Mar 13, 2014

Countdown (1990)

Without question, Ulrike Ottinger (Freak Orlando, Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia) is one of the most innately idiosyncratic and adventurous female auteur filmmakers working today and quite arguably the greatest lady director since Leni Riefenstahl, be it in Germany or elsewhere, especially in terms of the epic essence of her work as a rare ‘hands-on’ type of woman who is not afraid to get her hands dirty and trek around the globe to create truly singular celluloid works. Indeed, in that regard, Ottinger is sort of like a lesbian Werner Herzog, albeit of ½ Jewish instead of ½ Croatian extraction. Indeed, while a mischling Jew, Ottinger certainly takes after her Aryan side as her father Ulrich Ottinger, who hid the filmmaker and her Jewish mother during the Second World War, was an artist-painter who belonged to a circle of artists that included German expressionist Otto Dix. Undoubtedly, up until her sexually anarchistic love letter to Oscar Wilde and German expressionism, Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (1984) aka Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press, and before her breakup with her longtime girlfriend/muse Tabea Blumenschein (who starred in virtually all the filmmaker’s works between 1975 and 1984), Ottinger’s films had a distinctly Teutonic essence, albeit of the post-empire Weimar-esque and largely sadomasochistic camp-ridden sort, but somewhere along the way the filmmaker became a pathological orientalist with a special interest in the Jewish Diaspora, with her seemingly new-found affinity for the historical legacy of German Jewry being quite apparent in her 3+ hour documentary Countdown (1990). An exceedingly long chronological document in ten parts set in Berlin during the ten days leading to the reunification of German currencies (aka ‘the first stage of German reunification’) on July 1, 1990, Countdown ultimately portrays a rundown metropolis plagued by cultural and social decay as opposed to a magical place on the brink of a long-time-coming revolutionary ‘family reunion.’ Instead on focusing on interviewing indigenous Berliners on their thoughts on the reunification, Ottinger opts for dwelling on Hebraic ghosts and the general cultural/racial outsider, beginning by focusing on the ‘Einsteinturm’ aka ‘Einstein Tower’ (an astrophysical observatory built by German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn to test Albert Einstein’s relativity theory) in Potsdam and the Jewish Cemetery Weißensee (the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe that has been rarely used since 1955) and focusing on foreign gypsy peddlers hanging out at the Bahnhof Zoo on the third day. Essentially seeming like a multiculturalist tourist diary shot by an individual who forgot they turned on the ‘record’ button and kept filming for way too long, Countdown is far from Ottinger’s greatest work (in fact, I would argue it is her worst) as a documentary that aesthetically murders the subversively glamorous movie magic and mystique the filmmaker brought to Berlin with Bildnis Einer Trinkerin-Aller Jamais Retour (1979) aka Ticket of No Return

 A couple years ago, my girlfriend went on vacation in Germany and she described her two-day stay in Berlin as the biggest disappointment of her trip because, aside from a couple old monuments and ancient architecture that was not destroyed in the Second World War, she found the city to be not all that different from a degenerate American urban cesspool due to its influx of immigrants from the global south and McDonald's fast food restaurant on every corner. Undoubtedly, the Berlin of Ottinger’s Countdown seems even worse than what my girlfriend described. With the GDR thankfully becoming history, swarthy Slavs peddle commie kraut relics in the form of badges, uniforms, and hats for virtually nothing to blonde teenage boys who want to use these now-worthless items as quirky souvenirs. Young boys also work eagerly to destroy remnants of the wall, though it is dubious whether or not they are doing it for any political reason because, like many young men, they probably get a kick out of destroying stuff, especially things that symbolize authority. In one particularly allegorical scenario, a man in a wheelchair sits next to a young boy holding a tricolor ‘Bundesflagge und Handelsflagge’ flag of Germany in a ruined section of East Berlin that seems like it has yet to be repaired after the ravaging of the Second World War. Meanwhile, a synagogue that seems to have seen better days on the other side of Berlin seems to act as an uneasy metaphor for the disastrous relationship between Germans and Jews in the post-Auschwitz years. Instead of Jews as its outsiders, Berlin now has the luxury of hosting impoverished Sinti, Roma, and Poles, who beg for money while hanging at the virtual human zoo that is the Bahnhof Zoo station. Undoubtedly, the only solacing scenes of Countdown take place in scenic parks that act in stark contrast to the seemingly epidemic urban decay that has spread around the city like Wotan’s wildfire. Anticipating Ottinger’s more recent documentary Prater (2007)—a truly ‘carnivalesque’ work about the Wurstelprater amusement park in Vienna, Austria that was destroyed in the Second World War but subsequently rebuilt after the war—Countdown also features footage at a Berlin amusement park, which includes shots of a rather cool looking haunted house rides, among other things. Ultimately, the documentary concludes with footage of Germans, both young and old, relaxing at a placid lake located in southeast Berlin (Treptow) next to a glaringly ugly factory emitting toxic fumes in a scene that reminds me of the Oswald Spengler quote, “Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, until it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.” 

