BERLIN diary pt. 1 — This ain’t erotica, this is genocide

Sean Witzke
Jun 17 · 17 min read

June 17, 2019


(crossposting from my tinyletter)

Last February, I spent 23 days in Berlin. I don’t know why. Ostensibly I was planning to do a lot of things I’d never done before, including leave the country (I had been to the Bahamas once when I was 11 and seen the Thunderball locations and watched my dad slide out of sobriety in the hotel casino) and attend the Berlin Film Festival. I had pretensions of working on a screenplay idea that was very enamored with german film and architecture and cold war aesthetics. I had a small amount of money saved and my legal trouble from the previous year had finally been expunged from my record. I also needed to get out of rural Pennsylvania and seriously thought about never coming back. I timed it to coincide with my birthday, specifically so no one could contact me on my birthday. On the day, I turned my phone off and went hiking around an abandoned cold war military base in Teufelsberg. I needed a break from my life, which had become untenable. I barely ate, barely slept, and couldn’t bring myself to write at all. None of these changed when I got to Berlin. I never wrote anything. I lost 20 lbs from not eating regularly (or sometimes at all) while I was there. For the first week I severely debated coming home early.

The last thing I saw when pulling into the airport in Newark was a convoy of about 6 Raytheon branded SUVs leaving. I assume from some sort of arms deal. That was the moment I realized I needed to get out of America and have been thinking about leaving for a very long time.

I broke my foot stepping off a tram onto a broken cobblestone on the first day, 8 hours of wandering around the transit system and then feverishly slept for 2 days when I landed. I rarely spoke to anyone during my stay. The language barrier was at times terrifying, even though almost all Germans I dealt with just had to be told I only spoke english. If I could have managed the language part, I might have stayed. I never made it into any bar or club. I went to museums and movie theaters and saw weird abandoned shit in the woods and went to places where they shot movies I like. But I wouldn’t say I had a true Berlin experience. I drove around a lot listening to Low and The Idiot and Phaedra.

The one film I did manage to see as part of the Berlinale festival was The Night Porter, being screened as a part of an honoring of the film’s star Charlotte Rampling. Who is probably most famous for appearing as the love interest in the worst “classic” Woody Allen movie, or for having an amazing cat eye, or for appearing in Zardoz.

Night Porter, Liliana Cavani’s legendary nazi fetish movie, is playing as part of the tribute to Rampling. They are also running Rampling’s other appearance in an Italian maestro’s exploration of fascism through the lens of the nazis, Lucino Visconti’s nazi epic The Damned. I missed the 3-day window to purchase tickets to see both. The cool thing about Berlin is there is a website where you can look at every movie playing in the entire city, what’s in english, what’s subtitled and in what language, what’s only screening as part of the festival. The festival maintained a 3-day rolling purchasing window for everything unless you purchased tickets to the entire festival. So I only manage to get tickets to Night Porter.

Visconti’s film focuses on the decadence of the culture that can turn a blind eye to their participation in raising the nazis to power, mirrored in their deviant appetites (as seen by Visconti, this meant pedophilia, incest and homosexuality). In that film, Rampling is sent to the death camps, one of the few innocents on display. She’s punished more for her lack of sin than for anything else.

Leading up to the festival Rampling has, of course, said a bunch of idiotic old person shit regarding race while promoting some now completely forgotten movie, which she’s retracted. I don’t care if a 73 year old model turned actress doesn’t understand intersectionality, especially one who’s job was to be a beautiful cold staring pair of eyes in 60s and 70s sex movies. I love that actors are now forced to grapple with the world they habituated themselves to and don’t understand how to talk about it. It’s always nice to see people show their ass in public, but I’m more concerned with people making the decisions rather than clueless elderly former participants.

She’s also honored with a lifetime achievement award and screenings of all her major films including the Woody Allen directed Stardust Memories. Which is not a good movie, or a good look to be playing that film in 2019. She’s a strange screen presence — when she doesn’t work she looks completely like a gorgeous person stranded in the middle of a movie. Rampling appears in Target: Harry, the only movie Roger Corman ever took his name off of. When she’s in the right role… she’s mercurial and ethereal. Her cameo in Vanishing Point was cut out of the American release, because it was deemed too strange. Her appearance takes the psychedelic suicide run implications of Barry Newman’s Kowalski into the directly symbolic. She’s death, plain and simple.
In her later career, she’s mostly been great providing weight to minor roles the way great british actors tend to do in their old age, Melancholia. Spy Game. She’s working with Paul Verhoeven on his next movie, a lesbian nun film. She’ll probably be amazing in it.

