Jan 18, 2017

Scarabea: How Much Land Does a Man Need?

While the figurative ‘heart’ of New German Cinema, emotionally erratic and singularly manipulative enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder, oftentimes went to great pains to mock and ridicule the insatiable greed of kraut fat cats in post-Wirtschaftswunder West Germany as is especially indicated by Mario Adorf’s character in his keenly kaleidoscopic Josef von Sternberg homage Lola (1981), the tragic auteur's blueblooded Wagernite nemesis Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (Hitler: A Film from Germany, Parsifal) directed what is arguably the most bizarre, grotesque, and oddly oneiric cinematic assault on post-WWII kraut capitalism of the greedy fat fuck oriented sort. Indeed, Syberberg’s Scarabea - wieviel Erde braucht der Mensch? (1969) aka Scarabea: How Much Land Does a Man Need?—the auteur’s first narrative feature following a number of totally Teutonic documentaries, including the Romy Schneider doc Romy. Porträt eines Gesichts (1967) aka Romy: Anatomy of a Face—is a strange little celluloid beast of the quasi-counterculture krautsploitation persuasion that seems like what might happen if a German crypto-nationalist attempted to reconcile the world classic guido exploitation of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi à la Mondo Cane with the visceral and primitive prole poetry of cinematic poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. As the film's title hints, it borrow its major motifs from Leo Tolstoy’s classic short story How Much Land Does a Man Require? (1886), though, more importantly, it also features references to writings from figures ranging from National Socialist Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn to decadent Italian fascist dramatist Luigi Pirandello.  Not unlike many of Syberberg’s cinematic works, Scarabea is a curious combination of high and lowbrow art, albeit in a somewhat different way.  Indeed, instead of the high-camp kitsch of his classic features like Hitler: A Film from Germany, Syberberg's debut basks in the viscerally grotesque and genetically deformed.  Shot over the course of seven weeks when the auteur was only 32 years old, the film is certainly a noble effort in Syberberg's oeuvre.  In fact, Syberberg would proudly describe how the film “completely satisfies” him after completing it in an interview in Der Spiegel.  Of course, little did Syberberg realize that he would eventually reinvent Teutonic cinema and start a virtual one-man aesthetic renaissance that demonstrated that Germans did not have to be afraid of making innately Germanic films.

 Syberberg before Syberberg actually became Syberberg, Scarabea was made when the auteur was still a work-in-progress as a cinematic artist before he discovered the operatic films of Werner Schroeter, completely revamped and refined his entire cinematic aesthetic, further embraced his Aryan birthright, and directed the first film in his celebrated ‘Germany trilogy’ Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972) aka Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King. More like Jacopetti meets Herzog on acid and heroin than Wagner meets Brecht like his later films, Syberberg's first feature—a film about a fat and sloppy middle-aged Teutonic lecher that makes a bet for a large piece of land that involves him taking a dangerous odyssey in the Italian bandit island of Sardinia—features unsimulated animal killings and dismemberment, retarded and/or crippled guido peasants, rotten maggot-covered carcasses, low-key bum fights, ecstatic primitive Goddess Nenia breast milk rituals, and various other memorable scenarios that blur the line between the real and surreal in a manner not unlike unhinged heeb Harmony Korine's debut feature Gummo (1997).

 Featuring an original quasi-psychedelic musical score by Eugen Thomass, who later composed music for Syberberg’s three-hour biopic Karl May (1974), and cinematography by Petrus R. Schlömp (Johannes Schaaf's Tätowierung (1967) aka Tattoo) that ranges from primitive cinéma-vérité-like garbage to highly stylized celluloid majesty, Syberberg’s first feature is indubitably an uneven experiment in eccentricity that sometimes feel like it was directed by an autistic pothead with a BS degree in Teutonic literature yet it is surely one of the more intriguing German films of the late-1960s. In short, the film is certainly no cinematic ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ like Syberberg's later great cinematic masterpieces, but it does arguably hold the distinction of being what can be described as the first (and arguably the last) proto-Alt-Right artsploitation flick.  Indeed, featuring hilarious real-life racial ‘caricatures,’ goofy snickering retards and sneering cripples, and a genuinely subversive metapolitical right-wing Weltanschauung of the abstractly expressed sort, Scarabea features the sort of aggressive anti-liberal spirit that is comparable to a contemporary Pepe-saluting internet troll army.

