Monday, August 3, 2015

The Fan (Der Fan, a.k.a. Trance) (1982)

Bird Hunting

directed by Eckhardt Schmidt
starring Désirée Nosbusch, Bodo Steiger
Simone Brahmann, Jonas Vischer

Désirée Nosbusch was a mere sweet sixteen when she bared all in Der Fan as the cutest little cannibal ever spat forth from the land of Wagner and lederhosen. Despite it being in service of director Eckhardt Schmidt's obsessed-teen-groupie-turns-murderous plot, her nudity here is a paean to unspoiled beauty; Schmidt immortalizes his young lead actress at the peak of her feminine allure as indelibly as Elia Kazan committed to our collective memory the feral young Brando, or as wondrously as the photographs of Jock Sturges and David Hamilton aestheticized pubescent girls on the cusp of their own blossoming. There's never a moment in Schmidt's film where her Simone isn't naked in some way — he opens the film on her in extreme close-up, the most striking pair of bluish-gray eyes anyone's ever trained a camera on pleading with you not to break her little heart (we hear it pounding on the audio track), as she waits outside the post office to see if pop sensation R has responded to her latest fan letter. The mailman shakes his head and her eyes, framed by the face of a high-school Sylvia Kristel, comprise the sexiest wounded-pup breakdown threat you've ever seen. It's teenage heartbreak as S&M chic, recurring throughout Der Fan like the sex in an Emanuelle film. The "horror actress" tag doesn't fit — Nosbusch conjures up images of some model you'd find in a Helmut Newton coffee-table book, all remote goth sadness and European sophistication staring off bored as she lies naked across a grand piano in the middle of an abattoir.

As much as Nosbusch's jailbait tits and decidedly pre-Brazilian wax-era bush served as titillation points for the exploitation-horror market, they're just as connected to her performance as those eyes of hers or the beads of sweat that roll off her lip as she licks R's blood from an electric carving knife. Simone consummates — in her warped mind — the union between herself and R by sawing him apart with the knife after having driven the outstretched arm of a statuette through his brain. Her engorged, erect nipples as she ensures, piece by bloody piece, that he'll always belong to her offer unambiguous testament to her arousal — to how much the romanticism she perceives in their now-eternal "togetherness" punches buttons inside her crossed-wire stalker's brain that she couldn't possibly register any other way. Schmidt uses nubile girl-flesh — natural signifier of erotic pleasures, symbol of the promise offered by a woman's fertility — as a way to neutralize the horror in her acts and foreground our uneasy fascination with her conflation of eroticism and violence. Simone remains in the buff throughout the dismemberment because it's the film's true sex scene — Schmidt details the methodical cutting of R's limbs in grim mockery of the editing patterns of your standard movie-fuck setup; it's penetration of skin and bone and ejaculatory blood spray in a release of the tension he'd created earlier by denying us the focus on raw physicality we'd expected during R's seduction of her. For Simone, the willingness to murder the object of your desire is a declaration of how deeply your passions run. As with Asami in Takashi Miike's Audition (who she clearly influenced) and Sada Abe in Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (who clearly influenced her), she sees a mad beauty in all-consuming obsession; spiraling into realms undreamt of by most couples is just a higher level of devotion in a world that treats love as better suited to song lyrics than to realistic expectations.

Martin Scorsese's seminal Dantean fever dream Taxi Driver seems to have been a template here, only Simone's head is so swaddled in feminine reverie, she doesn't realize she's in hell. She stalks around town, an island unto herself, in her uniform of jean jacket and '80s Walkman headphones transmitting R's latest tape straight to her brain on instant replay. She declares her love for a man she's yet to meet via voice-over entries from her diary. She sits comatose at her desk in class while thinking about R; she hounds, then physically assaults, the mailman over her lack of a response from R; she makes a daily nuisance of herself down at the local post office, convinced that each day is going to be the day that R realizes she's the one for him and responds to her letter with his own declaration of unyielding love. She even wrestles with her own father when they watch R on TV and her father deems it crap. She imagines herself to be better than the groupies that she knows R sleeps with and then discards because they don't mean anything to him.

Simone slips back and forth between this reality and fantasies which see R bestowing upon her the personal spotlight she feels is her due, by sheer dint of the strength of her obsession with him. I pedestalize, therefore I am seems to be her driving motivation; there's got to be some way, she figures, for the universe to repay her for all the love and adoration she sends his way telepathically. Surely, this can't all be for nothing — her diary entries, her bedroom shrine to R constructed out of magazine clippings, the lack of friends or interaction with any boys her own age because she expends so much energy wet-dreaming about an unattainable image she knows only through the media she's consumed. She's heard his message to her in his latest single: a lyric, lip-synched directly to her TV screen over a dinky New Romantic synth-beat, about "that female moment" he's been waiting for — surely, R will validate her existence by making both their dreams come true.

