursula’s sadistic mother hands the boy the bird’s dismembered body parts and states in a fashion that makes her sound like an old spinster school teacher who has devoted her life to gaining pleasure from covertly browbeating small and impressionable school children, “Take her in your hand. Do not forget her wings. Now then, shall we mend the tiny bird? Shall we put her together again? Glue her pretty little wing back?,” to which he sadly replies, “No. Nothing can be mended.” Of course, the emotional and psychological damage that Ursula’s mother has done to him also cannot be mended as the fittingly creepy conclusion of the film ultimately demonstrates. 

 After suffering the trauma of witnessing the senseless slaughter of his most beloved pet by a wicked woman that is supposed to love and protect him, Ursula naturally suffers from severe nightmares that night involving swarms of screeching birds, sinister large gnomes, an ominously luminous moon, swinging gothic chandeliers, a desolate beach, and his mother calling his name and laughing in a maniacal fashion. In fact, Ursula's nightmare is so long, consuming, and intricately horrendous that he has to be physically awaken by his mother, who yells in his face while attempting to force him out of bed, “You have missed lunch. You were told to be downstairs prominently at 12:30 and instead I find you resting, like a lady of great leisure.” After his rather rude maternal awakening, Ursula hangs out by a creek near his house where he discovers a frog that he makes his new but hardly improved pet. As demonstrated by his remark, “Ugly frog. Let’s play a little game, shall we? Mommy will teach you how,” Ursula fully realizes he will not have his new green buddy for long as he plans to sacrifice him to accomplish his own matricidal fantasies. 

 When Ursula shows off his new pet his mother, she predictably hatefully shouts in his face while grabbing him by the collar, “Really, you have surpassed yourself in wickedness” and then grabs a large dagger-like knife from a dilapidated cabinet with a broken glass window. When the gender-challenged boy protagonist reveals that he named the frog “Ursula,” his mother remarks in a bitchy bourgeois fashion while brandishing the knife in a somewhat sensual manner, “Really?! …But how very appropriate,” thus underscoring her sick and seemingly insatiable sense of sadistic glee. While his mother is admiring the poor frog that she has just so senselessly slaughtered, Ursula quietly goes to the cabinet and grabs the knife that was just used to slaughter his green friend. Just as his mother drops the dead frog on the floor that she just killed while maintaining a facial expression of abject disgust, Ursula says “mother” and then kills her off-screen by brutally stabbing her to death (the only thing the viewer hears is her echoing scream which, as one reviewer already noted, anticipates the scene in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) where Mrs. Cooper is stabbed in the cellar by her zombie daughter). In the end after the rather climatic scene of Schadenfreude inducing matricide, Ursula, who is now all alone and psychosis-ridden, rocks back and forth with his hands wrapped around legs while in a fetal position as he repeats to himself his dead mommy's words: “Wicked girl. Bad girl punished. Must be punished. Bad girl…punished. Must be punished.” As the disturbing final scene reveals, the titular boy transvestite’s mind cannot be mended.  In that sense, Ursula almost feels like a kaleidoscopic avant-garde prequel to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) where one learns how Norman Bates developed his mommy issues, cross-dressing tendencies, and fetish for carving up crazy cunts with knives.  Thankfully, unlike later films featuring sexually deranged cross-dressing killers like Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Paul Bartel's Private Parts (1972), Williams' film never succumbs to trashy campy humor or cheap sexual innuendos.

 Undoubtedly Ursula is a film that cannot be fully appreciated unless one considers its particular historical context. Indeed, the film was made at a time when most America gays were still in the closest and thus queer filmmakers oftentimes sought more esoteric means to express themselves, hence why there is probably so few great fag experimental filmmakers nowadays. Additionally, considering the taboo nature of cocksucking at that time, it should be no surprise that many of the queer experimental filmmakers of the 1950s and early 1960s made films about internally tortured, troubled, and/or otherwise mentally unsound individuals as the early films of both Gregory J. Markopoulos and Kenneth Anger clearly reveal. Notably, in the handful of reviews that I found on Williams’ film, about half of the reviewers did not even realize that the titular character was a boy, thus underscoring the film’s quixotically queer essence. Certainly, it is dubious as to whether such a hermetically homosexual film where fagdom is a source of painful fear and loathing would be made nowadays, especially considering both the mainstream media and public schools are absurdly attempting to brainwash kids into thinking that trannys are normal and getting your dick chopped off is a normal medical procedure. Indeed, one could argue that Ursula is packed with the perturbed pathos of generations upon generations of raging closet queens. Incidentally, although the source story, Miss Gentilbelle is somewhat autobiographical in the sense that the author’s mother used to punish him by making him wear a dress and even threatened to kill his pets, Beaumont was a rampantly heterosexual man and he even once wrote a short story entitled The Crooked Man that was published in Playboy in 1955 about a morally and sexually inverted dystopian world where heterosexuals are a minority that are actively persecuted by homos. Considering the rampant homo-approved language policing of the American public by the mainstream media and government institutions, bullying of bakeries and other private businesses and groups that do not comply with the softcore authoritarian aberrosexual agenda, and defiling of the American legal system via gay marriage and other patent absurdities that make a mockery of law and Western Civilization, it seems that Beaumont’s story is not so far-fetched as the pink NKVD, like their Zionist compatriots, hold a preposterous amount of power in the United States, but I digress.  Of course, if Ursula demonstrates anything about homos and their place in a supposedly homophobic Western society, it is that gay artists created more nuanced and enigmatic works before being gay become something to be ostensibly proud of.

 As largely the result of being included as one of the films in the Other Cinema DVD compilation Experiments in Terror (2003) alongside vaguely similarly themed experimental horror shorts ranging from Peter Tscherkassky’s The Entity (1982) revamping Outer Space (1999) to Damon Packard’s ridiculously spasmodic avant-splatter piece Dawn of an Evil Millennium (1988), Ursula is undoubtedly Williams’ easiest to find film. Notably, Miss Gentilbelle was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock Presents director Robert Stevens under the titled ‘Miss Belle’ in 1968 for the Hammer Films TV show Journey to the Unknown. Additionally, a Hebrewess hack named Tara Miele, who recently created a stupidly sentimental  and distinctly disingenuous anti-Trump agitprop PSA entitled Meet a Muslim (2016) for a rather dubious quasi-commie Jewish-Muslim propaganda outfit, directed a patently pointless version of the story entitled Miss Gentilbelle (2000). Needless to say, Williams’ version is the greatest adaptation of Beaumont’s story as the sort of film that makes the viewer fantasize about what the auteur could have done with the material of a horror literary maestro like H.P. Lovecraft had he had the budget and means to make an actual feature-length film with professional actors and a decent composer.  Indeed, Ursula is the rare sort of cinematic work that makes me long for an organic American experimental horror cinema that unfortunately does not really exist, as it feels like a filmic tease from a movement that died in its infancy.  While I have watched the film a number of times, it leaves me hungry for more ever single time in that sense that it is rather apparent that the Williams had the capacity to create so much more. 

I almost must confess that every time I watch Ursula, I am reminded about virtually every single serial killer that I have ever read about it.  After all, it could be argued that the eponymous little boy is just as much the monster of the film as his loathsome mother, as he completely transcends her transgressions and graduates on to matricidal murder before he even reaches puberty.  In that sense, the film is like a sort of anti-nostalgic coming-of-age film for serial killers as Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Chase, Gary Ridgway, Edmund Kemper, Bobbie Joe Long, and countless other real-life serial killers experienced childhoods involving maternal abuse similar to that of Ursula.  Arguably more importantly, Ursula is, in terms of brutality and aesthetics, the closest thing to a fag filmic equivalent to a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Indeed, forget Larry Yust's Shirley Jackson adaptation The Lottery (1969)—a 20-minute horror short that is well known for scaring generations of American school children who were forced to watch it in their English classes—Williams' short should be mandatory viewing in public schools lest the United States be condemned with another generation of deluded fatherless youth who believe that cross-dressing is the height of cultivation.