 Notably, long before Syberberg was accused of being a sinister anti-Semite and virtual neo-Nazi after the publication of his script for Hitler: A Film from Germany and especially after the release of his still-untranslated book Vom Unglück und Glück der Kunst in Deutschland nach dem letzten Kriege (1990) aka On the Misfortune and Fortune of Art in Germany after the Last War, the filmmaker was attacked by a certain popular German left-wing film critic for supposedly being a tad bit culturally insensitive. Indeed, in a review featured in his New Left film journal Filmkritik, Enno Patalas—a film historian and film preservationist that was heavily influenced by kosher (anti)kraut commie Siegfried Kracauer—unsoundly complained in regard to Scarabea: “Syberberg shows us a German . . . tourist on Sardinia, who eats like a pig, is loud, chases women, is ignorant about Gottfried Benn, and drinks too much wine . . . Thus prepared, it should come as no surprise that Syberberg has the same arrogant attitude to Sardinia and its people as his protagonist.” Of course, anyone that carefully watches Syberberg’s film can see that Patalas’ claim is nothing if not patently absurd, not least of all because the bungling and boorish kraut protagonist is portrayed as a bigger buffoon than a bunch of illiterate and sometimes mentally retarded dirty Sardinian peasants. In fact, it is ultimately the protagonist’s absurd arrogance and unwarranted pride that leads to his somewhat predictable yet nonetheless poignantly pathetic downfall.  While I am just speculating, I have to assume that left-wing pansy Patalas was offended by the fact that the film quotes the poetry of a one-time-Nazi like Benn and features a less than flattering depiction of flower children, but then again the film also critiques both Hollywood and capitalist exploitation, thereupon making it appeal enough to the average left-wing lemming that they might get a slight momentary hard-on by watching it.

 A walking and talking racial caricature that embodies virtually every negative stereotype that is associated with Germans, Scarabea protagonist Georg Wilhelm Bach (Walter Buschhoff of Clive Donner’s Babes in Toyland (1986) starring Drew Barrymore) is a fat, red-faced, and alcohol-addled kraut blockhead businessman that, not unlike many post-WWII Germans, suffers from a sort of semi-unconscious materialistic nihilism where he lives and breathes solely for the pursuit of acquiring land, capital, and fancy food, even though none of these things seem to bring him any sorts of happiness.  Childless but married to a frigid woman he does not love, Bach clearly lacks any sort of emotional support, hence his nihilistic worship of materialism.  After all, as a Heimat-less mensch whose nation was both physically and spiritually annihilated when he was just a young chap, Bach has nothing else to live for.  A World War II veteran that became a semi-successful businessman after inheriting a hotel from his father, Herr Bach has come to Sardinia to procure some land because he dreams of building a thriving resort spot on the primitive goombah island. Upon arriving in Sardinia in a lame convertible that he clearly feels ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ driving, Bach clearly feels he has power simply because he has wealth and immediately begins hitting on an inordinately statuesque eponymous beauty named Scarabea (Nicoletta Machiavelli, who, as her surname reveals, was indeed a direct descendant of sociopathic Renaissance philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli), who is a sort of subtly sinister flower child femme fatale that seems to get a sadistic kick out of leading the protagonist along a pernicious path of transcendental self-destruction.

A girl with a French passport but two German parents that seemingly loves wandering around aimlessly and engaging in artsy fartsy leisure activities like photography and acoustic guitar playing, Scarabea is surely a cosmopolitan kind of gal, though that does not stop her from basking in the pleasantly perverse poetry of naughty one-time-Nazi Gottfried Benn. In fact, Scarabea recites the following lines from the Benn poem “What’s Bad” to Herr Bach: “Not reading English, and hearing about a new English thriller that hasn’t been translated. Seeing a cold beer when it’s hot out, and not being able to afford it. Having an idea that you can’t encapsulate in a line of Hölderlin, the way the professors do. Hearing the waves beat against the shore on holiday at night, and telling yourself it’s what they always do. Very bad: being invited out, when your own room at home is quieter, the coffee is better, and you don’t have to make small talk. And worst of all: not to die in summer, when the days are long and the earth yields easily to the spade.” While Bach does not know anything about Benn or his poetry, he will die in the summer during a long day in a fashion worthy of a Benn poem. 

