Aug 17, 2014

The Free Will

I have certainly seen more fucked flicks in my relatively short lifetime than in the combined lives of everyone in an extended Catholic Mexican family, so I do not feel like I am exaggerating when I state that the contemporary German film Der Freie Wille (2006) aka The Free Will directed by Hamburg-bred auteur Matthias Glasner (This Is Love, Gnade aka Mercy) is easily one of the most, if not the most, authentically dejecting, disturbing, and emotionally displeasing films ever made. While the masters of German New Cinema like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Helma Sanders-Brahms, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Peter Handke revolutionized post-WWII Teutonic cinema by directing decidedly dark, depressing, pessimistic, and oftentimes cynical works with uniquely unhappy endings that would probably influence less stronger viewers to commit suicide, Glasner has done the unthinkable by taking cinematic weltschmerz, melancholia, angst, and hatred to even more forbidden and forlorn realms that make one think that contemporary Germans have to be the most uniquely unhappy and emotionally disturbed people in the world. Thankfully, unlike the self-satisfied cinematic horror shows of Austrian director Michael Haneke, The Free Will has a certain empathy and ‘humanity’ to it that reminds the viewer that it was not directed by some sneering megalomaniac auteur who merely uses cinema as a platform to express his bourgeoisie-bred sense of superiority and misanthropy, as well as cold and detached cynicism. A nearly 3-hour-long arthouse rape epic shot mostly from the perspective of a misogynistic serial rapist (what Germans call a ‘Triebtäter’) who attempts to reintegrate into society after spending over 9 long years institutionalized in a psychiatric rehabilitation center, Glasner’s work dares not only to force the viewer to empathize with one of the most hated sorts of human monsters, but also makes them take a deep and darker look at themselves. Shot in a voyeuristic realist fashion (many of the ‘extras’ are actual real people) on digital video yet at the same time considerably ‘cinematic’ in terms of its essence and rhythm, the somewhat ironically titled work demonstrates through random everyday circumstances and situations that one’s free will can only go so far when internal demons and pernicious pathological impulses prove to be much stronger. A tragic dark romance starring (as well as co-written and co-produced by) popular mainstream kraut actor Jürgen Vogel—a proud proletarian with rather fucked up teeth who, like his buddy Glasner, started on in the independent cinema world and has gone on to star in ethno-masochistic Hollywood-like agitprop pieces like Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosenstraße (2003) and the big celluloid turd Die Welle (2008) aka The WaveThe Free Will is a potent reminder that Germany can still produce dark masterpieces, even with big stars playing the lead role, as a work that makes the urban sexual savagery of Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002) seem hopelessly contrived by comparison. The unnerving and ultimately exhausting story of a ‘reformed’ sexual predator who hates women that starts a steamy love affair with an assumed victim of sexual abuse who hates men, Glasner’s film demonstrates that even the most fucked up of perverts can find a ‘soul mate’ of sorts, as the victimized are oftentimes looking for new victimizers. 

 Theo Stoer (Jürgen Vogel) is a perennially pissed off and slightly overweight young man who has very little tolerance for ‘laidback’ people and after he is called back inside to work while taking a cigarette break at the beachside restaurant that he works out and notices that his coworkers are doing nothing but screwing around and talking about frivolous bullshit, he flies into a violent rage, physically assaults a young comrade, smashes a bunch of glasses, and storms out of the building while hatefully saying to himself regarding co-employees, “butt-fuckers.” While driving away from his work in his old car, Theo notices a young lady (Anna Brass) in body-accentuating spandex riding her bike, so he passes her, parks his car, and waits for her so he can release all of his anger by sexually pillaging her. Indeed, upon catching up to her, Theo violently knocks the women off her bike, gives her a couple brutal blows to her face, ties her hands and legs together, strips off her clothes, rapes her violently while calling her a “cunt,” gives her a couple more blows to the face, and continues to rape her all the more violently until he reaches the sexual and psychological relief that he was looking for. Ironically, it is Theo’s concern for the young lady when she attempts to escape and hurts herself that gets him caught because, after going to get a first aid kit to attend to her wounds, the rape victim is rescued by a good sanitarian. Unable to escape after the police discover his car, Theo hides out in the woods that night like a scared animal being hunted, but he is eventually caught and beaten by the cops. Of course, being in liberal Germany, Theo is not sent to prison to get his rectum reamed, but to a psychiatric rehabilitation center.  Of course, as The Free Will ultimately demonstrates, there is no such thing as true sexual rehabilitation.