-Ty E

Jul 13, 2016

Tunguska: The Crates Are Here

As far as truly iconoclastic auteur filmmakers are concerned, you probably cannot do better than belated Teutonic Renaissance man Christoph Schlingensief (Mutters Maske aka Mother’s Mask, Kettensägenmassaker aka The German Chainsaw-Massacre) whose intricately incendiary cinematic works oftentimes straddled a refreshingly unhealthy line between tasteless scatological schlock and audacious avant-garde celluloid art. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about Schlingensief is that he was not afraid to savagely mock his greatest cinematic heroes into oblivion whilst using some of the most grotesque and infantile yet undeniably clever means imaginable. For example, in honor of one of his greatest cinematic heroes, the auteur had a real-life retarded mensch dress like Fassbinder—leather jacket, goofy hat, and all—in his cinematic (anti)love letter to New German Cinema Die 120 Tage von Bottrop (1997) aka 120 Days of Bottrop starring Fass regulars Udo Kier, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann and Volker Spengler. Of course, one could certainly easily argue that Schlingensief’s entire cinematic oeuvre is both a ruthless critique of and tribute to cinema and cinema history, but probably none of his films are more obscenely obsessive with cinema history and its discontents than his first feature-length flick Tunguska - Die Kisten sind da (1984) aka Tunguska: The Crates Are Delivered. The final entry in a somewhat confounding triptych entitled ‘Trilogy of Film Criticism - Film as Neurosis’ that also includes the two shorts Phantasus muss anders werden (1983) aka Phantasus Go Home and Die Ungenierten kommen - What happened to Magdalena Jung? (1983), Schlingensief’s film is, if nothing else, that greatest and most hysterically hilarious assault on avant-garde cinema and experimental filmmakers that has ever been committed to celluloid. Featuring various surprisingly aesthetically pleasing avant-garde techniques throughout that demonstrate that Schlingensief was no novice when it came to masturbatory filmmaking skills, as well as  seemingly random excerpts from early Teutonic experimental animator Oskar Fischinger’s Komposition in Blau (1935) aka Composition in Blue and Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d'artifice (1953), the film oftentimes feels like the extremely confused creation of the severely autistic bastard broad of Lotte Reiniger and Andy Milligan as a lavishly constructed low-camp abomination where the hopelessly horrendous acting and nonexistent storyline is only transcended by its startlingly striking beauty and corrosive comedic genius. Advertised by the film’s distributor filmgalerie451 as “Schlingensief's way of getting even with German avant-garde film,” the feverishly fucked little flick tells the quasi-tragicomedic tale of a young and attractive married German couple on vacation that has the misfortune of getting stuck in an old dilapidated and figuratively haunted house with three decidedly deranged avant-garde film researchers after their car breaks down in the cold yet exotic hell that is Siberia.  Needless to say, Tunguska is a must-see work for any semi-serious Schlingensief fan, though I am not sure I can recommend to Stan Brakhage fanboys, film students, or anyone else really aside.

 A film that refreshingly mocks the megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur and overall social retardation that plagues many enterprising avant-garde filmmakers, Tunguska seems to be especially an intricate and semi-loving yet nonetheless brutal attack against Schlingensief’s former mentor Werner Nekes, but it also has older and more cryptically autobiographical roots that date back to 1968 when the director was only 7 years old. Indeed, when he will just a wee lad that was best known as the son of a respected pharmacist, Schingensief had the distinguished honor of attending the scandalous fourteenth annual ‘International Short Film Festival,’ which was held in his hometown of Oberhausen.  Of course, 1968 was an important year for the budding young auteur as it was also when he shot his first 8mm film and resolved to begin an artistic career that he would eventually become (in)famous for as a cinematic iconoclastic that ultimately proved to have more testicular fortitude than any of the cinematic upstarts that signed the legendary Oberhausen Manifesto (incidentally, Schlingensief would eventually befriend the manifesto's most famous signer Alexander Kluge). Deriving its title from both an enigmatic fictional film that debuted in 1967 but was scrapped shortly afterward due to disinterest and the somewhat mysterious Tunguska event of June 1908 when a cataclysmic explosion over the sparsely populated Eastern Siberian Taiga flattened 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) of forest in what was ultimately the largest known impact event on Earth in recorded history, Schlingensief’s debut feature is also arguably the most insanely idiosyncratic take on the ‘old dark house’ mystery ever made (indeed, despite lacking grotesque bisexual porn featuring ugly people doing ugly sexual things, the film even puts Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! (1975) to shame in terms of sheer abject absurdity). In terms of its preternatural poetical essence, crude cannibalization of various genre conventions, strange sardonic approach to Gothic themes, innately anarchic spirit, and dubious morality, Tunguska is like a kraut cinematic equivalent to Comte de Lautréamont's novel Les Chants de Maldoror aka The Songs of Maldoror.  

 Considering that Schlingensief’s previous film in his ‘Trilogy of Film Criticism - Film as Neurosis,’ What happened to Magdalena Jung?, was an extremely loose reworking of German Conservative Revolutionary movement writer Ernst Jünger’s book Das abenteuerliche Herz. Figuren und Capricios (1938) aka The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios, it is only fitting that Tunguska—a uniquely unpretentious cinematic work that, quite ironically, makes relatively practical use of somewhat pretentious avant-garde film techniques—makes a mockery out of a far-leftist counterculture kraut like Werner Nekes. Notably, Nekes would later bitch to Schlingensief that his next feature Menu Total (1986) was “a fascist film,” so it almost seems like the auteur somehow had a premonition that his mentor would eventually trash his films and thus trashed him in advance in a most silly yet nonetheless quite artistically fruitful fashion. Notably, the reason Schlingensief opted to direct a film about a tyrannical trio of avant-garde scientists on road to North Pole to show Eskimos experimental films was because, as the auteur states in the doc Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme (2005) aka Christoph Schlingensief and His Films directed by Frieder Schlaich, “That’s where I thought experimental film was headed.” In short, unlike hyper hermetic avant-gardist like Nekes, Schlingensief always wanted to make films that were seen by all sorts of people and not just fellow autistic filmmakers that are involved in a sort of perennial circle jerk like Jonas Mekas and his pals. As Schlingensief also explained in Schlaich’s doc, “After these two films [PHANTASUS and MAGDALENA JUNG] I naturally developed a latent rage against Nekes. I thought, why should I becomes Nekes? What’s with all this crap? […] I wanted to separate myself.” Needless to say, despite the fact that some of his films like the preposterously titled T-Wo-Men (1972) and Der Tag Des Malers (1997) aka The Day of the Painter feature hot Sapphic pornographic action between hot twat kraut counterculture carpet-munchers, Tunguska is easily more enthralling than anything that Herr Nekes has ever directed (though I must admit that I have a softspot for Nekes' Uliisses (1982) simply due to the fact that it features punk dyke diva Tabea Blumenschein in a rather striking performance). 

