Jul 11, 2013

The Hamburg Syndrome

While the anti-Heimatfilm (or ‘new’ Heimatfilm)—a satirical and far-left take on ‘Papa’s Kino’ and the nationalistic pro-German Heimatfilm that portrayed a romantic and sentimental portrayal of Teutonic rural life and kraut history—were quite popular and directed by a number of filmmakers of German New Cinema of the late-1960s/early-1970s, including Edgar Reitz (Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany), Volker Schlöndorff (The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach), Herbert Achternbusch (Bierkampf), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Niklashausen Journey), and Werner Herzog (Heart of Glass), among countless others, the dystopian sci-fi anti-Heimatfilm is a more sparse breed as an unlikely marriage between European arthouse cinema and American cult horror/science fiction, and The Hamburg Syndrome (1979) aka Die Hamburger Krankheit aka Illness of Hamburg directed by Peter Fleischmann (Dorothea's Revenge, Hard to Be a God aka Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein) is probably the best and most wacky entry in this insanely idiosyncratic subgenre. Not unsurprisingly, Fleischmann was also responsible for the highly overrated but undeniably influential work Hunting Scenes From Bavaria (1969) aka Jagdszenen aus Niederbayern, which is oftentimes regarded as the first anti-Heimatfilm and would go on to play an imperative influence on directors like Fassbinder and Schlöndorff. While Hunting Scenes From Bavaria is an overly preachy tale about the supposed innate small-mindedness and crypto-nazi nature of Bavarian peasants who do not take kindly to a forest fag living in their wholesome village and are essentially the Southern kraut equivalent to the American Southern lynch mob archetype as concocted by the humble Hebrew dreammasters of Hollywood, The Hamburg Syndrome is a satirical and surrealist black comedy of the proto-Schlingensief type that does feature the Teutonic lynch mob, but also an aesthetically heretical hodgepodge of wheelchair bound cripples wielding giant dildos, dwarves working in hospitals, pigs consuming human corpses, boorish alcoholic bulldykes playing with the genitals of virus-ridden trannies, neo-stormtroopers with gasmasks hosing down unclad beauties, and various other scenarios of lunatic libertinage that won’t put off cinephiles like myself who have a harder time digesting quasi-Marxist swill than they do German bratwursts. 

 An absurdist satirical odyssey that follows a motley crew, including a dorky yet handsome doctor (played by Helmut Griem), a beautiful young woman of the emotionally cold variety, a buffoonish sausage seller of the classic dumb kraut sort, and a vulgar anarchistic cripple in a wheel chair (played by no one less than Spanish playwright/filmmaker Fernando Arrabal) after they escape from a fascistic quarantine camp in Hamburg and travel to the bottom of Germany to rural Bavaria in the hope of not contracting a deadly virus that turns people crazy for a couple of tragicomedic moments and eventually concludes with their death in a fetal position, The Hamburg Syndrome, like Traumstadt (1973) aka Dream City directed by Johannes Schaaf and Welt am Draht (1973) aka World on a Wire directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is undoubtedly one of greatest and most idiosyncratically stylized dystopian science fiction films of post-WWII German cinema. To add to its ostensible cult and arthouse credibility, Roland Topor—a cofounder of the Panic movement with fellow scatological surrealists Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal and the man who wrote the novel The Tenant (1964), which was later cinematically adapted by Roman Polanski in 1976 as the much more popular film of the same name—was one of the men who penned The Hamburg Syndrome, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that the film shows aesthetic influences from the popular North American post-apocalyptic horror/zombie flicks of George A. Romero like The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the early venereal body horror works of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, especially Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Featuring a highly complimentary synthesizer-driven score by French composer Jean Michel Jarre, The Hamburg Syndrome is an aptly atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing Teutonic celluloid apocalypse directed by a man with a glaring ambivalence for Germany’s past, be it lederhosen or the Third Reich, and a sort of left-wing Spenglerian vision of the Fatherland's seemingly foreboding future. That being said, The Hamburg Syndrome also makes for one of the most enthralling examples of esoteric sci-fi celluloid ethno-masochism ever made. 

