Jul 13, 2016

Tunguska: The Crates Are Here

As far as truly iconoclastic auteur filmmakers are concerned, you probably cannot do better than belated Teutonic Renaissance man Christoph Schlingensief (Mutters Maske aka Mother’s Mask, Kettensägenmassaker aka The German Chainsaw-Massacre) whose intricately incendiary cinematic works oftentimes straddled a refreshingly unhealthy line between tasteless scatological schlock and audacious avant-garde celluloid art. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about Schlingensief is that he was not afraid to savagely mock his greatest cinematic heroes into oblivion whilst using some of the most grotesque and infantile yet undeniably clever means imaginable. For example, in honor of one of his greatest cinematic heroes, the auteur had a real-life retarded mensch dress like Fassbinder—leather jacket, goofy hat, and all—in his cinematic (anti)love letter to New German Cinema Die 120 Tage von Bottrop (1997) aka 120 Days of Bottrop starring Fass regulars Udo Kier, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann and Volker Spengler. Of course, one could certainly easily argue that Schlingensief’s entire cinematic oeuvre is both a ruthless critique of and tribute to cinema and cinema history, but probably none of his films are more obscenely obsessive with cinema history and its discontents than his first feature-length flick Tunguska - Die Kisten sind da (1984) aka Tunguska: The Crates Are Delivered. The final entry in a somewhat confounding triptych entitled ‘Trilogy of Film Criticism - Film as Neurosis’ that also includes the two shorts Phantasus muss anders werden (1983) aka Phantasus Go Home and Die Ungenierten kommen - What happened to Magdalena Jung? (1983), Schlingensief’s film is, if nothing else, that greatest and most hysterically hilarious assault on avant-garde cinema and experimental filmmakers that has ever been committed to celluloid. Featuring various surprisingly aesthetically pleasing avant-garde techniques throughout that demonstrate that Schlingensief was no novice when it came to masturbatory filmmaking skills, as well as  seemingly random excerpts from early Teutonic experimental animator Oskar Fischinger’s Komposition in Blau (1935) aka Composition in Blue and Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d'artifice (1953), the film oftentimes feels like the extremely confused creation of the severely autistic bastard broad of Lotte Reiniger and Andy Milligan as a lavishly constructed low-camp abomination where the hopelessly horrendous acting and nonexistent storyline is only transcended by its startlingly striking beauty and corrosive comedic genius. Advertised by the film’s distributor filmgalerie451 as “Schlingensief's way of getting even with German avant-garde film,” the feverishly fucked little flick tells the quasi-tragicomedic tale of a young and attractive married German couple on vacation that has the misfortune of getting stuck in an old dilapidated and figuratively haunted house with three decidedly deranged avant-garde film researchers after their car breaks down in the cold yet exotic hell that is Siberia.  Needless to say, Tunguska is a must-see work for any semi-serious Schlingensief fan, though I am not sure I can recommend to Stan Brakhage fanboys, film students, or anyone else really aside.