 In Tunguska, the viewer watches in abject anticipation as a collectively crazed trio of over-the-hill and fairly physically grotesque experimental filmmakers-cum-researchers use various form of vintage experimental cinema as a means to debase, subjugate, and brainwash individuals until they become psychosis-ridden followers of the “new filmic language” (aka avant-garde religion). The Führer of the filmic dictatorship is a lecherous lard ass named Roy Glas (legendary New German Cinema character actor Alfred Edel of Alexander Kluge’s post-Auschwitz exercise in ethno-masochism Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos (1968) aka The Artist in the Circus Dome: Clueless), who runs a largely imaginary empire of cinematic derangement.  Seemingly inspired by the artistic theories of Carl Jung, Glas somewhat dubiously believes that the only way a true avant-garde cinema can emerge is if it is rid of neurosis (personally, I think a great deal of avant-garde art is the direct result of neurosis and psychosis, but I digress). Not unlike Nekes and his one-time wife Dore Oberloskamp (aka Dore O.), Glas’ foremost collaborator is his similarly insane scientist spouse Ireen Fitzler (Anna Fechter). In a possible mocking reference to Nekes and his then-wife Dore’s first breakthrough film, Jüm-Jüm (1967), Tunguska begins with a prologue from the avant-garde antagonist describing the premiere of his eponymous film, which was an abject failure and thus, not unlike the majority of experimental films, regulated to the celluloid dustbin of history where it probably belongs.  As an assumed result of the failure of his film (Glas never actually says whether or not he was the one that actually directed Tunguska), Glas and his compatriots sought to “find and explore news aspects of zeitgeist and expression of film” and they felt the best way to do so would be to take part in an absurdly nonsensical expedition to Antarctica to demonstrate to primitive Eskimos the ostensible power of experimental film. Unfortunately for Glas and his small team, which includes his wife Ireen and a four-eyed lunatic named Lossowitsch aka ‘Losso’ (Vladimir Konetzny), never made it to their location due to a plane crash and thus have been stranded in Siberia ever since in a thankfully relatively uninhabited area where few people will have the grand aesthetic misfortune of enduring their distinct brand of meta-authoritarian cinematic oppression. Unluckily for the film’s young married protagonists, Rolf (Mathias Colli, who went on to co-write, assistant direct, and star in Schlingensief’s Veit Harlan reworking Mutters Maske (1988) aka Mother’s Mask) and Tina (Irene Fischer, who went on to become a writer/actress on Hans W. Geissendörfer’s long running TV series Lindenstraße), their tiny red car breaks down in Siberia and they soon find themselves being emotionally, psychologically, and aesthetically terrorized by Glas and his oppressive goofball Gestapo. 

 If you are looking for any sense of sanity or traditional logical in Tunguska, you surely will not find it, but one should not expect anything less from a Schlingensief flick where spastic acting, compulsive spontaneity, and cryptic and not-so-cryptic dark yet surprisingly mirthful humor runs rampant. Indeed, like virtually all of the director’s cinematic works, the film completely blurs the line between nightmarish farce and melancholy fever dream, as well as aesthetic nihilism and super sophisticated schlock. In short, Schlingensief seems to make no lie of the fact that he intends to torture and aesthetically assault you just like the film’s gluttonous villain Glas, yet he does it with a knowing smirk like a demonic schoolboy who has just lit a bag of shit on fire on his good Catholic next-door neighbor’s front porch. Featuring Schlingensief himself under the assumed pseudonym ‘Christoph Krieg’ as a raving mad man who speaks of hope for humanity and other frivolous deluded fantasies before being violently murdered by an infantile retard, the film is a genre-molesting absurdist allegory that is packed with perverse poetry, sassy sadism, and surprisingly practical experimental techniques. A foreboding fairytale full of loudmouthed psychosis-ridden monsters and mumbling brain-damaged degenerates, Tunguska plays a pernicious game with classic genre conventions that Gothic horror, romance, mystery, sci-fi, and thriller genres and is glued together with avant-garde effects in what might be described as the filmic equivalent of a Teutonic tranny Frankenstein monster on bad acid. Not unlike many of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, it is immediately apparent while watching Schlingensief’s debut that it was directed by a man that lives and breathes film and wholly believes “cinema is everything” and “everything is cinema.” In other words, it seems that Schlingensief himself also suffers from a sort of cinematic psychosis, but unlike Nekes and the avant-garde researchers depicted in Tunguska, he at least realizes it and is brave and audacious enough to mock and ridicule those who believe Peter Kubelka is the second coming of Christ and that Hollis Frampton is an immaculate cinema god among men. 

 If the lovable retard Arnie played by a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in Lasse Hallström’s What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) had an all the more mentally challenged Teutonic brother with ambiguous magical powers, it would probably be Herr Norbert (Norbert Schliewe, who once notably worked as an animator for Nekes). Norbert is an exceedingly erratic, unpredictably violent, and somewhat mysterious man-child of the fairly unhinged sort who has been trapped in the wilds of Siberia ever since he was involved in a plane crash that apparently killed his entire family, including his much beloved sister. Upon looking at a magical mushroom in the woods, Norbert sees an image of married couple Rolf and Tina and thus knows they are stranded somewhere in the area, though he is initially to shy to approach them. When Rolf and Tina eventually find Norbert lurking inside a somewhat sinister dilapidated house that they have yet to discover is the home to the avant-garde researchers, they are somewhat startled by him. While Rolf initially comforts Norbert by acting as a sort of loving paternal figure to him, the unpredictable retard somewhat freaks out Tina when he mistakes her for his dead sister. For whatever reason, Herr Norbert also has an affinity for pulling Tina’s hair while repeatedly proclaiming that she is his sister.  While Tina is certainly more mentally balanced than Norbert, they will both ultimately fall under the spell of the preposterous cinematic brainwashing of Glas and his gang, thus leaving poor Rolf to fend for himself when it comes to maintaining his sanity in a subtly morbid world of cinematic mind-games and cineaste oriented groupthink.

 The next day after spending their first night at the half-ruined house that might be best described as cine-maniac manor, the married couple gets somewhat of a surprise when another dubious weirdo, a less than sane and creepily hospitable semiotician named Major Pater Hilf aka ‘Major Father Help’ (Schlingensief), knocks on the door of the house, aggressively introduces himself, and then randomly picks up Tina and clumsily drops her on the floor.  For whatever reason, Major Help takes Rolf and Tina mountain climbing and then starts a fire that he more or less proclaims is a symbol of hopeful redemption for all of humanity. When Major Helps demonstrates his latent sadistic side by daring to attempt to burn Herr Norbert’s hand in the fire, the unpredictable retard immediately gets his revenge by using Rolf’s car to run over and ultimately kill the zany semiotician. Before unwittingly proving that his fiery symbol of hope is totally worthless by dying not far from it, Major Help uses his last couple minutes of life to sing a melancholic pop song to Rolf and Tina on an electronic keyboard that magically appears out of nowhere. At this point in the film, it seems like hope is nothing more than an absurdist joke that will never be encountered by the married protagonists, who soon come to realize that there is no more hellish fate than to fall prey to the nonsensical esoteric ramblings and uniquely unsavory schemes of the outstandingly arrogant avant-garde filmmakers that haunt the area.  Indeed, as Rolf and Tina soon discover, they would be much better off if the house that they are staying out was haunted by ghosts instead of a trio of compulsively conniving charlatan filmmakers.

 When Rolf and Tina finally encounter avant-garde researcher Roy Glas and his two equally demented minions, they are immediately trapped in a pernicious autistic psychodrama involving warped mind games and reckless displays of unhinged hedonism.  In a scene where Glas and his crew watch experimental footage of Tina frolicking through a forest in an exceedingly elegant fashion, it is hinted that the mad avant-garde scientists have been spying on the protagonist ever since they reached Siberia.  Naturally, Glas takes an instant liking to the fairy sexy Tina and even dares to put his hand on her thigh right on front of her hubby Rolf while verbally mocking him. When Glas’ wife Ireen declares there is an emergency and claims there is some sort of an accident, it is later revealed that she just wanted to use Rolf’s car to pick up some booze. Undoubtedly, Glas’ supreme arrogance and vanity is only transcended by his grotesque displays of gluttony, thus Rolf and Tina spend much of their time watching the megalomaniac savagely chewing on seemingly half-cooked animal flesh while talking bullshit. Rolf oftentimes has his two comrades collectively shout in vain the Nazi-esque “strength and power,” especially when they are viewing one of their avant-garde atrocities (one of which is the above mentioned footage of Tina looking like quite the elegantly dressed Fräulein while frolicking through a forest). Of course, it does not take long before Glas has Rolf and Tina go through torturous sessions of avant-garde brainwashing. Indeed, during one of such sinister sessions, Glas’ stone cold Himmler-esque minion Lossowitsch jumps around with a white sheet over his body like a spastic ghost as Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d'artifice is projected over his chest while the avant-garde researchers loudly chant incoherent avant-garde nonsense. Needless to say, when Glas cryptically asks Rolf “Fischlinger or Eggeling?” in reference to early experimental Aryan animators Oskar Fischinger and Viking Eggeling, the protagonist has no clue what he is talking about. Unfortunately, Tina is brainwashed with Glas’ ‘filmic language’ as demonstrated by her bizarre behavior during the screening and later that night when she tells Rolf a seemingly nonsensical bedtime story with a strange happy ending  involving a “bad dance instructor in Tunguska” and a mob of animated blue building blocks that kill their creators but not said bad dance instructor. The blue blocks are eventually revealed to be in reference to Fischinger’s animated short Komposition in Blau, which Tina dreams about after she falls asleep. 