 Flash forward 9 years and 4 months later and a much thinner and older Theo is standing before a parole board who he successfully convinces that he is ‘rehabilitated’ enough to be given back his freedom and to be reintegrated back into mainstream society. Although freed, Theo is forced to live under probation in the Mülheim-based apartment of a lanky and somewhat ‘used-up’ looking guy named Sascha (André Hennicke), who ultimately becomes the only friend and mentor of the ‘lapsed’ rapist. Naturally, Sascha warns Theo right from the get go, “This is gonna be fucking hard for you. So prepare yourself.” When not going to the mall to buy really uncool clothing, Theo attempts to suppress his warped sexual urges by regularly practicing strict exercise regiments, as well as getting involved with karate with Sascha at a local gym where he eventually finds himself in a awkward situation while sitting naked in a sauna with an equally unclad chick with big bosoms (who was apparently played by a sound assistant of the film). Eventually, Theo goes job hunting and despite revealing to his prospective employer, Claus Engelbrecht (Manfred Zapatka), that he has spent over 9 years in psychiatric detention for committing “rape in conjunction with grievous bodily” on three different occasions, he is hired to work at a printing warehouse. Of course, if Claus realized that his new employee would eventually be starting a romantic relationship with his beloved daughter Netti (Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo), he probably never would have hired him in the first place. In the meantime, Theo becomes dangerously obsessed with a waitress at a pizzeria, confessing to Sascha, “The problem is, I think something’s brewing. It isn’t so strong, but…” and “Sure, I like her [the waitress], but somehow I don’t like her either. Understand?” 

 Meanwhile, it is revealed that Theo’s employer Claus has a rather dubious relationship with his daughter Netti, with incest being hinted at more than once during the film. Naturally, Claus becomes rather upset when Netti, who does bookkeeping for her father's company, moves out of his home and into a new apartment. Just having broken up with her boyfriend and living on her own for the first time, Netti has just started a new stage in her life and her creepy father Claus cannot handle it, as he weeps like a little girl upon his little girl’s decision to fly the coop for good (in fact, she eventually breaks off all contact with him). As for Theo, he finds himself in trouble when his only friend Sascha decides to quit his job to move to Berlin, as he loses the sole psychological support that he so desperately needs. One day, Netti approaches Theo, who she once met at her father’s printing factory, at a grocery store to borrow some money to buy some corn, thus beginning their rather strange relationship. Indeed, that same night, Theo meets Netti at a café to get paid back the money he lent her and she immediately confesses to him, “I don’t like men. I don’t want anything to do with ‘em.” Needless to say, Netti is taken aback when Theo responds to her bitchy remark by saying, “That’s convenient. I’m not very fond of women either.” While Netti accuses Theo of using tricks on her, she realizes he is not joking when he tells her it is no joke, zips up his jacket, and walks away without saying anything else to her. A somewhat strange girl of the innately introverted sort, Netti hunts down Theo’s phone number and gives him a call even asking him, “Am I disturbing you?” after admitting she searched information for his phone number. For their first ‘official’ date together, Theo and Netti go to see a movie together, but their relationship takes a more ‘passionate’ turn when the little lady intensely beats the rapist while he gives her a karate lesson, as you can tell she has a lot of pent up hatred and really gets off to hurting men. After the karate lesson, Netti confess that she is “going away for a while” to seaside Belgium to do an internship at a “terrific chocolate factory,” thus putting their not quite blossomed relationship in indefinite limbo. 

 When Theo stalks a sales assistant all the way back to her apartment and nearly rapes her as she sleeps, he decides it will probably be a good idea to go to Belgium to visit Netti, who is overjoyed by his arrival, though she has a hard time showing it. While it does not take long for them to have sex and begin bonding, Netti is disturbed by Theo’s overwhelming loneliness and detachment to the point where she breaks down and starts crying hysterically. After going to a big empty church and hearing a random woman singing “Ava Marie,” Theo and Netti more or less fall in love and begin doing banal things that people in love do like shopping at Ikea and eating breakfast together, but all good things must come to an ugly end. When Netti calls Theo one night while she is drunk and says that she will not be home until late because she is hanging out with a male co-employee, the lapsed rapist becomes enraged and eventually ends up violently raping a young chick, who dared to honk her horn at him while he was minding his own business, in her parking garage. Needless to say, things between Theo and Netti take a turn for the worst after that, even though the rapist initially attempts to hide his crime by washing off his dick and pretending everything is normal. Eventually, Theo decides to come clean and tells Netti that “It won’t work” and “it’s over” because he is a serial rapist. Indeed, after telling her, “I don’t love you. You don’t know anything. You don’t know a single thing!,” Theo reveals to Netti that he was locked up for 9 years because, as he states himself, “I raped 3 women. First I beat ‘em up, and then I fucked ‘em.” Needles to say, Netti does not take it well, especially after Theo says, “I don’t love you. I hate you!,” so she physically attacks her rapist bastard beau while screaming like a wounded wild animal, but he merely kicks her away and heads back to Deutschland. 

