Jul 5, 2014
Out of all the filmmakers associated with German New Cinema, the movement's ‘father figure’ Alexander Kluge (Yesterday Girl, Mensch 2.0) was probably the one who spent the most time chilling in an ivory tower of his arcane neo-Marxist imagination, yet the auteur somehow absurdly thought he was some sort of champion of the proletariat and voice of the Teutonic collective, even once stating in 1980 regarding his enemies and his hopes for the future of German cinema: “...we still have three enemies: the American companies, the bureaucracies—our sacrosanct national bureaucracy—and finally the individualism of the filmmakers. These filmmakers present themselves as auteurs, and their subjectivity becomes the primary point, which in fact this subjectivity is always less than the cinema itself. The cinema is its spectators, the collective imaginary. From now on, it will be necessary to move ahead to a new stage and to make not personal films but collective films. . . .One should make collective films that bear on daily life. Such a cinema could ultimately be the cinema of spectators which is my goal.” Of course, as the son of a bourgeois doctor and quasi-neo-Marxist intellectual who worked as a lawyer for the Frankfurt School and who was influenced to become a filmmaker by his kosher communist comrade Theodor W. Adorno, Kluge did not exactly come from the sort of background where he could relate to the common working-class kraut, hence why, unlike Fassbinder’s works, virtually none of his films have become classics among the general German populous. With his ‘offbeat’ anti-fascist comedy Strongman Ferdinand (1976) aka Der starke Ferdinand—a satire inspired by the near civil war that occurred in West Germany during the 1970s as a result of far-left terrorists like the Red Army Faction about a tragicomedic buffoonish cop turned security chief who provides security for a private company in an ostensibly ‘fascistic fashion’ and ultimately ironically becomes a terrorist in the end to prove the ineffectiveness of contemporary law and order in the socio-politically chaotic Fatherland—Kluge tried extra hard to make a highly accessible film that would be a mainstream hit and even went so far as to go back and reedit the film to make it even more palatable to less sophisticated prole viewers, yet the film was still a failure in the end, thus demonstrating how out of touch the auteur was with the general public, especially the bread-and-circus-loving working-class. While Kluge probably hoped the film would be the German New Cinema's answer to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Strongman Ferdinand is only vaguely less hyper-intellectualized than the director’s previous cinematic offerings, as a work that may lack the Eisenstein-esque montages that the filmmaker is particularly fond of yet wallows in banal Brechtian audience-alienating distancing techniques and horribly dry humor that would probably only appeal to a handful of old school German far-leftist academic types from the late-1960s. Starring the rather Jewish-looking German character actor Heinz Schubert, who apparently used to collaborate with Bertolt Brecht before the building of the Berlin Wall and would go on to play both Uncle Adolf and Heinrich Himmler in Syberberg’s magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), Strongman Ferdinand is indeed Kluge’s most accessible and formulaic work to date, yet it features an antihero that is so less than empathetic and a storyline that is so severely stale and conspicuous that the film might as well have been directed by a humorless Leninist robot.
After a cop comrade and a criminal are killed during a terrorist break-in, tiny 50-year-old strongman Ferdinand Rieche (Heinz Schubert) decides to quit being a cop because, as he tells his commander, he is fed up with the police department's, “bloody tactics […] Just to satisfy the press and the courts,” and due to the fact that the bureaucratic legal system's, “ridiculous regulations make criminal prosecution impossible” for him. When hanging out with his morbidly obese sergeant friend Kniebeling (Joachim Hackethal), Rieche demonstrates he is a ‘corrupt’ cop in the spirit of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) by breaking into an apartment without a warrant. Rieche may be an unwittingly goofy little mensch, but he is not a complete idiot and regularly visits communist book stores, as he has a keenness for not only voraciously reading works on security and policing theories, but also studying his enemy, whose attacks he eagerly awaits. As narrated in a typically goofy fashion by director Alexander Kluge, Rieche “knows all there is to know, and can’t comprehend that others don’t.” Indeed, Rieche takes his job very seriously and can only see the world through the lens of a security-obsessed policeman. Even in terms of his own personal life, Rieche divides everything into five “Security Zones,” which include: “Zone 1: Rieche himself, Zone 2: His flat, Zone 3: His job, Zone 4: Police work in its entirety, Zone 5: everything in its entirety.” After the previous security chief, Berthold, is fired from a private chemical company for causing a scandal (a big “no, no” when it comes to these companies), Rieche replaces him and within 48 hours the ex-cop already has the entire factory building under check. Unlike the previous security chief, Rieche forces his underlings to learn security theory because, as he states, “As working security men, you can’t use your hands; you have to use your head.” Of course, Rieche has no problem breaking the rules when necessary, as demonstrated by the fact he forces a girl at the factory to submit to a urine test under false pretenses, so he can turn said urine in for a physical examination that is required by the Brussels-based parent company that owns his employer, so as to prove he is healthy. In what is easily one of the more humorous scenes of the film, Rieche is told by the doctor upon receiving the results of his urinalysis that, “If you weren’t a man, I’d say you were 3 months pregnant.”
