Jan 28, 2014
Before becoming an object of hateful ridicule and scorn amongst mostly virginal American fanboys who know nothing of the filmmaker’s previous career with international cinematic greats like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Andy Warhol, German-born auteur Ulli Lommel (Adolf and Marlene, Cocaine Cowboys) directed a couple Hitchcockian thrillers with his then-wife Suzanna Love (Hair, A Smile in the Dark), a Dupont/Standard Oil heiress, after the huge success of his cult slasher flick The Boogeyman (1980). Interestingly, the best of Lommel’s 1980s Hitchcock-esque erotic-thrillers, Olivia (1983) aka A Taste of Sin aka Prozzie aka Beyond the Bridge aka Mad Night aka Double Jeopardy aka Faces of Fear, was made on a whim while Lommel was getting ready to shoot Boogeyman 2 in Arizona and was shocked to discover that the ‘London Bridge’ was staring back at him across the Colorado River. Indeed, as Lommel would learn upon doing some research, the original 1831 London Bridge, which spanned the River Thames in London, England, was dismantled stone-by-stone in 1967 and reconstructed in Lake Havasu City, Arizona in 1971. Seeing this as the perfect opportunity to make a film ostensibly set in London and using the bridge as a sort of metaphorical image for a film about a woman who decides to change her identity and move to another country, Lommel decided to temporarily ditch Boogeyman 2 and use the film crew for that film to shoot what would ultimately evolve into his nihilistic psychosexual thriller Olivia. Like most of Lommel’s films, Olivia is a work that dwells in the misery of the past, especially in relation to a tragic event during childhood, and how it affects the future, which is certainly a personal theme for the filmmaker.
Born in 1944 in the chaos of the Second World War to Ludwig Manfred Lommel—a popular German comedian and radio personality who was sometimes described as the ‘German Charlie Chaplin’—Lommel ultimately became a prodigal son and decided to rebel against his father (who disapproved of his son's dream to become an actor), so he quit school and ran away from him to seek a new and exciting life. When his concerned father called the police to help search for his son, Lommel telephoned him and yelled, “How could you do this to me, you old Nazi?” in what would ultimately be the last words he ever spoke to his papa as the comedian died three years later. Naturally, Lommel's unresolved break with his father would have an imperative influence on his work as a filmmaker and as he would later remark in an interview with Rory MacLean of Goethe Institute London regarding the importance of art: “Within every one of us is a painter, a dancer, a storyteller. I believe that if every individual¹s artistic side was nurtured at school, it could channel much frustration and anger, and change the way people live their lives. Change even the way a potential serial killer might have lived his life. Maybe this is just an illusion. But I really do believe that art heals.” Indeed, it is probably for the better that Lommel never became a sadistic serial killer and instead opted for directing one of the greatest kraut psycho-killer films ever made, The Tenderness of Wolves (1973) aka Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe. A stylish reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) inspired by the shadowy yet kaleidoscopic and mirror-obsessed camera work of Fassbinder’ cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who, like Lommel, would leave Germany and make Hollywood his new home), Olivia is the unsettling and equally unhinged story of a young woman who witnessed the brutal slaying of her prostitute mother while a young child and now hears voices from said dead prostitute mother telling her to kill. Trapped in a nightmarish marriage with an abusive rapist husband who will not let her get a job, the eponymous antihero decides to start prostituting herself around the London Bridge and in between killing unsuspecting Johns, she falls in love with a successful American man, thus ushering her attempt to fully reinvent herself and begin a new life.
While just a wee little girl, London native Olivia—the bastard child of an American and an English hooker—witnesses her working-girl mother (Bibbe Hansen) being brutally murdered at the hands of an American soldier (Nicholas Love) during a game of bondage gone terribly wrong. Flash forward 15 years later, Olivia (Suzanna Love) is now is in figurative bondage as the unhappy housewife a control-freak, rape-obsessed husband who won't even let her get a job as a mere bar maid. To pass the time, Olivia looks with almost envy as local streetwalkers peddle their fleshy goods around the London Bridge and after hearing voices from her dead mother persuading her to peddle her puss, the unemployed housewife becomes a hooker as well, but she is more interested in the metaphysical side of blood and mayhem than mere material cash-money. After brutally murdering a strangle fellow with a bizarre mannequin fetish straight out of Maniac (1980) starring Joe Spinell, Olivia goes on a random ‘date’ with a charming and considerate American gentleman named Mike Grant (Robert Walker Jr.) and the two make passionate love. Indeed, for the first time in her decidedly deplorable existence, Olivia feels true love and empathy, thereupon giving her a totally new outlook on life. Of course, all hell breaks loose when Olivia’s husband discovers his wife’s affair with the quasi-ugly American. While attempting to murder Mike, Olivia’s husband falls to his death from the London Bridge, or so the viewer assumes. Traumatized by the series of events, Olivia runs away from her true love Mike into the night and eventually starts a new life by moving to America and taking on a new identity as a blonde and sophisticated quasi-feminist babe. Flash forward four years later after that deadly night in London, Mike spots what seems to be Olivia’s doppelganger working as a successful Arizona realtor. Like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Mike obsessively stalks the Olivia-look-alike and tries his damnedest to get her to open up to him, which she eventually does with a bit of reluctance. Eventually, Olivia reveals her true identity to Mike and the two make passionate love all around the latter’s home. In a tragic twist, Olivia’s husband is magically revealed to be alive after all and he wastes no time in brutally murdering Mike and subsequently raping his wife once again. In the end, Olivia gets the strength to murder her equally homicidal hubby, but nothing will repair the damage that has been done her fragile mind and forsaken soul.
In an interview featured on the Image Entertainment dvd release of Olivia, auteur Ulli Lommel states: “I think the big difference between Hitchcock and the way I make movies is definitely.... Hitchcock has the audience in mind and I, for my films, never have the audience in mind.” Indeed, Olivia certainly concludes too cynically and depressingly for the average American viewer as a film that is ultimately more nasty and nihilistic than Lommel’s German New Cinema horror masterpiece The Tenderness of Wolves. In fact, Olivia was such a personal work for Lommel that he ended up hiring and firing eight cinematographers before deciding to become director of photography himself. While going on the record as stating that Olivia is his “most favorite movie of the 80s,” the film would ultimately bankrupt the auteur and probably help sire the ‘slippery slope’ that plagued the rest of his filmmaking career. Indeed, as a man who went so far as directing a scene featuring Robert Walker Jr. of Easy Rider (1969) fame performing cunnilingus on his wife, Lommel was certainly not screwing around when he made Olivia. As to the reason why the auteur has made a filmmaking career out of depicting debased and deranged individuals in the tradition of Peter Lorre's character from Fritz Lang's M (1931), Lommel stated, “Since my childhood I’ve felt uneasy with the demonizing of an enemy. In my work I find myself standing up for the outsider, the accused. Again and again I want to understand their perspective,” and Olivia does just that as a rare cinematic work that dares to empathize with a female psycho-killer. Indeed, while not exactly an unsung masterpiece, Olivia certainly goes farther than Hitchcock in terms of psychosexual sickness and makes the films of Brian De Palma seem like softcore Hitchcockian celluloid bubblegum filled with artificial flavoring. In other words, Olivia was clearly directed by a troubled man with a lot of pent up hatred, acute internal pain, and a seemingly strong fetish for sadomasochism and bondage. Not unlike Fassbinder’s early masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Olivia is an obscured autobiography of the transsexualized sort featuring an antihero who, like Lommel himself, is plagued by a childhood trauma relating to the parent of the same sex, so she tries to move to a new country and “assumes another identity hoping the future will be better than the past” (Lommel’s words, not mine). While Olivia certainly did not rid herself of her inner demons and achieve the American dream upon moving to the United States, Lommel did not seem to do half bad as he outlived both his masters, Fassbinder and Warhol, and can at least say he has lived a totally singular life as a man born at a time when most of the babies of his nation were starving to death. Arguably Lommel's greatest post-Warhol flick, Olivia and the director's other Hitchcockian flick BrainWaves (1983) aka Shadow of Death certainly make welcome exceptions to the banality of slasher schlock and swill typical of the 1980s.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 6:52 PM
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