Nico, 1988 — unveiling the myth, but not fully
When German child Christa Päffgen witnessed the horrors of World War II, its imagery was marked by morbidity and nihilism. This would haunt her for many years and define her ultimate identity. The Christa that exists in the imagination of many who knew her by the stage name of Nico is just a part of the heydays of Velvet Underground; but that personna was necessary in order for her to later reveal her own artistic and obscure nuances. To demystify the myth behind the Velvet Underground and Chelsea Girl dazzling beauty, Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli built the raw biopic, Nico, 1988 (2017). The movie was recently exhibited online in this year’s edition of the Italian Film Festival.
The story takes place in the last two years of the artist’s life, 1986–1988, a period in which Christa, who at the time rejected the name that made her known despite signing it in her works, was on tour, had released her last album (Camera Obscura-1985) and tried, for the last time, to bring close her only heir, Ari; a son she had with the French actor Alain Delon, although he has never recognized the paternity. Representing Nico on her last breath as an artist not only shows her artistic uniqueness — a singularity that is also present in so many female artists of yesterday and today and that is not yet recognized — but also makes us reflect on the legacy left by a woman like Christa Päffgen.
Two decades after her partnership with Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, we rediscover the woman who tries to escape her past and is frustrated with the present. The same thing can be perceived when reading the most up-to-date chapter in the life of another German enigmatic icon, Christiane F. In the biography Christiane F.’s Second Life, Christiane narrates skeptically the aftermaths of her problematic teen years which turned her into a cult icon. Both Christiane and Christa were heroin users (I can’t say if Christiane, who is still alive, still uses it) and the drug left deep wounds in their lives.
Years before joining Andy Warhol’s gang, Christa modeled, made memorable cameos appearances in films like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and bet on her solo career as a singer. Her presence among the Velvets was uncomfortable for Lou Reed; another rockstar of that era, Jim Morrison (The Doors), would first frighten her by showing off naked, but according to Nico’s own words, reproduced in the film, he encouraged her to write her own songs. The Chelsea Girl then, rejected by her artistic yearnings in VU’s first album (Chelsea Girl), decides to foster her artistic autonomy and launches, in 1969, the gloomy album, The Marble Index. Thus, her objection to being recognized as Nico, the icon, is due to those who once took her for a shallow figure.
It is important to emphasize that to understand this cinematographic biography or biopic, it is necessary to be aware that women like Nico, who shy away from femininity ideals, hardly maintain a rewarding career. Nico rejected the idea of aging and putting everything in its right place to keep a youthful and desirable appearance. Her tousled hair and junkie lifestyle revealed the ravaged looks to which actress Trine was faithful. The character in the film also conveys Nico’s arrogance and fuck off attitude, referring to the inexperienced musicians in her band as riffraffs and not bothering to ask for heroin in Prague, a place that was under a dictatorial regime in the 1980s.
The movie showcases an excellent timing in addition to the portrayal of the cultural background of the late 80s. The post-punk soundtrack and the bleak atmosphere match — hear the great work of the genre made by Nico in 1981, Drama of Exile. Besides, it’s important to highlight the political context of Europe in which music opened doors for experimentation and innovation while the Cold War no longer made sense. The film also brings the complex relationship that Nico had with her suicidal son Ari. Both knew that addiction trapped them in a nihilistic bubble and that their affection for each other was what offered some meaning to their deep dissatisfaction with the life that passed by.
There are some complex nuances of Nico left out of the movie, which prevented the complete demystification of the myth. According to trustworthy sources such as The Guardian, the artist openly expressed racist, anti-semitic and misogynist outbursts that are scarcely mentioned by critics and fans. I only learned of this recently and I apologize for not mentioning anything on it in this review about the documentary Nico-Icon from 1995. I’m not here to tell you whether you should ‘cancel’ her or not; but the “romanticization” of problematic artists can no longer be normalized. We have been fighting for equality for so long, and we won’t get close to it if we continue to be impartial when it comes to prejudice. You can watch Nico 1988 and applaud it for being a work about a woman directed by another woman; for showing a well-developed female character; for the admiration of Nico’s works, etc. Yet, there was no reason to sweep under the rug the problematic nuances of the woman behind the artist.
Susanna Nicchiarelli demonstrates with her film that the woman who was once Andy Warhol’s muse would never be resolved because women like Nico will never have their dissatisfactions and desires understood. Perhaps, the only worthy legacy she left behind was her enigmatic and powerful musical strength, or her transgression in lifestyle and attitude. There’s more to the picture than it meets the eye, and it was a difficult world for a woman like Nico as it has been for folks who have gone through the worse because of layers we are still unveiling.