Undoubtedly, one of the more dubious things that Rieche does during his employment is that he more or less coerces a young blonde babe named Gertie Kahlmann (Vérénice Rudolph) into becoming his live-in lover/girlfriend after he catches her routinely stealing food from the company. Indeed, while Rieche complains to Gertie that she “exploits positions of trust,” he does the same by not only blackmailing the young country girl, who says she'd rather commit suicide than have to go back to the hinterland after losing her job, but also by not reporting to his employer that his girlfriend is a morally retarded kleptomaniac. As Kluge narrates: “Rieche ponders the question with hindsight: How do you reconcile a thieving girlfriend with security?” While dating Gertie, Rieche learns that many of the people that work at his company find him so repugnant that they would not even dare be seen drinking beer with him in public. Ultimately, Rieche proves to be a somewhat loving and supportive, if not authoritarian, boyfriend, as he buys Gertie a taxi so she can start a new business, but inevitably his controlling behavior eventually pushes her away. As Kluge explains, “Rieche is fenced in by the law. Rieche needs a crisis. If nothing happens, he lies dormant,” but luckily some terrorist strikes and blows up part of the factory, so the security chief assembles the most elite security team in all of West Germany. Just for practice, Rieche has his loyal team strike a rival company where they successfully remove 26 crates of electronics and store them in the woods. The more Rieche becomes obsessed with security, the more paranoid he gets. After receiving a box of chocolates from his boss, Rieche decides to have them tested in a laboratory, so as to confirm they are not laced with poison. To test his security team’s effectiveness, the Strongman puts a pair of pantyhose over his head and attacks his own factory, ultimately allowing himself to be captured in the end. Indeed, while Rieche would have probably made for a marvelous National Socialist, American-style capitalism ultimately proves to deter the Strongman's advancements in security. As one of the heads at Rieche's company notes, it would be cheaper to simply buy insurance for the factory than to employ a security chief and entire security team.
When Rieche provides security for his boss Ganter (Heinz Schimmelpfennig) at an opera performance of Puccini, he becomes so paranoid and agitated during a scene in the performance of Tosca killing Scarpia that he whips out his pistol and prepares to fire at an imaginary adversary. Rieche also learns while at the opera from Ganter that the company is not happy with his work and that he might be fired after his six month trial at the company is over with unless he learns “to do more” but “not to do too much.” It seems the big wigs at the company are somewhat disturbed by Rieche's fanatical security methods and see him as a liability, not to mention a potential source for bad press. Meanwhile, Rieche begins to describe certain fish in his own personal fish tank as enemies, absurdly (but hilariously) stating regarding some of his gill-bearing pets: “The little one: The communist party, The black one: An Arab, The dotted one: All Eastern spies together.” When Rieche becomes suspicious of a young female scientist working at his company who he believes is trading scientific information to enemies, he manhandles her, takes her hostage, and locks her in a room at the factory. When Rieche’s cop friend Kniebeling accuses him of having the young female scientist imprisoned somewhere, the security chief decides to let her go, though he refuses to confess to any wrongdoing. When Rieche begins stalking his scheming corporate whore boss Wilutzki (Gert Günther Hoffmann), who is the vice president of the entire company, he learns that his boss is attempting a merger with another company, so he has him kidnapped and imprisoned against his own will. Rieche attempts to tell Ganter about Wilutzki's underhanded tactics, but the boss seems unimpressed and confesses that he knows little of multinational business transactions. Of course, the merger goes through and Rieche not only loses his job (which is given to his friend turned enemy Kniebeling), but his girlfriend as well, who dumps him after he screams at her like a maniac for selling some of his old personal belongings. After writing Gertie a letter with the pathetically poetic remark, “I drag my soul behind me like a big St. Bernard dog,” Rieche attempts to assassinate a politician, who he ultimately hits in the cheek but does not kill. When asked about his motives by a journalist after being detained by the police, Rieche states, “Security-political. To show that an assassin could get to the minister despite all security, and, if we were allowed to lead the opposing side, that we would be able to do it. This proves the need for our services. I’m really sorry I hit the minister in the cheek. I was aiming for the wall behind the minister.” Ironically, while Rieche believes, “Radical security has nothing to do with radicalism,” he ultimately proves that he is not much different than his commie terrorist enemies. In the end, Rieche reveals that he is a nihilist by remarking regarding his deleterious actions, “I shot him in the cheek because there is no real meaning to our life. For this reason, you can’t always shoot straight.”
