Sep 25, 2016

Der Strass

 


While I have always had a special innate and visceral obsession with various forms of Teutonic cinema that ranges from German Expressionism to New German Cinema to obscure avant-gardists like Klaus Wyborny and Lutz Mommartz to the low-budget aberrant arthouse splatter of Jörg Buttgereit and Marian Dora, I have come to the conclusion that the majority of the cinema produced by the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and its state-owned studio Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) is, aesthetically speaking, entirely worthless and largely indicative of the overall repressive and dreadfully banal essence of that failed dystopian Soviet satellite state. Surely, it is very telling of East German cinema and its dubious history that one its most famous ‘auteur’ filmmakers, Konrad Wolf (Sterne aka Stars, Solo Sunny), was a Jew who fought in the Soviet Red Army during WWII whose brother was a famous Stasi spymaster. Likewise, it is probably no coincidence that the GDR was also responsible for the holocaust classic Jakob der Lügner (1975) aka Jacob the Liar, which was so impressive to the supposedly capitalistic Zionist fat cats of Hollywood that they produced a remake in 1999 starring tragic goofy goy Robin Williams as the eponymous Judaic deceiver. Like in most Eastern Bloc countries, the so-called ‘Red Western’ (aka ‘Borscht Western’)—a virtual cultural inversion of Hollywood westerns where the Indians are depicted as the good guys and the whites are mostly evil genocidal capitalists—was very popular as demonstrated by hit East German films like the anti-Fordian Die Söhne der großen Bärin (1966) aka The Sons of Great Bear directed by actor turned director Josef Mach.

Undoubtedly, most of the East Germans films that I have had the misfortune of encountering are even more contrived and emotionally phony than the typical Hollywood hack work of the same era despite their glaring anti-American sentiments.  Not surprisingly, virtually any East German filmmaker that attempted to be artistically distinct, experimental, and/or culturally subversive found their work banned, hence the lack of artistic innovation in GDR cinema. For example, painter and documentarian Jürgen Böttcher's sole narrative feature Jahrgang '45 (1965) aka Born in '45—a sort of GDR answer to the French New Wave—was immediately banned upon completion and did not even receive its premiere until 1990 after the reunification.  Of course, it should be no surprise that some of the most controversial and experimental films of the Teutonic Eastern Bloc country were made during the GDR’s final years when it became obvious that Soviet style communism was on its deathbed. In fact, DEFA’s first and last gay film, Coming Out (1989) directed by Heiner Carow (who was also responsible for the slightly subversive DEFA classic Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973) aka The Legend of Paul and Paula), had its premiere the very same night the Berlin Wall came down as is briefly referenced in Rosa von Praunheim’s Ich bin meine eigene Frau (1992) aka I Am My Own Woman starring East Germany’s most legendary tranny Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Naturally, it should be no surprise that the DEFA’s most controversial and experimental film was released not long after when the GDR was already in ruins. 




 Indeed, as much as I loathe East German cinema, Der Strass (1990) aka Rhinestones directed by Andreas Höntsch is unequivocally a lost classic of east kraut cinema that is more intriguing and unconventional than the majority of West German cinema of that same era. Like Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927) aka Berlin: Symphony of a Great City meets Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) meets Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) meets Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985), Höntsch’s first and last feature might be best described as a sort of ‘experimental romantic-dramedy,’ but that would be selling it short as both a piece of cinematic art and social criticism as it is the sort of film that could have only been made during a particular time and place by a seemingly artistically repressed auteur that was finally able express himself in a candid and artistically free fashion. Apparently inspired by a 1985 article in Sonntag magazine about an exotic dancer named Miss Albena, the film tells the largely pathetic yet nonetheless humorous tale of a 30-year-old photo journalist that becomes obsessed with a rather flexible exotic dancer that he does not even know and ultimately exploits his position as a newspaper photographer as a means to incessantly stalk her, even though she seems to have next to nil genuine interest in him as an individual. Featuring incessant occurrences of what might be best described as ‘slapstick magical realism,’ the film features the striking novelty of surreal tragicomedic scenarios that represent the protagonist’s oftentimes absurdly pessimistic, neurotic, and delusional perspective of the world, especially in regard to the enigma of the opposite sex. The film also features a rather effective novelty in the spirit of Luis Buñuel’s masterful swansong That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) in that the lead (anti)heroine is portrayed by two different actresses. In its surreally darkly humorous approach to depicting sexual humiliation and the banality of bureaucratic office work, the film can only be really compared to obscure cinematic works like Austrian auteur Philip Brophy’s piece of pleasantly pernicious cinematic iconoclasm Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988). In short, Der Strass is a fittingly anarchistic swansong to the end of the GDR as directed by an ambivalently nostalgic man that cannot bring himself to completely hate the authoritarian Soviet puppet state that he grew up in. 