 A film that refreshingly mocks the megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur and overall social retardation that plagues many enterprising avant-garde filmmakers, Tunguska seems to be especially an intricate and semi-loving yet nonetheless brutal attack against Schlingensief’s former mentor Werner Nekes, but it also has older and more cryptically autobiographical roots that date back to 1968 when the director was only 7 years old. Indeed, when he will just a wee lad that was best known as the son of a respected pharmacist, Schingensief had the distinguished honor of attending the scandalous fourteenth annual ‘International Short Film Festival,’ which was held in his hometown of Oberhausen.  Of course, 1968 was an important year for the budding young auteur as it was also when he shot his first 8mm film and resolved to begin an artistic career that he would eventually become (in)famous for as a cinematic iconoclastic that ultimately proved to have more testicular fortitude than any of the cinematic upstarts that signed the legendary Oberhausen Manifesto (incidentally, Schlingensief would eventually befriend the manifesto's most famous signer Alexander Kluge). Deriving its title from both an enigmatic fictional film that debuted in 1967 but was scrapped shortly afterward due to disinterest and the somewhat mysterious Tunguska event of June 1908 when a cataclysmic explosion over the sparsely populated Eastern Siberian Taiga flattened 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi) of forest in what was ultimately the largest known impact event on Earth in recorded history, Schlingensief’s debut feature is also arguably the most insanely idiosyncratic take on the ‘old dark house’ mystery ever made (indeed, despite lacking grotesque bisexual porn featuring ugly people doing ugly sexual things, the film even puts Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! (1975) to shame in terms of sheer abject absurdity). In terms of its preternatural poetical essence, crude cannibalization of various genre conventions, strange sardonic approach to Gothic themes, innately anarchic spirit, and dubious morality, Tunguska is like a kraut cinematic equivalent to Comte de Lautréamont's novel Les Chants de Maldoror aka The Songs of Maldoror.  

 Considering that Schlingensief’s previous film in his ‘Trilogy of Film Criticism - Film as Neurosis,’ What happened to Magdalena Jung?, was an extremely loose reworking of German Conservative Revolutionary movement writer Ernst Jünger’s book Das abenteuerliche Herz. Figuren und Capricios (1938) aka The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios, it is only fitting that Tunguska—a uniquely unpretentious cinematic work that, quite ironically, makes relatively practical use of somewhat pretentious avant-garde film techniques—makes a mockery out of a far-leftist counterculture kraut like Werner Nekes. Notably, Nekes would later bitch to Schlingensief that his next feature Menu Total (1986) was “a fascist film,” so it almost seems like the auteur somehow had a premonition that his mentor would eventually trash his films and thus trashed him in advance in a most silly yet nonetheless quite artistically fruitful fashion. Notably, the reason Schlingensief opted to direct a film about a tyrannical trio of avant-garde scientists on road to North Pole to show Eskimos experimental films was because, as the auteur states in the doc Christoph Schlingensief und seine Filme (2005) aka Christoph Schlingensief and His Films directed by Frieder Schlaich, “That’s where I thought experimental film was headed.” In short, unlike hyper hermetic avant-gardist like Nekes, Schlingensief always wanted to make films that were seen by all sorts of people and not just fellow autistic filmmakers that are involved in a sort of perennial circle jerk like Jonas Mekas and his pals. As Schlingensief also explained in Schlaich’s doc, “After these two films [PHANTASUS and MAGDALENA JUNG] I naturally developed a latent rage against Nekes. I thought, why should I becomes Nekes? What’s with all this crap? […] I wanted to separate myself.” Needless to say, despite the fact that some of his films like the preposterously titled T-Wo-Men (1972) and Der Tag Des Malers (1997) aka The Day of the Painter feature hot Sapphic pornographic action between hot twat kraut counterculture carpet-munchers, Tunguska is easily more enthralling than anything that Herr Nekes has ever directed (though I must admit that I have a softspot for Nekes' Uliisses (1982) simply due to the fact that it features punk dyke diva Tabea Blumenschein in a rather striking performance). 

