Oct 15, 2013

Die Reise

From the anarcho-mystic heimat flicks of Werner Herzog to the nasty melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the fierce feminists flicks of Helma Sanders-Brahms, German New Cinema was littered with melancholy films about a father-less nation that could not forgive the fathers of the Fatherland for siding with Aryan fascism. Despite being technically a Swiss flick, Die Reise (1986) aka The Journey directed by Markus Imhoof (Das Boot ist voll AKA The Boat Is Full, More Than Honey) is easily one of the most heavy hitting and no nonsense portrayals about how the lost children of the National Socialist generation grew up to be anti-patriarchal/anti-authoritarian far-leftists who went so far as getting involved with murderous terrorism and guerilla warfare and even almost plunging economically prosperous West Germany into a civil war. Based on German student movement activist Bernward Vesper’s popular autobiographical 1977 novel of the same name, which has been described in Deutschland as “inheritance of a whole generation,” Die Reise is a devastating tale about a young man practically born foredoomed as the son of an infamous Nazi poet and would ultimately grow up to be his father’s personal and ideological enemy, thereupon symbolizing Germany’s sort of collective Oedipus complex during the late-1960s/early-1970s as a nation full of prodigal sons and feminist daughters. The girlfriend/baby-daddy of lady terrorist and Red Army Faction co-founder Gudrun Ensslin, Bernward Vesper ultimately lost his loony leftist lady love when she met her partner-in-crime Andreas Baader and in Die Reise one watches as the son-of-a-nazi-poet steals his son from his terrorist ex-girlfriend and goes on an anti-nostalgic road trip around Europa that makes Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) seem like the retarded ramblings of a hipster reject. Although portraying neither Vesper nor members of the RAF as heroes, Die Reise—a work directed by a man known for directing an ethno-masochistic holocaust flick entitled The Boat is Full implicating his fellow Swiss countrymen as crypto-Nazis and Jew-baiters—takes more than a couple artistic liberties when depicting history, portraying the protagonist father, Will Vesper, as a heinous Hitlerite tyrant who disowned his own son when he started dating Gudrun Ensslin. In reality, both Bernward Vesper and his girlfriend tried in vain to get a collection of the senior Vesper's works published. While adopting his father’s ardent anti-Americanism and talent for literature, Vesper resented the fact his father went from being a popular Nazi poet and literary critic to a ‘respectable’ mainstream conservative and supporter of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, hence his adoption of radical leftwing causes as a member of the 68er-Bewegung (aka German student movement). Although not depicting said suicide (he committed suicide in 1971 via sleeping pills after being sent to a mental institution), Die Reise essentially portrays the slow burning self-destructive and inevitable self-slaughter of a man that had the grand misfortune of being the forsaken son of a völkisch literary ‘war criminal.’ 

