Mar 19, 2017

Nightshade




While the New German Cinema movement of the late-1960s through early-1980s was responsible for producing a wide range of great cinematic masterpieces ranging from Werner Schroeter’s Eika Katappa (1969) to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) to Edgar Reitz’s Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984) to Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando (1981) to Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), the movement was only responsible for a handful of horror films, though thankfully they are mostly rather notable and original. Arguably, the most well known of these films is Werner Herzog’s classic F.W. Murnau remake Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) aka Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) starring Klaus Kinski as the eponymous blooduscking ghoul. Not unlike Herzog’s flick, the Fassbinder produced serial killer flick Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973) aka Tenderness of the Wolves directed by Ulli Lommel and penned by and starring Kurt Raab was also heavily influenced by German Expressionism. While not exactly influenced by Expressionism, Nachtschatten (1972) aka Nightshade directed by Niklaus Schilling (Rheingold, Die Vertreibung aus dem Paradies aka The Expulsion from Paradise) was heavily inspired by a once-popular film genre of yesterday and is indubitably one of the most idiosyncratic, refreshingly apolitical, and ‘counterrevolutionary’ films of New German Cinema.

 Indeed, a sort of pleasantly morbid Gothic neo-Heimat horror flick that was heavily aesthetically influenced by the rather wholesome and sentimental Heimatfilm genre that that was popular in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria from the late 1940s to the early 1970s yet fairly unknown outside of the German-speaking world, cinematographer turned filmmaker Schilling’s exquisite debut is as shamelessly Teutonic as films come in terms of its themes, motifs, and overall aesthetic, at least during the 1970s when ethno-masochism and politically-charged leftist horseshit was vogue among German filmmakers. Somewhat interestingly, fellow Swiss-German Philip W. Sauber made an intriguing black-and-white student ‘horror’ film entitled Der einsame Wanderer (1968) aka The Lonesome Wanderer a couple years before Schilling that also features heavy influence from German Romanticism and even the Heimat genre. Unfortunately, Sauber’s political tastes were less cultivated than his aesthetic ones, as he died during a shootout with police in Cologne after killing a cop in 1975 while he was a member of the German far-left anarchistic terrorist group ‘2 June Movement’ (aka ‘Bewegung 2. Jun’), thus he never had the opportunity to make a film of the caliber of Schilling’s debut. Underrated German auteur Hans W. Geissendörfer's visually striking debut Jonathan (1970) also predates Schilling's film in terms of Gothic Heimat horror, but it is somewhat plagued by a lame antifascist subtext that involves vampires being depicted as sort of perennial fascists that feed off the blood of hardworking proles.  In short, Nightshade is simply the best of the handful of New German Cinema Gothic Heimat flicks.



 While technically a member of New German Cinema movement, Schilling was somewhat of a critic of his contemporaries and had an aesthetic that some might erroneously describe as ‘fascistic.’ Indeed, the pastoral scenes in Nightshade seem like something out of a landscape painting by 19th-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich.  Notably, in his 1977 article ‘Cinema, Melodrama, and the World of Emotion,’ Schilling argued in regard to his distinct philosophy to filmmaking, “One can say that the special qualities of German film are its countryside, its regions, the soil, and perhaps its people in general. And likewise its myths. A ‘German world of feelings’ if you will, which can be an almost ideal cinematic subject. In this sense, the German films of the thirties, forties, and fifties have more to do with cinema than the films of the sixties and seventies. And our surroundings have lost nothing of their mythologies at all; and these are of interest me.” Undoubtedly, it would not surprise me if Schilling was attacked as a ‘Wandervogel romanticizing’ and ‘bourgeois Blut und Boden backing’ crypto-Nazi for having the testicular fortitude to make such an audacious claim in an age when the Baader-Meinhof Gang was celebrated by certain fairly popular German filmmakers. Somewhat ironically, before becoming an auteur in his own right, Schilling was responsible for acting as a cinematographer on some of the hippest kraut counterculture flicks and arthouse flicks of the late-1960s, including Klaus Lemke’s 48 Stunden bis Acapulco (1967) aka 48 Hours to Acapulco, Jean-Marie Straub’s Fassbinder collaboration Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (1968) aka The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968), and Rudolf Thome’s Detektive (1969) starring fashion model turned commie groupie Uschi Obermaier. Notably, Detektive also starred platinum blonde bombshell Elke Haltaufderheide, who would eventually become Schilling’s wife, muse, producer, and regular leading lady, including in Nightshade where she practically glows with tragic and haunted lovelorn pulchritude. 



