Mar 2, 2014


Long before pedantic proto-hipster Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Only Lovers Left Alive), whose second feature film Stranger Than Paradise (1984) was partly funded by the West German TV channel ZDF, was copying auteur filmmakers of the French New Wave and creating ‘offbeat’ crime and neo-noir flicks featuring degenerate jazz soundtracks and goofy lackluster characters, Teutonic filmmakers like Klaus Lemke (48 Stunden bis Acapulco aka 48 Hours to Acapulco, Rocker), Rudolf Thome (Rote Sonne aka Red Sun, Der Philosoph aka The Philosopher), Volker Schlöndorff (A Degree of Murder aka Mord und Totschlag) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Liebe ist kälter als der Tod aka Lover is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plague aka Götter der Pest), among countless others, were making stripped down and statically directed counter-culture crime flicks that inspired naïve teenagers to listen to outmoded Negro music and idealize anarchic gangsters. Indeed, somehow some of these now mostly forgotten films managed to reconcile the films of Humphrey Bogart and Raoul Walsh with the primitive celluloid (anti)counter-culture experiments of Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey, thus making for curious cinematic works with mixed results that have aged less than gracefully over the decades but sometimes make for semi-interesting novelties nonetheless, with Detektive (1969) aka Detectives directed by Rudolf Thome being an excellent example of this sort of ‘neo-detektivfilm.’ Starring model and counter-culture sex icon Uschi Obermaier—the one-time sexual partner of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and Kommune 1 founder/all-around hippie charlatan Rainer Langhans—Detektive, which was auteur Thome’s first attempt at directing a feature film, is a quasi-absurdist and less than hard-boiled crime anti-thriller that reminds one why hippies should probably never mess with a masculine film genre. Also starring actor-turned-director Ulli Lommel (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe aka The Tenderness of Wolves, Cocaine Cowboys) and co-shot by cinematographer-turned-director Niklaus Schilling (Nachtshatten aka Nightshade, Rhinegold aka Rheingold), Detektive is essentially a primitive work from the early days of German New Cinema when most Teutonic filmmakers of that time unfortunately had an acute case of Francophilia coupled with cultural-masochism and it certainly shows in Thome's cinematic debut, even if I found it infinitely more interesting than Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) aka Breathless.  A German flick where virtually every character has a swarthy complexion and scrawny and/or pathetic physique, not to mention chicks that look like they were imported from the Slavic East and characters with American-like names, Detektive is, at least aesthetically speaking, as anti-Teutonic as films come.  In other words, Detektive would have probably been less appealing to Leni Riefenstahl than Joey Goebbels and would have F.W. Murnau wishing he was on some Polynesian island somewhere.

 Sebastian West (Ulli Lommel) and Andy Schubert (Marquard Bohm) are Munich-based private detectives that own a company with the nice generic name ‘West and Schubert,’ as if they are psychopathic lawyers who hide their immorality with an intentionally banal exterior. When Herr Schubert goes to spy on a chick named Annabella Quant (Iris Berben) after being hired by her supposed husband Busse (Peter Moland, who would later co-direct Haytabo (1971) with Ulli Lommel), he learns the job is pretty much a dead-end with no real payoff. On top of not really being Busse’s wife, Annabella falls in love at first sight with Schubert and the two ‘hook up.’ Naturally, Busse goes to the West and Schubert flips out, attempting to shoot the detectives, but they beat him and make him their little bitch. Among other things, Busse is a broke middle-aged trust fund brat with a rather repellant bald-spot who is in trouble for embezzlement and has nil money to pay the detectives, so they keep him around as a sort of cuckolded slave, at least until they can no longer tolerate his moronic behavior and meek demeanor. West and Schubert ‘share’ a pretty personal assistant named Micky (Uschi Obermaier) who they, among other things, enjoy taking naps with when they should be working. Although a rather anarchistic detective agency already, the company eventually begins to fall apart when they can no longer pay their bills and have their furniture taken away, so West declares, “The time has come for everyone to think of themselves,” but fate has other plans for the men. Eventually, the detectives are assigned to take on a case for a certain old rich dude named Krueger (Walter Rilla), who is concerned that his much younger ex-girlfriend named Christa (Elke Haltaufderheide, who would later become the filmic diva of Niklaus Schilling) who is in cahoots with a swarthy ghoul of a man named Reininger (Dieter Busch) who claims to be a pharmaceutical salesman by trade. Apparently, if Krueger drops dead, Christa plans to cash in 100,000DM via insurance policy and apparently Reiniger wants a piece of the pie. Detective West goes by Christa’s home and charms her, ultimately hiding a small recording device in one of her houseplants. And, indeed, the recording device reveals that Christa and her man Reiniger are conspiring to get rid of Krueger via poisoning. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Krueger wants Christa’s little blond boy Florian (Florian Obermaier) as a replacement for his own deceased son. While Krueger’s plan seem dubious, Sebastian is confident he is on his side, remarking, “Krueger trusts me. He loves me. Yesterday he cooked for me. I reminded him of his son, clear case.” In the end, a number of plot twists are revealed, including that both West and Schubert’s assistant Annabella and Christa’s co-conspirator Reininger had been hired by Krueger, who tried to setup his ex-babe so he could take custody of Florian. When Christa is confronted about her intentions to poison Krueger, she defends herself by absurdly stating, “I was hoping – maybe it was silly – that he would marry me once he saw that I could have poisoned him, and didn’t.” Despite thwarting his own poisoning, Krueger ironically gets poisoned in the end and thus Christa gets to both keep her son and cash in on the old man’s life insurance policy. On top of that, Schubert asks Christa to marry him and everyone lives happily after, or not as demonstrated by one of the character’s closing remark, “Life is one of the toughest.” 

