Well, Well, Weltschmerz

Nick Pinkerton on “Fighting Mad: German Genre Films from the Margins” at Quad Cinema

Ralf Olsen, Blutiger Freitag (Bloody Nights), 1972, 35 mm transferred to DCP, color, sound, 97 minutes.

WHEN IT COMES TO THE WILD WORLD of European genre cinema, a few national strains—UK horror, Italian everything—have tended to dominate repertory screen time and suck up critical oxygen. However, recent years have revealed something of the depth of the dark-horse Teutonic tradition, which has produced an abundance of films giving evidence of repressed rage and verboten desires howling for release behind the official, open-for-business facade of West Germany.

The 2015 documentary Cinema Perverso: The Wonderful and Twisted World of Railroad Cinemas examines the checkered legacy of the cinemas opened by AKI Aktualitätenkino-Betriebs-GmbH & Co in railway stations of major German cities, beginning in 1951 at Frankfurt am Main. These cinemas, in the ’60s and ’70s, became famous for showing soft-core, kung fu, and indigenous fare, such as Alexander Titus Benda’s Macho Man (1985), featuring one-time contender German featherweight boxer René Weller modeling jaw-dropping pleather ensembles and right-hooking drug dealers out of Nuremberg. “Beloved and Rejected,” a program that originated at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival before traveling to Film at Lincoln Center, introduced audiences to the cinematic bounty of the 1949 to 1963 Adenauer era, named for the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. This includes the work of returning émigrés, such as Robert Siodmak, whose Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (The Devil Strikes at Night, 1957) is a tale of crime and justice under a criminal and unjust National Socialist regime, as well as of those who stayed behind, such as Helmut Käutner, whose Schwarzer Kies (Black Gravel, 1961) encapsulates the air of graft, dissolution, and disillusion that hangs over a village proximate to an American military base.

Carl Schenkel, Abwärts (Out of Order), 1984, 35 mm transferred to DCP, sound 90 minutes.

The jeering at Käutner’s Die Rote (Redhead, 1962) by the Young Turk upstarts who, in the year of the film’s release, had signed the Oberhausen Manifesto—a call for a new German cinema that broke definitively with the past—is depicted as an unspeakable betrayal in Dominik Graf’s ambitious, idiosyncratic, and pleasurably digressive cinephile documentary Doomed Love: A Journey Through German Genre Film (2016). Graf’s film begins with the evocative image of a long-buried bomb being detonated in Schwabing, a district in Munich, rattling the windows of the Neue Constantin studios, and the assertion that “the German film is dead,” and then gives the floor to the figures who, implicitly, once gave German film life, some of them connected at one time or another to Constantin. There is an ancient Artur Brauner, the producer who financed Fritz Lang’s final German films, as well as directors Roger Fritz, Roland Klick, and the especially combative Klaus Lemke, who strikes a note of lament for the eclipsing of a popular demotic, anti-didactic, rock ’n’ roll German cinema that addressed itself to a viewing public by a subsidized German cinema that addresses itself to funding organizations, regarded here as inherently censorious, and foreign festival tastemakers.

Graf’s film also acts as a sort of explanation for the selection process behind “Fighting Mad: German Genre Films from the Margins,” a series at the Quad Cinema organized by Graf (who is himself the subject of a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives that begins on May 25) and Olaf Möller, one of the curators of “Beloved and Rejected” and a talking head in Doomed Love, continuing his pick-and-shovel work in subterranean German film and finding cinematic explosives that still pack a wallop.

Doomed Love identifies a “counter-wave” of corporeally oriented genre cinema in response to the cinema of the cerebral Oberhausen upstarts, identified by Lemke as the “offspring of rich parents [whose] only interest was to write their A-level papers once more.” The distinction between the genre directors and the leading lights of the post-Oberhausen New German Cinema, so-called, was perhaps not so stark in practice. Roger Fritz, for example, would appear as an actor in several films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who perhaps constitutes a wave of his own. Fritz, a handsome young jet-setting photographer who turned to making films with his wife, Helga Anders, is represented as a director at the Quad by his 1970 The Brutes. The film stars Arthur Brauss and Klaus Löwitsch (another Fassbinder regular) as two thirtysomething white-collar louts who, after foisting themselves onto a group of hostile longhairs, waylay and misuse counterculture kid Anders, first strong-arming her into sex, then responding to her threats to call the law with a mocking recitation of the police and court procedures in place for dealing with cases of sexual assault, which are humiliating for the female accuser. Both Brauss and Löwitsch would later appear in Sam Peckinpah’s WWII-set Cross of Iron (1977), and Fritz’s film shows a Peckinpah-esque view of the male macho as a territorial beast little removed from the dogs—a movie of pitched warfare between genders and generations and put-on masculine histrionics, as bleak as the gravel quarry where it lays much of its scene.

Dominik Graf, The Invincibles, 1994, DCP, color, sound, 130 minutes.