 If Rolf Thiele’s Moral 63 (1963)—a somewhat underrated pulpy artsploitation piece that shares some aesthetics similarities with Höntsch's debut feature—demonstrated that West Germany was already a decidedly decadent hellhole by the early 1960s, Der Strass reveals that East Germany is slowly but surely catching up, or at least so one would assume when seen through the eyes of the film's fairly young and horny dark-haired photo journalist protagonist Georg Bastian (Thomas Pötzsch). After a sort of seemingly intentionally lame opening post-Soviet Socialist realism montage depicting the bloody misbegotten birth and history of the GDR, including footage of the ultra lame DDR rock band the Puhdys, the viewer is introduced to gregarious Georg during his big 30th birthday party where he is congratulated by friends who do not really seem like real friends at all, including his true believer commie boss and two dudes drinking bong water in a bathroom. After the festivities end and everyone goes home, Georg’s supposed two best friends leave him stranded inside a highway tunnel, but his luck soon changes when a beautiful white stallion leads him to a beautiful swarthy woman that looks like she could be Anne Frank's surprisingly stunning sister. Indeed, while looking at creepy mannequins in a storefront window that somehow end up moving on their own, Georg catches a glimpse of the woman and follows her all the way to a bar where she does an erotic striptease to Arab-like music (which is actually music by Israeli Ofra Haza, whose Yemenite Jewish influenced music is apparently beloved by both Jews and Arabs alike) while an audience of old people in mostly pagan-like The Wicker Man-esque animal masks watches on in eerie casual delight. Unfortunately, Georg is soon rudely thrown out of the venue by a bouncer dressed like Santa Claus, but luckily he discovers the name of the mystery lady via a poster on the outside of the building. Indeed, the enigmatic beauty’s name is ‘Miss Albena GDR’ (Sylvia Frank) and Georg instantly develops a deep and all-consuming obsession with her that eventually puts both his job and entire life in jeopardy. Of course, Georg is the sad and pathetic kind of fellow that tends to put pussy on a pedestal. As hinted by the fact that Miss Albena is sometimes portrayed by a somewhat more homely actress (Claudia Maria Meyer) that hardly seems sexually mystifying, Georg has an insanely idealized view of her where he sees her as the most beauteous of literal goddesses, but unfortunately for him she never really reciprocates his warped romantic feelings.  After all, Georg is a goofy neurotic mess of a man and most women do not even seem to like him, including those that dare to sleep with him.



 As the film eventually reveals via striking chiaroscuro style flashbacks, Georg was abandoned when he was just a wee little boy by his careerist Wagernian opera singer mother, hence his obsession with strong and powerful unattainable women that would not typically give him the time of the day were he not a noted photographer that might help their careers. In fact, at the beginning of the film, Georg makes a total ass out of himself by attempting to get a woman named Steffi (Claudia Wenzel) to spend the night at his flat after they have what the viewer assumes is lame awkward sex by playing one of his mother’s records, but of course his lady friend is naturally revolted by his serious mommy issues and immediately leaves his apartment while he is completely naked and his flaccid cock is awkwardly hanging out. While Steffi immediately stops seeing Georg, she uses her connections as a showgirl to do him the dubious favor of finding out Miss Albena’s personal address, thus giving the protagonist the information he needs to begin his obsessive Oedipal odyssey that eventually leads him to learning important insights in regard to the opposite sex, though very little sex is actually involved.  In short, Georg will come to learn the difference between a woman and a vagina and how a vagina has more than one use, namely that it produces life.