 In Tunguska, the viewer watches in abject anticipation as a collectively crazed trio of over-the-hill and fairly physically grotesque experimental filmmakers-cum-researchers use various form of vintage experimental cinema as a means to debase, subjugate, and brainwash individuals until they become psychosis-ridden followers of the “new filmic language” (aka avant-garde religion). The Führer of the filmic dictatorship is a lecherous lard ass named Roy Glas (legendary New German Cinema character actor Alfred Edel of Alexander Kluge’s post-Auschwitz exercise in ethno-masochism Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: Ratlos (1968) aka The Artist in the Circus Dome: Clueless), who runs a largely imaginary empire of cinematic derangement.  Seemingly inspired by the artistic theories of Carl Jung, Glas somewhat dubiously believes that the only way a true avant-garde cinema can emerge is if it is rid of neurosis (personally, I think a great deal of avant-garde art is the direct result of neurosis and psychosis, but I digress). Not unlike Nekes and his one-time wife Dore Oberloskamp (aka Dore O.), Glas’ foremost collaborator is his similarly insane scientist spouse Ireen Fitzler (Anna Fechter). In a possible mocking reference to Nekes and his then-wife Dore’s first breakthrough film, Jüm-Jüm (1967), Tunguska begins with a prologue from the avant-garde antagonist describing the premiere of his eponymous film, which was an abject failure and thus, not unlike the majority of experimental films, regulated to the celluloid dustbin of history where it probably belongs.  As an assumed result of the failure of his film (Glas never actually says whether or not he was the one that actually directed Tunguska), Glas and his compatriots sought to “find and explore news aspects of zeitgeist and expression of film” and they felt the best way to do so would be to take part in an absurdly nonsensical expedition to Antarctica to demonstrate to primitive Eskimos the ostensible power of experimental film. Unfortunately for Glas and his small team, which includes his wife Ireen and a four-eyed lunatic named Lossowitsch aka ‘Losso’ (Vladimir Konetzny), never made it to their location due to a plane crash and thus have been stranded in Siberia ever since in a thankfully relatively uninhabited area where few people will have the grand aesthetic misfortune of enduring their distinct brand of meta-authoritarian cinematic oppression. Unluckily for the film’s young married protagonists, Rolf (Mathias Colli, who went on to co-write, assistant direct, and star in Schlingensief’s Veit Harlan reworking Mutters Maske (1988) aka Mother’s Mask) and Tina (Irene Fischer, who went on to become a writer/actress on Hans W. Geissendörfer’s long running TV series Lindenstraße), their tiny red car breaks down in Siberia and they soon find themselves being emotionally, psychologically, and aesthetically terrorized by Glas and his oppressive goofball Gestapo. 

 If you are looking for any sense of sanity or traditional logical in Tunguska, you surely will not find it, but one should not expect anything less from a Schlingensief flick where spastic acting, compulsive spontaneity, and cryptic and not-so-cryptic dark yet surprisingly mirthful humor runs rampant. Indeed, like virtually all of the director’s cinematic works, the film completely blurs the line between nightmarish farce and melancholy fever dream, as well as aesthetic nihilism and super sophisticated schlock. In short, Schlingensief seems to make no lie of the fact that he intends to torture and aesthetically assault you just like the film’s gluttonous villain Glas, yet he does it with a knowing smirk like a demonic schoolboy who has just lit a bag of shit on fire on his good Catholic next-door neighbor’s front porch. Featuring Schlingensief himself under the assumed pseudonym ‘Christoph Krieg’ as a raving mad man who speaks of hope for humanity and other frivolous deluded fantasies before being violently murdered by an infantile retard, the film is a genre-molesting absurdist allegory that is packed with perverse poetry, sassy sadism, and surprisingly practical experimental techniques. A foreboding fairytale full of loudmouthed psychosis-ridden monsters and mumbling brain-damaged degenerates, Tunguska plays a pernicious game with classic genre conventions that Gothic horror, romance, mystery, sci-fi, and thriller genres and is glued together with avant-garde effects in what might be described as the filmic equivalent of a Teutonic tranny Frankenstein monster on bad acid. Not unlike many of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, it is immediately apparent while watching Schlingensief’s debut that it was directed by a man that lives and breathes film and wholly believes “cinema is everything” and “everything is cinema.” In other words, it seems that Schlingensief himself also suffers from a sort of cinematic psychosis, but unlike Nekes and the avant-garde researchers depicted in Tunguska, he at least realizes it and is brave and audacious enough to mock and ridicule those who believe Peter Kubelka is the second coming of Christ and that Hollis Frampton is an immaculate cinema god among men. 