 While Rolf and Tina eventually manage to escape the avant-garde researchers home even though the latter seems to have developed Stockholm syndrome as demonstrated by her strange and innately irrational cult-like affection for Glas and his gleefully sadistic comrades, the only gas attendant (Schlingensief regular Sergej Gleitmann) in the area refuses to give them gas, thereupon leaving them stuck in Siberia. In a belligerent fit of self-destructive desperation, Tina opts to steal Rolf’s car and then drive it off a cliff, thus resulting in her death via skull fracture. With his beloved Tina dead and nowhere to go, Rolf desperately runs back to the avant-gardist’s lair and informs them of his wifey’s untimely demise. Needless to say, Mr. Norbert, who believes Tina is sister, seems just as emotionally shattered as Rolf by the female protagonist’s tragic demise. As for Glas and his crew, they seem rather unaffected by Tina’s death and set it fit to burn her body on some rocks near a lake in what seems like a sacrificial burning pyre to the gods of avant-garde cinema. While Rolf mentally deteriorates so badly that he tries to join the avant-garde cult, Glas and his crew opt to steal his car and leave him stranded in Siberia.  Indeed, it seems Rolf is just not good enough to join the cult as indicated by Glas' elitist remark, “No, Rolf, we're too different.  Tina is dead!”  In what is indubitably a sad reflection of his progressive psychological degeneration, Rolf also somehow forgets that Tina is dead and goes looking for her around the researcher's lair in a Norbert-esque fashion, as if he is in denial that his ladylove is gone forever.  Not surprisingly, it seems that Glas was only interested in titillating Tina, hence his almost seemingly pathological tendency to mock her marriage to Rolf.  Additionally, before the mad scientist trio steals Rolf's car and leaves the protagonist stranded in the bowels of Siberia, Lossowitsch sternly states, “We make solitudinarians!,” as if to rub in the recently widowed young man's face that a rather grim and lonely fate awaits him.  In the end, the film concludes with a epilogue from Glas where he declares his research is a success and “Film as a form of neurosis. Our research continues.”  Of course, as demonstrated by his decidedly deleterious effect on the protagonists, it seems that Glas' research is a total failure as he spreads neurosis wherever he goes and seems to have absolutely no clue as to sire the psychosis-free avant-garde that he and his loyal compatriots dreams of.

 While I have always had an appreciation for avant-garde and experimental cinema and am always interested in examining the cinematic oeuvres of the most idiosyncratic of auteur filmmakers, I must admit that I have found most of these film directors to be obnoxiously obsessive one-track onanists whose cinematic works reflect the worse sort of impotent celluloid wankery. In that sense, it does not surprise me that Schlingensief’s mentor Nekes incorporated pornographic imagery in his films, as it would not surprise me if the most arousing thing in the world to him was his own films. In that respect, I somewhat appreciate the sometimes literally masturbatory films of Paul Sharits (Ray Gun Virus, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G), who seems to have ironically acknowledged in a tongue-in-cheek fashion the masturbatory nature of experimental cinema in general as opposed to succumbing to the banally calculating and unnervingly emotionally barren mathematical approach typical of the algorithmically-driven films created by other filmmakers associated with the Structural film movement. Incidentally, when Nekes attempted to direct a somewhat conventional comedy film, Johnny Flash (1986), it came off as a poor prude’s take on a Schlingensief flick, thus revealing the extra esoteric auteur's seeming incapacity to create emotionally engaging cinematic works that appeal to people aside from fellow avant-garde filmmakers and half-crazed cineastes (incidentally, Schlingensief acted as a cinematographer on the film). As Tunguska reveals, a life revolving around arcane avant-garde filmmaking can only lead to pernicious and highly deleterious side-effects like psychosis, fits of rage and irritability, the loss of a wife or girlfriend, and/or an incapacity to appreciate emotionally engulfing films featuring lines of dialogue and sexy chicks with nice tits and shapely derrieres, among other things.  Of course, the true genius of Tunguska is that it manages to alienated both autistic avant-garde cinema fanboys and culturally retarded philistines alike, but I guess one should not expect anything less from the debut feature of the singular auteur who was arguably the last great iconoclast of cinema.

 By directing a film with blatant B movie and exploitation conventions featuring a cast of mostly quasi-retarded weirdos that most people would be petrified to touch with a ten-foot pool that relatively seamlessly utilizes a number of striking experimental tricks and techniques, Schlingensief managed to make a marvelous mockery of an ostensibly sacred realm of cinema history that has been safety guarded by avant-garde gatekeepers like Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney for half a century. While I am admittedly probably more obsessed with experimental cinema than the average cinephile as reflected in my appreciation for filmmakers ranging from Frans Zwartjes (Living, Pentimento) to Ed Emshwiller (Lifelines, Thanatopsis) to Gregory J. Markopoulos (Twice a Man, The Illiac Passion) to Lloyd Michael Williams (Opus 5, Ursula) to Albie Thoms (Rita and Dundi, Marinetti) to Dietmar Brehm (Blicklust, Blah Blah Blah), I will be the first to admit that virtually all segments of the experimental realm—whether it be the late career esoteric cocksucker counterculture cinema of James Broughton, aberrant Aryan pornography of Viennese Aktionists like pedo cult leader Otto Mühl, or frivolous found-footage tweaking of banal Brit Malcolm Le Grice—deserve to be ruthlessly mocked, ridiculed, and/or lampooned and Schlingensief was most certainly the best person to do it. Indeed, whether it be remaking classic high-camp Nazi melodramas, creating a reunification themed kraut mutation of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) featuring Udo Kier with a swastika mustache, or bringing the Aryan high kultur of Bayreuth to the most culturally barren and impoverished corners of the dreaded Dark Continent in an absurd stunt that surely rivals that of the mad avant-garde researchers of Tunguska that attempt to expose Eskimos to experimental cinema, Schlingensief was indubitably the best dude to parody the pretenses of cinema history’s most autistically arrogant sons. Of course, Schlingensief may be the only great artist in history that could never be properly parodied or receive the lame Hebraic Saturday Night Live treatment as a man whose real-life personality and preternatural charisma was more entrancingly hyperreal and downright hilarious than any neo-vaudevillian comedy sketch ever could be.  Indeed, after watching Tunguska one can only come to the natural conclusion that it was directed by a cracked kraut genius with an untameable spirit that makes George Grosz seem like Norman Rockwell by comparison in terms of sheer artistic Weltanschauung.  In other words, Heil Schlingensief!!!

