BERLIN DIARY FINAL: “You’re Just a Sad Song with Nothing to Say”

Sean Witzke
Sep 30 · 16 min read

“Coming up next we have Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive: Final. Of all the Dead or Alives, this is the last one.” — Bob Odenkirk, Hosting Midnight Snack circa me being 17

What’s funniest to me about Berlin is how little of the reasons I went there had to do with the final trip — I didn’t get fucked up or go to clubs or see the Hansa studio tour — it was closed (where Bowie/Eno/Iggy recorded their masterpieces, along with Depeche Mode and Neu! and Cluster). I never found the subway station from Possession. I didn’t go to the abandoned lunatic asylum on the outskirts of the city (almost made this my birthday excursion but then I thought about Session 9 and did something else). I didn’t drive the seven hours to the Black Forest to see where they shot most of Suspiria, I avoided several cold war and holocaust landmarks because I was not mentally well enough to see the BMW building where they shot the one Berlin exterior in Suspiria (as well as Rollerball) let alone death camps. I saw the Spy museum and three of the big art galleries, and I went to the Potsdam film museum.

The Potsdam museum was particularly interesting because it was extremely small and was seen to be in concert with the Studio Babelsberg tour. I attempted to go to both but the tour was only given in German. I did drive around the studio to see all the streets named after Fanck, Lang, Weine, Pabst, Sternberg, Tarantino, etc. The Potsdam museum specifically had very little in the way of german film history, that is… that the nazis interrelated history with specifically pre-war figures and how much they utilized specifically the Babelsberg studio after Goebbels was put in charge. No mention of propaganda, but also no mention of german unrest sentiment in the silent era. They sold merch of Caligari and Dr. Mabuse in the gift shop but neither scheming totalitarian mastermind appears in the museum proper. There is absolutely no mention of Goebbels or Riefenstahl or even Clouzot working under the nazis gaze to make antifascist coded statements.

Lang fled the nazis, and he is represented in the museum by programs and pre-production sketches his film of Die Niebelung part 1: Siegfried, a white power fantasy narrative. No mention of his second wife, head screenwriter and nazi party member Thea Von Harbou, who wrote that film. There is Natalie Portman’s dress from the terrible V for Vendetta movie. There are models of the massive fake Guggenheim set they used for the excellent gunfight in Tom Tykwer’s The International. Clive Owen forever, btw. The biggest representation of Nazis in the museum is ironically the reconstructed projection booth from Inglourious Basterds, as well as models of the sets for the farmhouse and a video about german studio hands experiences making the film. This was February 2019 and they had still not edited out the details of Harvey Weinstein essentially shutting down production and taking the vocally enfant terrible director away in tears. Which shows the european antipathy for the Me Too movement (they really, really don’t share our feelings about it) and how much control the Weinsteins had over a film that has almost universally been acknowledged as Tarantino’s most flamboyant and complex piece of writing. One would think Maggie Cheung being cut out of the movie might have more to do with the production shutting down rather than any of the editing problems Tarantino has described. I love that movie but it felt so whitewash-y in retrospect that this was their only mention of a fascist state running a film studio. Triumph of the Will was partially shot there. Ironically the Babelsberg site currently has an entire department dedicated to recreating nazi uniforms and has experts on period detail, the reason people keep returning there to make movies about nazis in the modern age… but they don’t want to talk about their participation in history.

Most offensive to me was the erasure of Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece Black Book, a kind of companion film to Inglourious Basterds, that was shot directly in front of the building. Verhoeven’s film is about a Jewish woman going undercover to join the SS’s personal harem for intelligence, then finding out antisemitism wasn’t an exclusive nazi trait and being publicly disowned by her fellow Dutch Resistance members (Verhoeven’s father was a member) as a nazi whore. Tarantino’s film accuses the audience in a Godardian manner, about images of the war and films made before, during, and after the war. He hates the nazis and wants to kill them all while still placing it in the context of films like Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen… so the movie has to constantly address this contradiction. It does so while taking a jewish woman closer and closer to the third reich and her making a suicide run in explicitly cinematic terms. It is a guys on a mission movie where the guys and all the Macaroni Combat imagery they represent are not as important as: a woman, borne of cinema, in cinema terms, using cinema as a weapon. Her theater lobby is built like Scarface’s house. She’s dressed in Fassbinder drag to kill Hitler and Boorman and Goebbels while a closeup of her face laughs over their burning bodies. It’s a movie about movies and a very good one.

