Nov 29, 2012

Germany in Autumn

It has been my experience and that of everyone I know who has spoken on the subject of anthology films (especially those where a number of filmmakers contribute an individual segment to the film) that they are almost unanimously and without fail uneven and flawed films because at least one of the individualized celluloid 'petites vignettes' will be an inferior work, thus sticking out like a Polish philosopher while juxtaposed alongside cinematic greatness. This would explain why there are so many horror movies in this format as this unofficial rule of filmmaking/storytelling is almost irrelevant when dealing with a genre that is typically innately inferior, formulaic, and rarely artistic, not to mention the fact that it is much easier to digest 30, rather than 90 minutes, of cheap sex, violence, and murder. The first segment of Flesh and Fantasy (1943) directed by Julien Duvivier, "Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio" directed by Federico Fellini for Boccaccio '70 (1962). "Toby Dammit" directed by Federico Fellini for Spirits of the Dead (1968), “Superbia - The Pride” directed by Ulrike Ottinger for Seven Women, Seven Sins (1986), "Far From Yokohama" from Mystery Train (1989) directed by Jim Jarmusch “We Fuck Alone” directed by Gaspar Noé for Destricted (2006), and  “Les souffrances d'un oeuf meurtri” directed by Roland Lethem for anachronistic compilation Incarnation - Cinema Abattoir (1967 – 2007) are just a meager handful of the anthological cinematic miscreations that are part of cinema history. Undoubtedly, as far as I am concerned, the most uneven, one-sided, and cinematically handicapped multi-director film that I have seen is Germany in Autumn (1978) aka Deutschland im Herbst; a film that, despite being coordinated by critically-revered Frankfurt school legal counselor turned filmmaker Alexander Kluge, and featuring contributions from nine different German auteur filmmakers (Alf Brustellin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Maximiliane Mainka, Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus , Peter Schubert, Bernhard Sinkel, Hans Peter Cloos, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupé, and Volker Schlöndorff), owes any artistic merit it may have to one filmmaker and naturally he is also the best known and seemingly least politically-motivated. The film centers around various filmmakers' responses to the death of prominent German businessman Hanns Martin Schleyer (a former officer of the SS and NSDAP member) and the dubious suicides of three imprisoned far-left terrorists (Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe of the Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof Group) whose revolutionary guerrilla gang had him kidnapped and killed. Admittedly, a number of the filmmakers that contributed to Germany in Autumn I was not even familiar with upon first viewing the cinematic work and I believe that it is for good reason because aside from Fassbinder’s realist but unsurprisingly melodramatic segment – which is around 25-minutes, thus making up roughly ¼ of the total film – I could have never conceived of socio-politically active kraut auteurs making the murderous mayhem of a bunch of ethno-masochistic “New Left” (influenced by Mao, Fanon, Guevara, Frankfurt school, etc) neo-marxist terrorists seem so banal. Needless to say, this review is mainly going to be focused on Fassbinder's domestic debauchery, which is no surprise seeing that I am a fan of the Bavarian-born filmmaker’s relatively objective, thoughtful, and provocative treatment of the RAF and related leftist activists of the same zeitgeist in his previous film satirical melodrama Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven (1975) and his later bodacious black comedy The Third Generation (1979) aka Die Dritte Generation.