-Ty E

Jul 3, 2016


For obvious reasons relating to wartime guilt, the cultural colonization of their nation by the U.S.A. and its allies, and the virtual worldwide demonization of their history and culture, a good percentage of the West German filmmakers of the post-WWII era had a rather contentious relationship with their national identity and culture, as if it was something to be ashamed of or apologetic about. Indeed, from the malignantly melancholy melodramas and Hollywood genre obsessions of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the celluloid existential crises of Wim Wenders to the oftentimes sterile and annoyingly contrived leftwing literary adaptations of Volker Schlöndorff to the populist Marxist cheerleading and hagiographic feminist bitch biopics of Margarethe von Trotta to the insufferably banal commie docs of half-Hindu Harun Farocki to the pathologically pedantic intellectual cinematic experiments of Alexander Kluge to the absurdly aesthetically decadent high-camp escapism of Werner Schroeter, the filmmakers of the New German Cinema movement that lasted from the late-1960s to early-1980s seemed more interested in negating and/or condemning their ancestral cultural than actually building upon it. In fact, even Hans-Jürgen Syberberg—a staunch Wagnerite and the most consciously Teutonic and conservative of Germans filmmakers from his era—succumbed to some of the cultural decadence of his zeitgeist as reflected in his utilization of the techniques of kraut commie Brecht and the aesthetic excesses of Queen Schroeter. Undoubtedly, the contempt, loathing, and/or fear that many of these filmmakers had for their nation and culture is probably most apparent in regard to the relative popularity of the ‘anti-Heimat’ films, which were socially scathing cinematic works that cynically mocked the once popular ‘Heimatfilm’ subgenre of the late-1940s through 1970s. Oftentimes viewed by leftists as a continuation of the films of the Third Reich and the proto-Nazi mountain/‘Bergfilme’ films of the 1920s through early 1930s, the Heimat films were shamelessly wholesome and sentimental movies set in rural settings that emphasized the value and importance of love, friendship, family, and country living, thus it should be no surprise that such cinematic works were considered to be loathsome by a degenerate generation of politically radicalized filmmakers who blamed their parents and grandparents for the legacy of Uncle Adolf. Needless to say, any filmmaker that dared to display any sort of affinity for the kraut countryside and a distinctly Germanic way of life was bound to be ostracized, or at least such was more or less the case for underrated Swiss German auteur Niklaus Schilling (Der Westen leuchtet aka The Lite Trap, Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies aka The Expulsion from Paradise), who just passed away in early May 2016 at the age of 72 as a nearly completely forgotten filmmaker whose films are even somewhat hard to come by in Germany. 

 While Edgar Reitz undoubtedly brought new and much needed life to the genre with his singularly epic ‘post-Heitmatfilm’ Heimat trilogy, Schilling dared to declare from the very beginning that he loved the land, soil, and people, or as he stated in his controversial 1977 essay, “Cinema, Melodrama, and the World of Emotion” in regard to what he believed constituted true Teutonic cinema, “One can say that the special qualities of German film are its countryside, its regions, the soil, and perhaps its people in general. And likewise its myths. A ‘German world of feelings’ if you will, which can be an almost ideal cinematic subject. In this sense, the German films of the thirties, forties, and fifties have more to do with cinema than the films of the sixties and seventies. And our surroundings have lost nothing of their mythologies at all; and these are of interest to me.” Indeed, like fellow Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid—a staunch and vocal anti-leftist whose debut feature Heute nacht oder nie (1972) aka Tonight or Never satirized the German 68er-Bewegung student movement and whose Lauren Hutton vehicle Hécate (1982) is an adaptation of a novel by frog fascist Paul Morand—Schilling was a true rebel auteur that never debased himself to the level of virtue signaling, robotic left-wing political sermonizing, or adapting the mostly disposable novels of trendy quasi-commie writers like Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. In fact, Schilling seemed to reject adapting popular novels altogether as demonstrated by his remark, “Once again we find among us a particularly fatal tendency not to trust the power of the filmic medium, but rather to construct films from the most classical literary sources possible in order to escape the danger of having to work with images and in that way to tell our own stories.” In one of his greatest films, Rheingold (1978) aka Rhinegold, the underrated auteur would prove that you do not even need much of a storyline or plot, let alone a lame and ethno-masochistic Marxist-Freudian subtext, to sire a completely captivating, hypnotic, and haunting piece of true Teutonic celluloid poetry of the strangely tragically transcendental sort.  As subtly and hauntingly melancholic as it is elegantly erotic, Schilling's film is ultimately a great and quintessentially Germanic example of the artistic medium of cinema being utilized in a fashion that no other medium can.

 If there is anything that most of the filmmakers of the New German Cinema collectively had in common, it was their seemingly complete and utter ignorance and/or disdain for classic ancient German myths, legends, and fairytales, which are important because they are an insightful reflection of the Aryan ‘Volksgeist’ (aka “Spirit of the People”) and oftentimes tell more about the character of a people than mere historical facts can. Unquestionably the genius of Schilling’s Rheingold is that it manages to create a seemingly seamless unholy marriage between both myth and machine as well as ancestral Heimat and cosmopolitan industrialization in a rather unique cinematic work that hints at this in its very title, which naturally has multiple meanings. Deriving its name from both the Trans-Europe Express (TEE) train of the same name that operated between Hoek van Holland (near Rotterdam) and Geneva, Switzerland from 1928 to 1987 and the Richard Wagner opera Das Rheingold (1869) that it was named after, Schilling’s sort of decidedly dark Heimat-film-on-tracks depicts the final hours of a both physically and spiritually fatally wounded beauteous woman who has decided to let herself die after being stabbed by her jealous diplomat husband upon discovering that she is carrying on a lurid love affair with an old school mate. Indeed, largely devoid of a contrived plot and traditional character development, Rheingold depicts the fairly slow but fitting death of a near middle-aged blonde beauty that seems to have finally realized that she has wasted her life by marrying a man that she did not love simply because he was wealthy and successful. Seeming to take subtle inspiration from Wagner’s Wolfram von Eschenbach adaptation Parsifal (1882) and the character King of the Grail Knights Amfortas’ perennial wound, the heroine portrayed by Schilling regular Elke Haltaufderheide ultimately succumbs to an injury that seems to be merely an extension of an internal wound that has long troubled her seemingly forsaken soul, hence her decidedly deleterious extramarital excesses.  A sort of cultivated dark romance for cynical crypto-traditionalists and anti-modernists that is big on atmosphere and low on filler and pointless chattering, Schilling's virtual Ragnarök-of-the-heart ultimately reminds the viewer that sometimes love conquers all in a most tragically inconvenient fashion, especially if you're a woman with archaic instincts that compel you to marry a man simply because he is a good provider and later discover that no amount of material wealth compares to the feeling of being with a man who can turn your pussy into a virtual raging waterfall with a mere provocative glance.

 Undoubtedly, like many modern day Western woman, Rheingold heroine Elisabeth has denied herself love, affection, and sexual satisfaction for greed and material security, which ultimately led to an ever growing wound in her soul, or to quote Carl Jung in regard to his interpretation of the Parsifal myth and the tendency of people to ignore one aspect of their (sub)conscious for the benefit of another, “The breakdown of the harmonious cooperation of psychic forces in instinctive life is like an ever open and never healing wound, a veritable Amfortas' wound, because the differentiation of one function among several inevitably leads to the hypertrophy of the one and the neglect and atrophy of the others.” As depicted in flashbacks, the film's exceedingly elegant heroine lived a stagnant married life of loveless sexual repression until one day when she randomly bumped into a grade school sweetheart named Wolfgang by happenstance while riding on a train that he works on. Of course, as a professionally emasculated man that makes a living as a lowly waiter on a train, the heroine’s true love can hardly provide her with the lavish lifestyle and quality of life that she is used to and thus the female protagonist even ends up having to pay the hotel bill when they are on their extramarital weekend getaways, thereupon causing an internal conflict in her soul that she eventually resolves in the most senselessly of tragic fashions.