 A singular work of uncompromising cinematic ‘Liebestod’ where a certain fatally foreboding lovesickness constantly contaminates the air to the point of virtual asphyxiation, Nightshade is a film with virtually nil plot and similarly little action. In short, it is a film of intense yet delicately constructed slow-burning atmosphere and morbidly morose pathos that resembles the most breathtaking of darkly erotic nightmares and ultimately provides the viewer with a hauntingly stirring cinematic orgasm in the end that—for better or worse—is completely unforgettable, even if it is somewhat predictable. Had Dutch avant-garde auteur Frans Zwartjes attempted to direct a Heimat flick with something resembling at least a shell of a narrative, it might resemble Schilling's film.  In its darkly romantic oneiric depiction of mud and murder in the remote countryside, the film also deserves comparisons to the cinematic works of underrated Belgian auteur André Delvaux (Rendez-vous à Bray, Belle). Needless to say, in terms of construction and setting, especially in regard to the beginning, the film owes much to credit to Danish master auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterful vampire film Vampyr (1932). In terms of its horror approach to the Heimat genre and quasi-mystical depiction of moors and the outdoors in general, the film also seems to have been influenced by the fairly forgotten West German pastoral Gothic Rape on the Moor (1952) aka Rosen blühen auf dem Heidegrab directed by Hans H. König. On a less obvious but no less crucial level, Schilling’s debut also owes credit to the films of Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni in terms of attempting to reinvent the concept of narrative cinema and being a sexually tense mood piece that features a short doomed love affair between two alienated strangers. 



 Right from the beginning of the film, it is apparent that protagonist Jan Eckmann (popular Dutch actor John Van Dreelen) is a stranger in a strangeland and that it can only end badly for him. Shot around the Lüneburg Heath region (the German equivalent of Dartmoor moorland in southern Devon, England) of Lower Saxony in northern Germany, the film is set in sparsely populated rural village where the people seem emotionally comatose and walk around like melancholic somnambulists, as if they are the ghosts of an ancient region of the Fatherland that was completely annihilated in World War II.  As an unabashed workaholic that works in the music publishing industry, Jan plans to leave as soon as possible since he has only traveled the region to look at a house that he is thinking about purchasing. Based in Hamburg, Jan never really mentions why he wants to buy a quaint old house in the countryside, but he seems to suffer from some unconscious form of Fernweh as if he was compelled to come to the region by some unseen sinister force. A successful yet childless single man of the mostly materialistic bourgeois sort, Jan also gives off the vibe that it has been a longtime since he felt both the emotional and physical warmth of a hotblooded woman, hence probably why he eventually falls prey to the patently preternatural flirting qualities of the seemingly unhinged female lead.  Like so many films of cinema history, Nightshade reveals the sort of bizarre and irrational behavior that a man will put up with just for a little piece of premium grade pussy.  To Jan's credit, the female lead has some indescribable and seemingly intangible quality about her that absolutely entrances both the viewer and protagonist.

