Wednesday 29 March 2017

United Trash (1996)

Director: Christoph Schlingensief
Writer: Christoph Schlingensief and Oskar Roehler
Stars: Udo Kier, Kitten Natividad, Joachim Tomaschewsky, Johnny Pfeiffer, Jones Muguse, Miklós Koniger and Thomas Chibwe

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I’ve brought you some weird movies as part of my Weird Wednesdays project, but perhaps I’ll never be able to bring you another one weirder than this, a 1996 art film from German auteur Christoph Schlingensief, rather appropriately called United Trash. I am sure that the director had a serious purpose, namely to provide a socio-political commentary on the failure of the United Nations in Rwanda, but he chose to do it in an incredibly offhand manner. What he delivered was a sort of screwball comedy, in which no taboo is too low to exploit. It’s what you might get if Luis Buñuel took aim at western political and religious power structures and John Waters rewrote his script. If that sounds schizophrenic, it really is. The entire approach screams for analysis, as if there are deep and meaningful metaphors in every scene, but they’re all smothered in faeces and hurled at us by a chimp tripping on acid. The end result is somehow both aberrant and magnetic; we really don’t want to watch at all but we just can’t look away.

Let me introduce you to the key characters and you’ll get the idea. First up is Werner Brenner, a German general working for the United Nations somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa; we’re never told where, but the film was shot in Zimbabwe, so that’s as good a location as any. Brenner, played by Schlingensief regular Udo Kier, who I now see has been superbly described as the ‘Ron Jeremy of cult movies’ because he’s in so damn many of them, is clearly effete Prussian nobility which, to Schlingensief, translates to poor leader, flagrant queen and scat muncher. His wife, Martha, is Kitten Natividad, voluptuous vixen of many a Russ Meyer film, who’s racking up (pun not intended) quite the cult career of her own. She’s a former American hooker, whose debauched past (a twenty year stretch for exhibitionism) has been inexplicably replaced with a sexless present as a bored housefrau. She begins proceedings heavily pregnant and the baby shows up as black as the ace of spades, so that life change surely didn’t happen the way we’re told.

Well, either that or the child is the new messiah, by virtue of a case of immaculate conception; that’s how the local priest sees the situation. He’s Bishop Pierre, in the toothless form of actor Joachim Tomaschewsky. Pierre is German as well, but he’s been exiled to Africa for crimes that are never explained but which surely tie to his undying hatred for the Catholic church. It’s no stretch for us to believe that Lund, the bodybuilder boyfriend of General Brenner, has been kicked out of Europe too, because he’s as freaky a ‘dyed-in-the-wool pervert’ as I’ve seen on screen in a long while. There are scenes where Jonny Pfeifer sells his role so well that it can’t have helped his future career; the one where he’s discovered molesting an infant is truly abhorrent and I can only assume it was shot very carefully indeed. Then again, this film is not likely to be showing up on the resumés of anyone involved, unless they have become known primarily for sheer unadulterated weirdness and they want to milk that (pun very much not intended).

That leaves the unlikely narrator of the film, a baby who begins that narration an hour before he’s actually born. This is Peter Pan, who soon becomes Jesu Peter or Mohammed Peter or any other combination of similar names. He’s played by Thomas Chibwe, an actual African dwarf who spends the film with prosthetic make-up on his head to make it look like it features a constantly erupting vagina. Just in case you might want an explanation for that, it’s the product of a deranged plan. It might seem like a combination of accidents: Martha walks in on Lund molesting her baby, administers a marble test to check for penetration, then leaves it with him to unwisely stick up his nose. In hysterics because her son can’t breathe, she attempts to extract it with a knitting needle, only for her husband to trip on his way into the room and prompt the poor child to be scarred horribly for life. However, back here in the cheap seats, we suddenly realise why Bishop Pierre spent so much time ramming a needle through a voodoo doll’s head.
If you’re getting conditioned to my Weird Wednesdays picks and this doesn’t sound too wild, let me add that the doctor suggesting a five year recovery period for this budding messiah is a Hitler lookalike who moonlights as the local rocket expert, a ‘thorn in the flesh of Werner von Braun’. Kicked out of the west after the Challenger explosion, he’s experimenting with human engines, which apparently means local unfortunates drenched in whiskey. The goal of the local chief, a budding Idi Amin, is to ride a discarded V2 rocket all the way to Washington, DC, where he can blow up the U.S. President. Why, we have no idea, but that’s hardly the wildest suggestion in this picture. Clearly, this outrageous setup is that the west is utterly bankrupt morally and the people it sends to help less fortunate souls abroad are the least qualified people imaginable. And, what’s more, those less fortunate souls seem to be quite happy without the water well and crematorium that seem to be the UN’s crowning achievements in the locality.

We’re clearly asked to imagine what life would be like here without western influence. So let’s take away the bishop who’s leading them all horribly astray, remove the United Nations and their litany of horrendous examples and ditch the local chief, who, we are reliably informed, was educated in Munich. What’s left? A couple of musicians who sound far better with a guitar and a small drum kit than they should, and some happy folk. Of course, we can’t help but extrapolate that message to include this production too; I’d swear blind that most of the locals couldn’t understand a word said to them, whether in English or German, so they just smiled and laughed along in blissful ignorance. However, according to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 1996, the entire crew were arrested by the secret police ‘on suspicion of making a porn film’, and a number of sites report that the resulting picture prompted a brief cessation of diplomatic relations between Germany and Zimbabwe.
What’s oddest here is that this sounds like a particularly unhinged exploitation flick, but it really isn’t; it’s an art movie that aims to make a serious point using the cinematic language of exploitation flicks. Schlingensief, who wrote the script with Oskar Roehler, is able to keep things scooting along fast enough that we can’t get bored and variably enough to keep us believing that there’s worse yet to come. It doesn’t take the presence of Kitten Natividad, a lovely lady who looks bloated here (she looked fantastic when I met her years after this) to realise the Russ Meyer influence; we can’t fail to notice it in the editing. The score is lively and would have worked well in a Alejandro Jodorowsky movie; Tom Waits would surely give his seal of approval to all the Bohemian brass that’s in the soundtrack. The offensive material is in your face and taken from the John Waters textbook, but it’s given a more artistic edge than a camp one, so it also reminds on occasion of Pedro Almodóvar.