While auteur Alexander Kluge probably hoped to hit two birds (fascism and capitalism) with one filmic stone with Strongman Ferdinand, the film is ultimately a convoluted cinematic mess that, like many of the director’s more intricate works, attempts to say and do so many things at once, but fails on most accounts, especially in terms of satire, though the work does have its occasional moments of tragicomedic charm. Indeed, compared to Fassbinder’s similarly themed work Die dritte Generation (1979) aka The Third Generation, which also depicts both the police and terrorists as unwitting pawns of big corporations who only strengthen capitalist tyranny, Kluge's work seems like a hopelessly restrained and patently pedantic exercise in left-wing bourgeois banality that ultimately makes the director seem more paranoid than the crazed antihero of his film. Indeed, only a left-wing academic could believe that a working-class security chief spends his free time voraciously reading communist texts and planning mock terrorist attacks. In one especially awkward and ultimately pointless scene in the film, the eponymous protagonist’s fat ass friend Kniebeling remarks while flipping through communist books, “nothing but Bolshevik propaganda” and then changes the subject by nostalgically stating, “We just celebrated the 37th anniversary of our Fuehrer’s 50th birthday,” to which Kluge directly responds to the character off-screen (!) by stating, “That’s rubbish, too.” Interestingly, Austrian actor/auteur Paulus Manker (Weininger's Last Night, The Moor's Head), who starred in Kluge’s flick Die Macht der Gefühle (1983) aka The Power of Emotion, also directed an underrated little film entitled Schmutz (1987) aka Dirt about a mentally unhinged security man, but it takes a totally different approach from Strongman Ferdinand by utilizing a sort of visceral metaphysical horror that manages to express so much more with visceral feeling, post-industrial landscapes, and quasi-expressionistic aesthetics than the other film ever could. While Kluge once stated, “cinema has one possibility other arts don’t have. Because it’s rather trivial and derives from the fairground . . . it hasn’t been developed from the viewpoint of a small, educated society; it’s made for the plebeian people, for the proletarian component,” Strongman Ferdinand ultimately demonstrates that the auteur has nil understanding of the “plebian people.” Indeed, maybe it is because I am a bit prejudiced but working as an attorney for the Frankfurt School seems like probably the worst training someone can get for being a filmmaker, especially when it comes to making films that are meant to appeals to plebs. While I would not exactly call myself a Kluge fan, I have to say that the director's more arcane and impenetrable works like The Power of Emotion and Die Patriotin (1979) aka The Patriot are infinitely more interesting, provocative, and artistically genuine than Strongman Ferdinand, which, aside from being a mostly prosaic piece of hopelessly sterile satire, ultimately patronizes the very people it was made for, the Lumpenproletariat. Indeed, the proles want their bread and circus and the only thing Kluge could offer them was boredom and contempt of the anti-action-packed sort, with Strongman Ferdinand ultimately being a sort of contra work to the working-class blockbuster favorite Die Hard (1988).
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:28 PM
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