 Since he has only come to the village to simply inspect a house that he might purchase, Jan naturally assumes it will not be a long stay, but he does not anticipate that the homeowner, Elena Berg (Elke Haltaufderheide), is a rather disturbed dame with a glaring case of lebensmüde that will do anything to avoid even discussing a price for the house. Indeed, when Jan knocks on the front door of the house and gets no response, he looks through a side window and is somewhat startled to discover sullen blonde beauty named Elena—a middle-aged woman that is clearly past her prime, yet still absolutely stunning—burning papers and other items in her fireplace. Since Elena seems oblivious to her surroundings, Jan lets himself inside the house and introduces himself as a potential buyer, yet she simply refuses to discuss a price. While Elena has a somewhat frigid affect that hints that some sort of tragedy has chilled her soul and turned her into not much more than a walking and talking corpse, she does seem intent on having Jan stay and tries to ply him with some Vermouth, which he throws in the fireplace when she is not looking. While Jan makes it quite obvious that he wants to know the price for the house and then leave, Elena still manages to coerce him into spending the night in a guest room in the upstairs of the house. As demonstrated by the fact that he is chain-smoking in the dark while he should be sleeping, Jan certainly seems somewhat uneasy by the situation and the mysterious sexy spinster that owns the house, yet he is also undeniably attracted to Elena, hence why he opts to stay the night despite his instincts telling him to leave immediately. 



 When Jan wakes up after his first night at the house, he is somewhat startled to be greeted by a large lavish breakfast and a note from Elena letting him know that she is at church. A workaholic that hates eggs and rarely eats breakfast unless it is in his office, Jan is not all that impressed with the nice gesture and remains adamant that he plans to leave ASAP after finding Elena at a small eerie church, but the beauteous woman suffers from a terrible case of Erklärungsnot and proceeds to use strange and manipulative feminine tactics to keep him around. For example, Elena sobs when Jan tells her he has to leave, but she pushes him away and runs into another room when he dares to attempt to kiss her. In fact, Elena even seems to haunt the protagonist’s dreams, as Jan has a petrifying yet nonetheless aesthetically alluring nightmare where he sees her lovingly placing red flowers on his gravestone. Somewhat curiously, the gravestone has an inscription of three years before on 27th of July 1968 as Jan's death date. Notably, while Jan is having this stunningly morbid nightmare, Elena is kissing his lifeless lips as if she is attempting to breathe death into him. Unbeknownst to Jan, Elena’s belated husband, who the protagonist bears a striking resemblance to, died under mysterious circumstances on 27th of July 1968. During that same night, Jan is also startled to discover Elena attempting to start her dead hubby’s Mercedes while in a somnambulistic-like state. While Jan manages to kiss her lips and neck and fondle her breasts while she is still sitting in the car, Elena eventually pushes him away. Unfortunately for Jan, Elena is still deeply in love with her dead husband, but luckily he bears an eerily striking resemblance to the seemingly ill-fated dead man. 



 Naturally, one of the things that most annoys Jan about Elena is the fact that she is so impenetrably secretive in a passive feminine sort of way yet, at the same time, this seems to allure him (of course, it does not hurt that she is a nice piece of Aryan ass). For insistence, there is a locked room next to Elena’s that she will not let Jan see inside, though she will not give any good reason for attempting to hide it from him. Eventually, Jan becomes so hopelessly infuriated with Elena’s pathological evasiveness and unsettling secrecy that he loses his cool and demand answers, yelling at her as if she is his delinquent daughter, “I went along with it. But now you’re done. What are you simulating? What do you want from me? Why do you want to sell the house? What’s the matter with the room? Why don’t you want to show me the room? You want to sell, but you don’t want to talk about the price. What about the car. Why did you want to drive off? You were inside my room! What are you doing at night? Say something! I don’t want the house. Nobody is going to buy it! Never! I don’t even want it as a present.” At this point, Elena gives in and hands the key to the locked room to Jan in a slow and almost ritualistic fashion as if the male protagonist is about to open Pandora's Box. Needless to say, Jan gets somewhat of a shock when he opens the door and discovers a virtual shrine to Elena’s dead husband in the form of an almost unsettlingly mundane and minimalistically decorated work office. On top of discovering a daily calendar with the date 27th of July 1968—the same exact day that the male protagonist saw inscribed on his gravestone during his nightmare—Jan sees a 1960 wedding photo of Elena and her dead husband, who is his virtual doppelgänger, albeit slightly balder and less attractive. Before Jan knows it, Elena is inside the room, but when he attempts to talk she softly covers his lips and guides him to her husband’s bed where they proceed to make love.  Of course, by entering the locked room, Jan has symbolically accepted the role of Elena's dead hubby and thus is repaid with morbidly melancholic poontang.



