Nov 20, 2014

A Big Grey-Blue Bird

With my recent re-watching of Jerzy Skolimowski’s lost post-counterculture masterpiece Deep End (1970) featuring music by krautrockers Can, I decided it was about time that I got around to seeing the similarly wrongfully forgotten West German-Italian coproduction Ein großer graublauer Vogel (1971) aka A Big Grey-Blue Bird aka Un grosso uccello grigio azzurro aka Bottom co-written and directed by Thomas Schamoni (Charly May aka Karl May in Spanien, Der Eisberg der Vorsehung) who, although an important and pioneering member of New German Cinema that helped fund the filmmaker-led film distributor Filmverlag der Autoren—a company known for producing some of the most important works of its era, including Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), and the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (1978)—is all but forgotten today. Although a film about two rival gangs, one hippie and pacifistic and the other ‘fascistic’ and murderous, that fight each other while they both attempt to find five pieces of an earth-shattering scientific discovery held by five reclusive elderly scientists, Schamoni's A Big Grey-Blue Bird is also nothing short of a culturally and cinematically revolutionary act of the rather inexplicable sort. A metacinematic avant-garde psychedelic anti-sci-fi-political-thriller of the jet-set/counterculture sort partly inspired by French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Bottom” featured in the libertine wordsmith’s uncompleted collection Illuminations (1886) and co-penned by underrated German auteur Uwe Brandner (I Love You, I Kill You aka Ich liebe dich, ich töte dich, 50/50), writer/director Hans Noever (of the popular German TV series Tatort (1989-2002)), and screenwriter Max Zihlmann (Detektive, Rote Sonne aka Red Sun) that stars Teutonic bad boy cult auteur Klaus Lemke (Negresco - Eine tödliche Affäre, Rocker) in the lead role as a prophetic, if not badly burnt out, beatnik poet, Schamoni’s absurdly offbeat flick is not only one of the best kept secrets of its era (although a financial failure, the film earned various awards at the 1970 German Film Awards, including Schamoni for “Best New Direction” and cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann for “Best Cinematography”), but it is also a virtual “who’s who” of pre-Fassbinder kraut cinema. Starting production after auteur Schamoni—a seemingly eccentric mensch born into a virtual filmmaking dynasty of ancient Italian extraction whose father Viktor Schamoni was a film critic/filmmaker who made at least one successful film during the Third Reich and whose two brothers, Peter Schamoni (Montana Trap aka Potato Fritz, Frühlingssinfonie aka Spring Symphony) and Ulrich Schamoni (It aka Es, Chapeau claque) were important filmmakers in their own right—just finished producing then-unknown German New Cinema alpha-auteur Fassbinder’s first feature Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (1969) Love is Colder Than Death, A Big Grey-Blue Bird offers an intriguing look into the drug-induced delusion of grandeur that young filmmakers suffered at the time, as a work about a commune-based film crew of socio-politically idealistic, anti-authoritarian counterculture types that believe they can build a ‘utopia’ upon learning about a group of Nazi era scientists who proposed a theory that would give them the power to manipulate the space-time continuum, but must wage a psychological war against ostensible friends and a group of super blonde Aryan and sleazy Guido gangster types while attempting to hunt down the reclusive scientists, who have intentionally had their memories erased to forget their own scientific formula but can be reminded of it if they hear the words of the poem “Ein großer, graublauer Vogel,” hence the title of the film. 

 A sort of kraut sci-fi-thriller counterpart to Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s counterculture masterpiece Performance (1970) featuring a score and sound landscape by krautrockers Can, exceedingly erratic Burroughs-esque ‘cut-up technique’ style editing, an innately non-linear multi-media ‘film-within-a-film’ structure that juggles realist documentary-like footage with highly stylized neo-romantic imagery and tableaux, and a relatively fresh look at the obscenely outmoded zeitgeist it depicts, A Big Grey-Blue Bird also offers a hint of where German Cinema might have headed had the work been shown to mainstream viewers and had the plans of the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto (of which, Schamoni’s brother Peter was one of the 26 filmmakers that signed) been fully realized, as an absurdly nuanced, multilayered, and subtextual work that attempts many things at once that more or less manage to create “a new language of film.” Indeed, along with Brandner’s I Love You, I Kill You (1971), Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht (1973) aka World on a Wire and Vojtech Jasný’s Wir (1981), Ulli Lommel and Peter Moland’s Haytabo (1971), and Wolf Gremm’s Kamikaze 89 (1982), Schamoni’s work demonstrates how the Teutons were assembling more deranging and paranoia-inducing celluloid science fiction dimensions than The Matrix (1999) at a time when Andy Wachowski and his tranny brother were still playing with Barbies and jerking off to comic books. 