The nazi fetish exploitation movie was invented, as many erotic film subgenres, by Roger Vadim. Along with the lesbian vampire film in Blood and Roses, swinging 60s psychedelia in Barbarella (arguably one of the only films about free love made by people who for really real believed in the concept), what we would now view as cuckolding in God Created Woman. Vadim essentially created Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve’s screen presences from whole cloth. In his 1963 film Vice and Virtue, he changed the setting of a Marquis De Sade story to the Third Reich, gave birth to the likes of Salon Kitty, Love Camp 7 and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. The literary roots of the nazi exploitation fetish come from the 1953 novel House of Dolls, a debunked “diary” of a survivor of a rape camp inside Auschwitz. This same novel was later the inspiration for the name of the band Joy Division.

So when Cavani wrote and directed The Night Porter to outcry of it fetishizing fascist imagery (even Pauline Kael referred to it as “proof that women can make junk as well as men”), it wasn’t as if she invented the idea of sexualizing nazi imagery from whole cloth. Cavani’s stated intentions rose out of her interviews with female Italian resistance fighters for the documentary Women of the Resistance. She also wanted to tell a story about the other prisoners at the concentration camps — she intentionally made a film about a non-Jewish prisoner, the daughter of a Vienese socialist.

While it could be argued that nearly every work of art made since the end of World War 2 has been grappling with the possibilities and ramifications of fascism, the Italians grappled with it in a very specific way. Rossellini began conflating nazism with homosexuality and pedophilia almost immediately at the birth of neorealism, as did Bertolucci for the Italian fascists in The Conformist. As does the Night Porter. Recurring references appear in both The Night Porter and Suspiria to the Oscar Wilde version of Salome, another story about the seductive nature of power and violence. Madame Blanc’s office walls are covered in Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Wilde’s stageplay in Suspiria, hinting at a lineage of occult and fascist imagery that litters the film uncommented. Visconti and Cavani used the same actors. Not just Rampling and Dirk Bogarde but several cast members reappear from The Damned, despite Cavani saying she didn’t enjoy Visconti’s film.

While in Berlin I debate taking my rental smartcar to the Suspiria locations in Freiburg and Munich — The Academy of Freiburg, the BMW Building. Many of them nazi locations such as the location of the Beer Hall Putsch and Konigsplatz square in Munich where Hitler held rallies, and decide that I can’t afford to even think about it.

I do try to go see the locations of another famous extreme film and go to Kreuzberg where they shot most of Andrej Zulawski’s absolutely perfect Possession, only to find that many of the locations have been torn down. I never went looking for the subway location, too spooked after my first day on public transportation leaving me lost and hurt. Possession is brilliant because of how harsh and obvious some of it’s metaphors are — a movie about divorce heavily features the Berlin Wall (though Bad Timing does the same thing to completely different effect). While in Kreuzberg I visit a poster museum the size of a closet and buy a subway sized french Suspiria poster I have been dreaming of buying for a solid 5 years. It is enormous, expensive, impractical and flying back to the States without damaging it was difficult bordering on ridiculous. It is the most important and beautiful object I own. An artifact not only of a movie I love but of an era of european commercial art that doesn’t exist anymore. Dario Argento and his then-wife and co-writer Daria Nicolodi made a film enamored with german expressionist cinema, black magic, fascist imagery, disney’s Snow White, pure color and sound… and made it commercial. There are 2 sequels and an uninteresting remake. It may be the last film ever printed on 3-strip technicolor in the western world. It is a film that makes me love film. Still, it’s not simply imagery being repurposed to commerciality, every scene of black magic in Suspiria connects to a fascist real life counterpoint. Hitler himself was a believer in Helena Blavatsky, a mystic whose work has strong white power overtones and who appears in Suspiria as Helena Markos.

Overall though, the Italians made films about the nazis in the 70s because not everyone is Elio Petri and certainly no one else was ever going to be Pasolini. Not many have the gall to make accusatory films about the fascism of their present time, their present country. Theirs was a current concern, similarly to the way Americans keep making more and more specifically current takes on both the Third Reich and the Holocaust. When Donald Trump was elected there was an outcry of “where is the art in response to this?” as if we hadn’t been circling around fascist imagery for decades before the chickens came home to roost. The stories a culture chooses to tell itself are always canaries in coal mines, many we can only acknowledge in the aftermath.

The most famous critical text on the imagery of german expressionism and its connections to the Third Reich was Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 book From Caligari To Hitler (and the lesser documentary of the same name). Argento, a film critic turned screenwriter, named a character in his original script for Demons 3 “Lotte Eisner” after another german film critic, who wrote The Haunted Screen. She said “german man is demonic man made flesh”. The lines are very easy to draw from the obsessions with power and madness in stark, cinematic terms to fascist art and architecture. The way Robert Weine used lines to break up the image leading to the way Albert Speer used lines to convey omnipresent power.

