Jul 26, 2013


Out of all the great filmmakers of the 1970s belonging to German New Cinema, Dutch-German auteur Robert van Ackeren (Blondie's Number One, The Last Word aka Der letzte Schrei) is probably the director who stands out most as an unwaveringly rampant heterosexual with a naughty and seemingly nihilistic knack for black humor. Originally a prolific cinematographer who was responsible for some of the most important films of German New Cinema, including Werner Schroeter’s Eika Katappa (1969) and Rosa von Praunheim’s gritty celluloid agitprop homo-manifesto It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971), as well as Roland Klick’s kraut cult classics Bübchen (1968) and Deadlock (1970), van Ackeren would inevitably become a director in his own as the foremost heterosexualist auteur of female-flesh-fetishizing sinema, which is rather ironic considering his past camera work on some of the gayest films of the post-WWII era. Although a proud breeder, van Ackeren was certainly no prude and decadently demonstrated his affinity for lipstick lesbianism with the sardonic and darkly comedic melodrama Harlis (1972) aka The Sensuous Three aka Eine Handvoll Zärtlichkeit starring Fassbinder superstar turned director Ulli Lommel (Love Is Colder Than Death, Blank Generation) and redheaded counter-culture diva Mascha Rabben (Der Bomberpilot, World on a Wire aka Welt am Draht). A sort of snidely satirical Sapphic take on Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) meets Werner Schroeter’s excess-ridden and history-obscuring take on the Third Reich, Der Bomberpilot (1970), Harlis is the melodramatically ridiculous and sometimes raunchy tale of a cross-dressing and SS-uniform-sporting lesbo cabaret dancer who falls in love with a man for the very first time in her entire life, only to spark jealousy and hatred among her sassy Sapphic cabaret troupe, not to mention an even more deleterious situation with her male lover’s brother and sexually-repressed fiancé. Exaggerating the conventions of traditional Hollywood melodramas to the point of sadistic satire with some film noir, Hitchcock, and ‘mad scientist’/James Bond villain conventions thrown in for good measure, Harlis is probably director Robert van Ackeren’s most accessible and least serious yet paradoxically most idiosyncratic and aesthetically ambitious work to date. While a true blue(balled) heterosexual, van Ackeren has demonstrated a keen interest in ball-crushing cuckoldry, male submissiveness, and sexual sadomasochism and Harlis is certainly no exception in expressing these dubious testicle-terrorizing themes, but unlike most of his subsequent films, the director’s Sappho SS S&M comedy makes for a more pleasantly palatable flick due to its lack of seriousness with said themes. A brazen black comedy of the rare hetero-camp variety, Harlis is a film for those who found the Hebraic Teutophobia of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968) to be about as humorous as a hernia and the camp value of Fosse’s Cabaret as being just too plain gay and Liza Minnelli as just too plain unbelievable as a sex icon/diva.

Ulli Lommel, with his signature slicked back jet-black hair, plays a somewhat monetary privileged fellow named Raymond and he is enjoying the view at a lesbian cabaret where two beauteous babes named Harlis (Mascha Rabben) and Pera (Gabriele Lafari) are performing as cross-dressing, finely dressed and butt-darting officers of the infamous Schutzstaffel. Although he does not know, Harlis and Pera are not just dance partners but also longtime sexual partners, so when he goes to meet the girls backstage he is in for quite a surprise when he learns that men are “not in fashion.” Pera wastes no time letting Ray know that she thinks that “men are shit,” but Harlis, who has never displayed an interest in men in her entire life, falls head over heels for the tall, dark, and handsome gentleman. A rather assertive broad with a seemingly unquenchable sex drive, Harlis wastes no time asking Raymond “your place or mine?” so they can get straight to business, which rather shocks the masculinity of the novice lesbo-lover, who remarks “usually it’s the man that asks that.” While Harlis finds sex with Raymond to be nothing less than enjoyable, as a longtime lily-licker, she still needs a woman to fulfill her salacious abberosexual appetite, so she continues to maintain her relationship with her longtime girlfriend Pera. Unfortunately, Harlis has a rather pernicious and stereotypically Hebrew-like (in the Nazi propaganda sense, of course!) brother named Prado (German junky/ex-convict Rolf Zacher) who takes an instant dislike to Harlis (although he secretly wants her all to himself), as well as a pesky and pestering girlfriend/fiance named Ria (Heidy Bohlen) who makes the ultimatum, “You better decide soon. I can’t go on this way much longer…either we get married or I’ll buy out your share.” Raymond’s interest in Ria is solely monetary as the two symbolically own a butcher shop/grocery store business, but he is getting tired of being a bloated bourgeois boob and a romantic relationship with Harlis grants him the perfect great escape from a very potentially dreadful marriage. Of course, when sneaky prick Prado walks in on Harlis and Pera rubbing pussies on Raymond’s bed, he wastes no time tying up the two naked girls in bondage and giving his brother the naughty news. A truly ideal cuckold boyfriend, Raymond forces his bastard brother to untie both girls and really couldn't care less if his girlfriend is still a committed carpet-muncher, but when Prado tells his brother’s longtime girlfriend Ria about her cheating boy toy's new lesbo girlfriend, things get ugly for everyone involved. On top of that, Pera makes an ultimatum to Harlis that it is either her or Raymond, so she gives the now-subversive sexual persuasion of heterosexual monogamy a try. Raymond ultimately breaks it off with both his girlfriend Ria and brother Prado and the two odious cast-offs have the brilliant idea to get together (and eventually orchestrate a marriage), in part to spite that ‘little bitch’ Harlis.