 If A Big Grey-Blue Bird features anything resembling a central protagonist, it is super suave poet Tom-X (German auteur Klaus Lemke), who seems to suffer narcolepsy and/or smokes too much ganja as he passes out at the most random times, including after his apartment is destroyed by a group of gangster goons. Right before being snatched up by said gangster goons, Tom-X manages to escape from the apartment via the balcony with the help of his documentary filmmaker comrades which include lanky longhaired cinematographer Knokke (played by real-life cameraman/director Bernd Fiedler, who shot various films for ‘New Munich Group’ filmmakers like Lemke and Rudolf Thome) and Bill (played by cult actor Marquard Bohm of Roland Klick’s 1970 ‘acid western’ Deadlock and Fassbinder’s 1971 hit Beware of a Holy Whore). Tom-X has teamed up with the film crew in his search to find four of the five surviving German and Italian Axis era scientists who disappeared and erased their identities and memories after the Second World War after solving the ‘Weltformel’ (aka ‘Theory of Everything’ aka ToE), which enabled them to manipulate the space-time continuum because they did not want the formula to get into the wrong hands. Tom-X and his comrades managed to track down one of the scientists, ‘Belotti’ aka Dr. Scheinfeldt (Walter Ladengast of Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and interview him for a documentary, but he committed ‘suicide’ shortly thereafter. Tom-X and his crew are also hooked up with a goofy Guido journalist named G.O. Gio (Thomas Braut, who dubbed the voice of antihero Steiner in the German-language dubbed version of Sam Peckinpah’s classic 1977 WW2 flick The Cross of Iron), who has placed the footage of Belotti in a vault in a Swiss bank for safekeeping. After declaring, “It’s a game of chess. Either we go below the ground or into the air,” Tom-X, his girlfriend Luba (Austrian model Sylvie Winter of Lemke’s Sylvie (1973) and Paul (1974)), Knokke, Bill, and Gio get on a helicopter flown by a bleached blond beast of a gangster named Lunette (veteran German actor Rolf Becker of Peter Zadek’s I’m an Elephant, Madame (1969) and Uwe Brandner’s 1971 anti-Heimat sci-fi flick I Love You, I Kill You) and fly to an ancient scenic villa in Switzerland that Belotti bequeathed to his niece Diana (Serbian actress Olivera Katarina of Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (1970) and Konrad Wolf’s 1971 DEFA Goya biopic Goya or the Hard Way to Enlightenment) to meet up with a shady scientist named Morelli (Italian actor Umberto Orsini of Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and Ludwig (1972)) and a second team made up of dubious gangsters that are also looking to find the four surviving scientists. Of course, as Tom-X and his comrades soon find out, the other group is not looking to play nice and are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way in their campaign to find the scientists. 

 Unbeknownst to Tom-X and the filmmakers, scientist Morelli and Lunette’s gang work for an evil elderly wheelchair-bound cripple named Cinque (Swiss actor Lukas Ammann of Adrian Hoven’s horrendous Mark of the Devil Part II (1973) and Tatort), who will do anything to find the scientists, solve the poem, and thus have the formula to have omnipotence over space and time. To earn Tom-X’s trust, fairly conservative-looking fellow Morelli—the kind of guy that hippie types would suspect of being a narc—begins smoking pot and engaging in orgies with him, Luba, and Diana. Despite incessantly pestering him about what he knows about Belotti and the poem, Tom-X will not tell Morelli anything aside from pseudo-esoteric hippie jibberish. Meanwhile, Knokke and Bill take advantage of the hedonistic luxuries of the villa engaging in fine dining and drinking expensive wine under the moonlight. When Gio leaves rather dubiously after explaining that he has to fly to Munich to continue his research, Tom-X and his men begin suspecting that the gangsters have unsavory motives, so Knokke attempts to escape but the criminal thugs soon catch him. After imprisoning Knokke, Lunette tries to bribe the cinematographer into joining the gang and working for them as a cameraman, but like a true hippie, he rejects the offer and states, “I only work in public, and for the public.” Since Knokke refuses to collaborate, Lunette has his henchmen Herbert (Italian actor Mario Novelli of various Fernando Di Leo flicks) and O’Brian (Sigi Graue of Baal (1970) and Fassbinder’s The Niklashausen Journey (1970)) kill the cinematographer, who films the gangsters shooting at him before he is shot off a cliff. While Knokke is the first to die, he certainly will not be the last. 