 Considering that Elena is obviously attracted to Jan because he looks just like her dead husband, it is safe to say that she engaging in a sort of emotional spectrophilia with the male protagonist when she begins a sexual relationship with him. Not surprisingly, the next morning after they have sex for the first time, Elena transforms into a completely different person and sheds her hypnotically sullen forlornness for a sort of bubbly girlishness, as if she is a teenage girl that has just fallen in love for the first time. Indeed, Elena immediately begins acting as if Jan is her dead spouse and begins decorating the house as if they are newlyweds that have just moved into their first home.  In short, Elena resembles the happy girl from the 1960 wedding photo of her and her dead husband. Elena also becomes obsessed with having Jan take photographs of her outside, but every time he does so her face is curiously obscured in the photo as if she has some sort of curse weighing down on her and/or she has a black mark on her soul. Of course, Jan becomes somewhat worried when he checks Elena’s mailbox against her wishes and discovers an August 1969 newspaper with the ominous headline, “Mysterious Death in the Pine Moor Remains Unsolved.” To make matters more unnerving, Elena completely collapses when the two begin walking towards the local moor. Naturally, Jan is forced to carry Elena back home, but the protagonist becomes somewhat startled when she remains bedridden and states while in a state of haunted delirium, “Stay! Please stay! I want… I want you, Werner. Come on! Let’s go back. No, let’s not take the car. We’ll walk! A couple of flowers for you. The rain will cover the tracks. Hold me tight. Help me, Werner! Careful! The dress! It’s getting wet. It’s deep.” As Jan soon discovers, ‘Werner’ is the name of Elena’s dead husband.  Naturally, Jan only becomes more and more obsessed with learning about the dead man and his dubious fate.



 When Elena falls completely asleep after spending most of the day bedridden in a semi-conscious state, Jan uses the opportunity to do what he has been meaning to do for days and goes to a local inn to call his work. Of course, Jan gets quite the shock when the rather rotund innkeeper states to him, “You’re well preserved . . . after three years in the moor” and accuses him of being the mysterious “Werner Berg.” After a little bit of morbid confusion, the innkeeper pulls out an old newspaper with an article about Werner’s death that reads, “Elena Berg has been found not guilty on all accounts. The verdict in this sensational trial has been expected. The court had no other choice. But a shadow remains on Elena Berg. A discharge due to lack of proof is inevitable. The defendant left the court in cold blood.” Notably, the article features a court photo of Elena where she looks like the most glacial of femme fatales and certainly not the same woman that the viewer has encountered at any other moment in the film.

 Chilled to the bone by what he has encountered that night after discovering that he may have made love to a mad mariticidal cunt that literally got away with murder, Jan refuses to sleep with Elena, who is to weak to complain, and instead lurks around the house that night while chain-smoking and looking like he has seen a ghost. The next morning, Elena looks even worse and seems to be suffering from some Camille-like wasting disease, yet she gets the strength to tell Jan everything that he has been dying to know. As Elena explains, Werner had been separated from her for a year on the day he died in 1969.  When Werner decided to pay her a visit after a year of separation, lovesick Elena, who felt she could not live without him, tried in vain to convince her husband to come back to her, but he “got angry,” and replied, “It’s right the way it is now.” As Elena also explains to Jan, “The years we spent together were a living hell to him. He would never change his opinion,” thus indicating they had a very one-side marriage that was doomed to oblivion. Realizing that Werner would never come back to her, Elena decided to fail to warn him about a dangerous moor when he attempted to take a shortcut in the countryside. Indeed, Elena watched passively as her husband was swallowed alive by the moor. As for her reasoning, Elena confesses to Jan, “He couldn’t leave anymore. I loved him. Now I possessed him. Forever. That’s what I wanted to tell you . . . so that . . . I give you the house for free. You just need to open the letter. Forgive me! But . . . Forgive me!” Only seconds after telling her story, Elena dies in her bed. Upon examining a desk next to Elena’s bed, Jan discovers a bottle of Pentobarbital-Natrium and realizes that she has killed herself. 