 Handsome young doctor Sebastian Ellerwein (Helmut Griem) is a speaker at Hamburg's congress centre for a big scientific conference regarding the possibility of prolonging human life and things begin getting a little weird for him when he learns during the middle of an uplifting speech he is giving that his elderly professor friend has just suffered a seizure, thus ushering in epidemic hysteria in Hamburg. Not long after, Sebastian learns from an old doctor friend named Dr. Hamm (played in a cameo role by Rosel Zech of Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982)) that his professor friend is dead and that various other mysterious deaths have occurred around Hamburg as a result of a mysterious virus that seems as deadly and infectious as the bubonic plague. Meanwhile, a stereotypically boorish and racist kraut sausage seller named Heribert (Ulrich Wildgruber) is throwing trash at a deranged swarthy untermensch in a wheelchair named Ottokar (Fernando Arrabal) who is jubilantly wielding a dildo. A beautiful young woman Ulrike (Carline Seiser) goes to visit Heribert’s prostitute girlfriend Sonja, but the streetwalker dies shortly after being racially defiled by a Turkish John. Apparently, a group of Turkish illegal aliens are responsible for bringing the deadly virus to Deutschland and after buying carnal knowledge from a group of destitute Aryan working girls, the pernicious plague spreads like cancer all around Hamburg. Like the terminal Turks, Heribert, Ottokar, and Ulrike are sent to a quarantine camp. While his colleagues believe the unidentified virus is undisputedly a viral disease and that a vaccination should be immediately concocted, Sebastian believes that the plague has much more dubious source as people afflicted with it seem to die rather suddenly and without reason. After touching a man who has just died from the illness, Sebastian is also sent to the quarantine concentration camp, but soon he meets up with Heribert, Ottokar, and Ulrike and they make a hasty escape in the sausage man’s wiener mobile and head South to redneck Deutschland. 

 The fearsome foursome make quite the oddball quartet, but they make due with their curious situation. Hotheaded meathead Heribert shows his sensitive side by helping infantile Ottokar urinate by tipping his wheelchair so he does not piss himself like an infant. Additionally, Ulrike equips Sebastian with a sort of heroic masculinity he never thought he had. Initially, the four do not have to worry about finding food because the always hospitable Heribert has a fan full of un-kosher kraut sausages, but rather unfortunately, a group of stormtrooping disinfectant crews come by and scorch the wiener-wagon (aka Heribert's “living”) and take its owner away. Luckily, they meet up with a hippie-like fellow who effetely sports Capri pants and Jesus sandals named Alexander (played by real-life commune leader/author/filmmaker Rainer Langhans, who also appeared in films by Fassbinder and Ulli Lommel), who owns a luxury trailer, and a deranged fellow named Fritz (Tilo Prückner) who believes standing naked on the top of roofs of houses is the best way to stay safe from the virus. Out of all the people heading South, Ulrike has the flattest affect and seems the least bothered by the deaths, to point where Sebastian even asks, “doesn’t that affect you at all?” in regard to the sickening sight of a corpse, however the youthful Ice Queen’s perennial emotional psychosis ultimately makes her a survivor who triumphs in the face of death while her compatriots croak endlessly by her wayside. When hero Sebastian drops dead from the virus after ironically proclaiming, “it’s sufficient that a virus infects a cell, so that the cell divides itself indefinitely. The cancer cell multiplies continuously. A proof of immortality?” at what is only slightly past the halfway point of The Hamburg Syndrome, Ulrike opts for gluttonous decadence over depression and has herself a nice slice of cake while her romantic interest lies dead in a fetal position on the floor in front of a propaganda propagating television in what is one of many absurdist allegorical scenes featured in the film. Meanwhile, after a temporary disappearance, both Heribert and Ottokar reappear and have profited greatly from the epidemic as parasites of human suffering, thus alluding to the fact that degenerate proletarians became all-powerful National Socialist leaders following the cultural chaos after the Great War and the Great Depression of 1932 in the Weimar Republic and the rest of Central Europa. Rather conveniently, the German chancellor in The Hamburg Syndrome also succumbs to the epidemic, thus resulting in martial law and a fascistic police state where most of the citizens are naively nationalistic and believe every lie that the government feeds them, including the appearance of a vaccine that seems to spread the virus as opposed to destroying it. In the end, it is not the virus that gets the seemingly immune Ulrike, but members of the anti-virus Gestapo, who steal her from her Grandfather’s isolated rural Bavarian home. Totally ignorant of the fact that his granddaughter was kidnapped by a corrupt government as a mindless redneck kraut southerner, Ulrike’s Opa yodels to her tribute in an ironically iconic Heimatfilm-esque ending that looks like a parody of a scene from a Luis Trenker mountain film. 