Hitler and Goebbels were huge fans of another husband and wife filmmaking team, Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou. Von Harbou was a nazi party member and wrote the line from Lang’s Metropolis “the mediator between the head and hand must be the heart”. A phrase which Hitler loved. Lang wasn’t a party member, he was half jewish, and when asked by Goebbels to join their propaganda administration, was told “we decide who is Jewish”. Lang (who probably definitely murdered his first wife so maybe wasn’t a walk in the park himself), escaped from the nazis after meeting with Goebbels, who banned his film The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, for liberally quoting Hitler’s speeches for the film’s possibly-a-ghost villain. Watching Testament now portrays a city and a country on the edge of collapse, being driven mad by a voice over the radio. The nazis were obsessed with film, were encouraged by film.

Von Harbou and Lang also made the 2-part epic adaptation of Wagner’s Die Niebelungen, which is not only a white will-to-power narrative but the only Lang film currently mentioned in the Potsdam Film Museum, even though some props from Metropolis are on display. I guess they would like to not dwell on the relationship between the work of great filmmakers and the unspeakable atrocities that happened so quickly after. I didn’t take the studio tour, only the museum one, but I hope they mention the period between 1925 and 1947 somewhere in there.

To pretend the nazis weren’t obsessed with the power of images is kind of ridiculous, considering well… Reifenstahl for a start (I wish more people were aware of Reifenstahl’s tenure as an actor where she was like teutonic Angelina Jolie, all of whose movies are about strength und will). They funded films not only in their own country but countries they seized. They invented equipment. Cavani described the handheld Arriflex camera as the boldest confession of the nazis because they invented a handheld camera to document their atrocities more easily. Fascism will not only be forever tied up with cinema it produced great leaps in the field. Mussolini banned sync sound and horror films, without which we wouldn’t have… any movies that I care about. If the Italians had sync sound would we have any good movies at all?

So The Night Porter, this is about The Night Porter. A film written and directed by a woman, often lumped in with the great women’s revenge films in our current era, where we get to look at Ms. 45 and They Called Her One Eye and I Spit on Your Grave with some distance. The most popular nazi fetish movie ever made, the most respected. Charlotte Rampling’s greatest performance. A definitive, far reaching image of a sexualized, emaciated Rampling in an SS cap, hands over her exposed torso. A criterion entry.

The shocking thing about The Night Porter is that it isn’t a conventional revenge story. Or even much of a fetish movie. It interrogates its characters as doomed, self-destructive participants in their own demise. The plot is the perfect setup for a revenge film — Dirk Bogarde plays an ex-SS officer in hiding as a hotel night porter, one day the wife of a prominent diplomat appears at his desk and is the 14 year old girl he sexually terrorized during his tenure at the camps. The first half of the film is about the tension of this premise, about unspoken pauses between horrified stares. The story should be about one thing, about good and evil, about retribution and getting over the past. It avoids this kind of Luc Besson narrative version of the story completely.

Cavani’s flashbacks — played out as unreal, characters often in thick white makeup or making theatrical gestures — are used in the opening half of the film to dance around with the audience that expects some explosion of violence, only for it to never really arrive. When Bogarde finally confronts Rampling in her room and hits her, the actor did it for real, and it’s not especially pleasant to watch. The story isn’t about that kind of violence, though. It’s a much uglier approach to the idea.

Fascism, we have to say here, is inherently seductive. That’s why it’s a fetish, a taboo. It’s not just the Hugo Boss hats and leather gear migrating from soldiers to bikers to queer clubs to fetish clubs to music videos and eventually to the internet. There’s a lot of people who would fetishize the death of millions of people but there’s also a lot of people horrified by their capacity for being seduced by these stupid little callsigns of power, of domination, of torture and purity and absolutes driving your every decision. There’s the Howard Chaykin page from American Flagg where our jewish romantic lead finally beds his girl only to find a swastika tattooed on her ass… but he doesn’t stop himself.

Being scared of yourself is a great way to develop a kink. Being ashamed of yourself even better.

Cavani isn’t making a movie about the aftermath of trauma being expunged by action. These people fall in love with each other, and we are unsure if it’s ever real. Rampling allows her husband to leave her in Vienna, alone in the hotel with this man. Not because she is scared of him but because she is scared of herself. The movie can always go two ways and it isn’t until the Salome-style flashback, featuring the image of Rampling in the SS hat and suspenders, that we know where the film is taking us. It’s not the choice we, the well educated and definitely not fascist leaning audience, would choose. It makes our stomach turn.