Under the pretense of acting as her own personal glamour photographer, Georg basks in the highly intimate glory of having one-on-one photo shoots with Miss Albena that involve her posing in a variety of less than subtly alluring fashions where she demonstrates that she can flex her body so freely that her she could practically kiss her own pussy lips. While Miss Albena poses for his camera, which seems to be more important to him than his cock as a sort of substitute phallus (indeed, the film is full of tons of overt Freudian symbolism), Georg imagines all sorts of fantastic things, including oceanic waves projected off her rather tan tits and derriere. Of course, the protagonist is always both literally and figuratively chasing his highly flexible crush, even if she fairly blatantly demonstrates that she has no interest in him outside of a purely professional capacity.  Indeed, when Georg offers to buy her some fancy wine, she swiftly blows him off like he is an annoying yet ultimately irrelevant little gnat.  Somewhat inexplicably, Georg even manages to get his boss (Eberhard Mellies)—a proud ‘Socialist Unity Party of Germany’ member that enjoys swimming with the protagonist and taking showers with him in a curious unisex collectivist bathhouse—to let him do an entire article on Miss Albena for their newspaper under the innately dubious subject of, “exoticism in socialism.” While Georg’s boss—a seemingly gynophobic man who strangely regularly swims and showers with his favorite young employee—complains he feels “sick in my stomach” upon seeing a portrait of the exotic dancer, he likes his employee too much to deny him the opportunity, henceforth eventually leading to conflict when the protagonist spends more time following around Miss Albena than actually working. 



 Naturally, when Georg's boss denies him the opportunity to follow Miss Albena around Europa and he is instead assigned to travel to Nicaragua to cover kraut commie propaganda parades, he does not take it too well. Indeed, Georg even prepares an elaborate phony pro-Marxist speech where he does his greatest Trotsky impression and declares with not the slightest bit of irony, “Can an artistic dancer, raised from the soil of our Socialist society hold her ground in the landscapes of Capitalism? Where woman’s beauty, even woman herself, is only a commodity. How will she present herself? Well, our country, our morals, our point of view, regarding the relations of the sexes, a universal subject, a touch-stone where we could assert our superiority, our tireless striving for equality, the unity of economy and social politics for the benefit of the workers, to protect peace and the socialist accomplishments,” but he is ultimately turned down and forced to travel to the Mestizo majority Central American hellhole where he gets so fed up with his work and the blatant propaganda that it entails that he destroys all of his rolls of film before they are even developed. Meanwhile, Georg begins a seemingly less than serious sexual relationship with a blond co-worker with a goofy face and even goofier haircut named Fräulein Schneider (Catharina Krautz), but that naturally goes nowhere.  As similarly socially awkward quasi-autistic individuals that work at the same newspaper, Georg and Fräulein Schneider seem like a perfect couple, but the protagonist is too pigheaded, delusional, and lovesick to recognize that she might as well be his soulmate.  When Georg finally manages to catch up with Miss Albena in a sort of exceedingly ethereal pastoral fairytale setting where wild stallions are running around, she confesses to him in regard to her mysterious lack of boyfriend and overall lack of social life, “A husband and family. I can’t afford all that with my profession. I’m on the road far too often. And friends? They can almost never reach me at home. And when I turn up somewhere, sometime, they would have to be very patient. And if I get pregnant everything’s over anyway.” Of course, unbeknownst to Georg, Miss Albena will soon get pregnant, just not by him.  To Georg's credit, it seems to be at least partially his influence that makes Miss Albena realize that there is more to life than sleazy bars and pink titty tassels.



 Despite being nothing more than an annoying little cuck that she barely knows or even acknowledges yet creepily follows her around like a scared little puppy dog, Georg soon becomes extremely overprotective with Miss Albena and tries to rough up some sleazy old fart that attempts to molest her after a striptease routine where one of her titty tassels accidentally falls off. While the would-be molester dares to complain, “First she turns you on, wiggling her arse, and then it’s all fake,” Georg will eventually realize what he says is all too true, but not before masturbating while thinking about doing exactly what the would-be molester attempted to do with Miss Albena. When Georg decides to pay Miss Albena a surprise visit with the cute thoughtful gift of two baby chicks due to suffering from lovelorn insomnia, he gets quite the surprise when he catches her virtually fucking a handsome trapeze artist outside in the rain. When Georg makes the mistake of confronting and punching the much taller and more masculine trapeze artist, he gets punched back even harder, though Miss Albena ultimately leaves both men cold and wet in the rain. With no real friends, Georg makes the mistake of complaining about his romance life to his less than understanding boss, stating in a delusional manner in regard to Miss Albena, “I’m losing her. She’s accepted an engagement in a circus. She’s so naïve, she’ll refrain from nothing. A circus! She’ll be on the road all the time, abroad, wherever. I could ever follow her tracks.” In response, Georg’s boss informs him that he has been assigned to do a story on a “feeding program” and that he should forget about Miss Albena by getting a “shave” and a “girl in a bikini,” so the protagonist tells his employer to “[go] fuck yourself.”  It seems that Georg's boss has great love for his best boy, as he blames himself for the protagonist's flagrant indiscretions.  When Georg goes to see Miss Albena after bitching out his boss, she tells him “We won’t see each other again” but somewhat surprisingly thanks him and then reveals that the trapeze artist got her pregnant by exposing her baby bump, thus confirming her career as an extra exotic glorified stripper is all but completely over. Meanwhile, two of Georg’s friends attempt to coerce him into not quitting his job, but he soon learns that his (ex)boss put him them up to it, thus reflecting the sort of hive-minded Stasi-esque spy society that the protagonist lives in where no one can be trusted.  As a result of his romantic misadventures with Miss Albena, Georg just cannot seem to tolerate playing the conspicuously socially contrived collectivist commie game anymore as he has realized that there is much more to life than being a productive member of an ostensibly classless society, especially when deep emotions and pathos are involved.