 Created in the wake of the so-called ‘German Autumn’ events of late 1977 when far-left West German terrorists of the Red Army Faction (RAF) kidnapped/killed an ex-SS man turned wealthy business man named Hanns-Martin Schleyer, as well as the hijacking of the Lufthansa airplane "Landshut" by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the subsequent mysterious deaths of the first generation of RAF leaders in their prison cells, The Hamburg Syndrome certainly makes for a much more eclectically enthralling work of anti-völkisch sentiment than the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (1978) aka Deutschland im Herbst, the work that inspired the phrase ‘German Autumn’ which was directed by a number of bigwigs of German New Cinema, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, and Volker Schlöndorff (who, incidentally, cofounded the production company Halleluja Film with Peter Fleischmann in 1969). Due to its North American influenced horror/science fiction conventions, sardonic surrealism, pernicious cultural cynicism, wacked out performance from Fernando Arrabal, soothing and succulent synth soundtrack, and delightfully daunting dystopian essence, The Hamburg Syndrome, unlike a lot of leftist films of German New Cinema, Germany in Autumn included, has aged quite gracefully and can easily be enjoyed by viewers of the apolitical or anti-leftist persuasion (myself included!), so it should be no surprise that the film would eventually achieve cult status in Germany. Essentially, The Hamburg Syndrome portrays the German people from North to South as an automaton-like collective who cannot change and are hopelessly set in their ways, hence their obsession with yodeling, lederhosen, and sickening sausages, so it is quite clear that director Peter Fleischmann, like many of the directors involved with Germany in Autumn, had become quite socio-politically disillusioned and had very little hope for Germany’s future as they once did during the signing of the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962, which launched German New Cinema and inspired the popular motto “Papas Kino ist tot” (Papa's cinema is dead). With a couple exceptions, it seems that the Teutonic prodigal son’s cinema is also dead and The Hamburg Syndrome is an early, if highly entertaining, symptom of this cultural epidemic that marked the beginning of the end for art cinema in Germany (and Europe in general), which would become official with the death of German New Cinema’s most popular and prolific auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982. Incidentally, Fassbinder’s last screen appearance was as the lead protagonist in the farcical cyberpunk Kamikaze 1989 (1982) directed by Wolf Gremm, which makes for the perfect double feature with The Hamburg Syndrome.

 In the original French poster for The Hamburg Syndrome (featured above), there is a small black caricature next to the title logo of Fernando Arrabal giving a Hitler salute in a wheelchair.  Undoubtedly, this symbol can be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII people as a whole who, although they had their cultural identity essentially taken away from them after the Second World War and have become cultural cripples and ethno-masochists of sorts, still have a deep and largely subconscious collective identity that is yearning for a sort of compromising nationalism that someone like director Peter Fleischmann would probably describe as authoritarianism, which was absurdly underscored in Germany in Autumn when Mr. German New Cinema Rainer Werner Fassbinder's own mother Lilo Pempeit confesses in regard to her ideal government, “The best thing would be a kind of authoritarian ruler who is benevolent, and kind and orderly.”  Of course, the greatest irony of German New Cinema and related directors like Peter Fleischmann is that with the virtual death on Teutonic art cinema and the German film industry as a whole, they were essentially the last of the directors to express a truly 'German' identity in film and The Hamburg Syndrome is irrefutable proof that Hitler's forsaken children also had a knack for singular science fiction of the sardonically dystopian sort.

-Ty E

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