Black Book is a movie about people and their relationships to sex, violence, internalized prejudice, greed… Verhoeven is also a director influenced heavily by other films but in Black Book, his first film out of the Hollywood system in 2 decades, is back to his view of people as unsure animals navigating an amoral world. I joked for a while that Verhoeven exclusively made movies about Aryan Sociopaths because of how much he’s internalized his upbringing under nazi rule. Verhoeven is also a director who’s featured multiple sex workers as lead characters non-judgementally. They usually are the most principled members of his rogue’s gallery. Women are consistently placed in positions where they have to understand their position in power dynamics, That a movie as important and vital as Black Book was disavowed even by one of the film’s locations, is a bummer. It is also to be expected. Any film that says “it wasn’t just the party members” isn’t going to fare well, especially in today’s climate. Both Black Book and Basterds do contextualize our binary ideas about the war into so much talk… but Basterds says that we create images to the present day idea of what is moral, which has nothing to do with what we WANT from movies. Black Book just outright accuses the audience of being hypocrites and cowards hiding amongst monsters. That’s too close to be accepted.

I see another Verhoeven film on the day before my birthday, which I argue is “my birthday movie” because for some reason I have to have one of those every year. As a child it was so dire having a late February birthday. I remember taking 15 other children to see a matinee of Sphere, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I go to see Elle at a movie theater above a bar in some weird suburb. The film is advertised as english subtitled, which it is not… it’s german subtitles over french audio. I stay anyway. I love this movie and Isabelle Huppert is so expressive as an actress that she doesn’t need language to communicate. Even in a dialog heavy rape-revenge/lite-comedy hybrid.

It’s a very weird scene. The theater has no heating so every ten minutes or so, an employee comes in and feeds newspaper into a stove next to the screen. There are 3 other people seeing the movie, plus the projectionist who does not have a booth, and his girlfriend. They loudly make out during a movie that’s pretty much all about Verhoeven’s nightmarish conception of power dynamics, now done up in French Art Cinema’s phrasing. The way he made Robocop and Total Recall in the vein of american action films only without their moral cowardice — a friend pointed out once that Total Recall is the first big film where the hero uses an innocent bystander’s dead body as a shield. Elle is Verhoeven working in the realm of Haneke and Briellat — both of whom have made sexually extreme films starring Isabelle Huppert.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this movie this way, I have since seen it with a substantial crowd in a new york theater with proper subtitles… I don’t have a story for that one. The movie is brilliant, that’s the story. It’s a rape revenge movie where the two topics are unrelated, she early on fantasizes about killing her rapist but she really despises is her family, every one of them. When I saw the awful Showgirls documentary one of the great offenses to me was they used the dream sequence as evidence of Verhoeven’s masculine approach to female characters — and the movie sidesteps linear taking the power back narratives. The best rape revenge movies always play out the damage the violence has done to the character — Ms. 45 viewing all men as targets, the parents in Last House on the Left becoming more savage than the mansonoid serial killers, Blue Steel highlighting a world where a woman is forced to fend for herself no matter how many men try to help her, because the movie wants to show us true institutional misogyny and how even joining the system (her becoming a cop) doesn’t do shit when confronted with a rich, white middle aged man who’s never noticed he was a psychopath until he met her — but all of the movies still fit into the I Spit on Your Grave/They Call Her One Eye box of women using violence against their rapist either literally or figuratively, even The Bravados/For a Few Dollars More version it’s the reticent family wiped out of domesticity by their thirst for blood.

A big part of what makes Elle so special is what it says about the behavior of an abused person. It’s not healthy to have certain kinks. It’s not healthy to hate yourself enough to put yourself in harms way. It’s not healthy to endanger yourself further because of previous trauma. It’s not healthy to dance into a new, more dangerous situation because wiring in your brain makes it turn you on. It’s not healthy to fuck your best friend’s husband. Or to tell a dinner party you were raped with the casual tone of “I did cocaine once in college”. Or to not report your rape to the police because you hate the police. Who said any of our decisions are healthy? Or thought out? Or that being impulsive is an in the moment thing instead of a lattice of choices we aren’t consciously making. Just because you’re smart and self aware doesn’t mean you don’t see yourself as a piece of shit. Doesn’t mean you might get turned on by the wrong thing. Who knows what wires have been pulled inside of us?