Not unlike Germany as a whole, the forlorn female protagonist is torn by her natural instincts and the demands of an industrialized modern society that is—for better or worse—constantly evolving at a rate that surely eclipses both emotional and social evolution, or as German philosopher wrote in his fairly brief book Man and Technology: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (1931) regarding the precarious nature of technology and its relation to man, “The unique fact about human technics, on the contrary, is that it is independent of the life of the human genus. It is the one instance in all the history of life in which the individual frees himself from the compulsion of the genus. One has to mediate long upon this thought if one is to grasp its immense implications. Technics in man's life is conscious, arbitrary, alterable, personal, inventive. It is learned and improved. Man has become the creator of his tactics of living—that is his grandeur and his doom. And the inner form of this creativeness we call culture—to be cultured, to cultivate, to suffer from culture. The man's creations are the expression of this being in personal form.” It should be noted that the most eccentric and socially retarded character in the entire film is an inventor. Indeed, the cultural schizophrenia of modern technologically advanced Germany is probably best symbolically underscored in a scenario were a kindly old grandfather tells his granddaughter the German myth of Lorelei as they pass the River Rhine steep slate rock of the same name whilst riding in a state-of-the-art first-class-only Trans Europ Express train that was named after a Wagner play that, according to George Bernard Shaw in his book The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), is a critique of industrial society.

 Not unlike with the locomotive and young loony Vietnam War vet portrayed by Dennis Hopper in Henry Jaglom’s Tracks (1977), the titular train in Rheingold oftentimes feels like a metaphor for the mental racing and overall disintegration of the heroine, who recalls via vivid flashbacks the good and bad of her fairly tragic life as a woman that married the wrong man and eventually fell in love with another. Seemingly following in the footsteps of his Swiss compatriot Daniel’s Schmid’s underrated masterpiece La Paloma (1974) where Ingrid Caven’s character slowly wastes away in aesthetically decadent von Sternberg-esque style while married to a pathetic wealthy man she loathes and longing for the unreliable yet sexually potent man that she secretly loves, Schilling’s film features the ultimate female suicide in terms of the preposterously passive yet undeniably fitting way in which the heroine dies. In fact, although she never says it outright, it almost seems as if the heroine believes that the fatal stab wound that she received from her hapless husband is the single one thing of true value that he did for, thus highlighting the sort of hopelessly lovelorn pandemonium that plagues the character. A blonde barren beauty whose biological clock seems to be more or less busted, the female protagonist probably realizes that she has no real future and will be forced to live the rest of her days as a childless creature in perpetual physical decay who will never feel the sense of security of knowing that she will die a happy old woman with children and grandchildren sitting beside her bed. After all, women tend to marry men that they do not love so that they will have a good provider for their children, yet the film's heroine has not even taken advantage of that important maternal benefit.

A truly Teutonic piece of cinema that engulfs the viewer in the most darkly romantic corners of the German soul, the film even dares to make references to National Socialist era cinema. Indeed, the heroine’s mother is portrayed by Alice Treff, who previously appeared in the Nazi era rail transport romcom Ein Zug fährt ab (1942) directed by Johannes Meyer and starring Ferdinand ‘Jud Süß’ Marian. Undoubtedly, by comparing Rheingold with its predecessor Ein Zug fährt ab, one gets a pretty good idea as to how forsaken the German soul has become since the Second World War. A sort of modernistic equivalent to Kristina Söderbaum’s characters in her husband Veit Harlan’s Nazi era films like Opfergang (1944), the heroine ultimately commits a sort of quasi-nihilistic form of sacrifice where nothing is gained and everyone loses. 

 Heroine Elisabeth Drossbach (Elke Haltaufderheide of Schilling’s Nachtschatten (1972) aka Nightshade and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)) is like a wilted rose as woman that, although still quite beautiful and elegant, is long past her physical prime and who radiates a distinctly feminine brand of Weltschmerz. Married to a small and considerably unattractive workaholic German diplomat named Karl-Heinz Drossbach (Gunther Malzacher of Franz Seitz’s Abelard (1977)) who she not only does not love but who also refuses to sexually satisfy her (as depicted in flashback scenes, the heroine was oftentimes forced to masturbate before starting an extramarital affair), Elisabeth did not think twice about initiating a hot and steamy love affair with an old friend from her childhood named Wolfgang Friedrichs (Rüdiger Kirschstein of Volker Schlöndorff’s Coup de grâce (1976)) after randomly bumping into him on the Rheingold train.  As Elisabeth confesses to Wolfgang upon initially bumping into him, she even thought of him earlier that morning even though they have no seen each other in what seems to be decades.  Needless to say, Wolfgang is impressed with Elisabeth's quite glowing pulchritude and he even seems to sense that she is desperate to jump onto his cock.  Rather unfortunately, Wolfgang is hardly a wealthy man as he works as a lowly waiter on the train, thus Elisabeth seems a little bit hesitant about leaving her banal yet powerful and successful hubby for a guy that hands little girls cans of soda for a living. In fact, as the viewer soon learns while watching the film, Elisabeth plans to move to New York City with her husband for his job and she is only riding the Rheingold one more last time just so that she can say a proper farewell to Wolfgang, who naturally wants her to divorce her husband. Quite unfortunately, cuckold Karl-Heinz decides to randomly show up on the train to confront Elisabeth and her lover, thus leading to totally tragic consequences for all involved. 

 Before boarding the Rheingold, Elisabeth says goodbye to her mother who gives her a present for her husband that will inevitably lead to her daughter's death. The present is a gold envelope opener with Karl-Heinz's initials engraved on it and it acts as a sort of Wagnerian symbol for their loveless marriage, so it is only natural that Elisabeth is ultimately fatally wounded with it. Indeed, after Karl-Heinz catches Elisabeth flirting with Wolfgang in one of the train cars, a certain foreboding unease hits the air as the kraut cuckold is confronted face-to-face with the shamelessly audacious lies and flagrant extramarital indiscretions of his wife and the striking arrogance of her lover. After Karl-Heinz accuses Wolfgang of sleeping with his wife, the lowly waiter mocks the diplomat by proposing they head to a round table in Geneva to negotiate a contract detailing sharing the use of Elisabeth's spunkpot based on different regions of the world. While Karl-Heinz is undoubtedly a terribly boring fellow who seems to care about his work more than his wife’s cunt, Wolfgang is an arrogant asshole of sorts who seems to derive a certain sadistic pleasure from the fact that he is banging a much more successful man’s wanton wife.

After the unhappily married couple finally goes to their own private train car, Elisabeth gives Karl-Heinz the present from her mother and he less than sincerely remarks, “I’m pleased.”  Of course, Elisabeth tries in vain to get her husband to ignore the fact that he just caught hanging out with her lover by pretending to be happy to see him, but she does not realize that there is not much you can do to the calm murderous jealously of a scorned husband, even if you are a highly manipulative woman that knows the power of feminine touch. When Elisabeth almost immediately begins ignoring him after giving him the present by daring to begin reading some trashy tabloid magazine, Wolfgang becomes visibly agitated and begins eyeing his nice and shiny new golden envelope opener, which seems to be practically begging him to pick it up and use it as it shimmers glowingly in the sunlight. When the train drives under a bridge and the train car briefly becomes dark, Wolfgang ceases the opportunity to grab the envelope opener and then brutally stabs his wife in the stomach in what seems to be a desperate attempt to avenge his cuckold status. After the single stabbing, Karl-Heinz exits the train car in a swift fashion and gets off the train at the next stop without anyone noticing his murderous behavior. From there, Elisabeth passively awaits death while recalling the most poignant moments of her life, especially in relation to her homicidal husband and lifelong love obsession Wolfgang.  As becomes quite clear to the viewer as they watch the film, Elisabeth is a woman with strong and insatiable erotic desires and even when she is dying, she cannot help but fondly reminisce about being sexually serviced by Wolfgang in both exotic and less than exotic settings that range from scenic country fields to a post-industrial wasteland near an aesthetically monstrous Bayer factory.