 If the lovable retard Arnie played by a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in Lasse Hallström’s What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) had an all the more mentally challenged Teutonic brother with ambiguous magical powers, it would probably be Herr Norbert (Norbert Schliewe, who once notably worked as an animator for Nekes). Norbert is an exceedingly erratic, unpredictably violent, and somewhat mysterious man-child of the fairly unhinged sort who has been trapped in the wilds of Siberia ever since he was involved in a plane crash that apparently killed his entire family, including his much beloved sister. Upon looking at a magical mushroom in the woods, Norbert sees an image of married couple Rolf and Tina and thus knows they are stranded somewhere in the area, though he is initially to shy to approach them. When Rolf and Tina eventually find Norbert lurking inside a somewhat sinister dilapidated house that they have yet to discover is the home to the avant-garde researchers, they are somewhat startled by him. While Rolf initially comforts Norbert by acting as a sort of loving paternal figure to him, the unpredictable retard somewhat freaks out Tina when he mistakes her for his dead sister. For whatever reason, Herr Norbert also has an affinity for pulling Tina’s hair while repeatedly proclaiming that she is his sister.  While Tina is certainly more mentally balanced than Norbert, they will both ultimately fall under the spell of the preposterous cinematic brainwashing of Glas and his gang, thus leaving poor Rolf to fend for himself when it comes to maintaining his sanity in a subtly morbid world of cinematic mind-games and cineaste oriented groupthink.

 The next day after spending their first night at the half-ruined house that might be best described as cine-maniac manor, the married couple gets somewhat of a surprise when another dubious weirdo, a less than sane and creepily hospitable semiotician named Major Pater Hilf aka ‘Major Father Help’ (Schlingensief), knocks on the door of the house, aggressively introduces himself, and then randomly picks up Tina and clumsily drops her on the floor.  For whatever reason, Major Help takes Rolf and Tina mountain climbing and then starts a fire that he more or less proclaims is a symbol of hopeful redemption for all of humanity. When Major Helps demonstrates his latent sadistic side by daring to attempt to burn Herr Norbert’s hand in the fire, the unpredictable retard immediately gets his revenge by using Rolf’s car to run over and ultimately kill the zany semiotician. Before unwittingly proving that his fiery symbol of hope is totally worthless by dying not far from it, Major Help uses his last couple minutes of life to sing a melancholic pop song to Rolf and Tina on an electronic keyboard that magically appears out of nowhere. At this point in the film, it seems like hope is nothing more than an absurdist joke that will never be encountered by the married protagonists, who soon come to realize that there is no more hellish fate than to fall prey to the nonsensical esoteric ramblings and uniquely unsavory schemes of the outstandingly arrogant avant-garde filmmakers that haunt the area.  Indeed, as Rolf and Tina soon discover, they would be much better off if the house that they are staying out was haunted by ghosts instead of a trio of compulsively conniving charlatan filmmakers.