Elle is also the greatest movie about wanting to kill your dad ever made. Michelle, a preteen photographed in her underwear as her serial killer father is arrested on television, says she will never call the cops no matter what. She means it, as a rapist continues to attack her in her own home and she still doesn’t call the cops. The frankness of the dialog, which has some of the greatest underplayed line readings of Huppert’s career, is routinely brutal. She wishes her mother dead and she slips into a coma. Her ex husband asks why they broke up and she reminds him that he hit her. She says to her dumbfuck son that “being a parent is suffering”. She tells her all male video game company staff that the tentacle rape in their latest project isn’t extreme enough to gain notice. She leans in on her father’s body after he commits suicide and whispers “I killed you by coming here”. This is not a movie about a woman taking her power back in the rape revenge tradition, it’s the story of someone who jerks off to their christian neighbor through binoculars (insanely, Huppert does this next to a framed original Phillipe Druillet Metal Hurlant cover). It’s not a movie meant to provoke either, at least in the way that earlier Verhoeven efforts did. As he’s matured as a filmmaker he’s made more and more extreme work but he presents it in an unadorned way.

Obviously there’s a reason why I’m attracted to a movie that’s message is you are not forever broken because of trauma or family or anything but you might want your parents dead and you might not understand how to respond to danger… I would never call the cops, even when my Dad pulled a gun on me on xmas day, because I know enough about cops to never ever want to count on them.

Also it’s strange to feel loyalty to someone who terrorized you, abused you… but your reaction is never 1 to 1 logical, and Elle is one of the few movies with a performer and a director who have been making masterful attempts at this kind of complexity their whole careers. Elle doesn’t happen without Abuse of Weakness or Robocop, both of which announce their intentions in a more forceful manner while still being perfect Incidentally, my personal favorite of the Me Too outing details was Asia Argento saying that still partially paralyzed Catherine Breillat treated her like shit and yelled “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU CHOKE A MAN, I SHOULD KNOW”. She’s a legend.

I don’t find it particularly helpful to elaborate beyond what I’ve already written about my father… I find it needlessly revealing for almost no benefit, beyond saying the catchall of “abuse”. Obviously I wouldn’t have this encyclopedic command of the most vile subcategories of movies without seeking to ameliorate something personal. You look at a fictionalized version of the thing to understand it. I’ve watched everything and still don’t understand anything about myself no matter how many times I see Last House on the Left but I maybe caught a glimpse when I first watched Elle.

I watch Elle as my birthday movie in the weirdest conditions ever, then the next day (my birthday, I’m a pisces) turn the internet off on my phone and intentionally get lost at an abandoned Cold War-era military base on a mountain in Teufel. It looks like Piz Gloria in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (my favorite James Bond film) or the photos of the abandoned soviet olympic pavilion. It’s fenced off pretty rigorously, so even up close it feels like fiction. In the 6 hours I’m wandering around that enormous park I listen to the least cool and least german music — My Chemical Romance.

I think logically I had gone to My Chem from watching Caligari on youtube led to watching the heavily german expressionist influenced videos for their Black Parade album. But that’s a lie, I just love them. I missed them the first time bc I was overweight teenage snob who liked Mogwai and Sonic Youth and little else. They make great pop songs while trying to sound like The Smiths, Iron Maiden, Queen and the Smashing Pumpkins. And they can’t do it and they make their own thing, which is emo but really it’s goth. Marilyn Manson wrote a song about hating them for robbing his shtick, Billy Corgan said Gerard Way was his son (fetus Billy with hair really makes the case for him). The Black Parade is an attempt at slamming Spiders From Mars into The Wall, almost song for song, but the perspective is completely changed. This is fatalistic, band nearly breaking up grand drama but it’s the death obsessed, high schools theater kid who starts cutting himself version. In The Wall, Roger Waters sees trauma as the source of fascism, misogyny, self destruction. Even the antiwar songs. In contrast, Gerard Way is calling for the guillotines for millionaires he used to idolize and saying his mother should be ashamed of him because he’s killed people in the military. Way may have talked his 9/11 experience to death in the press but this is someone who has a fundamental relationship in his writing with mortality and guilt and managed to make that into an identity. 9/11 is the difference between rock star miserablism and genuine empathy. The same way Trent Reznor became a different person once he found out they were using his music at Guantanamo to torture prisoners. Again and again, the world let’s you know that you cannot create art in a vacuum without real life ugliness hurt you. Like Mandy, like Black Book, like Akira, like Antichrist, like Deep Red, like Elle, like Blade Runner, like The Night Porter, like Testament of Dr. Mabuse… the message is very clear in everything I wrote about in this diary. You cannot ignore or escape from the real world, or your past, without placing a target on your forehead.