 One thing that really distinguishes Rheingold from many German films of its era is that virtually all the characters look strikingly Aryan in appearance, especially the women and children, thus confirming that Schilling was a true rebel of his era and not a slave to political correctness like so many contemporary German filmmakers (indeed, although just speculation on my part, but I am pretty confident that contemporary mainstream German actors like Daniel Brühl, Franka Potente, and Moritz Bleibtreu probably owe at least part of their popularity due to their somewhat racially ambiguous phenotypes). Not long after she is stabbed, Elisabeth is joined by a young blonde girl and her grandfather, who somewhat resembles literary Übermensch Ernst Jünger and who seems to have a great understanding of German mythology and folklore, including the Rhine folk story of Lorelei, which obsessed a number of German artists throughout history ranging from tragic Romantic composer Robert Schumann to German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to Surrealist painter Edgar Ende. While there are various versions of the Lorelei myth that attempt to explain its strange perennial murmuring, the most famous is probably the story of a lovelorn young maiden who drowns herself in the River Rhine and is condemned to the horrendous fate of becoming a siren that unwittingly lures nearby men with her singing and beauty and ultimately causes them to crash onto the rocks. Undoubtedly, Elisabeth is a Lorelei of sorts as an accursed stunning beauty who caught the attention of a rich and powerful man that would ultimately not return his love and compel him to attempt murder.  Notably, Elisabeth opts to exit the train car before the grandfather finishes telling the Lorelei story, as if she cannot bear to acknowledge that ancient folklore relates to her own tragic story.

 Not long after stabbing his wifey and exiting the train, Karl-Heinz’s conscience catches up with him and he decides to chase the Rheingold via taxi in the hope of saving Elisabeth from a very probable death. Meanwhile, spends her last dying day switching from train car to train car. While in one of these cars, the bleeding heroine encounters an eccentric astrologist who offers her candy and declares after examining her astrological signs, “Your talent lies in handling your imagination. This is how you should cope with your dangers […] You are, so to speak, courted in a way. You are able to be happy, but time and again you compromise your happiness by passionate emotions.” While Elisabeth daydreams and responds to virtually nothing he says, the astrologist adds, “You have an extraordinary power of attraction and special artistic talent. Your relationships are mostly fateful. This also means that you’re emotionally… well.” Before exiting the car to return to her own, Elisabeth reveals that she was listening after all by stating to the astrologist, “What you say is true. You applied a lot of effort.” When Elisabeth gets back to her car, the little blonde girl notices that she is hemorrhaging but says nothing, as if she has an intuitive understanding that the heroine wants to die. While Wolfgang gives Elisabeth painkillers and attempts to coerce her into visiting a hospital in Freiburg im Breisgau, she refuses to, henceforth more or less confirming that she wants to die. Although he clearly enjoys fucking her and rubbing it in her cuckold husband’s face, Wolfgang does not seem to truly love Elisabeth in the same fashion that she loves him, hence why the heroine probably ultimately chooses death over a divorce. While Wolfgang seems sincere when he states to her, “We’ve always been in love, even in school. You sat in front of me, with your long golden hair. And your kisses that I imagined,” he does not seem be as serious as Elisabeth, hence why he probably fails to save her in the end. 

 While looking deathly ill while lying in her train car, Elisabeth becomes acquainted with an eccentric inventor named Herbert Soskamp who claims to have “75 registered patents” and who proudly boasts he is leaving Germany for good for Switzerland because he believes that the Fatherland robbed him of both his wealth and dignity. In fact, the inventor is on the train illegally because he does not even have enough money to buy a ticket, so naturally he is quite grateful when Elisabeth ends up paying for him after a pesky ticket-taker catches him train-hopping. Despite her help, the inventor unwittingly manages to say things that would probably offend Elisabeth like how his sister randomly married a French man despite only having known him for a couple weeks because she was 34 and thus afraid she would be “left on the shelf.” Indeed, as far as the viewer can surmise, it seems that Elisabeth—a considerably introverted woman that seems completely immune to confessing, let alone expressing, her emotions—married for similarly dubious reasons. When Karl-Heinz finally manages to catch up with the train and enter Elisabeth’s car, he meekly remarks to the heroine, “I only want to see how you are. I am sorry,” but she wants nothing to do with him and declares while refusing to even look him in the face, “I want you to leave this compartment. I don’t know this man.” When Karl-Heinz complains to his wife, “I don’t understand you,” inventor Herbert gets agitated and attempts to protect Elisabeth by stating, “You heard it! The lady doesn’t want to be disturbed.” Of course, Karl-Heinz predictably exits the train car like a defeated little bitch, but then he gets angry, hunts down Wolfgang and sarcastically remarks, “My wife needs coffee again,” and then initiates a fairly pathetic beta-male brawl while his spouse spends her last moments in the company of an eccentric stranger. Meanwhile, while succumbing to her wound, Elisabeth remembers a magical moment when she and Wolfgang shared a dreamlike moment on a rowboat together. After nostalgically recalling her magical romantic rendezvous with Wolfgang in what the viewer assumes was the happiest moment of her entire life, Elisabeth finally croaks and then collapses onto the floor. Somewhat absurdly, the inventor is arrested for the murder while Karl-Heinz manages to get away via train, though he is clearly ridden with guilt and will probably live the rest of his pathetic life in abject misery. When Wolfgang sees Elisabeth’s corpse being hauled away on a stretcher at the next train station, he is too afraid to even approach her body and merely looks on from a distance.  Just as Elisabeth probably expected, both men ultimately failed her in the end, thereupon arguably justifying her decision to embrace death.

 I used to know a young man and woman that were very much in love with one another in a way like no other couple, as they were two very ‘idiosyncratic’ individuals that, despite being out of step with the rest of humanity, somehow managed to find each other. Unfortunately, these two lovers struggled with their relationship from almost the very beginning due to largely external reasons that were beyond their control, as if the entire world was rallying against them in a sort of quasi-Shakespearean fashion.  Of course, these lovers also had their own respective inner demons that made for a rather corrosive combo, as if their love was only rivaled by their combined mutual internal chaos. When the two eventually broke up after a long relationship where the love and sexual attraction never seemed to wane but the dysfunction and lack of trust only grew, the man never seemed to recover and began walking the world if he was a forsaken soul that was so detached from his surroundings that he did not even realize he was condemned to a figurative hell. Although the dynamic of the bizarre love triangle depicted in the film is quite different, I think Rheingold manages to successfully communicate a sense of hopeless and perennial lovesickness that is somewhat similar to what the young man I knew felt as a result of being in a desperately hopeless situation with a woman he probably still feels is his one true soul mate. Notably, in the handful of English language reviews I could find on Schilling’s film, the reviewers describe it as “pointless” and a “journey to nowhere,” but clearly they are missing the point as it is a positively poetic flick that is more about penetrating the viewer with almost intolerably overwhelming pangs of hopeless heartbreak and romantic desperation than telling a linear story with an easy-to-follow plot, not to mention the fact that it is a fairly enigmatic piece of cinema that derives much of its power from what it does not reveal to the viewer. Indeed, a transcendental Gothic tone poem made in an age when both love and spirituality oftentimes seem like an abject impossibility, Rheingold is indubitably one of the most forebodingly darkly romantic films that I have ever seen and I say that as someone that is typically incapable of empathizing with lovelorn heroines. 

 Unlike leftist crypto-agitprop pieces like Peter Fleischmann’s Hunting Scenes from Bavaria (1969) aka Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (1971) aka Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach, Rheingold is a true anti-Heimat flick in the sense that, instead of merely mocking or satirizing the genre in a decidedly disrespectful manner, it inverts virtually all of the conventions of the genre to present a tragic Teutonic world where the Volksgeist has become schizophrenic, Liebesverzicht reigns, and the only thing that still exists of the old Germany is abandoned castles and ancient rocks that are more of interest to tourists than locals.  Indeed, instead of taking place in a small village where virtually everyone has known each other their entire lives, the film is set in a cosmopolitan piece of locomotive transportation full of strangers who have very little in common aside from having the luxury of having enough money to ride first-class.  It should also be noted that the people who have known each other the longest, heroine Elisabeth and her lover Wolfgang, find themselves in an irreconcilable situation that concludes with their eternal separation as opposed to their desired unity. Featuring brief and subtle moments of sentimental love in a seemingly spiritually accursed realm consumed by malignant melancholia, the film is the work of a true romantic who longs for love despite knowing it is virtual fantasy from a bygone era when men and women were still able to complement one another like a key in a lock.