 When Rolf and Tina finally encounter avant-garde researcher Roy Glas and his two equally demented minions, they are immediately trapped in a pernicious autistic psychodrama involving warped mind games and reckless displays of unhinged hedonism.  In a scene where Glas and his crew watch experimental footage of Tina frolicking through a forest in an exceedingly elegant fashion, it is hinted that the mad avant-garde scientists have been spying on the protagonist ever since they reached Siberia.  Naturally, Glas takes an instant liking to the fairy sexy Tina and even dares to put his hand on her thigh right on front of her hubby Rolf while verbally mocking him. When Glas’ wife Ireen declares there is an emergency and claims there is some sort of an accident, it is later revealed that she just wanted to use Rolf’s car to pick up some booze. Undoubtedly, Glas’ supreme arrogance and vanity is only transcended by his grotesque displays of gluttony, thus Rolf and Tina spend much of their time watching the megalomaniac savagely chewing on seemingly half-cooked animal flesh while talking bullshit. Rolf oftentimes has his two comrades collectively shout in vain the Nazi-esque “strength and power,” especially when they are viewing one of their avant-garde atrocities (one of which is the above mentioned footage of Tina looking like quite the elegantly dressed Fräulein while frolicking through a forest). Of course, it does not take long before Glas has Rolf and Tina go through torturous sessions of avant-garde brainwashing. Indeed, during one of such sinister sessions, Glas’ stone cold Himmler-esque minion Lossowitsch jumps around with a white sheet over his body like a spastic ghost as Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d'artifice is projected over his chest while the avant-garde researchers loudly chant incoherent avant-garde nonsense. Needless to say, when Glas cryptically asks Rolf “Fischlinger or Eggeling?” in reference to early experimental Aryan animators Oskar Fischinger and Viking Eggeling, the protagonist has no clue what he is talking about. Unfortunately, Tina is brainwashed with Glas’ ‘filmic language’ as demonstrated by her bizarre behavior during the screening and later that night when she tells Rolf a seemingly nonsensical bedtime story with a strange happy ending  involving a “bad dance instructor in Tunguska” and a mob of animated blue building blocks that kill their creators but not said bad dance instructor. The blue blocks are eventually revealed to be in reference to Fischinger’s animated short Komposition in Blau, which Tina dreams about after she falls asleep. 

 While Rolf and Tina eventually manage to escape the avant-garde researchers home even though the latter seems to have developed Stockholm syndrome as demonstrated by her strange and innately irrational cult-like affection for Glas and his gleefully sadistic comrades, the only gas attendant (Schlingensief regular Sergej Gleitmann) in the area refuses to give them gas, thereupon leaving them stuck in Siberia. In a belligerent fit of self-destructive desperation, Tina opts to steal Rolf’s car and then drive it off a cliff, thus resulting in her death via skull fracture. With his beloved Tina dead and nowhere to go, Rolf desperately runs back to the avant-gardist’s lair and informs them of his wifey’s untimely demise. Needless to say, Mr. Norbert, who believes Tina is sister, seems just as emotionally shattered as Rolf by the female protagonist’s tragic demise. As for Glas and his crew, they seem rather unaffected by Tina’s death and set it fit to burn her body on some rocks near a lake in what seems like a sacrificial burning pyre to the gods of avant-garde cinema. While Rolf mentally deteriorates so badly that he tries to join the avant-garde cult, Glas and his crew opt to steal his car and leave him stranded in Siberia.  Indeed, it seems Rolf is just not good enough to join the cult as indicated by Glas' elitist remark, “No, Rolf, we're too different.  Tina is dead!”  In what is indubitably a sad reflection of his progressive psychological degeneration, Rolf also somehow forgets that Tina is dead and goes looking for her around the researcher's lair in a Norbert-esque fashion, as if he is in denial that his ladylove is gone forever.  Not surprisingly, it seems that Glas was only interested in titillating Tina, hence his almost seemingly pathological tendency to mock her marriage to Rolf.  Additionally, before the mad scientist trio steals Rolf's car and leaves the protagonist stranded in the bowels of Siberia, Lossowitsch sternly states, “We make solitudinarians!,” as if to rub in the recently widowed young man's face that a rather grim and lonely fate awaits him.  In the end, the film concludes with a epilogue from Glas where he declares his research is a success and “Film as a form of neurosis. Our research continues.”  Of course, as demonstrated by his decidedly deleterious effect on the protagonists, it seems that Glas' research is a total failure as he spreads neurosis wherever he goes and seems to have absolutely no clue as to sire the psychosis-free avant-garde that he and his loyal compatriots dreams of.