Bogarde delivers a brutal SS guard’s head to Rampling in a box, and they are inexorably linked for the rest of their lives. At least, that seems to be what she remembers. She loves him. He loves her. Until they confront one another, they dance, they fret, they question their own memories. That seems to stop once they collide in the hotel room. From then on it is only a trajectory towards death that they cannot escape. Bogarde, he seems to become more moral and human as the story goes on. That was Peckinpah’s continued argument in his films — that morality rising out of bad people is the only morality that counted. Cavani might scoff at that. Still, we watch as Bogarde chooses love in a manner which destroys him and we have to decide how we feel about it. This is a story about oppressors and victims, yes. The sadomasochistic reading of the material would have that the victim is really in control, but neither of them are in control. Neither of them, as appalling as their actions become, seem to be making many decisions. Rampling chains herself up to a table in his room, refuses to leave given every chance. He refuses to hand her over to his SS kangaroo court buddies, for whom we’ve already seen him commit cold blooded murder. They want this thing that’s happening, or they don’t know how to do anything else.

The horror of The Night Porter is that gravitational pull. These two people are destroying one another. One could say that Rampling is re-enacting the horrors of the camps on the man who once tortured her but… that’s not what is happening. The yawning need between these two as they can’t stop being together, can’t stop touching each other, even as they are starving to the point of being unable to move… this is sickness. This is the holocaust in microcosm, this is never leaving the role you thought you’d moved on from decades ago. They die dressed as an SS Officer and a little girl, gunned down in the street by their friends. The intervening years don’t matter. What kind of person they were at the start of the movie doesn’t matter.

The well dressed socialite horrified to see her past well up from behind the desk at the beginning, that person is now crawling around on the floor eating jam out of a broken bottle and grinding on top of her pedophile boyfriend, like an abandoned animal that’s starving but kicks when you come too close. What Cavani seems to put forward is that maybe these roles, once entered into, are impossible to escape. That something so monumental as the holocaust dictates actions far beyond regular old victimology. This isn’t a feel good movie, this isn’t something you see with a crowd. I saw it in the middle of the afternoon with 400 germans.

My reasoning for buying tickets to a mid-day festival screening of a movie like Night Porter was of course goony. I wanted to see a movie that difficult with a stuffy festival crowd. I wanted to see a nazi fetish movie in Germany. I wanted to see a 70s porno in a theater with regular people (which I’ve done but never in the day). In practice this meant that I was signing up to feel a room of 400 people vibrate in being monstrously uncomfortable. The building the film was playing in was this gargantuan movie palace, attached to a hotel which had a red carpet running through the courtyard and up to the top of the building. The seating was stadium-stacked. I arrived 45 minutes early which meant I was one of the last people in the theater. Festival audiences don’t fuck around. As I sit down in the second to last row between two very uncomfortable german women, I notice the row behind us blocked off for what I assume is the festival committee/employees. They are stacked up right next to the projector, which is among the seats. The total experience was at times excruciating — all the way up to the ending you could feel the room sweat. A scene where a committee of former concentration camp officers in hiding all throw the Heil Hitler salute, only for Bogarde to look at them like they’re all crazy… the audience laughed. But they laughed before the joke. They laughed at the arms going up because they, a middle class German festival audience, couldn’t take the tension any longer.

Now, as the film is playing I notice some motion behind me as the entire row gets up and leaves the theater right before the ending, this is when I knew they were the festival committee. Right as the credits come up after the ending that hits like a body falling down a well, I run to the bathroom… right through Charlotte Rampling’s photoshoot at the concession stand. In the seconds where I realize this is happening I notice this is happening I realize 1. That’s Charlotte Rampling, a real movie star. She has the halo thing you hear about movie stars, the Brad Pitt “walk into a room and a circle forms around him” thing. All eyes in the room go to her. 2. She’s stunning, even now. 3. She’s staring daggers at me because I am not in her shot, I am in her eyeline. I am in the movie star’s eyeline. 4. I am leaving her best movie, her greatest performance, before she does her Q&A, which I’m sure will be insanely awkward once audience questions hit and which I sincerely regret I missed. Can you imagine? I’ve been to comic cons and you feel the good will for an audience get vacuumed out of performers by a question. What happens after you screen a nazi fetish movie? 5. The bathroom isn’t even in the building it’s across the courtyard. I keep running. I run on the red carpet I avoided walking in because no one cares to direct me away from it this time. I’ve seen other celebrities and I’ve got better stories, but that’s my best celebrity story.

I walk outside and it’s a spring sunset in Berlin and it’s beautiful and I just felt a room of hundreds shudder with the possibility of evil being inevitable, and I take a lot of stupid pictures of the sun setting over the hotel. Then I went home and decided I wanted to stay the month.

- Sean Witzke June 2019

Featured in part 2: Mandy, Blade Runner, Elle