Naturally, being a lifelong lesbian, Harlis has some reservations about her newly found quasi-heterosexuality and admits to Raymond, who like a good cuck is applying nail polish to her toenails, that, “My future looks very uncertain now. A man loves a woman who loves women…he tries to teach her to make love like a normal woman but he doesn’t succeed…and she loves him except there are complications…and when he finds her in the embrace of another woman…he wants to die because he is so naïve and too sentimental” but also that, “This is the first time I have ever felt fear…because I’m so happy.” Of course, Harlis should also fear Raymond's extremely jealous and patently perverted brother Prado as he wants the lipstick lesbo all for himself and he is willing to do just about anything to obtain, including committing a number of ungodly crimes. Among other things, Brother Prado sinisterly stalks Harlis and when he catches her, he rapes her from behind after jamming her head in a car window. And when Raymond tries to comfort her, she says it is too late as the damage has already been done.  In a heat of vengeful passion, Ray smacks his pussy brother around like a little girl. While Raymond attempts to make a honest heterosexual real woman out of Harlis, she is still physically and metaphysically enslaved to sourpuss Pera. After having her lesbo crew call in Raymond, Harlis, who is sensually caressing her girlfriend Pera in a provocation fashion, states, “I want you to know the truth about me….I’ll never change,” which absolutely stuns the emotionally brutalized boyfriend. Thoroughly depressed, Ray makes a pathetic attempt at suicide by poisoning himself like a Hollywood Golden Age diva but Harlis walks in on him before he drops dead. Of course, Ria swoops in on wounded dove Raymond while he is recuperating in the hospital, but the lily-licker-loving mensch rebuffs her and gets back with Harlis. Ultimately, Raymond and Pera agree to share Harlis in a sort of seemingly science fiction Ménage à trios comprised of a heterosexual man, lesbian woman, and novice bisexual. When Raymond, Harlis, and Pera join new couple Prado and Ria to celebrate the odious odd couple's wedding, things get a bit ugly, especially after the groom expresses his undying affection for another woman. Jealous of the fact Raymond has Harlis at least ½ to himself, Prado freaks out on his new fiancé Ria due to her ‘normativity,’ stating to her with the uttermost contempt, “Yes, that’s exactly what revolts me…The fact that you’re so ordinary…the fact that you’re like all other women…so conventional, so maternal, so virtuous, so industries, so boring…you’ve got a cash register between your legs.” In the end, Prado strangles his bride to death and Raymond, Harlis, and Pera live happily ever after as a novel cabaret act/sexual trio.  Harlis concludes with a man from the cabaret audience remarking the famous last words, “what times we live.”

Despite winning the prestigious Ernst Lubitsch Award in 1973, Harlis is all but forgotten today, even in its native land of Germany, and has yet to be released in any home media format in the United States. What makes Harlis especially interesting and reflective of contemporary German culture is that director Dutch-Teuton Robert van Ackeren utilized an aberrant assortment of Lubitsch/Mel Brooks/Josef von Sternberg Hebraic humor (with a sprinkling of Hitchcock thrown in for good measure!) to the point where the film seems like a satire of Judaic directed comedies satirizing Germans/Nazis (after all, Hollywood never distinguishes between the two!) and the melancholy score by Gustav Mahler only adds to the maniacal melodramatic absurdity of it all. Of course, Harlis is much darker than the films that it takes influence from as a sort of Über-nihilistic distortion of German history that utilizes Hollywood’s own reality-distorting melodramatic conventions against itself in an uncompromisingly cynical way to the point of recalling the grotesquery of the Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. While director Robert van Ackeren would continue to direct sexually explicit and romantically nihilistic themed films, including his best known work A Woman in Flames (1983) aka Die Flambierte Frau—a film about a bourgeoisie housewife turned high-priced hooker—as well two “Heimatfilm porn” flicks, including Deutschland privat - Eine Anthologie des Volksfilms (1980) and Deutschland privat - Im Land der bunten Träume (2007), where he placed ads in newspapers convincing good patriotic German couples to send him their own homemade porn flicks which he turned into kraut cock-and-cunt compilations, he has yet to direct another film as thematically brazen and sardonic as Harlis. Indeed, forget flabby fanboy Kevin Smith’s retarded romantic comedy Chasing Amy (1997), Harlis, at least as far as I know, is the greatest film ever made about what happens when, “A man loves a woman who loves women,” and naturally it does not take itself even remotely serious, even if it features lavish wardrobes, statuesque Sapphos, aesthetically exquisite tableaux. Advertised as “A Larmoyant Comedy,” Harlis provides some of the most charmingly campy fun you will ever have watching rape, suicide, and uxoricide.  For those looking for comic relief from the fact that Deutschland and the rest of Occident is a culturally vapid and seemingly apocalyptic multicultural nightmare where women act like men and vice versa, Harlis is probably your best bet as a totally titillating piece of celluloid tragicomedy created at a time when Ulli Lommel was a great leading man and had yet to be regarded as one of the worst filmmakers who had ever lived and New German Cinema diva Mascha Rabben had yet to fall off the face of earth.

-Ty E

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...