 After meeting with a somewhat refined old chap named ‘The Count’ (played by real-life part-Jewish Count and Roberto Rossellini collaborator Franz von Treuberg), Bach is able to make a clearly too-good-to-be-true bet with the local peasants and their mayor to acquire a very large piece of land, including a scenic beach spot, if he manages to personally hike through said land before sunset during a single day. If Bach loses the bet, he will have to give away 10,000 marks and his car to the winners. For the local Sardinians, especially the Mayor, it is more or less a win-win situation since they want Bach to build up the area and turn it into a thriving resort spot, thus they welcome his success.  After all, to the piss poor peasants of Sardinia, most of the land is worthless and riddled with animal carcasses.  Ultimately, Bach becomes the main attraction of a large folk festival where he is inevitably unwittingly sacrificed to his own greed in a doubly ironical fashion where he croaks after passing the finish line. Indeed, while Bach proudly proclaims to be as “tough as Rommel” when it comes to business, he has the physique of a Jewish pawnshop owner and surely was never worthy of being even a mid-level commander like a SS-Hauptsturmführer, let alone an amateur hiker-cum-mountaineer. Still, somehow some of the local yokels seem to have faith in Bach in being successful in his journey, even though a couple locals severely embarrass him at the beginning of the film before the bet is even made by forcing him to drop his pants in front of Scarabea during a mock armed robbery. Of course, no kraut is a match for the lowbrow Machiavellian madness of island guidos, including a greedy buffoon with a busted moral compass like Bach. 

 While the film more or less features a simple coherent storyline for about the first 30 minutes or so, things get a little bit inexplicable once Bach starts his journey and is eventually engulfed in a sort of anti-paradisiacal psychodrama of the highly hallucinatory sort that might be best described as a Mediterranean mix of heaven and hell where the protagonist is the unwitting guest of honor. Indeed, not long after seemingly dying while trying in vain to climb hot mountain rocks, Bach falls into a ocean and somehow magically ends up on a beach with Scarabea where he expresses absolutely ecstatic orgasmic delight while gluttonously feasting on a lavish buffet that could feed a small African nation. While a twink-like teenage peasant boy lubes up Scarabea’s lush unclad tanned bod, Bach chows down on lobster tails and tropical fruit like a rabid starving animal while asking his seemingly half-autistic female consort questions that she does not bother to answer. After the feast, Bach and his would-be-babe have a merry time playing in the ocean with fancy translucent inner tube chairs in a semi-surreal scene that seems to mock the idea of a bourgeois utopia. Needless to say, as a somewhat fat and stocky fellow, Bach is not exactly the most mobile of men, so he mainly watches Scarabea as she demonstrates her great propensity for good and hearty child’s play. Before parting company so that the protagonist can finish his journey, Bach and Scarabea go on a deceptively joyous boat ride, but not before the former massages the latter’s completely naked body in a scene that is more absurd than it is sensual. While on the boat, Bach expresses his disillusionment with life and even his big hotel plans while Scarabea does not even bother to pretend to listen in what is the one moment in the entire film where the male protagonist is honest with himself.  Although a seemingly unimportant throwaway scene, Bach's confession is a crucial moment in the film as it reveals both his pathetic humanity and hidden disillusionment with life in general, thus making his tragic demise at the conclusion of the film seem all the more tragically fitting in the end.

 While Bach is finishing up his journey, an exploitative film crew led by a grotesquely fat slob of a director with an ambiguously Hebraic essence arrives in the area and begins documenting the locals in a fashion that puts Jacopetti and Prosperi to shame in terms of sheer sleaze and unscrupulousness, but of course as the Count notes in regard to the appetite of mainstream audiences, “The people don’t actually want to see documentaries. SEX, CRIME, VIOLENCE!” Indeed, locals are so desperate to be in the film that friends stab friends for posterity and regular peasants attempt to personify the legendary bandits that Sardinia is best known for. When a filmmaker sees Scarabea sporting sort of commie-chic revolutionary garb and shooting an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man (1490) that somehow manages to bleed in a symbolic scene that represents the pathological urge of the counterculture generation to mindlessly destroy all of Occidental culture and history with great self-annihilating glee, he is so impressed that he offers to make her a “big star.” While more or less maintaining her somewhat unsettling flat affect, Scarabea takes up the filmmaker’s Faustian offer and begins shooting scenes that seem more like a Sardinian take on the Hollywood western genre than any sort of documentary.