Despite being designed with the ambitious objective of being an ostensibly politically-charged cinematic work of social and historical significance, Germany in Autumn – like many of Alexander Kluge’s cinematic works in general – is mostly a rather emotionally and aesthetically sterile experience, sort of like what one would expect the soul of a dead old Bolshevik to be like, but it does not start out that way. Beginning with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s segment set in the German New Wave king’s actual Munich-based apartment, the filmmaker’s keen contribution to Germany in Autumn is surprisingly intimate and rather revealing, so much so that I was severely shocked by the artistically vapid remainder of the film with the structure of the work being like a head without a body. Featuring Fassbinder, his then-boyfriend Armin Meier (in one of his last screen performances before his suicide that same year), his mother Lilo Pempeit (who appeared in around half of the her son's films, usually in a minor role) and his ex-wife Ingrid Caven (who only ‘appears’ via telephone while talking to her homo ex-hubby), Germany in Autumn depicts the foredoomed filmmaker at his most naked; both literally and figuratively. Although seemingly a pure documentary of the filmmaker’s everyday life upon a superficial glance, the seriously saucy yet strikingly sentimental segment of the film is based on tightly scripted material, but that is not to say that the scenes are purely contrived without biographical basis as they do the parallel the erratic yet engrossing events of Fassbinder’s coke-fueled life in the fast lane. The segments of the filmmaker’s interaction with his beau boi Armin Meier - whose bulging bratwurst compensates for his congenitally blighted brain, in spite of his being a Lebensborn baby (somebody must have snuck a brownshirt into the program) - are especially telling, as he treats his ill-fated boyfriend as if his ignorance and lack of intelligence are so glaring that he cannot tell whether his opinions are real or the poorly performed product of sophomoric sarcasm, which is perfectly exemplified when the filmmaker asks him “You’re actually serious, aren’t you?” in regard to the live-in boyfriend's query as to whether or not the imprisoned Baader-Meinhof Group terrorist should be “shot” or “hanged.” When the manly and meaty moron (or at least that is how he is portrayed) Meier remarks that, “if they (RAF) don’t follow the law, the state doesn’t have to either,” furious Fassbinder – dressed preposterously in leather-fag apparel that can barely contain his unflatteringly flabby physique – lunges at and physically assaults his fairy flame who is wearing nothing but a bath towel. In another particularly telling scene, Meier brings home a random frail, four-eyed nerd from a local bar, under the pretense that the gangly gay geek didn't have a place to stay for the night. Fassbinder, initially intrigued, takes one glance at the blissfully sleeping fag, then erupts into a blind rage in which he demands that Armin immediately evict the anal intruder from the premises. Clearly emotionally stirred by Meier’s assumed lack of celibacy, Fassbinder curls into a ball on the floor, unleashing a pent up storm of tears, to which Armin responds by coddling him like a baby desperate for its mother's teat. By no means a physically handsome man, one can only assume that Meier – who is notably more hunky, masculine, and muscular than Fassbinder – constantly got the urge to cheat on his man with finer Aryan specimens. Naturally, when dealing with his mother Lilo Pempeit – a woman who left her son practically in the streets when he was still prepubescent – Fassbinder is much colder and matter-of-fact, so much so that he gets her to admit, “The best thing would be a kind of authoritarian ruler who is benevolent, and kind and orderly” as far as the sort of government she would like to see formed in Germany. In other words, Ms. Pempeit – a woman who lived through the Third Reich – would like to see another Uncle Adolf in charge, thereupon showing the political and philosophical divide between her epoch and that of the third generation.

During a candid interview towards the middle of Germany in Autumn, in what is indubitably one of the best examples in film history of someone who fits the “True Believer” archetype as outlined by the book of the same name written by German-American social writer Eric Hoffer – who essentially argued that political extremists rarely opt for adopting a more moderate political persuasion after shedding a previous one, but instead one that is just as, if not more, extreme – Horst Mahler, a lawyer by trade who became one of the founding members of the Red Army Faction and arguably the spiritual ‘Rebbe” (as he certainly looks like one in Germany in Autumn) of the group, states in justification for the coldblooded murder of ‘capitalist pigs’ that revolutionaries have, “disgust at the fact that we had fascism, state-sponsored fascist murder, the fascist extermination of other people, and that this had social cause which continue today” in West Germany. Although originally a member of the magical Maoist faith, Mahler would later have a change of heart and shift to the far-right despite being of partial Jewish ancestry, thereupon eventually resulting in his founding of the “Society for the Rehabilitation of Those persecuted for Refutation of the Holocaust” and repeated arrests for ‘Volksverhetzung’ ("incitement of popular hatred") and 'holocaust denial.' Mahler now has the distinct honor of serving a 12-year prison sentence for refuting the official events of the holocaust due to his unkosher, pro-Hitler rhetoric. Whatever one thinks of Mahler’s political views, one has to admit – whether on the left or right – that Germany is not the ‘democracy’ it claims to be, ironically using Nazi-style authoritarian anti-freedom-of-speech tactics against pro-Nazi sentiments. It should be noted that Germany in Autumn was assembled at a time when the Fatherland had yet to be considered a ‘stable’ democracy of sorts, hence the hollow dreams of certainly leftist filmmakers that a Marxist utopia could still be realized in post-war Germany.  As a liberal democracy, modern Germany offers its citizenry the right to freedom of prostitution and partaking in said bought flesh, cultural vapidness (when was the last time Germany produced a great filmmaker, let alone philosopher, novelist, painter, or composer?!), colonization from hostile elements from the continental south and east, generational indigenous population decline, the hegemony of Americanization and globalization, and a Fatherland without fathers and without a future.  As much as I think the L'enfant terrible 'rock star' terrorists of the RAF were deluded nihilists (of the sort described by Albert Camus in his seminal 1951 work The Rebel aka L'Homme révolté)  of the ethno-masochistic bend, at least they proved to be a generation of quasi-Faustian, foolhardy, if not foolish Germans with blood pumping through their veins. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about most of their spiritual compatriots who contributed to Germany in Autumn; a work that is more symbiotic of the early stage of a Spenglerian "Winter" – the final, twilight stage of civilization where spiritual creativity is totally devitalized, everyday life is a grueling experience, and atheistic materialistic cosmopolitanism reigns – than that of a rich cinematic harvest.

-Ty E

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