 While Miss Albena explicitly explained to the protagonist that they would never see each other again, things do not go quite as planned for the exotic dancer as Georg notices her being wheeled inside an ambulance while walking by her apartment and decides to follow to her a hospital where he poses as the father of her unborn child while she gives birth. Indeed, while Georg was unable to realize his dream of being her lover, he at least gets to temporarily act as Miss Albena’s sort of cuckold pseudo-baby-daddy while she is giving birth, thus giving him the opportunity to finally gaze at her gash in all of its glory, albeit under less than glamorous circumstances. Among other things, Georg watches as a nurse shaves off all of Miss Albena’s pubic hair in a symbolic scene where she also sheds her former identity as an exotic dancer. When some of Miss Albena’s pubic hair falls to the ground and Georg goes to pick it up, he notably finds the sort of pink feather that was part of her dancer outfit instead of dark Jewess-like pubes. Ultimately, the experience of watching Miss Albena give birth proves to be too much for Georg, as he realizes that she is more than a magical piece of shiny carnal flesh and reacts accordingly by running home and hysterically destroying every single photograph that he has ever taken of her. With the great Miss Albena completely demystified, Georg now sees her first and foremost as a mother and acts accordingly by hanging up a large photo of her pregnant figure where a sexy dance photo once hanged. In the end, Miss Albena’s birth seems to be a major revelation for Georg as he now seems to realize that, unlike his own negligent famous opera singer mother, women are oftentimes more than just untouchable enigmatic sex objects and thus he begins a new and seemingly liberating career as a maternity photographer. In the end, the Berlin Wall finally comes down and Georg is depicted at the entrance where East meets West giving away all of his old photos in a scene juxtaposed with “Dido's Lament” in a highly allegorical scenario where Purcell’s words “Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate” surely echo auteur Andreas Höntsch’s feelings regarding the end of the GDR. Indubitably, when it comes to East Germany, “Death is now a welcome guest,” though there is certainly a sort of foreboding melancholy in air, as if the filmmaker senses that the German reunification will have less than utopian results, which the last two decades have proven.




 Undoubtedly, one of the most intriguing aspects of Der Strass is its reluctantly nostalgic depiction of East Berlin, as I expected it to take a more hate than love approach to the GDR, especially considering the thoroughly negative depiction of the western side of Germany as depicted by West German filmmakers ranging from Fassbinder to Buttgereit. In fact, I do not think it is that big of an exaggeration to say that the East Berlin of Höntsch’s film seems like a heavenly utopia in comparison to the sort of perennially dark and grim dystopian post-industrial hell that is West Berlin in Sohrab Shahid Saless' Utopia (1983) and Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin (1987) aka Wings Of Desire, the hellish pre-apocalyptic Hamburg of Klaus Lemke's Paul (1974) and Roland Klick's Supermarkt (1974), and the eerily evil post-holocaust Frankfurt of Daniel Schmid's classic Fassbinder adaptation Schatten der Engel (1976) aka Shadow of Angels, among countless other examples. Although the protagonist of the film is somewhat neurotic on a personal and especially sexual level, neither he or director Höntsch seem to suffer from the sort of malignant melancholy or ethno-masochism that is typical of much post-WWII German cinema.