 While I can imagine many fecund-free feminists deriding the film for being ostensibly misogynistic due to its inordinately dreamy depiction of a half-crazed cunt causing the death of her husband because she cannot bear to lose him, Nightshade is, at least in my less than humble opinion, somewhat flattering in its depiction of womankind, especially in regard to love. After all, even when a woman is dumped by a man that she is genuinely in love with, it usually does not take her long to rebound and devote herself to another dick. Indeed, it usually seems that women get more upset at the prospect of their lover finding another (superior) partner than simply losing said lover, hence the tendency of women to get jealous over the new girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend despite the fact that they no longer have any sort emotional attachment to said ex-boyfriend. Of course, as a childless middle-aged woman that has a much harder time snagging a mensch than a 20-year-old twat with a firm ass and tits, the female lead in Schilling’s film has other reasons to be mad about her husband leaving her as she probably has a perennial case of Torschlusspanik (after all, the great irony of the sexual market place is that, while a man's value tendency to increase as he ages, a woman's simply decreases as her value is based almost solely on her looks and fertility). In that sense, the fact that the film was produced and stars the director’s wifey makes it all the more intriguing, as if lead Elke Haltaufderheide was threatening to kill Schilling if he ever dared to leave her (also, on a more pathetic level, Schilling might have wanted to believe that Haltaufderheide loved him so much that he fantasized that she would kill him if he ever made the mistake of leaving her). Either way, Nightshade is a perversely yet elegantly darkly romantic film that demonstrates in a uniquely unnervingly entrancing fashion that a lost love can be a fate worse than death that can lead to the lovelorn loser to becoming a haunted mess that is imprisoned in an increasingly suffocating pandemonium of the past. 



 Considering it is a two-character film with next to nil plot or storyline, seemingly no studio sets, sparse dialogue, and rather simple camerawork, Nightshade could have easily been a major disaster and abortive cinematic Kuddelmuddel yet it ultimately makes for a shockingly atmospheric and singular cinematic work, especially for an a first-time auteur who originally worked as a cinematographer on rather different and largely black-and-white flicks that have mostly not aged quite as gracefully. Indeed, unlike many of the cinematic works of New German Cinema, which were oftentimes politically-charged and very much typical of their particular zeitgeist, Schilling’s film has a timeless quality not unlike the great works of German Expressionism. As for Schilling’s rather distinct cinematic Weltanschauung, he made his intentions rather clear when he once wrote, “It is really quite simple: cinema should involve the senses. I think of ‘cinema as an experiential realm,’ as an experiential form, something that makes it—or should make it—different from television. Seen in this light, film is by no stretch of the imagination merely to be equated with cinema. If there is anything I bemoan it is surely the increasing impoverishment of cinema, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany, where it actually has become a form more and more like television and connected to it.”

 Somewhat ironically, the virtual heart of New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder—a man that made a good portion of his films for television—was a fan of Schilling’s films. Of course, the two filmmakers share one major thing in common and that is their almost pathological love of melodrama (notably, Schilling's wife Elke Haltaufderheide would also star in Fassbinder's magnum opus Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) in what would ultimately prove to be her penultimate acting role). In fact, as Schilling once wrote, “Melodrama—what a strange concept; another cubbyhole in which one places scenes with crying men, childless, rich women, passionate love-hatreds, and setting suns. It also is used as a disapproving and disdainful response to a precisely choreographed attack on the world of emotions, something a cinematic film can do if it takes itself seriously. I take it seriously and no doubt use these forms taken from the melodrama, because these forms likewise contain something that is specifically cinematic: an optical narrative structure which does not explain and edify—a way of dealing with emotions.” 