While films of the late ’60s and ’70s are the heart of “Fighting Mad,” they by no means define its limits. In addition to two of Graf’s own films, including an extended version of his 1994 The Invincibles, one can find Carl Schenkel’s Abwärts (Out of Order, 1984), a thriller set inside a stalled high-rise elevator that, like The Brutes, builds tension around intergenerational jockeying for authority and sexual competition. Its pleasures largely derive from its total nose-down absorption in describing the practical problems of escaping from a death trap suspended over the void. An early insert drawing attention to a Lenin lapel pin on the lapel of Götz George suggests a sociopolitical metaphor at work, but the movie is most interesting for its treatment of more concrete matters, such as the law of gravity. Ralf Huettner’s Babylon—Sleeping with the Devil (1992) is a stranger specimen still: a queasy sex-death trip revolving around fatal spermatozoa and explosive miscarriages that resolves as a postpartum nightmare, providing Natja Brunckhorst perhaps her choicest role following Christiane F. (1981).

While these are strictly domestic affairs, other films in the program offer a broad definition of “German” cinema. The Night of the Askari (1976)—a deadly disreputable vision of seething, irreconcilable racial rage from a colonial Africa whose occupying Brits cling desperately to the illusion of law and order—was directed by a German, Jürgen Goslar, and stars certifiably Caucasian Lübeck-born Horst Frank as an albino African warlord, but it was shot in Zimbabwe and features a largely Anglo cast, including Christopher Lee and a very plummy Trevor Howard. Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1974) is a late work by the temporary American émigré Samuel Fuller at his most off-the-rails and achingly romantic. The film features the tossed-off line “You look like an unemployed rapist” and a sound track courtesy of the Cologne group Can (here credited as the Can), which also provides The Brutes with hectic percussion and the raspy, cryptic utterances of the group’s original vocalist, Malcolm Mooney, on the original “Soul Desert.” That these ostensibly commercial films could employ one of the more experimental music outfits in West Germany is but one of the paradoxes at play in the “Fighting Mad” lineup, which also blurs the distinction between film and television in a manner which Europeans have long been accustomed to, while Americans still struggle to keep the two media safely cordoned off from each other. Fuller’s film, for example, was a theatrically released episode of the still-running police procedural television program Tatort, and Möller will be on hand on May 23 to present “An Evening of German Television Classics.”

Robert Sigl, Laurin, 1989, 35 mm transferred to DCP, color, sound, 84 minutes.

Programs such as Der Kommissar (1969–76) and Horst Tappert’s long-running Derrick (1974–98)—on which Goslar was a regular director—may have been influenced by American cop operas, including Dragnet (1951–59, 1967–70) and Columbo (1968–78, 1989–2003). Doomed Love notes there was a close relation between the German and Italian film industries, with actors including Gisela Hahn and the bustling, broad-shouldered Zürich-born Italian German Mario Adorf working both sides of the Alps. Some of the strongest movies at the Quad offer a Germanic equivalent to the Italian poliziotteschi, or crime, films—for example, Wolfgang Staudte’s 1971 Jailbreak in Hamburg. Shot by an Italian, Giorgio Tonti, Jailbreak in Hamburg moves with the spry, prowling, predatory energy that one associates with the poliziotteschi, though its scenes amid the strip clubs and sex shops of the red-light Reeperbahn are as Deutsch and dirty as you can get. Still more relentless and rough is Rolf Olsen’s Blutiger Freitag (Bloody Friday, 1972)—the screenplay was purportedly punched up, uncredited, by poliziotteschi expert Fernando Di Leo—based on an actual bank robbery and hostage situation that occurred in Munich on August 4, 1971, and featuring Raimund Harmstorf as the robbery ringleader, seemingly smuggling a hefty weisswurst in his leather trousers.

Not without good reason a cult item, the scurrilous Bloody Friday, which includes among its highlights a giggling toddler juggling a loose hand grenade, was recently given the 4K restoration treatment courtesy of German home-video label Subkultur Entertainment. The ongoing excavation and exhibition of so much superlative German filmmaking only further proves the inexhaustible untapped reserves of film history and the role played by institutions such as Subkultur, Locarno, Lincoln Center, and the Quad Cinema.

An event under any circumstances, “Fighting Mad” takes on additional significance given recent events at the Quad, which became an invaluable contributor to a revitalized New York repertory scene following a ballyhooed 2016 reopening under the auspices of real-estate maven Charles S. Cohen and his Cohen Media Group. With the recent departure of programmers C. Mason Wells and Micah Gottlieb, who both had a hand in much of the best that transpired at the cinema, and the announcement that booking will now be handled by the Cohen-owned Landmark chain, the future of rep at the Quad now seems precarious. Will it remain a matter of exploring undiscovered territory, or Kubrick Midnights on DCP? It is to be hoped that “Fighting Mad” will not double as a wake for repertory programming at the Quad, which without such inducements would cease to be a venue of any worth or interest whatsoever. But if it does, you couldn’t ask for a much livelier eulogy. 

“Fighting Mad: German Genre Films from the Margins,” copresented by the Goethe Institut, runs at Quad Cinema in New York from May 17 to May 23.