As I discovered from talking to an Austrian-German friend, despite living in a commie nation that was set up by Jews, Slavs, and German communist traitors, East Germans were never brainwashed with the sort of anti-German guilt that was and is still quite typical in so-called free Germany, hence why PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) is a largely East German movement. In fact, West Germany’s most unrepentantly nationalistic and right-wing filmmaker, Prussian auteur Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (Hitler: A Film from Germany, Parsifal), was born in the GDR and spent nearly the first two decades of his life there. Of course, the great American neo-Spengerlian political theorist and revolutionary Francis Parker Yockey long ago predicated that American culture-distorting would ultimately have a more deleterious effect on the peoples of Western European than communist tyranny would have on Eastern Europe.  As Cora Stephan wrote in an article that was later translated by Sarah Farmer for an article entitled Symbols that Face Two Ways: Commemorating the Victims of Nazism and Stalinism at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen in regard to the lack of self-loathing among East Germans, “The state ideology of the antifascist resistance [...] exonerated East Germans from guilt [for] Nazi crimes since, according to the [antifascist] myth, their country was free of malefactors, the high-level Nazis having fled west at the end of the war.  Since the roots of fascism had been eradicated in the GDR, where antifascists had won out and established a state committed to peace, there was nothing to apologize for.  This sense of distance from the Nazi perpetrators and of moral superiority [over] the Federal Republic permitted some in the post-war generation of East Germans to develop a sense of national pride rare among their West German counterparts.”  Certainly, quite unlike much of West German cinema, one does not get the sense while watching Der Strass that the director is plagued with guilt and/or has a deep-seated death wish.  In fact, the film even features excerpts from the Siegfried's funeral march segment of Richard Wagner's “Götterdämmerung,” which would be somewhat taboo in West Germany due to the great Romantic composer's associations with the Third Reich as was made obnoxiously apparent in sexually degenerate Judaic Bryan Singer's big budget agitprop piece Valkyrie (2008).



 Despite its experimental structure and sometimes crude and risqué humor, Der Strass ultimately features a shockingly wholesome message that you will be hard-pressed to find in most West German arthouse cinema. Indeed, as a cinematic work that celebrates motherhood in all of its majesty, it is surely not the sort of film you would find in today's spiritually moribund exceedingly ethnosuicidal Germany, which has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and which actively welcomes its own demise via the absorbing of highly hostile brown hordes with extremely low IQs and high birthrates. As a sexually neurotic and largely clueless beta-boy that comes (but does not cum) to discover that women are slightly more than just warm wet holes for his prick and that said warm wet holes are actually the spring of life, the protagonist of the film is, by the conclusion, indubitably wiser and more mature than the average porn-addicted modern-day American or Western European male. In fact, Der Strass is almost like a surreal adult sex education film made for emotionally immature young adult males as directed by the cheerfully disillusioned East German lovechild of Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen.

While you will probably learn more about the facts of the innately corrupt commie police state that was the GDR by watching Frankfurt-born Hebrew Marcel Ophüls' doc Novembertage (1991) aka November Days or even Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's popular kraut blockbuster Das Leben der Anderen (2006) aka The Lives of Others, Höntsch’s ambitious debut is indubitably the best film to see if you are a young mensch that wants to experience how much it sucked for a young horny mensch to live in East Berlin during the final year or so of the GDR. Unfortunately, not unlike the seemingly semi-autobiographical protagonist of his film, Höntsch’s filmmaking career seemed to more or less end soon after the dissolution of the GDR as he would never get the opportunity to direct another film aside from the WDR TV movie Die Vergebung (1994) aka Forgiveness starring Lena Stolze and Sylvester Groth. Notably, DEFA apparently produced about 950 features between its founding in 1946 and demise in 1992, so it is only a great irony of kraut commie film history that the studio's first film created after the collapse of the GDR, Der Strass, is probably the freshest and most idiosyncratic, challenging, titillating, and aesthetically intriguing cinematic work that they ever produced.  An oneiric one-man journey set in a decaying urban dystopia that truly gives off the powerfull illusion that grass is always greener on the other side of the fence (or, in this case, the other side of the wall), Höntsch’s film is ultimately an unforgettable obituary for a wholly inorganic nation that should have never existed yet nonetheless still managed to produce at least one good film during its all too long existence.



-Ty E

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