Jan 10, 2014

Utopia (1983)

Out of all the countless books I have read about German New Cinema, very few have even bothered to mention the name of Sohrab Shaheed Salles (Hans - Ein Junge in Deutschland, Anton P. Cechov - Ein Leben), an Iranian auteur filmmaker who was educated in Vienna and Paris and who directed most of his films in West Germany about ghetto-dwelling Germans. Rather unfortunately, but not surprisingly, most of Salles’ films are nearly impossible to find today and usually can only be found in poor quality bootleg form without English subtitles. Luckily, I recently managed to snag a copy of the director’s kraut whorehouse epic Utopia (1983); a corrupting celluloid work that is almost Brechtian in its slowness and innately static direction, yet never wallows in banality and ultimately packs a penetrating punch. Somewhat unfittingly compared by some reviewers to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s scatological swansong Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and described by German critics as a “hard ghetto film,” Utopia is a sort of nasty neo-neorealist film about a pernicious pimp who wants to establish his own unhinged ‘utopia’ in the way of a would-be-high-class whorehouse and is willing to smack any bitch up who gets in his wayward way to do so. Made a year after German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s tragic death, Utopia certainly helped to fill void that he left in terms of portraying rather desperate and hysterical women as it portrays five female prostitutes who, for various (and oftentimes dubious) reasons, endure use and abuse not only from their prick pimp, but also their mostly perverted Johns. Indeed, while empathetic in its portrayal of street whores, Utopia does not exactly feature a flattering portrayal of the so-called fairer sex and thus follows in Fassbinder’s quasi-anti-feminist filmic tradition. A nearly 200-minute chamber piece set in plodding pussy-peddler pandemonium, Utopia not only takes bitter swipes at capitalism, but West German society in general, depicting the post-Nazi nation as a clearly class-divided pseudo-democracy where bourgeois boobs go to operas and working-class heroes go to whores. Clearly a work directed by a man who is both a physical and internal exile with next to nil respect for the Heimat, Utopia is an intentionally painfully slow moving and brazenly brooding celluloid work with the aesthetic flare of a docudrama on downers. A decidedly debasing depiction of dumb broads who prefer the security of sexual slavery to a real-life of social and economic freedom, Utopia is a radical realist horror whore show that is bound to act as an audacious anti-aphrodisiac for even the most depraved of sexual sadists. 

 Opening with a beauteous blonde Aryan opera singer performing a soulful solo for a bunch of stiff and uptight upper-middleclass krauts in a fancy Berlin opera house, Utopia soon snaps the viewer back into reality and introduces brutal pimp Heinz (Manfred Zapatka) as he smacks one of his bitches up right outside said opera house. Heinz has just opened up a new bordello with a bar named ‘Club Arena’ in a dilapidated old building and, due to the various costs that go into the pussy-peddling business, he is mighty worried about money and is quite quick to smack a bitch if she makes a snide remark or refuses to follow his stern demands. Naïve college girl Monika (Birgit Anders) is the newest addition to Heinz’s whorehouse and she is so deluded that she tells a stranger on a train ride to the bordello that, “I made myself a promise: Now, I want to live!,” as if selling one's flesh and soul makes for a truly life-affirming experience.  Of course, by the end of Utopia, Monika no longer wants to live as she makes a rather bloody attempt at suicide via straight razor to the wrist. The oldest and most pessimistic worker of Heinz's bordello is Renate (Imke Barnstedt), who can rarely attract customers due to her advanced age and who was tricked into the streetwalking business after the pimp pretended to be her boyfriend. As Renate tells the other girls regarding Heinz, “In thoughts I killed him a thousand times. Everytime differently. I’d favor cyanide. It’s quick and foolproof.” The most unruly of the girls is Susi (Gabriele Fischer), who has her own apartment and does not live in the whorehouse, thus giving her a tad bit more freedom and personal integrity. Eventually, Susi quits and Heinz beats the shit out of her and does not give her a dime of her hard earned cunt cash, but ultimately she comes crawling back to her miserly misogynist monster a couple days later after realizing she cannot make it on her own. The most dimwitted of the girls is Helga (Johanna Sophia), who rather enjoys it when Heinz forces himself own her. After having sex, Helga attempts to flirt with Heinz and he responds by stating, “Fuck off dumb cunt or I’ll rough you up.”  Indeed, Heinz rules with a firm iron-first as if he is a former concentration camp commander, but being a majorly miserable man, it does not take much for him to want to make people feel just as melancholy as he does.