Schmidt, of course, uses his B-movie cannibal narrative to indulge in the Great Postwar German Obsession — atoning for Der Führer — with sledgehammer touches such as the stylized SS logo on Simone's school bag and with a rather threadbare commingling of adoring masses who show up to, say, David Bowie concerts with the Sieg heil-ing throngs of Germans who pledged their allegiance to Hitler. The aim, as it always is with self-flagellating Germans seeking to earn their good-goy stamp of approval for Jewish-run media viability, is to critique unthinking adoration, to suggest that perhaps there's some flaw in the human character — definitely in the German one — that seems to well up from the subconscious of the people and offer hearts and minds on a platter to charismatic charlatans. What was true in 1938 Nuremberg, Schmidt is saying, is true in the West Germany of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: he superimposes R's pop-star publicity pout over a black-and-white sea of German arms in Nazi salute, then he gradually fades out the roar of a cheering Hitler crowd as one of R's songs swells on the audio track — the effect is that, for just a moment, it sounds as if they're cheering R. It's a connection that's been beaten into the ground fairly dependably ever since rock and pop seized control of the public imagination. (Even Bowie had infamously declared to Playboy, at the supposed height of his cocaine-paranoia period, that he'd have made "a bloody good Hitler" and that the dictator was "one of the first rock stars.") One can only take this to mean that Simone is intended as a nod to the brainwashed automatons who tacitly supported the Final Solution, and that the film's third-act veering into bodily disassembly and flesh-munching is merely, in director Schmidt's eyes, the D.A.F./Human League crowd's way of keeping up the traditions of their grandparents.

Schmidt precedes the shift of the film's final section with a brief stylistic interlude of Simone looking at us, moist in her childlike vulnerability, as she opens her mouth so that the camera — so that we — can move inside her. From this point, the film filters itself through her teen-girl delirium: Schmidt's focus directs itself to emphasize the details that a lovestruck girl would find important. R's seduction of her is exactly the swept-off-my-feet fantasy she daydreamed about in English class; rather than priapic "Stray Cat Blues" sketches of precocious underage pussy thunder-fucked into quiver-thighed submission, or sadistic acts of groupie abasement to make a girl show just how much of her self-respect she's willing to ditch for her favorite synth-popper, we get R gingerly unwrapping her and then handling her as if she were a precious vase he'd been bequeathed by his dear dead grandmother. We get him worshiping her supple teen flesh and that blessedly early-Eighties briar patch of muff, running his face ever so gently along her skin, intoxicated by its scent. We get R holding her body against his as if he wanted to pull her inside of him, a soft-porn folie à deux in celebration of the soul union they were destined for, despite fate's cruel campaign to Abelard-and-Heloise them into a lifetime of mutual loneliness and longing for what could have been.

Then, he gives her the polite but unmistakable post-coital groupie brush-off by making off to tend to some business and Simone literally screams like a child watching her father abandon her. R's committed the greatest sin conceivable in Simone's eyes: he's dared not to devote his life to reifying the dime-store romance novel in some teenage groupie's head; he's insisting upon his own needs, his own reality. The dream is shattered and, with it, what little of her sanity existed: she's just found out that she is, in fact, no different from any of the disposable R "band-aids" she'd set herself apart from. Mechanized gunshot sounds whooshed along to the minimalist beat that scored their consummation, as if to underline that R was signing his very death warrant by opening himself up to this crazed fan; a cheeky acknowledgment, post-John Lennon's murder, of the precarious balance between idolization and murderous envy — the need of the viciously ordinary to cut down a bird whose flight only reminds them of their own earthbound confinement — that all megastars walk with certain segments of their fan bases.

