Sep 22, 2013

Argila (1969)

If there ever was a small and palatable sample of the aesthetic Weltanschauung of high-camp excess, preternatural divas, and discordant audio/visual kitsch that was the cinematic realm of German New Cinema dandy auteur Werner Schroeter (Eika Katappa, Malina) that is perfect for the uninitiated, it is most certainly the filmmaker’s 30+ minute Warhol-inspired featurette Argila (1968), a keenly kaleidoscopic double-projection work that makes sense of what is essentially a short but sweet Teutonic take on the largely asinine aesthetic gimmickry Chelsea Girls (1966), albeit with an oppressive operatic lovelorn tone. A darkly romantic work that reminds one why Schroeter was the most aesthetically decadent drama queen of not just German New Cinema, but European arthouse cinema in general, Argila, like virtually all of the director’s cinematic works, is indubitably a raw and rapturous byproduct of the filmmaker’s failed love affairs, albeit with his muses standing in for himself. Starring Schroeter’s main muse Magdalena Montezuma (Willow Springs, Freak Orlando), as well as Carla Egerer (Gods of the Plague, Der Bomberpilot), who was married at one point to rampantly homosexual auteur Rosa von Praunheim (one-time a lover of Schroeter who once infamously publicly mocked his ex-lover in a scathing article), and then-middle-aged veteran theater actress Gisela Trowe, Argila is a virtual poetic obituary of the filmmaker’s romantic relationship(s) clearly created by someone who has yet to get over the past as if haunted by a ghost. Made before Schroeter ever got involved with feature film directing (the director abandoned/never completed his first feature film Nicaragua (1969), which is now considered lost), Argila is decadent and dissident cinematic dilettantism at its most refined, assembled by a filmmaker who had yet to create his avant-garde arthouse feature-length masterpieces like Eika Katappa (1969), Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) aka The Death of Maria Malibran, and The Rose King (1986) aka Der Rosenkönig, but had already codified the innately idiosyncratic auteur signature style that he would be remembered for. Utilizing the black-and-white/color double-projection technique that Paul Morrissey employed for Chelsea Girls in a manner that actually makes aesthetic sense, Argila tells the emotionally distraught, psycho-romantic story of a tormented twosome of two very different ladies whose hearts still yearn for their Aryan twink ex-lover Hans, a stoic chap with a statuesque physique who seems to not give two damns for the various ladies he has dropped by the wayside like yesterday’s trash.

After opening with Carla Egerer singing out-of-sync to some awful American pop music, Argila segues to a bizarre love triangle broiling between young Amazonian Aryaness Magdalena Montezuma, mature redhead Gisela Trowe, and a seemingly apathetic hunk named Hans (Sigurd Salto). As Ms. Montezuma states dozens upon dozens upon dozens of times during the film regarding Hans, “You want me to die. You take no pity on me. You have no pity for me, I, who so worshiped you,” or so the not so little lady states while in an unwavering state of hysteria. Being a little older, Ms. Trowe is slightly less hysterical but no less melodramatic in her feelings regarding Hans, writing “Dear Hans, I love you, but differently now, and much more intimately. Now I understand you, and everything. Until recently I failed to realize that you embody death, for me at least. It is my destiny…I don’t know if I should be happy or sad, but I know what needs to happen.” Although Montezuma and Trowe are enemies of sorts in their undying obsession with the same Nordic dandy, they are in the same lovelorn boat, which is about to stink in a rough sea of abject misery and melancholy. In fact, as Trowe states, “Before the evening is through, a misfortune will hurl all three of us into the sea.” As Trowe tells Montezuma regarding her passionate yet deleterious romance with Hans and her eventual depression realization, “Then all I could see were stones. Red-hot, hard cobble stones. An endless path that blinded me. Then I knew I did not know him. That was the truth. He stands before me as he will again, and I will know over and over again that I do not know him. I will never know him. And the worst part is, and will always be that for a while I thought I knew him, and that we were one. The shock of this realization made me reel for a moment. It was as if I was caught in a suffocating grasp.” As for Hans, the viewer never knows what is going on his mind as if he is a mere handsome mannequin with a nasty knack for putting spells over women who did not nearly mean as much to him as he did to them. In the end, Hans lays, assumedly allegorically, dead on train tracks while both Ms. Montezuma and Ms. Trowe mourn for him, but finally seem to accept their loss.

Much like his friend Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), which the director and his muse Magdalena Montezuma had small acting roles in, Werner Schroeter’s Argila certainly features a strong aesthetic influence from Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey, but naturally, the Teutonic dandy would take his celluloid Kulturscheisse to much more elegant and excessive extremes. Of course, while Chelsea Girls merely features a collection of human trash babbling about nothing while attempting to look glamorous, Argila is clearly a deeply personal work directed by a man who used cinema as an artistic medium to mourn his past failed romances, hence why he once created a documentary called Love’s Debris (1996) aka Poussières d'amour - Abfallprodukte der Liebe. Of course, seeing as it is one of Schroeter's early works, Argila is certainly not as macabre nor hermetic in its ‘mourning’ of love than in the director’s later works like Day of the Idiots (1981) aka Tag der Idioten, where a woman makes false claims accusing her neighbors of being terrorists so she can be locked up in a mental institution because she cannot handle the lack of love and affection her boyfriend gives her, or Malina (1991), where a foredoomed woman burns herself up in her apartment. A man whose childhood lover committed suicide when he was only a teenage as he revealed in the documentary Mondo Lux - Die Bilderwelten des Werner Schroeter (2011) aka Mondo Lux : The Visual Universe of Werner Schroeter, which he also cinematically depicted in his autobiographical lesbian flick Deux (2002) aka Two, Schroeter was certainly a strange and sad man who found a sense of security in sorrow and in his alter-egos in the form of anachronistic divas. A sort of aesthetically sacrilegious cinematic waltz through the director’s womanish Weltschmerz, Argila is probably the best bet for Werner Schroeter novices to get through one of the filmmaker’s films rather unscathed without thoughts of slitting one’s wrists and/or wishing death on Teutonic divas everywhere. 

-Ty E

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