 While I have always had an appreciation for avant-garde and experimental cinema and am always interested in examining the cinematic oeuvres of the most idiosyncratic of auteur filmmakers, I must admit that I have found most of these film directors to be obnoxiously obsessive one-track onanists whose cinematic works reflect the worse sort of impotent celluloid wankery. In that sense, it does not surprise me that Schlingensief’s mentor Nekes incorporated pornographic imagery in his films, as it would not surprise me if the most arousing thing in the world to him was his own films. In that respect, I somewhat appreciate the sometimes literally masturbatory films of Paul Sharits (Ray Gun Virus, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G), who seems to have ironically acknowledged in a tongue-in-cheek fashion the masturbatory nature of experimental cinema in general as opposed to succumbing to the banally calculating and unnervingly emotionally barren mathematical approach typical of the algorithmically-driven films created by other filmmakers associated with the Structural film movement. Incidentally, when Nekes attempted to direct a somewhat conventional comedy film, Johnny Flash (1986), it came off as a poor prude’s take on a Schlingensief flick, thus revealing the extra esoteric auteur's seeming incapacity to create emotionally engaging cinematic works that appeal to people aside from fellow avant-garde filmmakers and half-crazed cineastes (incidentally, Schlingensief acted as a cinematographer on the film). As Tunguska reveals, a life revolving around arcane avant-garde filmmaking can only lead to pernicious and highly deleterious side-effects like psychosis, fits of rage and irritability, the loss of a wife or girlfriend, and/or an incapacity to appreciate emotionally engulfing films featuring lines of dialogue and sexy chicks with nice tits and shapely derrieres, among other things.  Of course, the true genius of Tunguska is that it manages to alienated both autistic avant-garde cinema fanboys and culturally retarded philistines alike, but I guess one should not expect anything less from the debut feature of the singular auteur who was arguably the last great iconoclast of cinema.

 By directing a film with blatant B movie and exploitation conventions featuring a cast of mostly quasi-retarded weirdos that most people would be petrified to touch with a ten-foot pool that relatively seamlessly utilizes a number of striking experimental tricks and techniques, Schlingensief managed to make a marvelous mockery of an ostensibly sacred realm of cinema history that has been safety guarded by avant-garde gatekeepers like Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney for half a century. While I am admittedly probably more obsessed with experimental cinema than the average cinephile as reflected in my appreciation for filmmakers ranging from Frans Zwartjes (Living, Pentimento) to Ed Emshwiller (Lifelines, Thanatopsis) to Gregory J. Markopoulos (Twice a Man, The Illiac Passion) to Lloyd Michael Williams (Opus 5, Ursula) to Albie Thoms (Rita and Dundi, Marinetti) to Dietmar Brehm (Blicklust, Blah Blah Blah), I will be the first to admit that virtually all segments of the experimental realm—whether it be the late career esoteric cocksucker counterculture cinema of James Broughton, aberrant Aryan pornography of Viennese Aktionists like pedo cult leader Otto Mühl, or frivolous found-footage tweaking of banal Brit Malcolm Le Grice—deserve to be ruthlessly mocked, ridiculed, and/or lampooned and Schlingensief was most certainly the best person to do it. Indeed, whether it be remaking classic high-camp Nazi melodramas, creating a reunification themed kraut mutation of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) featuring Udo Kier with a swastika mustache, or bringing the Aryan high kultur of Bayreuth to the most culturally barren and impoverished corners of the dreaded Dark Continent in an absurd stunt that surely rivals that of the mad avant-garde researchers of Tunguska that attempt to expose Eskimos to experimental cinema, Schlingensief was indubitably the best dude to parody the pretenses of cinema history’s most autistically arrogant sons. Of course, Schlingensief may be the only great artist in history that could never be properly parodied or receive the lame Hebraic Saturday Night Live treatment as a man whose real-life personality and preternatural charisma was more entrancingly hyperreal and downright hilarious than any neo-vaudevillian comedy sketch ever could be.  Indeed, after watching Tunguska one can only come to the natural conclusion that it was directed by a cracked kraut genius with an untameable spirit that makes George Grosz seem like Norman Rockwell by comparison in terms of sheer artistic Weltanschauung.  In other words, Heil Schlingensief!!!

-Ty E

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