 In a major plot twist, head gangster Cinque has Tom-X brought to him and reveals to the poet that he is one of the four surviving scientists and he wants to know if Belotti revealed to him the missing word(s) from the poem. Meanwhile, Gio also discovers that Cinque is one of the scientists (or as Gio states, “one of the five wise men”) and makes a deal with Lunette to betray his master and go public with their discoveries. After his concubine Luba manages to bribe Herbert, Tom-X manages to escape from the old Nazi scientist turned gangster’s home and the two meet up with Bill, Gio, Morelli, and Diana to hold a press conference regarding Belotti’s mysterious death and Cinque’s true identity. Of course, Cinque sends his men to the press conference and when Bill begins to reveal the truth, one of the mob shoots him in the gut while he is on stage, thus fatally wounding him. In an intentional satire of what hippies and far-left revolutionaries would assume a fascist might say, one of the gangsters declares, “Resistance is futile. All exits are blocked,” and then demands that all the journalists and members of the press get on stage with the threat that they will be shot if they attempt to leave. As it turns out, Lunette has betrayed Tom-X and has him and Morelli kidnapped and driven to an ancient mountainside castle by Herbert and O’Brian. Cinque has his three elderly scientist comrades imprisoned at the castle and he expects Tom-X to be their “fifth man” and “Belotti’s heir.” Indeed, Tom-X knows the single word from the poem that will reactivate the the scientist’s memory so that they can remember the formula. When Tom-X and Morelli arrive at the castle, the former puts a gun to Cinque’s head while Herbert and O’Brian describe the “great stuff” (aka weed) that the poet had given to them a couple days before. After Morelli puts a bullet into Cinque's brain, O’Brian, who was bought by the other side, attacks his comrade Herbert. While Tom-X, Morelli, and O’Brian manage to escape in a convertible while being chased by an army jeep full of gangsters and subsequently hook up with Diana and Gio, Lunette soon arrives with a machine gun via helicopter and exterminates every single damn person. Indeed, in the end, ruthless gangster killer and seeming philistine Lunette proves to be the “master of the game” and “deus ex machine.” After digging through the back pocket of Tom-X’s corpse, Lunette finds the complete poem and laughs maniacally upon learning that the missing word is “aqua.” Of course, one can only assume what lunatic Lunette will do with the formula to mastering the space-time continuum.  Indeed, for better or worse, one cannot watch A Big Grey-Blue Bird without the feeling they have been brutally attacked by a semi-cryptic metaphysical force that leaves no physical scars.

While indubitably somewhat convoluted, overly ambitious, and plagued by unintentionally goofy characters with obscenely outmoded wardrobes and retrograde hairdos, A Big Grey-Blue Bird is certainly a masterful cinematic work in its own right as a splendidly self-indulgent dream project that simultaneously attempts to say everything it can say about post-WWII German cinema, kultur, and politics in a meager 90 minutes or so, thus making it all the more tragic that auteur Thomas Schamoni would never again get the opportunity to direct another feature-length film and would be forced to work for the rest of his career in the purgatory-like realm of television. In fact, the commercial failure of the film was largely responsible for influencing Schamoni to co-found the filmmaker-owned film distributor Filmverlag der Autoren so that auteur film directors would have the opportunity to have complete artistic control over their own work. Indeed, Schamoni even attacks the West German film production system in a seemingly insignificant but rather notable scene in the film where the gangsters steal cinematographer Knokke’s Arriflex 16mm camera and taunt him by pointing the gun at him just before they kill him in an allegorical scenario representing the robbery of artistic freedom from the artist.  In another notable scene, one of the gangster goons drives a small camera into a scientist's throat as if it is a gun. As Tom-X remarks at the beginning of the film, he and his comrades carry cameras while others carry guns, thus reflecting Schamoni's superlatively serious perspective on the art of cinema as a weapon.

 Although appreciating the film and the music and sound editing he contributed to the work, Can member Irmin Schmidt found A Big Grey-Blue Bird to be somewhat impenetrable, or as he stated in an interview with Screenslate regarding the flick, "...although this film was not such a big success because it’s much too crazy, and even understanding German, you can’t follow the story. It’s quite confusing. But it is in a way a very nice and hippie-esque version of Germany at that time. It’s not that dark, like most of Fassbinder’s work. It’s pretty strange and crazy.” More than just a beatnik meditation on late-1960s/early-1970s West Germany, Schamoni's flick is a work that follows in a long Teutonic tradition of romanticism, which Schmidt noted when he remarked regarding the Can song “She Brings the Rain” that he contributed to the film, “It’s a very romantic song, and I think the film is actually very romantic. It’s in the German 19th century Romantic tradition.” A sort of culmination of everything Schamoni's comrades of the so-called ‘New Munich Group’ like Rudolf Thome, Eckhart Schmidt, Max Zihlmann, and Peter Nestler accomplished in the 1960s with their films (indeed, it is no coincidence that the greatest and most rebellious of these directors, Klaus Lemke, plays the lead character in the film) that somewhat absurdly attempted to make avant-gardism palatable for the masses (Schamoni attempted to blame the film’s commercial failure on Germany’s production system, but there is no way such an untamed flick could appeal to the average filmgoer), A Big Grey-Blue Bird is certainly ripe for discovery by any serious cinephile as a work that makes the genre-bending and cinematic vocabulary of Jean-Luc Godard seem rather tame and hopelessly pedantic by comparison. Certainly, the work is a filmic fore-bearer to Fassbinder’s dystopian science fiction epic Welt am Draht aka World on a Wire in terms of style, spirit, and message, but also has the grand distinction of being probably the only counterculture-themed flick I have ever seen that actually makes the late-1960s/early-1970s actually seem ‘cool.’  After all, it is not often that you get to see a group of fashion savvy dope-addled hippies attempting to hunt-down ex-Nazi scientists and coerce a bunch of murderous gangsters into smoking dope and engaging in foursomes.

-Ty E

1 comment:

eddie lydecker said...

Theres no way that Steiner was dubbed in "Cross of Iron", that was Coburn doing a Kraut accent.