As Simone is a woman, there'll be no consequences for her, no late-night pangs of contrition; a junior-league slice of sugar-'n-spice is the last person anyone could picture sawing off a man's head and limbs, devouring him one mouth-wateringly sautéed body part at a time, and then grinding what's left of him — his bones — into a fine powder. (You watch her measured, wholly fastidious approach to disembowelment and you think, "Ah! There's that German precision at work.") Even as she returns home after God knows how long with a shaved head and neither explanation nor apology, her two lunacy enablers — parents-of-the-decade nominees, the both of them — are willing to shrug it off. She's gotten what she wanted: an eternal link to R via his seed growing inside of her and the furtherance of her delusion that he's forever hers. Simone claims that she'd have loved R even if he were poor and unknown but we know that could never be true — to female minds, it's fame and fame alone that marks a man as the worthiest possible mate due to the sex-god preselection and social proof on the widest possible scale that media enthronement affords him. Women, especially as we've untethered them from realistic appraisals of personal market value, grossly overestimate their own worth; to that cookie-cutter Facebook junkie ringing up cans of Vienna sausage at your local Walmart, there's no reason why a face on her television screen shouldn't pick her above all others, or why the universe shouldn't deliver to her lap a gift-wrapped realization of every rescued-from-reality Cinderella whimsy she's ever claimed as her princessly prerogative.

With Nosbusch as his model, Schmidt paints a mesmerizing tronie of adolescent not-quite-a-girl-but-not-yet-a-woman mystique. She appears a different age each time his camera fixes in on one of her pouty stares or dreamy-eyed glances or fits of pique. Schmidt gives us a scene where a businessman type gets into his car only to find that Simone is sleeping on the backseat. As she starts off, he wryly remarks that the least she could do is shut his door. She does so, brattily, but she actually seems playful for once — she seems to appreciate that this old guy isn't hounding her with questions, that he isn't threatening to tell someone about her or stop her from going her own merry way. For a beat or two, as she locks eyes with him, the invitatory spark of Nabokov's Lolita breaks across her face — it dies the second he grins back at her, as if she were abruptly reminded of her hypnotist's effect on men, a power she has yet to comprehend or grow comfortable with. She stands there, confused that she's come so close to letting someone in; she looks down in shame as if she'd cheated on R. In that instant, she regresses to a thirteen year-old who'd been scolded about her bad grades by a stepfather on whom she harbors a secret crush. Later, as she hovers over R, about to kiss him, she looks for all the world like a child ripping open a Christmas gift that she's hoping is the new doll she's been begging her parents for. It's a completely startling effect, one that comes naturally from both Nosbusch's tender age and her chameleon-like ability — the ability of all teenage girls, really — to intuit how young she should be in a given scenario and to project that flawlessly. She morphs before our eyes, makes us feel like dirty old men in sudden remembrance of just how budding and fawnlike Simone really is, and we're all the more aroused because of it.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


Tony Brubaker said...

I desperately want to perform literally every concievable and possible sex-act in the known universe on Desiree Nosbusch (as the bird was in 1982 when the bird was 16, not as the middle aged slag is now obviously).

Soiled Sinema said...

Another great review for a great kraut film!

It might interest you to know that Schmidt made a sort of esoteric experimental quasi-sequel to "Der Fan" entitled "Das Gold der Liebe" (1983) aka "The Gold of Love", which I reviewed last year here:

While not exactly featuring someone as titillating as a teenage and fully unclad Désirée Nosbusch, the film is notable for starring Alexandra Curtis, who is the daughter of Austrian diva Christine Kaufmann and Hollywood Hebrew Tony Curtis (notably, Tony once kidnapped Alexandra and her sister, so Kaufman and German avant-garde filmmaker Werner Schroeter flew to L.A. to get them back and in the process made the excellent film "Willow Springs"). Unfortunately, Alexandra is not as hot as her mom (must be her dad's kosher genetics).

Schmidt shot the film with most of the same crew as "Der Fan" in Vienna, thus giving it a sort of "Traumnovelle" feel. The film is fairly cryptic and features some pretty crazy surrealist imagery. Unfortunately, the film was only released on VHS in Europe and is long-out-print due to music copyright issues (it has a great soundtrack, including music by and appearances from D.A.F.).

While not nearly as immaculate as "Der Fan", it is certainly one of the director's best.

Other films worth checking out by Schmidt: "Loft", "Alpha City", "Der Sandmann"

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

Thanks for the info, it's much appreciated. More than ever, I find myself called to the fringes of cinema, to overlooked genres and to films whose subject matter insured that they could only have been made as far outside of Hollywood — and the States — as possible. Filmmakers whose contributions have been largely ignored by the "official" history of the art form.

As I've just started digging into Eckhardt Schmidt via Der Fan, I'd definitely like to see more of his stuff. I need to sharpen up my knowledge of German cinema beyond The Big Three (Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog), anyway.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Excellent review.

DER FAN excels in virtually every department.

Creative Commons License
Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .