Like his previous feature-length cinematic effort Neapolitanische Geschichten (1978) aka The Kingdom of Naples, Palermo or Wolfsburg is a narrative-driven melodrama with a subversive socially conscious soul that was shot on 35mm film stock and follows the sad and tragic lives of Southern Italians, specifically that of a simpleminded Sicilian boy named Nicola (played by non-actor Nicola Zarbo in the tradition of Italian Neorealism) with a mustache who bears a striking physical and psychological resemblance to the character Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite (2004). With no work to be found in the Sicilian city of Palermo, and with a belligerent boozer for a father, naïve Nicola has no choice but to move to the young and sparsely populated (the city did not exceed 100,000 people until 1972) German city of Wolfsburg – the headquarters of the Volkswagen AG automobiles – so his family does not starve to death. Despite the overwhelming poverty of the collective populous of Palermo, everyone seems quite happy and has a deep and instinctive attachment to culture, tradition, religion, and – most of all – family in an ancient realm where little boys give singing solos while standing on top of a piano as grownups cheer him own, children are taught about famous Italian opera composers like Vincenzo Bellini, people ritualistically honor their dead ancestors, and the Catholic church plays a major part in their lives. In fact, before going to Germany, Nicola talks to a priest (real-life Catholic holy man Padre Pace) who warns him that German's, “moral standards are not up to ours,” that family is the most important thing in a man’s life, and to stay out of trouble in the foreign land, especially in regard to women as tragedies based in petty manners are often brought about by the fairer sex. Nicola probably should have taken heed of the padre’s wise advice as his immigration to Wolfsburg ultimately results in the total ruin of his life. A long but endlessly enthralling celluloid epic that, not unlike the films of Stanley Kubrick, is separated into three different major parts – Nicola’s life in Sicily, his hectic and humiliating life in Germany, and eventual trial for murdering two German boys – Palermo or Wolfsburg is a completely charming and captivating yet tragic tale about one man’s personal demise in a strange land where no one understands the meaning of ‘la dolce vita.’
Poverty might be a serious problem among the populous of Palermo, but it seems to pale in comparison to the social alienation, cultural degeneracy, and technocratic tyranny of Wolfsburg; a place featuring a number of gigantic and glaring Volkswagen signs that are quite symbolic of the city’s reigning corporatism and materialistic post-cultural modernism. Only a couple minutes after getting off the train upon arriving in Wolfsburg, Nicola is immediately hassled by some cops for apparently walking where he should not be, thus ushering a series of cultural mishaps and miscommunications that will lead to irrational murder and mayhem. Not knowing a single word of Deutsch, the Sicilian stranger has a hard time navigating around the city. Nicola plans to stay at his cousin’s apartment house and when he actually finds the location after a numbers of hours aimlessly wandering around, his kinsman’s German wife has him thrown out because, after all, none of her relatives leech off of her. Given 20 marks by his cuckold of a cuz, Nicola attempts to find an Italian-run hotel that accepts down-and-out guidos, but gets lost and decides to burn the little money he has for the hell of it in a display of irrational cognitive dissonance and subsequently beds down in a bush. The next day, Nicola discovers love at first sight in the form of a blonde, grey-eyed beauty named Brigitte Hahn (Brigitte Tilg; another non-actor in her sole movie role) – a teenage quasi-tomboy who works as a mechanic – who recommends that the Sicilian boy go to a nearby bar owned by a feisty Italian woman named Giovanna (Ida di Benedetto) who will ultimately act as the lad’s Mother (Mary) figure. Of course, it does not take long for Nicola to be hassled by two German lads sporting punk/New Wave threads – the true love interests of Brigitte – who describe the down-and-out Sicilian boy as a “dago” and claim he is, “from Planet of the Apes,” and that “he came with a suitcase full of garlic,” being a dirty Italian and all. Luckily, Nicola also befriends a group of fellow Italians from Sardinia, who describe him as, “another victim” who has come to work and live like a dog as an unwanted guest worker in Deutschland. The Sardinians also warn Nicola about German women, stating, “this German girl had three Italians. She has a baby from each of them, she’s very free. Her life is centered on her kids and not her husband…she wants money for the children,” because “she’s a free woman” aka welfare queen who leaches off the state and the hard earned cash of poor immigrant workers. After getting a job at Volkswagen, Nicola finally feels like he is moving up in the world as he has money and is in love, but all good things must come to an end and uncontrollable factors, coupled with the Sicilian’s childish naiveté, lead the young man to a crime of passion spurred by a broken heart. Naturally, it will be a German woman, as prophesized by Nicola's priest, who will be the source of simple Sicilian's fateful demise.
It becomes quite obvious early on in Palermo or Wolfsburg that Nicola’s nefarious love interest Brigitte is a heartless sadist when she smiles in a self-satisfied manner after inspiring a bloody bar fight between Italians Nicola and pub owner Giovanna and the German boys who are vying for her attention, thus foreshadowing the two murders that will occur at the hands of the humble man who made the inauspicious mistake of moving to a foreign land. Of course, more sinister than the German characters in the film is the Volkswagen Corporation – originally founded in 1937 by the Nazi trade union, the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront) – which is portrayed throughout Palermo or Wolfsburg in a ominous manner as a symbol of Germany’s National Socialist past that still dominates today. In fact, the VW logo is featured throughout the film as a surrogate for the swastika (a militant drum-driven ‘Nazi Death March’ even plays whenever the Aryan automobile icon appears) that is presented in an insidious and ill-boding manner akin to how the Nazi symbol is presented in Hollywood anti-Nazi propaganda films, thus making it no coincidence that the protagonist of Palermo or Wolfsburg hails from Italy; a minor power that allied with the Third Reich in a slavish and groveling manner in a master-slave relationship that still continues today via corporate power.