 Aside from director Ulrike Ottinger’s curious choice of locations for shooting, Countdown is undoubtedly an objectively directed work with nil narration nor discernible political messages, yet at the same time, the documentary cannot help but depict post-Cold War Berlin as a decidedly dreary place inhabited by people who, for the most part aside from collectively smashing the Berlin Wall, never smile and go about their business in an almost zombie-like fashion as if they were victims of prison rape. In fact, I find it rather ironic that the only person that stuck out in my mind smiling for an extended period of time in the doc was a somewhat creepy gypsy dude who was peddling worthless junk on the street as a foreign man who came from a foreign land who can afford to smirk as he has taken full advantage of post-Nazi Germany’s lack of community and increasing deracination, not to mention very generous brown-baby-funding social welfare system. Undoubtedly, a glaring sign of Germany’s undying ethno-masochism is the fact that Karl-Marx-Allee—a monumental ‘socialist boulevard’ that was originally named ‘Stalinallee’ (until, of course, the ‘man of steel’ went out of fashion as so many commie dictators do) featured in the final section of Countdown that was built by the GDR between 1952 and 1960—has yet to be de-marxized despite the fact that is bears the name of arguably the most deleterious thinker of German history and a man whose dubious ideas left East Germany (not to mention every other country east of the Fatherland) under virtual slavery for nearly half a century.

 In his puffery-plagued work Ulrike Ottinger: The Autobiography of Art Cinema (2008), Frankfurt school-lobotomized American shabbos goy intellectual Laurence A. Rickels wrote regarding Countdown: “What comes out in the wash or watch of this document of reunification is both the viewing of the spectral Jewish cemetery and the return of Sinti and Roma minorities. This return is marked by the phobic static already or still on the lines of their reception but also set aside, as the film closes with portrayals of everyday life in the outpost-towns of the former GDR. We are offered glimpses of an existence that will, for a historical change, be passed over and allowed to survive,” thus demonstrating the sort of petty hatred the documentary inspires in mainstream hack intellectuals who make a living out of reviving the already maliciously molested ghosts of German’s past (it should be noted that Rickels is probably best known for writing a three volume piece of Freudian pseudo-history entitled Nazi Psychoanalysis). Demonstrating his ‘humanistic’ insistence that Germany still needs constant remainders that its forefathers were big bad Aryan butchers who got what they deserved for not loving the saintly untermenschen, Rickels also stated regarding what he believes is most important regarding Countdown: “The allegorical status of the divided city, of what was once upon a time in the recent past the circumcised, displaced, cosmopolitan, ghostly capital of old Europe, was being functionalized literally with a vengeance, with a revenge Nietzsche defined as directed “against the ‘It was’ of time.” That no sizable portion of the wall—one of the great monuments in history—was left standing speaks volumes about the official plan for reunified Berlin, against which Ottinger’s document can be seen to offer a stay of execution.” The retarded remarks of neo-commie-Freudian cultural cuckolds aside, Countdown does offer a sometimes insightful and even poetic, if not incessantly meandering, depiction of Deutschland’s somewhat aborted rebirth in 1990. In many ways, Countdown is like like Dutch alpha-documentarian Johan van der Keuken’s 245-minute doc Amsterdam Global Village (1996) because, aside from both being exceedingly long and whimsical yet minimalistic works, both documentaries demonstrate how major European capital cities have so drastically degenerated since the Second World War, with the metropolises suffering from similar distinctly European social sicknesses (i.e. multiculturalism, social and cultural deracination, social alienation, increasing overpopulation yet dying out of the indigenous populations, etc.). Indeed, I do not know how much Berlin has changed since the release of Countdown over two decades ago, but if I ever take a trip to the Fatherland, it will probably be to Bavaria instead. 

-Ty E

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