Nov 1, 2012

Menu Total

After viewing Christoph Schlingensief’s brutally bleak yet conspicuously campy black-and-white feature Menu Total (1986) aka Meat, Your Parents at its ill-fated premiere at the 1986 Berlinale Film Festival, charming character actor Udo Kier remarked to the director that, “I killed myself laughing.” Although the actor’s random interaction would later spark many great collaborations with Schlingensief, including kraut arthouse trash works like Egomania - Insel ohne Hoffnung (1986), 100 Years Adolf Hitler - The Last Hour in the Führerbunker (1989), and The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997), Kier was in the minority when it came to apotheosizing Menu Total. Described to him by his mentor Werner Nekes (Uliisses, Johnny Flash) as “fascistic” and by his ashamed father as being “terrible,” Schlingensief was perturbed (yet at the same time, strangely pleased) by the negative response to Menu Total, not least of all because he thought he assembled an elaborately farcical esoteric comedy of sorts, even later proclaiming it be, “my best film!” Ultimately, Menu Total – a Nazi-themed arthouse piece of the most grandiose grotesquery – would prove to be one of Schlingensief’s first public brushes with controversy. Within the first ten minutes of its premiere at the Berlinale, wimp Wim Wenders – a major target for ridicule in many of Schlingensief’s films – walked out of the screening in sheer disgust and by the end of the showing of Menu Total, only half of the 800 member audience remained. Of those remaining 400 filmgoers, about half of them were decisively disgruntled with Menu Total, eventually causing a full-blown fight to breakout that left respected pharmacist Schlingensief’s father in total tears. Indeed, after viewing Menu Total a number of times, I can honestly say that it is one of his most divinely deranged works, which says a lot considering it was directed by a filmmaker who has consistently equipped his films with images of absurdist rape scenarios, rampant race-hate, daffy death sequences, and every sexual perversion known (and not known) to man. Featuring a hysterical hodgepodge of campy concentration camp experimentation, crude and cynical child molestation, sadistic scatological scenarios, existential exploitation, and – more morbidly and mischievously than anything – a decidedly distasteful treatment of Germany’s National Socialist past, Menu Total is the sort of film every good politically-correct German fears and rightfully so, but Schlingensief was not interested in ignoring or sanitizing his Fatherland’s taboo past like so many of his generation, including ethno-mascohistic Holocaust-hugger Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire).

In the documentary Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme (2005) aka Christoph Schlingensief and His Films the audacious auteur displays no apprehension in stating that he is distantly related to Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels via his mother and feels that he, “would make an excellent overseer in a concentration camp,” further stating that Germans “haven’t digested Hitler since 1945,” thereupon adding to the mystique and appeal of National Socialism for newer generations of Hitler's spiritual children. In short, Schlingensief believes that artists should not, “always claim to be on the side of god,” and that he, “should be able to say “I am Evil”…I want to portray evil,” which Menu Total undeniably does, albeit in an audaciously avant-garde neo-Dadaist-Actionists sort of way, minus the pompous pretensions. Centering around a mentally unstable boy that while searching in vain for his beloved mommy, ends up exterminating an entire family, Menu Total is a recklessly wild cinematic work with a startlingly shattered moral compass. Starring German funnyman, musician, and filmmaker Helge Schneider (00 Schneider – Jagd auf Nihil Baxter, Stangenfieber) – who also assembled the irritatingly ironic cool jazz score for the film – Menu Total is an aesthetically malicious masterpiece of curiously cracked and crudely carnal kraut comedy. Taking place largely in a murky bunker where multiple maniacs meander and mess around with mutilated mortals, Menu Total is largely a mock-up, albeit more multifarious and mystifying, for Schlingensief’s later effort 100 Years Adolf Hitler - The Last Hour in the Führerbunker (1989); a 60-minute farce of the Führerbunker where the cast and crew was locked in a cement dugout for no less 16 hours in complete and utter darkness aside from the devotedly dippy director’s trusty flashlight, henceforth arguably making it the artistically faithful filmmaker’s most literal attempt at ‘Direct Cinema.” Like 100 Years Adolf Hitler, Menu Total is a nauseatingly nonlinear experiment with apocryphal themes relating to the history of the Third Reich. By exaggerating these vaguely historical but mostly fabricated stories, Schlingensief attempted to arrive at allegorical truths about the legacy of Hitler (who in the Führerbunker flick is more of a ‘SHITler’ as he passionately paints and plays with his freshly defecated feces). In the documentary Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme, Schlingensief – sounding like a vehement völkisch idealist of the Jungian denomination states quite matter-of-factly that, “I believe we carry genetic baggage around within ourselves…events that happened long before we were born.” That being said, as an aberrant Aryan artist and thus an exceedingly endemic and eccentric expressionist of the German collective unconscious, Schlingensief painted a sordid, sardonic, even sadistic portrait of the Teuton volkgeist via Menu Total; undoubtedly one of the purest and unadulterated consciously and unconsciously ‘German’ films of the post-WWII era. 

Undoubtedly, the palpably precarious 1986 premiere of Menu Total was assuredly a vicarious vantage point for Schlingensief because despite feeling hostile animosity from friends, family, and foes, the director also confirmed his artistic dexterity as an inexorable experimental filmmaker with a particularly potent propensity for invoking buried emotions in his countryman, even once admitting, “there must be some deep, dark black box inside of me. A place which is hungry to tackle material like this." Although merely seeming like a schizophrenic scat film of the uniquely incoherent sort to the uninitiated viewer – which taken literally, it most certainly is – Menu Total, like the poetry of Gottfried Benn and Stefan George, aphorisms of Nietzsche and Spengler, paintings of Franz von Stuck, Fidus and Herbert Smagon, and the films of Fassbinder and Buttgereit, is an out-and-out exegesis of the German soul, albeit taken to the sort of extraordinarily erratic excesses that only Schlingensief was capable of. Filmed in rich and thematically complimentary black-and-white film stock, Menu Total works best as symbolic cinematic expression of the soul of a self-flagellating and spiritually devitalized people, portraying a fantastic dystopian Germanic netherworld where the "shadow aspect" – the unconscious aspect of one's personality that the conscious ego is unwilling to recognize – is laid bare as the de facto persuasion of the uncivilized citizenry.  As ironically stated by a particularly debauched man in a Nazi-era Wehrmacht (army) officer uniform – who engages in ritualistic murder, molestation and mayhem – in Menu Total: "You mustn't hurt the children.  Their future is our future and our work is their future."  Keeping that in mind, Schlingensief took the opposite approach with his films, most especially with Menu Total, by intentionally and unrelentingly stirring unpleasant emotions in the viewers.  While it might not be for the better if viewers find themselves fantasizing about  becoming Adolf Hitler and spouting demented gibberish like the particularly perverse protagonist of the film, it might inspire them to renounce politically correct pretensions and artistic mediocrity, thereupon restoring testicular fortitude to the Teutons of Deutschland; a sound sentiment that the late, great Christoph Schlingensief certainly shared.

-Ty E

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