Certainly the most tragic aspect of the film’s heroine is that, upon discovering real love after being married to a man she loathes, she cannot go on living as she probably cannot fathom being devoid of what she probably sees as being one of only a handful of things that makes life truly worth living. Another tragic element of the film is that, as hinted in flashback scenes from their childhood, the heroine and her beau would have probably gotten married at a young age had they lived in a different era, but pernicious social plagues like globalization, feminism, and urbanization, among things, probably got in the way at some point in their lives. Indeed, as depicted in the old school Heimat films, it was fairly normal in previous generations for people to marry individuals from the same village that they had known their entire lives, but of course absurd social phenomenons like movie stars have resulted in people, especially women, in developing delusional standards for men.  While the viewer never gets her complete story, one can only assume that heroine Elisabeth grew up with ridiculous standards for men after watching one too many Clark Gable and Gary Cooper flicks and thus prolonged marriage until it was too late while waiting in vain for an imaginary immaculate white knight to sweep her off her feet, thus causing her to a settle for a man she did not love out of desperation at a time when her fertility was dubious at best.  Of course, being a barren woman approaching middle-age that decided hypergamy was more important than love, respect, sexual attraction, and emotional compatibility, the heroine epitomizes the tragic creature that is the decidedly deracinated modern Occidental woman, who is too concerned with her personal comfort and social prestige to concern herself with the important ingredients that typically lead to happy and successful marriages. After all, it is no coincidence that marriages are at an all-time low in the Western world and that the majority of marriages end in divorce, as modern women, who have been brainwashed by feminism and stupid stories from childhood about how they deserve all deserve a white knight, expect too much from men yet give virtually nothing in return. Naturally, this also probably explains why that, despite having the highest standard of living in human history, unhappiness is at an all-time high among Western woman. Sadly, most women will probably never discover the true source of their general dissatisfaction with life, as it would require them to pull their heads out of their asses and confront the fact that everything they have been brainwashed with during their entire lives via Hollywood in is a sad little lie. 

 Featuring an elegant yet sometimes ominous and vaguely Wagnerian electronic score by Eberhard Schöner (Traumstadt aka Dream City, Ansichten eines Clowns aka The Clown), a mostly immaculate cast of authentically Aryan actors and actress, various references to true Teutonic folklore, and no ethno-masochistic allusions to the Nazi era or lame Adorno-approved leftist critiques, Rheingold was not surprisingly booed at its German premiere as it was probably consider too overtly Germanic and apolitical for the mostly New Left oriented kraut cinephiles of that time who probably did not want to be reminded that they have a cultural tradition that is worth preserving. Despite its pathetic debut, Fassbinder listed it as one of the ‘Most Beautiful’ films in all of New German Cinema in his 1981 ‘Hitlist of German Films.’ Notably, Fassbinder’s also placed Schilling at #8 in his list of ‘The Ten Most Important Directors in the New German Cinema,’ on top of listing the director’s feature Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies (1976) aka The Expulsion from Paradise as one of ‘The Best’ films of the entire era. Despite seeming to have little in common as filmmakers aside from their appreciation for melodrama and strong and oftentimes amorous divas, Schilling and Fassbinder apparently shared a somewhat similar view of German cinema in the context of German cinema history, or to quote Thomas Elsaesser in New German Cinema: A History (1989), “It is true that allusionism is part of a complex process whereby film-making assures itself of its own history, and the New German Cinema progressively did just that. This is evident when one considers the case of Fassbinder: the early gangster films, the 1950s Hollywood melodramas, his reworking of the UFA-Stil in LILI MARLEEN (1980) and VERONIKA VOSS (1982). It is also evident in his pastiches of so many other historic styles […] The career of Niklaus Schilling could serve as an example of a film-maker trying to inscribe himself in a tradition, via allusionism, of the German cinema’s own commercial history.”  Of course, history has less kind to Schilling, but then again he was not a savagely sadistic megalomaniacal queer that somehow managed to create forty feature length films, two television film series, four video productions, twenty-four stage plays and four radio plays, among various other artistic accomplishments, during a career spanning less than fifteen years before dying of a drug overdose before he even reached middle-age.

 Despite the fact that he was revered by easily the most important German filmmaker of his generation, not one of Schilling’s films is available in the United States and it was only last week not too long after the filmmaker’s that I finally got to see one of his films. While I could certainly find flaws in the film if I wanted to, I have no reservations about saying that Rheingold is, at the very least, a relatively timeless minor masterpiece and ‘lost classic’ of sorts that eclipse even Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) in terms of my favorite rail transport flicks. I also must confess that Schilling’s film makes the train scenes in Wim Wenders’ Falsche Bewegung (1975) aka Wrong Move and Der amerikanische Freund (1977) aka The American Friend seem sterile and insufferably cosmopolitan by comparison. I hate to get sentimental, but the film really affected me in the sense that it is a rare cinematic work with a female heroine that I felt like I truly understood on a visceral level and I say that as someone that typically has no problem writing off the majority of lovesick leading ladies.  A rare piece of New German Cinema era Germanic fatalism where a foredoomed beauty sacrifices herself for love after coming to terms with the abject hopeless of her lot in life, Rheingold is brutally beauteous and subtly erotic cinematic poetry that gives a hint of what German cinema might be like in general if the film industry was no full of deracinated dorks, ethno-masochists, nihilists, feminists, and other forms of materialistic rabble who have nothing to say.

 Undoubtedly, English auteur Ken Russell might as well have been describing German cinema of the 1970s when he complained in Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell (1991) regarding the degenerate and uniquely un-English state of English cinema, “We do live on a magic island, without doubt, but so far as British films are concerned there is precious little evidence of this. By and large, contemporary film-makers seem to revel in squalor, glorify ignorance and extol violence. There is another kind of life outside of this which many people in this country would like to celebrate, if only they were given the opportunity and not made to feel guilty about it. It is nothing to do with religion; it is to do with the spirit of the land in which we live, that elusive quality touched on by the music of VW [Ralph Vaughan Williams] and his contemporaries such as Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge and John Ireland: music expressing the majesty of nature, forgotten rituals, pagan goddesses and ancient heroes. All these scores are unashamedly romantic and shamefully neglected; and desperately outmoded according to the new barbarians whose mission is to tramp our heritage underfoot. Still, I agree that ours is not an age of heroes, though in his Seventh Symphony VW remembers some very gallant gentlemen who battled against tremendous odds to reach the South Pole and failed.”  Of course, post-WWII Deutschland is anything but heroic, yet a film like Rheingold reminds the viewer of the singular glory and deep dark roots of Teutonic mythology and kultur, thus making it mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to indulge in true Teutonic culture.  As for the true power and importance of the melodramatic pathos of the film, Schilling probably said it best when he wrote, “Melodrama—what a strange concept: another cubbyhole in which one places scenes with crying men, childless, rich women, passionate love-hatreds, and setting suns.  It also is used as disapproving and disdainful response to a precisely choreographed attack on the world of emotions, something a cinematic film can do if it takes itself seriously.  It take it seriously and no doubt use these forms taken from the melodrama, because these forms likewise contain something that is specifically cinematic: an optical narrative structure which does not explain and edify—a way of dealing with emotions.” Considering that the titular train ended operation on May 30, 1987 after over 59 years of service, Rheingold can and should be seen by contemporary German filmmakers who dare to attempt to be the heirs of the greats like F.W. Murnau and even Schilling as a new fresh source of Teutonic mythology that can be utilized as inspiration for their own films.

-Ty E