It’s a story but it also could be just multiple versions of people coming to terms with their relationship to death… like what if Magnolia but german expressionist. Way has talked about his biggest influences artistically as Akira and Fritz Lang, maybe I didn’t like the band at first because it was too close to home.

It’s very satisfying to listen to histrionic songs about suicidal ideation when you’re halfway across the planet and wandering around wondering why the fuck you decided to this was a good idea. No matter where you go, you still have to go back and it feels like a death sentence. What’s the point in living? Well here’s a song that goes “Wouldn’t it be great if we were dead?” over what amounts to a 1994 Blur song.

Teufel is amazing, but I go and get lost and dehydrated and finally limp home blasting “Famous Last Words” and spend another couple of days in Potsdam then fly home. After an interminable flight back to and from Ireland I get off the plane in New York and take some friends out to dinner, talk to them about moving to the city, and limply decide I’m doing it. I will not be friends with these people for long but I still have to credit them with encouraging me to move the fuck out of PA as soon as possible. I drive home on autopilot, arrive around 2am and discover my parents have broken into my room to look for my psychiatric meds. Which I took with me, 90 days supply, which I thought was paranoid until this happened.

I, jetlagged and in a rage, wake my mother up and ask her why the fuck she did this. She gives me a non answer because she’s wine drunk herself to sleep again and I start taking her diplomas (she has a double masters in reading and speech pathology) off the wall and throwing them on the floor. They don’t even shatter. Then I drive to Walmart and buy a new lock for my door at 3am. I say out loud to myself I am leaving immediately, this is the last straw. It then took 2 and a half months but I finally move to the only place I have ever felt comfortable. It’s not great right away but it’s not like I wake up and look at a door my father kicked in when I was 16 every morning. I think if I can figure out how to live here with longer term goals than paying my rent, or buying concert tickets 2 months out so I can reason with my suicidal thoughts that I better have a reason that bests The Chromatics. If I can manage that I can really start to live my life… it’s already better and I haven’t made much progress. I see a lot of movies and I started writing again, thanks to the encouragement of a couple of people I care about enough to listen to them (you’d be shocked at how short that list is… thank you, you know who you are). David Cronenberg isn’t giving me his number no matter how many times I scream at the sky.

Tonight I saw a brand new Takashi Miike movie, First Love, with a half full theater. It’s one of his best in years. It was amazing, it made me want to say “I love movies” to a stranger. I was reminded how much closer this is to the life I want for myself than trying to descramble my behaviors in a place where I was scared all the time. Than a place where there are no decisions because everything is colored by the past… I’ve remembered more of my life since moving than I did in 2 years of therapy.

A change was needed and even then I had to be forced to make it. I don’t believe in flipping a switch and suddenly being better, and I do believe I lost so much time and attention where I could have written half a dozen bad vampire screenplays and a monograph on Suspiria… but things are different. This week my parents sold the house, which I phrase as my Meyers house in my last phone session with my PA therapist. The place where all the bad things happened is not there anymore in any way that matters.

Either I figure out how to survive here or I don’t, there’s no going back. Either I write the projects I’ve been putting off or I don’t. I’m in charge of my own life and it’s terrifying, but I’m not mentally castigating myself every five seconds because a child abusing drunk said I wasn’t ever going to be able to survive on my own. And that the women in my life were afraid of me. Neither of which were true. I have already gotten in my own way so much… I’d like to think I can at least see myself doing it now. That’s the purpose of making anything, shock and entertainment and politics are secondary to some reconstruction of life illuminating a part of the person who receives it.

The world is ending, the tide is rising, the planet is sliding towards fascism… why would I want to kill myself when death looms over every precarious aspect of our lives? If everything is my fault then I need to actually do something worth regretting. Being a victim is a trap you could stay in for your whole life. No matter what happened.

  • Sean Witzke, September 29th, 2019
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