Undoubtedly, one of the best-kept secrets of post-Fassbinder German cinema is the so-called ‘Proletarian Trilogy’ of kraut auteur Uwe Schrader. For whatever reason, aside from an obscure short entitled Phantom (1979), the documentary Kein Mord, kein Totschlag (1985), and a couple other mysterious works that have been neglected to be added to imdb, Schrader is only responsible for directing the three films in his trilogy—Kanakerbraut (1984) aka White Trash, Sierra Leone (1987) aka Seeking a Purpose – Sierra Leone, and Mau Mau (1992)—yet these little ‘social realist’ works pretty much unequivocally prove that this almost criminally underrated auteur is one of the most important celluloid cultural critics of his post-kultur zeitgeist. In fact, auteur Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas) once described Schrader as a filmmaker in the tradition of Fassbinder who managed to carry the revolutionary, socially scathing spirit of German cinema of the 1970s into the 1990s. Indeed, with his second film in the trilogy, Sierra Leone, Schrader demonstrates that Teutonland is a post-industrialist technocratic nachtmahr of the culturally and spiritually vacant, socially alienating, and prole-hating sort where, to quote the neofolk outfit Death In June, “It Is The Fate Of Our Age That We Fight In Isolation.” Centering around a wandering working-class Teuton who moves back to his decidedly depressing urban hometown in West Germany after spending three years working in an exotic land in West Africa, Sierra Leone keenly depicts the lapsed Fatherland as what neo-Wagnerite Hans-Jürgen Syberberg once described as being, “spiritually disinherited and dispossessed…a country without a homeland, without ‘Heimat’,” where Weltschmerz has spread like the plague, Fräulein-fucking mongrel soldiers from an ex-colony still occupy the nation a number of decades after the Second World War, man and woman have become irreparably alienated from one another, and the nuclear family has become a pastiche memory from a time when people still had a desire to live and even reproduce. Despite being a conspicuously pessimistic work that seems like it could have been directed by Teutonic prophet of decline Oswald Spengler's culturally disinherited grandson, Sierra Leone does not wallow in melancholy and self-pity but instead takes a stoic approach to social sickness in the Heimat that is bound to act as a sort of celluloid torture for those filmgoers that find themselves able to get lost in Spielberg’s superlatively superficial celluloid dream worlds.
Baldheaded yet hardheaded Aryan lumpenprole Fred (Christian Redl, who is probably best known for portraying Generaloberst Alfred Jodl in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) aka Der Untergang)—a mostly miserable and unemotional man described by one of his girlfriends as having “no faith in human nature”—has spent the last three years doing field installation work in the West African nation of Sierra Leone and after saving up a nice sum of money for his efforts, he heads back to his hometown on the outskirts of an unnamed and increasingly de-industrialized West German city to reacquaint himself with the life he, for whatever irrational reason, left behind on a whim. Little does Fred realize that his confrontation with his old life will prove to be a real-life nightmare as he bears witness to the discernible degeneration of his city and the disillusionment with life among his friends and ex-girlfriends. The first person Fred meets upon arriving back in Germany is his ex-wife Rita (Constanze Engelbrecht, who bears a striking resemblance to German-American Hollywood star Katherine Heigl), who he left 3 years ago without notice or subsequent contact, though he was at least responsible enough to wire his unloved beloved money each month. Quite naturally, Fred’s ex-wife rules out any potential prospect of ever getting back together (after all, she has moved on by hooking up with the enemy, an American GI), so he goes on his merry way and checks into a sleazy hotel run by a semi-trashy young chick named Alma (Ann-Gisel Glass, who got her start in film acting playing the eponymous role in the French-Italian exploitation rip-off of Christiane F. (1981), Hanna D.: The Girl from Vondel Park (1984)). Alma is supported by a rather grotesque and abusive sugar daddy with male breasts (aka 'bitch tits') who is old enough to be her father and owns the hotel she works at, but she will ultimately find a new ‘love’ prospect in the form of Fred. Meanwhile, Fred hooks up with his ex-girlfriend and true ‘great love’ Vera (Rita Russek, who starred in Ingmar Bergman’s underrated West German flick From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)), but all that comes out of their reuniting is rough sex that inspires the lady to yell, “are you insane?…Ouch…You’re hurting me!” in discernible discomfort. As he reveals to Vera, Fred has mixed feelings about being back in Germany, confessing, “It’s crazy. When you’re here, you want to be somewhere else. And once you’re gone, you long for this place.” While on what will ultimately be his final date with Vera at a bar, Fred follows an American GI, who is the new boy toy of his ex-wife Rita, into a bathroom and channels all his pent up hatred on the soldier, beating the unwitting soldier while he is taking a leak in what is easily the most blatantly emotional scene of Sierra Leone, a film where hatred and bitterness are the only real forms of visceral passion.