 Interestingly, fellow Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid (Heute nacht oder nie aka Tonight or Never, La Paloma)—a friend and collaborator of Fassbinder—was also obsessed with melodrama, despised leftist agitprop and the counterculture decadence of his own zeitgeist, and was considered ‘counterrevolutionary’ by both fellow filmmakers and film critics.Also , Elke Haltaufderheide is certainly to Schilling’s films what Ingrid Caven was to Schmid’s early cinematic works in terms of being a terminally tragic diva that slowly but surely disintegrates on screen as a result of a deadly love that dare not be named.  Undoubtedly, both Haltaufderheide and Caven are so spiritually forsaken, internally wounded, Todessehnsucht-obsessed, and just plain physically pale in these films that they seem like they would turn into dust if one were to attempt to caress them.  Of course, the major difference between Schilling and his contemporaries Fassbinder and Schmid is that he was heterosexual, which probably explains why his films are more erotic and ‘sympathetic’ to the perils of the female lead. Undoubtedly, in a somewhat preternatural way, one can sense Schilling’s love for Haltaufderheide and her emotional and physical nuances simply by watching his films, especially Nightshade and his arguable magnum opus Rheingold. Likewise, Schilling's love of classic German landscapes is also fairly apparent, which is indubitably one of the reasons why he is the most innately Teutonic filmmakers of his era. In terms of its hopeless and fatalistic doom and gloom Gothic Heimat melodrama, nyctophiliac dream-sequences, bold and luscious colors, and decadently romantic spirit, Nightshade is like New German Cinema’s adequately pessimistic equivalent to Veit Harlan’s National Socialist melodrama Opfergang (1944) aka The Great Sacrifice. Of course, unlike with the female protagonist in Harlan’s film, there is no transcendence for the forlorn female lead of Schilling’s flick unless you count lovesick suicide. In terms of sheer otherworldly aesthetics, eerie tone, and phantasmagoric imagery, Nightshade certainly has more in common with Frank Wisbar’s underrated Nazi era horror flick Fährmann Maria (1936) starring tragic dark-haired beauty Sybille Schmitz (who, incidentally, also starred in Dreyer's Vampyr and was the inspiration for the tragic eponymous junky ex-actress of Fassbinder's Veronika Voss). 



 As someone with an uniquely unhealthy affinity for morbidly depressed and unnervingly introverted natural blondes of the Teutonic-blooded sort, Nightshade proved to be a bittersweetly beautiful affair, even if I found the female lead's guilt-ridden lovesick suicide to be slightly improbable.  Of course, my complaint seems pointless when I remember that Schilling's film is a Gothic cinematic tone poem that is best left to the soul than the intellect.  Either way, the film bleeds feminine melancholy in a way that rivals the best of Ingmar Bergman and for that reason alone makes it worth viewing.  A cinematic work that manages to strip down cinema and bring it back to its basics while at the same time reinventing the concept of narrative cinema, Nightshade also provides a refreshingly experience that recalls times that were simpler, especially when one considers the mostly worthless films that are created in Germany nowadays.  Indeed, after watching Schilling's film, I could not help but recall a recent interview with French blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot where she was asked if she watches contemporary French films and she boldly replied, “Never. But what is it with all these actors and actresses? We only see scrofulous, sick, twisted and ugly people. The heroes today, they are people in crutches or paralysed in a wheelchair or old and in a coma. Where are the heroes? Where are the personalities that make us dream, the Gabins, the Brasseurs? I think of Alain Delon. Who replaced him? Now it’s just beards [She uses the word “barbus” which literally means beards but is also slang for Muslims] and actresses with oily hair who get raped in corners then find excuses for their attackers. You only have to look at the César Ceremony [French Oscars equivalent] where nice zombies thank Mum and Dad, their concierge and their taxi driver, while making the compulsory call for human fraternity and antiracism.”  While it was most certainly not Schilling's intention, Nightshade is also a reminder that one middle-aged blonde beauty is indubitably worth more than six million 19-year-old Turk twats.



-Ty E

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