Oct 16, 2013

I'm an Elephant, Madame

Despite being one of post-WWII Germanys most serious and influential theater directors, even popularizing the plays of William Shakespeare among German audiences, Peter Zadek also directed somewhat lowbrow satirical comedic films meant to appeal to even the most intellectually and aesthetically disadvantaged of filmgoers, which is especially true in regard to his work The Roaring Fifties (1983) aka Die wilden Fünfziger, a semi-scatological sexploitation-like satire of the Wirtschaftswunder (“Economic Miracle”) that the auteur, quite blasphemously, dedicated to German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had recently died. Undoubtedly, Zadek's The Roaring Fifties seems like a Hollywood-esque mockery of Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy, which is rather unfortunate considering the German New Cinema alpha-auteur filmmaker's respect for the elder theater director.  In fact, Fassbinder had so much respect for Zadek that he gave him a cameo role in his penultimate film Veronika Voss (1982), but, even more importantly, he also dedicated one of his greatest films, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), to the older filmmaker. As to why Fassbinder felt the need to dedicate what is arguably his most popular flick to Zadek, he stated in an interview, “I don’t do my dedications in such a way that I say, this film has a lot to do with so-and-so, who it’s dedicated to, but in this case, for instance, I want to say that Zadek is one of those who shattered the ossified way of life that The Marriage of Maria Braun describes. From a certain point on, Zadek was also very important to me, as a person, as someone to talk to. It liberated me a bit to know there was someone around who was over fifty and completely set in his ways and then changed himself so totally. I find something very positive and hopeful in that. Five years ago he was a major figure just as he was, and then he changed himself totally.” Indeed, born in Berlin in 1926 to a Jewish family and emigrating to London in 1934, where he would eventually cause great controversy by directing productions of works by frog queer degenerate Jean Genet, Zadek virtually lived a whole other life before he came back to Germany in 1958, but it was not until 1969 that he got to literally say “Fuck Germany” cinematically via his award-winning flick I'm an Elephant, Madame (1969) aka Ich bin ein Elefant, Madame to the nation that had rejected him and his family only a couple decades before. Winning the coveted Silver Bear award at the 19th Berlin International Film Festival, I'm an Elephant, Madame—an iconoclastic kraut counter-culture cult flick that is virtually totally unknown anywhere outside of Deutschland—is Zadek’s sort of satirical and semi-surreal (anti)tribute to the German student movement (68er-Bewegung). Featuring music by the Velvet Underground (including a peculiar inter-title at the beginning of the film advertising “Andy Warhol” written in large text next to "Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground" in smaller text), I’m an Elephant, Madame is a film dedicated to all the children of Marx and Coca-Cola about a group of high school seniors from the Nordic northwestern German city of Bremen during the year 1968 who are itching for revolution and live to destroy German classical institutions, even if they have no truly realistic nor rational way to go about it. An aesthetically bombastic work of the Brechtian sort that brazenly blitzkriegs the fourth wall and features enough jaded jump-cuts to make the average French New Wave fan wet their panties, yet assembled in a relatively straight-forward manner that makes the film accessible to poor proles and philistines (Zadek was indubitably an equal opportunity offender!), I’m an Elephant, Madame is the post-WWII German-Jewish answer to Godard, albeit nowhere near as banal, that goes straight to the schizophrenic soul of the psychosis-ridden children of the Nazi generation.

Rull (Wolfgang Schneider) is the most radicalized and revolutionary senior at his classical German “gymnasium” school as a rebel without a cause who feels the need to believe he has a cause, even if he is a naughty little nihilist at heart who seems to act more than think. Not only does Rull threaten and mock his teachers with his brazenly bizarre behavior, but he almost brings misery to his friends, including his less than homely girlfriend. After deflowering his girlfriend Billa (Maja Eigen)—a butch and bitchy tomboy with a dyke haircut who hates the Fatherland just as much as her male compatriots—Rull lets everyone know about his victorious defiling of a virgin. In class, Rull gives teachers absurd reasons for failing to do his homework and gets especially irked when the class has a discussion comparing Roman philosopher Cicero with Hitler. Meanwhile, the times are changing at the Bremen school as ‘progressive’ liberal teachers are changing the curriculum, including a funny fellow named Dr. Nemitz (Heinz Baumann) that has the potential to be the new principal of the school, as well as a depressed English teacher who is obsessed with Donovan who gives music appreciation lectures (one on the ‘Renaissance of Anglo-American Pop’) on hippie rock and what not, which disgusts old school style teachers like Dr. Hartmann, who is afraid so-called ‘progressives’ are destroying his school and laying waste to 20 years of his life’s work as a classical academic of the conservative sort. On top of digging Trotsky and Lenin, the students at the gymnasium school are digging the films of Andy Warhol, referencing the 320-minute avant-retard work Sleep (1963), a film that few Americans, let alone American high schoolers, can say they have seen. When Rull has the bright idea to spray paint a swastika on the side of a parliament building, he destroys any legitimacy regarding his revolutionary behavior, sparking a mini (and real) riot of sorts, including arguments between holocaust survivors and ex-soldiers, many of whom argue that the novice graffiti artist should be hanged and/or imprisoned for his tasteless vandalism. In the end, Rull, like many of his mixed up generation, comes out looking like a fool, which is in stark contrast to the novel The Unadvised aka Die Unberatenen written by Thomas Valentin which I’m an Elephant, Madame is based on, which portrays the angst-ridden anti-hero as an actual hero of sorts.

