New York

Lothar Lambert

Collective for Living Cinema

The Nightmare Woman is the purported story of Ulrike S., an actress plagued since childhood by a disfiguring squint. To rectify her figure, Beate M., as the actress is named in this film, undergoes four operations which she hopes will alleviate her imperfection and remove her from the churning vat of misery and despair which she finds herself splashing around in. But nothing helps. Her ex-husband was a grizzly animal who pawed her with the insistence of a neurotic dog. Her current “lover” watches television. Her younger son treats her with contempt, and his brother lavishes her with an empathy rife with sexual confusion. Her psychiatrist dreads her visits. Her mother declines. Her father has taken up with a younger woman. As a result, Beate hallucinates a life of unrelenting glamorous expenditure. She also masturbates a lot.

This film might have been an interesting attempt at dealing with the issue of sexual representation: a depiction of female bifurcation spanning the droll distance between shimmering statuette and weary hausfrau. While recognizing masochism as the preponderant characteristic of most filmic female portraiture, Nightmare Woman could have suggested strategies toward the rejection of this comfortable and customary victimization. It could also have made reference to the broad designation of women as objects within the field of men’s desires (and nondesires), wrestling with the possibilities of subject-hood for both Beate and the women who are watching her (in the audience). But rather than consider the gender confusion and despair in this woman’s life, we watch an endless procession of ridiculously “divine” episodes attesting to her “fabulously” melodramatic debasement. Though pictured sympathetically, she is soon submerged by a kind of mannered facetiousness, narrowing the movie’s code to a sometimes comedic shorthanding of the unpleasantness of being a girl.

Nightmare Woman is a film that speaks of and shows a man’s nightmare of a woman. The man, the director, is Lothar Lambert. The woman, the nightmare, is a confused, gaping maw reduced to the essentials of her sexual longing. She is never satisfied. Her dissatisfaction brings us back to Freud’s beleaguered query: “What do women want?” The nightmare woman’s wants are dictated by her director. Obsessed with the necessity to become his vision of her perfection, she becomes at the same time what he names her: a constancy of imperfection and lack. And all the operations in the world will not disallow her this.

And neither will the film. Like much current German film production, most notably Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s, Nightmare Woman acknowledges the tyrannies of sexual stereotyping and exercises a sometimes amusing parody of the systems that instruct our desires. But where Fassbinder (especially in such films as Fox and his Friends, Satan’s Brew, and The Year of Thirteen Moons, all of which feature male “heros”) works to unleash comedy as a device benevolent in its criticalness, Lambert seems to revel in a brand of humoresque, locating his nightmare woman in a swarmy marsh of nostalgic melodramatic posings and sad grotesqueries. Beate is denied alliances with other women, who are seen as projections of her own self-contempt. Her vanity stalks her like a mad mirror. And in the film’s finale this vanity is posited as the very thing that will save her (for him, the director, who constructs her narrative).

Poorly shot in stylishly inept 16mm black and white, the film’s slow, languorous pace creeps to a rousing close. Having joined a rock group, Beate reticently takes the stage and, after a false start, launches into a gyrating rendition of the kind of heart-rending ballad that accompanies much of the film: “This is me. This is my life.” During this song we see her transformed into the powerfully staged figure which can contain her narcissism. The accelerated editing alternates facial closeups with narrative flashbacks, leaving the slow particularities of life and rushing into a seductively economic encapsulation. Using strategies of display similar to those of TV advertising footage, this ending offers the viewer a sleek synopsis, a kind of characterological tourism; the constant return to Beate’s face is like the commercial’s return to its logo, and this face, this logo, dominates this short passage of virtuoso filmmaking. Perhaps the last scene brought out the best in the director because he understood that the resuscitation of the logo (in this case the female of his perfection, the woman named nightmare) is the guarantor of his pleasure.

Barbara Kruger