 While tinkering around with film noir conventions like a true dilettante, auteur Rudolf Thome ultimately assembled a nihilistic black comedy of the decidedly dry yet quasi-deranged sort disguised as a sterile gumshoe flick with Detektive, a work quite like Fassbinder's first feature Lover is Colder than Death in terms of its deconstruction and radical reconstruction of old school American genre conventions. In my opinion, Fassbinder could have never had assembled his scatological slapstick comedy Satansbraten (1976) aka Satan’s Brew, which also stars Ulli Lommel as a detective, had it not been for Detektive paving the way for such suavely played sardonic celluloid absurdity. Thome would follow up Detektive with the similarly toned yet all the more delightfully demented cult classic Rote Sonne (1970) aka Red Sun—a dystopian anti-sci-fi flick that also starred Marquard Bohm and Uschi Obermaier about a commune of crazed hippie feminist chicks that collectively murder men simply because they have pricks—but the filmmaker never again achieved the success and cult status that he earned with his second feature, though unlike many of his cinematic compatriots (who are either dead or gave up on filmmaking altogether long ago), he still continues to direct films to this day. Apparently, the first cut of Detektive was much different than what was officially released as Thome revealed in a small autobiography he wrote featured at “When I finished shooting Detektive (Detectives), I promised Hellman [producer Carol Hellman] that I would complete the initial editing in two weeks. I hired two cutters, rented two editing rooms, and did two people's work. After two weeks the first cut was finished and the film was about 150 minutes long. Hellman saw it and thought that the film was a catastrophe. He demanded that I agree (I had a clause in the contract granting me the sole right to make artistic decisions) to postdubbing (it had been made with original sound), that it be shortened to ninety minutes, and that I add three sex scenes at points in the film where this was possible. For two months we didn't speak and finally when I realized that the film would not be released unless I gave in, I said I would accept point one and point two of his conditions.” While I enjoyed Detektive more than I suspected I would, a 150-minute cut of the film seems like it would be a rather grueling experience, even with all of Ulli Lommel’s charm and all. As Thome’s very first feature, Detektive is unequivocally a formative work, but a rather audacious one nonetheless that demonstrates the filmmaker could have evolved into a much greater talent had not so many of his dream film projects fallen through. A counter-culture anti-noir with cheeky eroticism and humor that somehow manages not to totally suck, Detektive probably deserves to be a minor cult classic of sorts, but since German film companies do not seem interested in releasing their films outside the Fatherland, let alone with English subtitles, it is pretty much a given that Thome’s flick is headed for perennial obscurity, which is a shame since it is more provocative and intriguing than virtually any frog Nouvelle Vague film noir flick I have ever seen. 

-Ty E

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