Featuring absurdist lines like “When it’s raining the revolution will take place in the saloon” and a perturbed far-left protagonist who feels the need to graffiti walls with swastikas to make a point about political ignorance among the general German public, I’m an Elephant, Madame is certainly not a mindless tribute to the German student movement, but a superlatively sardonic work that leaves no group unscathed, especially the degenerate generation focused on in the film, which has gone from counter-culture to the mainstream as demonstrated by the fact that Angela Merkel—the present and first female Chancellor of Deustchland—was the secretary for “Agitprop” of the communist 'Free German Youth' (FDJ) when she was in high school. Notably, the scene towards the end of I'm an Elephant, Madame, which was purposely shot in black-and-white, is essentially documentary footage of the cultural chaos and political confusion that had consumed Germany during the late-1960s. For the swastika scene, Zadek apparently had real people give their reaction to theatrical Rull’s swastika stunt, thus illustrating the range of sociopolitical opinion of post-WWII Germans, including a holocaust survivor who emphatically states that the graffiti artist should be hanged immediately for his stunt juxtaposed against a German that argues that more Aryans than Jews were killed in the Second World War. I personally liked a scene where a nice German fellow argues that a swastika is merely a rune and “old Germanic symbol,” but I nearly fell out of my chair laughing after hearing some leftist loser state regarding Rull’s behavior, “He acted counter-revolutionary…It’s a disgrace,” thus demonstrating the cliche and brainwashed minds of young student activists in Germany during the 1960s.  In another notable scene, a newscaster questions two girls about the swastika, asking them if it has any political meaning, which the deny, as if they have never heard of the Third Reich, thus demonstrating the 'need to forget' and cultural amnesia among certain Teutons in regard to history. 

 Undoubtedly , I’m an Elephant, Madame, not unlike Jack Nicholson’s forgotten counter-culture flick Drive, He Said (1971) is best looked at today as a nice and curious little cultural oddity of a radically repellant zeitgeist best left forgotten. Featuring a scene where protagonist Rull and his boyish girlfriend Billa absurdly yell “Fuck Germany!” for no apparent reason at all, I’m an Elephant, Madame can be seen as director Peter Zadek’s celluloid “fuck you” to Germany as a Jew who left the country after the National Socialist takeover, only to come back after the Second World War and make the sort of degenerate cinematic art that would have fueled Uncle Adolf’s flatulence, hence the director's need to conclude the film with the intertitle “Made in Germany,” as if that was not already apparent. After all, what would be a greater source of revenge for a Jewish filmmaker than to make a film about an entire generation of conflicted Teutonic youth who hate their ex-Nazi parents and seek to turn the Fatherland into some idealistic Trotskyite utopia?! Concluding with a montage of a German soldier World War II memorial, and real stock footage of German soldiers dying on the Eastern Front and humiliated German POWs being marched by by the Soviets through the streets of Stalingrad intercut with scenes of students of the gymnasium taking their final examination, I’m an Elephant, Madame is, if nothing else, a cynical celebration of kraut cultural chaos. A sort of patently pretentious yet palatable Teutonic 68er-Bewegung equivalent to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), I'm an Elephant, Madame is undoubtedly a film that has not aged gracefully, but is certainly infinitely more entertaining than virtually anything ever directed by New German Cinema ideologue and father figure Alexander Kluge and one of only a handful of German student movement themed works that might appeal to the average American filmgoer, especially pseudo-nostalgic teenagers who fetishize hippies and whatnot.

-Ty E

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