 Naturally, as a man that gets a kick out of beating women, Heinz has his own problems, namely random unexplainable (and seemingly psychosomatic) debilitating headaches that cause him to lie around for hours with his hands wrapped around his head like a sad little girl. Of course, these headaches only compound Heinz’s innate irritability and he wastes not time to dehumanize his dames when they get out of line. A key to Heinz’s undying hatred is a dream that he has about his dead daddy that he tells to Renate after beating up her and ripping her haircut, which he describes to her as follows: “I dreamed about that asshole. If he was still breathing, I’d strangle him ten times. Are you listening?... The dream… I was little, about six or seven. I was walking with him in an alley. He was constantly babbling the same bullshit. All of a sudden, a man walks towards us. He had a big dog, a shepherd. The man comes closer. Suddenly, he kicks me right in the stomach. I try to yell for my father, but no sound’s coming out. I realize, the dogs on my chest and has grabbed my throat. And then…what then? Fuck.” Indeed, it seems Heinz's father was ungodly dictator, yet he ultimately grew up to be even worse than the man he hates with an oedipal passion.  Not long after, Renate decides enough is enough after Heinz wakes her up and forces her to have sex with him, as she repeatedly stabs him with a pair of scissors in the gut. While dying of blood loss, Heinz tells his whores, “I’ll take you with me, you cheap whores! Just wait, I’ll show you!...All of you slits…All of you” as they hide together in the brothel hallway. In the end, Heinz calls all his girls “fucking cunts” as he bleeds out on the floor and the gals proceed to collectively kill him like wild animals using chairs, knives, guns, and anything else than can get their hands on to finish the job.  Indeed, if Utopia proves anything, it is that slaves are oftentimes much more cruel and relentless than their masters.  In a bitingly sardonic twist, the girls keep the brothel open for business and Renate—the old fat prostitute who initially stabbed Heinz—becomes the new pimp (or madame) of the whorehouse, thus demonstrating with every revolution, the new leaders always become just as repressive and authoritarian as the people they overthrew, if not more so. 

 With the legalization of prostitution in Germany in 2002, Utopia is indubitably more relevant day than it was when it was first released some three decades ago, though considering the sorry Americanized state of contemporary kraut cinema, it is doubtful most modern day viewers will have large enough attention spans to get through all 3+ grueling hours of the film. While I doubt it was intentional on the director’s part, the villain Heinz has a lot of similarities with R.W. Fassbinder, namely that the auteur was once a pimp (both Udo Kier and Irm Hermann worked for him at various points), beat women, and had a rather regrettable relationship with his father, even basing the sadistic husband played by Karlheinz Böhm in Martha (1974) on his papa. Of course, unlike the character of Heinz in Utopia, as well as director Sohrab Shaheed Salles, Fassbinder actually had a sense of humor, which the hooker epic completely lacks to the point of acting as a sort of agonizing aesthetic torture against the viewer. In its depiction of a prick pimp virtually enslaving and constantly degrading female hookers, only for the girls to revolt and one of the female hookers to ironically take his place in the end and continue the cycle of sexual slavery, Utopia is a sort of allegory for the emasculation and feminization of Deutschland after the World War II (with many men dead or imprisoned) and with the so-called ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ when German women played a large part in rebuilding the country and ultimately realized they no longer had any use for men.  Indeed, many directors of German New Cinema, including Fassbinder with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Helma Sanders-Brahms with Germany Pale Mother (1980), had already cinematically depicted the declining power and influence of men in post-WWII Germany, but Utopia takes this to a whole new brutal and uncompromising extreme. Like John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) meets the underrated West German teen hustler flick The End of the Rainbow (1979) aka Das Ende des Regenbogens directed by Uwe Frießner, Utopia ultimately anticipates the films of Gaspar Noé and the films of the New French Extremity in general, thus making it mandatory viewing for any serious subversive cinephile. In its outsider’s portrayal of Berlin, Utopia certainly ranks up with Turk queer auteur Kutlug Ataman’s Fassbinder-esque work Lola and Billy the Kid (1999) aka Lola + Bilidikid as an outstanding and singular, if not totally unflattering, depiction of metropolitan Teutonland by a swarthy Ausländer from the Islamic world. Indeed, in a strange sense, Utopia is a sort of cinematic revenge for the death of El Hedi ben Salem due to its exploitative portrayal of the kraut exploiter. 

-Ty E

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