Meanwhile, bloated bad boy Bach becomes possessed by horrifying hallucinations involving dung beetles playing with dung and seemingly gallons upon gallons of freshly squeezed human breast milk. Indeed, Bach has so much breast milk squirted on him that he looks as if King Kong busted a load on his face after a rough inter-species blowjob. In what seems like a bad omen towards the end of the film, Bach passes a lynched bird hanging from a tree while a lame multicultural psychedelic rock band plays in the background. When Bach gets near the finish line, he curiously decides to sit down and rest to look at some of the photos that he has taken during his journey using a camera that he borrowed from Scarabea. When Bach hears peasants cheering his long waited arrival while examining the photos, he finally decides to get off his fat ass and reach the finish line, but soon drops dead while disappointed peasants look on and somberly state things like “he won so much land.” In terms of the position of his lifeless corpse and even his clothing, Bach’s freshly dead carcass strangely foreshadows the highly publicized assassination of Theo van Gogh, which is certainly fitting considering the anarchic and anti-politically-correct nature of Scarabea. As for Scarabea, she is quite visibly unmoved by Bach’s rather pathetic ironical death, though she circles around his body and carefully examines photographs that were taken by the forsaken protagonist with her camera.  Of course, it certainly could be argued that Scarabea's flagrant apathy in regard to Bach's demise is symbolic of post-WWII German alienation and the state-sponsored antisocial tendency of contemporary Germans to not care for each other or the survival of their nation (in that sense, the film is certainly more relevant today than when it was first released nearly half a century ago).  After all, auteur Syberberg is (in)famous for once stating regarding his nation, “We live in a country without a homeland.”  As for Herr Bach, he only finds death upon attempting to find a new and hardly improved Heimat, but of course he never realized that no amount of land would fill the void that a lack of culture, spirituality, and family had left in his sad forsaken soul.

 Described by auteur Syberberg himself as a “surreal fairy tale,” Scarabea is certainly a strange and eccentric cinematic work of the sometimes esoteric sort where the auteur demonstrates his keen contempt hippie scum, kraut capitalist pigs, and smug pseudo-documentarians and exploitative Hollywood hacks, as well as love of classic kraut literature, ancient Occidental kultur of both the lowbrow and highbrow sort, and hot guido bitches with fancy surnames like Machiavelli. While the film is indubitably aesthetically subversive, especially compared to the films of other hot Teutonic filmmakers of the time like Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff, it is unmistakable ‘culturally’ conservative in terms of sentiment, even if it is not as apparent as in Syberberg’s later cinematic (after all, even Syberberg's second feature, San Domingo (1970), also features a severe critique of the counterculture generation and their ethno-masochistic fetishization of militant black nationalist negroes and miscegenation).

 It should be noted that American left-wing Judaic film critic J. Hoberman once described Syberberg, as well as Andrei Tarkovsky and Stan Brakhage, as a “conservative avant-gardist” and even dared to criticize his films for being supposedly “terminally German,” thus underscoring his characteristic kosher Teutophobia. Although I guess it does not say much considering the shamelessly Wagnerian essence of his later cinematic work, but I think it is safe to say that, due to its guido island setting and eclectic collection of grotesque Sardinian peasants, Scarabea is Syberberg’s least “terminally German” film, though it is certainly more innately Teutonic than anything that trendy left-wingers like feminist hag Margarethe von Trotta, half-Hindu commie Harun Farocki, or Mercedes Marxist Volker Schlöndorff has ever directed. Also, while the film might not be an obvious ‘Trauerarbeit’ (“work of mourning”) piece, it certainly expresses the Syberbergian themes of ‘freudlose Gesellschaft’ (“joyless society”) and ‘Auslöschung’ (“extinction”), especially as far as the tragic spiritually and culturally moribund male protagonist is concerned.  Unlike most of the left-wing German filmmakers and the quite insanely immature neo-Marxist rock stars of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Syberberg had at least enough maturity and empathy to understand that the capitalist pigs of his Fatherland were oftentimes tragic individuals that had sold their souls to nihilistic materialism and thus were doomed to live a patently pointless existence plagued by insatiable greed and social alienation. 

 Out of all the films I can think of, Scarabea somewhat ironically reminded me the most of the agitprop artsploitation pieces of underrated iconoclastic Italian auteur Alberto Cavallone (Spell – Dolce mattatoio aka Man, Woman & Beast, Blue Movie). In terms of its anarchic storyline, exotic locations and/or extras, entrancing dreamlike essence, obsession with the grotesque, arcane references to art and politics, deconstruction of Hollywood genre conventions, and statuesque quasi-autistic women, Syberberg's debut certainly has much in common with Cavallone (anti)classics like Le salamandre (1969), Quickly, spari e baci a colazione (1971), Afrika (1973), and Zelda (1974), among others.  Additionally, in terms of being a hallucinatory psychedelic cult flick about terribly naive and decadent bourgeois foreigners wasting away on a primitive Mediterranean island, Syberberg's flick shares many similarities with the bizarre Spanish Dennis Hopper vehicle Bloodbath (1979) aka The Sky Is Falling aka Las flores del vicio directed by Silvio Narizzano.  Of course, the flick can also be compared to a couple German films like Roland Klick’s Deadlock (1970) and Veit Relin’s counterculture Friedrich Schiller adaptation Chamsin (1972), but neither of these films are considered part of the New German Cinema movement that Syberberg belonged to (To be far, Syberberg's film does share some superficial similarities with Werner Herzog's debut feature Lebenszeichen (1968) aka Signs of Life in terms of its exotic Mediterranean setting).