 Being a miserable melancholy man whose father has totally disowned him and whose terrorist fiancé left him for a criminally-inclined terrorist hunk, German student activist Bertram Voss (Markus Boysen)—a character based on Bernward Vesper—has nothing to lose except his son Florian (Alexander Mehner), so he kidnaps said son from a Sicilian beach where his terrorist girlfriend Dagmar (Corinna Kirchhoff), who is a character based on Gudrun Ensslin, is plotting the next act of idiotic guerilla warfare with her RAF buddies. Considering the last time they spoke, Bertram’s father (Will Quadflieg) stated, “I no longer have a son” and forbid him from attending his funeral, he wants to develop a strong and loving relationship with his kid Florian, even if he has to kidnap him to do so. As revealed through a series of unsettling flashbacks, Bertram’s life essentially took a turn for the worse while he was still a young lad when the Third Reich was defeated and his luxurious family home was taken over by a multicultural platoon of barbaric American GIs. To battle the degenerate jazz and swing music of the occupiers, Father Voss teaches his son to respect German classical music, using, “Our last weapon. Our culture” as a means to drown out American negro music. While just a wee lad in school, Bertram’s schoolteacher ordered the entire class to rip out pages from a book featuring his father’s poetry due to his nationalistic tone, thus embarrassing the boy in front of his entire class and forcing him to publicly disgrace his dear daddy. Apparently, the teacher could not stomach Vater Voss’ völkisch words, “We are all related through blood and earth. We all plough the same land. We fight with the same sword for our soil, home and hearth!,” so he also forces Bertram to put the pages of his pa’s poetry in the school bathroom to literally be used as toilet paper. When Voss senior discovers that his poetry has been ripped out of Bertram’s schoolbook, he bans the entire Voss family from speaking to the already emotionally brutalized boy. When father Voss does eventually speak to Bertram, he condemns his son for secretly owning a pet cat, absurdly stating regarding the antisocial behavior of felines, “Cats cannot be trained or integrated into a community. They are an unpredictable, oriental race. Semitic animals,” so naturally the pet kitty is slaughtered in a less than kosher fashion. When Bertram grows up to become a promising student of German studies and sociology, he impregnates his girlfriend Dagmar—the left-leaning daughter of a pastor who is not too keen on the writings and ideas of Voss senior—and the two decide to not abort the baby and when the child is actually born, they prove to be responsible parents by taking their infant son to violent protests. When Bertram eventually brings his girlfriend to his family's home to meet his parents, a heated argument breaks out regarding the Vietnam War and the holocaust. Of course, Vater Voss does not believe in the holocaust and couldn't care less how many gooks have been slaughtered, which rather upsets lady Dagmar. Not surprisingly, Bertram breaks all contact with his father, stating to his papa, “I never had a father” as his father states, “I no longer have a son.” Unfortunately, in between criminal anti-Vietnam protests, Dagmar falls in love at first sight with a young revolutionary named Schröder (Claude-Oliver Rudolph)—a character based on counter-cultural criminal and rock star terrorist Andreas Baader—and drops Bertram like a bad Bolshevik. While driving across country and attempting to evade authorities, Bertram tells his son Florian about his less than ideal child, but the young father and young son manage to bond like a true father-son relationship should be. In the end, Bertram takes Florian to the house where he grew up and in the end, Gestapo-like cops capture the fugitive father, thus inspiring his son to bite the hand of cop in a symbolic gesture of generational rebellion against the capitalist state. 

Rather paradoxically (or not so considering the context) while watching Die Reise, one comes to the conclusion that the protagonist did not merely adopt a far-left political persuasion to spite his father as a sort of archetypical prodigal son, but to also carry on his legacy as a stern anti-American who refuses to recognize barbarian Uncle Sam as his lord and savior, thus denying America's self-proclaimed role as 'liberators' of Germany during the Second World War. In terms of the tragic circumstances surrounding his youth and dubious relationship with his father, Bernward Vesper was a sort of Teutonic William S. Burroughs, Jr. who could not keep up with his father’s literary output and infamy, thus opting for self-destruction instead, which ironically helped to popularize his novel Die Reise and mystify his legacy as a kraut counter-culture figure. While not exactly the most innovative and aesthetically pleasing film ever made, Die Reise is certainly one of the best and most insightful cinematic depictions of how the Nazi generation spawned seemingly politically schizophrenic children who absurdly adopted kosher forms of class warfare, ultimately waging both figurative and literal war against the father and the Fatherland and sending West Germany into social chaos not seen since the days of street fights between communists and brownshirts during the Weimar Republic. Unlike Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), which portrays the members of the RAF as romantic rock stars who were too cool for school, Imhoof’s Die Reise portrays Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader as sort of idealistic idiots who had no business raising children, let alone running a revolution and creating a commie 'utopia,' thus making Bernward Vesper seem like an alright father in retrospect, even if he kidnapped his own son and committed suicide in the end, making his son a bastard in the process.  Of course, it is rather ridiculous that Vesper ever became a role model for anyone, but at least his book Die Reise was able to express what an entire generation of Germans would not and could not say.  In a country that produced Thomas Harlan (Torre Bela, Wundkanal)—the son of National Socialist auteur Veit Harlan, who directed such melodramatic high-camp masterpieces as Jud Süß (1940) and Opfergang (1944)—a mixed-up Marxist fool and friend of Klaus Kinski (the two friends once made a pilgrimage to Israel) who spent his entire lackluster filmmaking career denigrating the legacy of both his father and fatherland as depicted in the documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2008), it should be no surprise that it took a Swiss auteur filmmaker to create a film so revealing as Die Reise, a cinematic work that is contrary to everything that Hebraic Hollywood has taught us about both fatherhood and the fatherland.

-Ty E

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