Feeling nostalgic, Fred also decides to visit his old job at a factory, where the foreman states regarding ‘changes’ around the company that there are, “more and more machines…Fewer and fewer people. They’ve just fired some more. You can be happy that you made it out of here. Things aren’t too rosy here anymore.” When Fred goes to his favorite bar to hangout with all his old friends, he is in for further disappointment after one of his ‘friends’ insults him by stating, “You always thought you were better. You asshole.” The same friend also remarks regarding Fred’s self-imposed exile on the Dark Continent, “AF-RI-KA…That’s where they sent the ones who weren’t right in the head.” And, of course, there is certainly something missing in Fred, but it seems to be more related to his soul. Indeed, Fred must admit to himself that in terms of being back in his homeland, “So much has become strange,” and he himself has become all the more stranger as a sort of living and breathing corpse walking amongst fellow zombies who just haven't realized they are dead yet. Another friend gives Fred some support by offering the following insight: “Shit always floats on top…I don’t talk like that to offend you. You know that. But if you ask me, people around here don’t like you…They’ve suppressed how miserable they are,” and, indeed, while it is often said misery loves company, the protagonist of Sierra Leone has tapped into some meta-misery that would even put kraut liberals suffering from ethno-masochism and post-Auschwitz angst to shame. Ultimately, Fred starts an affair with young dumb Fräulein Alma who, on top of having a tat of her criminal ex-boyfriend’s on one of her tiny tits, also reveals that she was forced to give up her sole child to the authorities after her ex-beau was busted by the police. While Fred and Alma seem to get along great at first and decide to leave the city to start an new life together, the drifting prole eventually comes to the ominous realization that he is destined to be alone after observing the misery of an elderly married bartender and ditches his new lover by hitching a ride with a trucker to nowhere land, thus repeating his vicious circle of alienation, deracination, and aimlessness that is his forsaken non-life.
In its unwaveringly unsentimental depiction of Germany as a post-industrial, post-cultural, post-happiness, post-Heimat hellhole, Sierra Leone is indubitably one of the most important, if not almost entirely culturally unflattering, Teutonic cinematic works of its zeitgeist. Indeed, like Werner Schroeter’s neo-neorealist urban epic Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980), Sierra Leone depicts post-WWII ‘democratic’ Germany as a half-dead technocratic monster with a broken computer that devours the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of its inhabitants, namely its working-class population, while also depriving them of gainful employment and thus driving its citizens to alcoholism and race-hate, among other things. Thankfully, unlike an Alexander Kluge or Helke Sander flick, Sierra Leone is not a pedantic leftist masturbation piece created by a person who has probably never done a day's physical labor in their entire lives, but a gritty no-bullshit flick that seems like it was actually directed by one of the ‘working-class heroes’ it so candidly depicts. Undoubtedly, protagonist Fred is an angsty, sometimes arrogant and even sometimes unlikeable character and that is exactly what makes him so interesting and strangely sympathetic, albeit not in a superficial sentimental fashion typical of similarly themed films that insincerely attempt to side with the struggle of the ever degenerating Lumpenproletariat. Indeed, in the sole English language review I could find on Sierra Leone, the reviewer described the film as a ‘the German answer to Five Easy Pieces (1970)’, but I think it would be a disservice to Schrader’s film to compare to an unrealistic and, in my opinion, rather overrated Jack Nicholson flick. Unless you’re a Fassbinder and/or Herzog fan, or like the gritty non-German New Cinema works of more obscure ‘hard ghetto’ auteur filmmakers like Iranian exile Sohrab Shaheed Salles, Uwe Frießner, Roland Klick, Klaus Lemke, and John Cook, Sierra Leone will probably prove to be a reasonably painful and disconcerting experience for you, sort of like a spiritual root canal. After all, not many people like seeing their nation being portrayed in a less flattering light than that of a West African slum, but of course, Sierra Leone is not escapist entertainment but an innately insensitive celluloid ‘wakeup call’ that the German populous clearly did not take heed of. Indeed, when future historians and anthropologists are trying to figure out why Germany committed suicide and disappeared into history with not even a whimper, Sierra Leone would certainly help them fill in some blanks. A filmic journey into the fall of the rank-and-Faustian man, Sierra Leone ultimately does for post-GNC cinema what Spengler's short work Man and Technology: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (1931) did for critiquing technology, but as contemporary history has demonstrated, very few people have listened to either the filmmaker or the philosopher.