Indeed, it is certainly a humorous irony of New German Cinema history that one of the movement’s oldest and most conservative and aristocratic filmmakers was also responsible for some of its strangest and most subversive films. Somewhat strangely, especially considering his reputation among serious and not-so-serious film critics and historians and trendy leftist-wing intellectuals like Susan Sontag, Gilles Deleuze and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, there is not one single mention of Syberberg in Amos Vogel’s would-be-authoritative text Film as a Subversive Art (1974). Notably, New German Cinema’s most famous and legendary filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was more or less Syberberg’s greatest arch nemesis and wasted no opportunity to besmirch both the filmmaker and his films. In fact, in his 1981 ‘Hitlist of German Films,’ Fassbinder named Scarabea and Syberberg’s later film Karl May (1974) as two of ‘The Most Disgusting’ films of New German Cinema. While the film does feature tons of animal corpses and slaughtering, animal feces, and saucy Sardinian titty milk and thus can be described as, by definition, ‘disgusting,’ Scarabea is disgusting in a preternaturally delightful fashion.  Additionally, none of the scenes in Syberberg's film is as unnerving the the slaughterhouse scene in Fassbinder's morbid avant-garde melodrama In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (1978) aka In a Year of 13 Moons

In a 2008 speech entitled Hans-Jürgen Syberberg: Leni Riefenstahl’s Heir?, the late great British artist and intellectual Jonathan Bowden noted in regard to the filmmaker's singular (meta)political importance in terms of being the one and only post-WWII German filmmaker to figuratively pass on the Teutonic cultural torch, “Syberberg’s politics is less important than the spirituality of the artistry that he represents. As with all extremely visual artists like him, describing what he’s done makes a lot more sense if you’ve actually seen the material, but of course very few people are entirely aware that this material exists, even though probably a lot of that comes up on the internet almost instantaneously in English. But the reason for this is because people understand what he’s doing. He’s positioned himself to be the repository of the sort of sensibility, which didn’t come to an end in 1945, that certain forms of German classicism that are not particularly redolent of it. There are certain forms of German medieval art that don’t really relate to it. There’s something rather trans-German and quasi-Catholic and German in the European sense, in Nietzsche’s sense of being European as against German, about him. And there’s not very much Protestant in my view about his art aesthetically, for example. But he is the repository of the Romantic völkisch sensibility which people know is quintessentially German and yet is largely denied apart from tourism and a few prissy things now. But it is ideologically denied in contemporary Germany.”

As Bowden's remarks indubitably reveal, Syberberg's films are certainly less accessible to American audiences, yet they contain a perennial spirit that should be celebrated by the growing Alt-Right movement, which thirsts for a true cultural inheritance.  I certainly think it is a happy coincidence that Alt-Right animator Emily Youcis looks like a more busty yet eccentric version of Scarabea heroine Nicoletta Machiavelli, which makes sense considering they are both of half-Italian extraction.  Interestingly, what no one seems to have noticed about Syberberg is that, not unlike Youcis, he is a very able troll as the subversive subtexts of his film reveal, albeit a rather refined one.  Indeed, no other filmmaker in history can be said to have come up with brilliant ideas like allegorically depicting the rampant cultural philistinism of post-WWII ‘democratic’ Germany via a fat kraut pig that has no idea who Gottfried Benn is.  Similarly, only Syberberg could have ‘tricked’ kosher carpent-muncher Susan ‘the white race is the cancer of human history’ Sontag into declaring that he is one of the great masters of cinema history and even stating, “Syberberg belongs to the race of creators like Wagner, Artaud, Céline, the late Joyce, whose work annihilates other work. All are artists of endless speaking, endless melody—a voice that goes on and on.”  Needless to say, due its relative lack of cultural richness and subtextual significance compared to the filmmaker's later films, Scarabea is probably a good start for Syberberg novices, even if it almost like an exercise in advancing trolling when compared to the aesthetic and intellectual majesty of an unrivaled masterwork like Hitler: A Film from Germany.

-Ty E

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