 For the final 30 minutes or so of The Free Will, the film takes a different course and the viewer sees everything from the perspective of Netti, who dedicates her time to lurking around and stalking Theo just as he once stalked his victims. After temporarily going back to her father (who she originally cut off all contact to) and sleeping with him in his bed(!), Netti comes up with the absurd idea to meet one of Theo’s victims, a discernibly deranged blonde named Anja Schattschneider (Judith Engel). While Anja initially refuses to talk to Netti, she eventually agrees to go with her to a restaurant because she assumes that she is also one of Theo’s victims. When Netti absurdly confesses that she is a “friend” of Theo, the conspicuously crazed bitch rape victim follows her into the bathroom, brutally attacks and beats her, pulls down her pants, and sexually assaults her by violently shoving the handle of a toilet bowel brush in her vagina in what is ironically the most disturbing scene of the entire film in a surely sickening scenario where a rape victim becomes the most visceral source of untamed hatred (notably, Glasner has claimed that during his research for the film, he learned that such behavior is not atypical of rape victims, as they develop a lot of pent up hatred as a result of their experiences that they have no outlet for). Of course, being raped with a toilet brush by a meta-bitchy blonde beastess of a rape victim does not stop Netti on her quest to find her rapist lover. Upon learning that Theo is living in Berlin with Sascha, Netti heads to the German metropolis and stalks her lover around the city, even sleep outside the door of his apartment building and eventually breaking into his apartment when he is not there. At one point Netti picks up a pair of scissors as if she intends to stab Theo, but her intentions could not be more different. In the end, Netti finds Theo sitting on a beach and tries in vain to stop him from slitting his own wrists, but of course he succeeds and dies in her company as she cries hysterically to the point where snot is gushing out of her nose. Though Theo is dead, Netti stays and holds his corpse as the sun rises, as if her love will bring him back.  Of course, in the end, Netti was Theo's last victim, even if he did not actually rape her.

 A work with a somewhat ironic yet surely fitting title, The Free Will depicts a forsaken yet contemptible man suffering from truly intolerable inner turmoil and plaguing pathologies who knows that his actions are completely sick and perversely preternatural yet lacks the psychological strength and self-control to prevent such savage and unhinged behavior, hence why he opts for suicide, which becomes the one instance where he demonstrates true “free will.” Needless to say, Glasner’s film is not a naïve piece of liberal swill that expresses that there may indeed be hope for rapists and other sexual perverts, but a flick that takes an uniquely unflattering look at humanity and demonstrates that, although free will might exist, it is, at best, rather limited.  Notably, in the audio commentary for the Benten Films DVD release of The Free Will, auteur Glasner stated regarding the film: “We felt that we had to make this film. It’s not a film you want to make…it’s a film you have to make. And you hope that you’re rid of it then. We often asked ourselves why we were doing this. Why us? Sometimes I think we [Glasner and Vogel] met so we could make this film.” Indeed, Glasner and Vogel had already been working together for a well over a decade before making the The Free Will, with the dark no-budget Theo van Gogh-esque crime comedy Sexy Sadie (1996) aka Komm zurück, sexy Sadie showing no evidence that both men would ever be capable of creating such a uncommonly brutal yet strikingly mature work of drastically dark and devastating cinema. Unquestionably, Vogel was just as mush of an ‘auteur’ of the film as Glasner, as his singular acting performance and co-writing certainly guided the story to the point where the idea of another actor playing the lead role seems totally unthinkable, as his performance is just an innate ingredient of the film as Kurt Raab's was in The Tenderness of Wolves (1973) aka Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe. In fact, Vogel was so deeply wrapped up in the dark and depraved world of rapist Theo that he forced Glasner, who did not want the character to die at the end, to conclude the film with the character's suicide, stating in the Benten Films DVD audio commentary, “I had to let Theo die because I couldn’t stay with him any longer. I had to get him out of my life. It was the right thing to do […] I won’t forget this movie for the rest of my life.” Indeed, a piece of malignantly melancholy realist romance-horror that puts the sick post-Auschwitz sadomasochistic love affair between an ex-SS officer and his ex-victim featured in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) to shame is terms of its decidedly disconcerting depiction of lunatic love, The Free Will ultimately proves that even the most damaged, detached, and deranged of people can find true love, though whether it ends positively or not is a completely different story.  With the original cut apparently running at about 6 hours in length (the director originally hoped that the German TV channel WDR would screen the rape epic in four parts for the mainstream general public!), Glasner's work is certainly a sort of Berlin Alexanderplatz of rape films. While Glasner may not be the next Fassbinder, Herzog, or even Hauff, he certainly made a contemporary masterpiece with The Free Will that proves that true Teutonic cinema did not completely die with the capitulation of German New Cinema in 1982 as a result of Rainer Werner's premature death.  Of course, unfortunately, Glasner's film also demonstrates that the German collective unconscious is no less foreboding than it was 25 years before, as The Free Will is clearly the expression of an absolutely accursed Volksgeist that still feels the physical and psychological rape of the Fatherland by the Red Army in 1945.

-Ty E

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Barely any write ups of this online but this is a great one.