What it doesn’t have is the cohesion of any of those filmmakers. I got the strong impression that the budget was low and the time brief, so Schlingensief, who also shot the film, kept his camera rolling while his actors improvised in front of the human backdrops and pieced the semblance of a story together in post, with editor Andrea Schumacher. For instance, there are a couple of scenes of pageantry, which happen years apart in story time but appear to feature the exact same array of musicians and marchers. What it does have is an apparently never-ending supply of outrageous shots to burn themselves on our retinae and scar us for life. There’s actually a line of descriptive dialogue that suggests, ‘Like a maelstrom of wrong feelings, the images poured ecstatically.’ That line really sums up the movie to me far more than any of the much longer attempts at synopses that I’ve read. This film isn’t really the sum of its parts; it’s just a really long montage of them, something to play silently at a party and confuse your friends.
In fact, it’s incredibly hard to highlight examples because there are so many to choose from and there’s so much going on even in the background. For instance, we jump around in time like a narcoleptic: five years later, two hours later, four months later; most of these jumps are documented in paint on makeshift wooden signs that are literally carried past the camera by local extras. Some, however, can’t be ignored. One has Bishop Pierre proclaim Martha the mother of God by biting the head off a chicken and pouring the blood all over her; she immediately flashes back to her bathtub, from which she emerges naked to discover Lund whipping the bare ass of her husband, so cracks a bottle over his head in slow motion. The ever-flowery narration describes this: ‘like a gigantic orgasm, the wave of African folklore penetrated her in a growing helix of hatred and violence.’ Surely, this aims to mark the point in the film where Martha’s allegiances change, but we really don’t care. It’s just a barrage of mad imagery.

Perhaps I might get a little more out of United Trash if I understood the references. At one point, Martha goes to the hospital and is suddenly referred to as Effi Briest. I know that Effi Briest was a late Victorian novel that was adapted to film twice, most recently by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of Schlingensief’s key influences and the filmmaker from whom he borrowed a number of regular actors, including Udo Kier. However, none of that helps explain why Martha is suddenly referred to as Effi Briest. When I did get a reference, like what we discover in the White House right before chief Hassan el Haachi arrives in his V2 rocket, it didn’t seem too insightful. So the U.S. President is Jeff Koons II, who’s doing La Cicciolina II (or is it vice versa?) in bed in front of a camera crew. Is this a tie between European and American politics or a dig at Bill Clinton’s then-current scandals? It really doesn’t matter one way or the other. We’re too busy laughing at the cheap animation and wondering how much money Schlingensief saved on CGI.
At least I recognised those as references. Others seem like them but I may be digging too deep in a vain attempt to find meaning in a film that laughs at me for the attempt. For instance, after his five year recovery period, Jesu Peter finds himself released from an asylum and becoming incredibly popular. Is he really dressed up as Michael Jackson in a Hannibal Lector mask or is that just a wild coincidence? After the failed attempt on his life by his father on his prosthetic legs and the bazooka-equipped Lund, is the fantastic surreality we see the sort of release that wraps up a TV show, with a bizarre set of dancers: Jesu Peter, looking rather like a midget Mr. T after an albatross unloaded on his head; Kitten Natividad, the buck naked mother of God; a local in Bishop Pierre’s outfit and what looks like a mask from Scream; an inter-racial couple of German midgets; and the local anti-American chief, resplendent in his red, brown and gold muu muu? It sure felt like it to me, but there was probably no real intent behind it at all.

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Werner Brenner gets up on stage in front of the local militia, Africans one and all, with a full compliment of machine guns. Not only does Udo Kier put on blackface, he paints his entire body black and attempts some sort of improvised native dance naked but for a brief skirt of bananas. Lund is there too, clad in a truly awful blue Elvis-style jumpsuit, but we hardly even notice. What matters is that this scene doesn’t stand out from those around it (the previous scene involved the general masturbating a banana as an apparent warm-up) and that it works as the entire movie in microcosm (the whole film is a deliberate minstrel show, bludgeoning us with so much politically incorrect and morally abhorrent content that it slowly becomes passé and we accept it as the norm). No, I’m not quite that jaded a Weird Wednesdays viewer, but that’s surely much of the point of the film. Atrocity here, atrocity there; scandal here, scandal there. What are we ignoring in the world because we’re used to it?
I’d love to know more about the filming of United Trash, also known as The Slit, but there’s almost nothing online about it. I’d really like to know more about how this feature film affected the diplomatic relationship between two different countries, the one which produced it and the one where it was shot; again, there’s little online beyond some repeated paragraphs probably sourced from an official press release. What I did find online was a strong connection between Schlingensief and Africa. He’d been travelling to that continent since 1993, initially to Namibia, where he would later stage at least one opera by Wagner and shoot a documentary, The African Twin Towers; then Zimbabwe, where he shot this picture; and later Burkina Faso, where he started to build an Opera Village. His earlier pictures often centered around a thematic search for the real Germany, like A Hundred Years of Adolf Hitler or The German Chainsaw Massacre; rather bizarrely, he seems to have found it in Africa. I’m still trying to figure out what I found in this film.

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