Dec 11, 2012

The Ghost

Assuredly his most well known and infamous film, Herbert Achternbusch’s aweless yet astral anti-Catholic romp Das Gespenst (1983) aka The Ghost – a work of bodacious and biting black-and-white blasphemy that would be the prolific Bavarian auteur filmmaker’s tenth film in eight years as a sin-saluting cinematic artist – featured an audaciously aberrant and surprisingly singular depiction of God's only son Jesus Christ that is comparable to no other before nor after the film’s ill-fated release despite the proliferation of Christ-bashing propaganda featuring uncountable Hollywood films and mainstream TV shows. With its portrayal of Jesus Christ as a boorish and ineffectual waiter with beastly baloney nipples and a large, untamable, and perverted tongue, it is no surprise that The Ghost was temporarily banned by the FSK, a ‘voluntary’ yet semi-official German government film regulation organization that also withheld a promised subsidy payment to Achternbusch, and filed charges against the film’s distributor because the work was accused of "injured religious feelings and human dignity" against audience members after numerous complaints from various Roman Catholic and Christian organizations in Germany. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the ban on the film was lifted (although the film is still banned today in Austria) and Achternbusch’s received his well deserved payment because the court ruled that the work was “to weak” to be worthy of artistic merit and being taken serious, the controversy surrounding The Ghost inspired German Federal Minister of the Interior Friedrich Zimmermann – a Roman Catholic and fellow Bavarian like the filmmaker, as well as an ex-NSDAP member – to dramatically cut government funding for all future film productions in the Fatherland, which would now only cover 30% of total production costs and be quite detrimental to idiosyncratic 'arthouse' filmmakers like the anti-Christ auteur himself. Achternbusch’s unexpected cinematic crusade led to 50 filmmakers protesting the charges against the film at the 1983 Munich Film Festival and over 150,000 spectators watching The Ghost in theaters due to the controversy surrounding the film, which would prove to be by far the Bavarian folk-anarchist’s greatest commerical success as a filmmaker. It has been nearly three decades since the release of The Ghost yet the film is as silly, sardonic, sacrilegious, and scathing as ever and certainly does not feature the sort of beaten-to-death Hebraic Hollywood mockery of God’s bastard son one can expect to see quite frequently just by turning on their TV.

During the beginning of The Ghost, “Mother Superior” (played by Annamirl Bierbichler) aka "Oberin" (“waitress”) remarks to the living, breathing, crucified Christ on her church wall that he is the “42nd God in our convent…the last God in this building,” which is quite interesting because apparently there are 42 generations (names) in the Gospel of Matthew's version of the Genealogy of Jesus and that for 42 months the Beast will hold dominion over the Earth (Revelation 13:5). Whatever the significance of the 'natural number' in the film, it is quite apparent that the crooked and kooky Christ (played by Herbert Achternbusch himself) of The Ghost, who goes by the named “Ober”(“waiter”), is a rather unholy fellow who like the prince of darkness himself the devil, can turn himself into a snake, albeit only when he is scared for his eternal life, but sucks at just about everything else, including collecting stool samples. The obscene ober is not exactly an optimist and overachiever either because he feels that people can’t, “expect me to change myself into shit” even if he can morph into a snake, but he does inspire two cops (one of which is played by Fassbinder Superstar Kurt Raab of Satan's Brew fame) to attempt to achieve a miracle by defecating into a shot glass; an event that spawns bodily fluids, but not of the terribly toxic and fowl fecal sort. Mother Superior “rather carry” Ober “in the flesh” because in her “womb there’s a nest prepared for every snake” but the Catholic church – the “model for all sterility” – does see such biological pure acts as sinful so she recommends he leave the convent with her and became a waiter because he already has given “mountains of his body” and “whole lakes of…blood” for food and drink to his feckless and feeble followers, thereupon making it a fitting position for the foul and frail phantasm. Indeed, Ober can walk on water but such a low-fi carny routine – which was also performed by Christ-like idiot savant Chance (Peter Sellers) in Hal Ashby's similarly satirical but less sardonic cinematic effort Being There (1979) – pales in comparison to Mother Superior’s wild and woolly water sports activity, which comprises of the callous and crude Catholic lady lifting her dress and revealing a grotesque wig where her genitals and pubic hair are supposed to be. Infinitely wiser and more practical than the oftentimes oblivious and oafish Ober, the good Mother lets her feral-like 42nd god know that without his crown of thorns, he is a “nobody” yet he still finds it to be a rather trying task to be the king of babbling Bavarian peasants, even if said peasants drop 10 marks in his crown, let alone king of the Jews.

To top off all the rather charming yet crass anti-catholic camp of The Ghost, German New Wave dandy auteur Werner Schroeter (Eika Katappa, Der Tod der Maria Malibran) – who was a chain-smoker in real-life and whose recent death due to complications revolving around cancer were probably in part caused by the vice – is featured in a standout role in the film where he seems to care more about having enough cigarettes on tap than doing his sanctified churchly duties. Such is the rather ridiculous realm of anarcho-folk folly and frolicsome avant-garde absurdity that is The Ghost; a film that, like his cinematic efforts before and after, proved that the blasphemous Bavarian iconoclast Herbert Achternbusch – a man who writes, stars, and directs his films and does his own “stunts” – followed in a rich legacy that was propelled by silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, albeit the German funnyman took his comedy routines to a greater and more arcane, if less physically involved, extremes; the sort that guaranteed he would never have an audience any greater than a small and mostly domestic cult following. For an antagonistic auteur who mixed memories of the holocaust with guilt-ridden alcoholism (Das letzte Loch aka The Last Hole (1981), Bavarian Kultur with belligerent barbarian beer-chugging (Bierkampf aka Beer Chase (1977)), and Hitlerism with a legacy of countryside inbreeding and sexual promiscuity (Heilt Hitler! aka Heal Hitler! (1986)), it should be no wonder that Achternbusch will probably go down as the greatest anti-völkisch filmmaker who ever lived, at least by those unfortunately few that remember him.

 Where Italian poet-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom) – an unrepentant homosexual, atheist, and communist – once stated, “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief,” in regard to his respect for the religion of his family and nation, Achternbusch only had slapstick scorn and playfully perverse pooh-pooh for the faith of his ancestors as depicted in the Gospel of Herbert Achternbusch; otherwise known as The Ghost and a most unfriendly and foul phantom at that.  A pleasantly profane fable for foul-mouthed grownups and rural rejects, Achternbusch, as a sort of atheistic and antagonistic "Fidus of the left" and walking contradiction of the Bavarian boonies, was quite ironically and intriguingly able to find a common ground between rooted folks of the countryside with political beliefs that are often associated with deracinated cosmopolitanism.  If I did not know better and The Ghost was not a work of degenerate art, I might have assumed Achternbusch was inspired by the anti-Catholicism/neo-pagan philosophies featured in National Socialist philosopher Alfred Rosenberg's magnum opus The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930).  That being said, I cannot think of another filmmaker who epitomized the often cited and inconvenient truism that people often hate what negative qualities they see in themselves.  After all, Achternbusch may have attempted to say "Bye-Bye Bavaria!" in his 1977 film of the same name but looking at his films, one can only conclude: you may be able to take the loony anti-Aryan Aryan Bavarian out of his lederhosen, but never the lederhosen out of the Bavarian.

-Ty E

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