Cine Suffragette
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Cine Suffragette

Nico-Icon: Behind The Obscurity of a Star

Born Christa Päffgen, Nico had a brilliant career immersed in an indoomy allure

I remember the first time I saw an image of Nico. I was looking forward to listen to more female singers and once I was into a Goth-influenced atmosphere (Siouxsie Sioux, Lydia Lunch, Nina Hagen) and the German rock singer Nico appeared to be one of the finest singers I could admire. Her collaboration with The Velvet Underground and her debut album, Chelsea Girl, turned her into a cult icon, but there’s much more to know about Nico. Behind the morbid artist, there was a woman of few words, but of a strange intensity that displaced her from standard expectations for women. Nico once said that she wished she had been born a man. Director Susanne Ofteringer released in 1995 a powerful yet disturbing portrayal of a beautiful woman, worthy to know and whose voice still haunts me and fans all over the world.

Nico Icon poster (1995)

Christa Päffgen’s chiseled cheekbones, pale blue eyes and striking voice called people’s attention wherever she passed by. Her family suffered the horrors of World War II — her father was severely damaged in the brain and is said to have died in a concentration camp — Christa also went through traumatic experiences. She was raped several times by an American sergeant and had to testify against him at the court. Since a young age, her beauty opened doors to an artistic career. In the 50s,Christa worked as a fashion model in different parts of Europe, including France’s Vogue magazine. It wouldn’t take long for her to be working as an actress in small movies, one produced by Godard’s eternal vagabond Belmondo, and then in European classic productions such as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which she played herself. Her glitzy career reached its peak quickly but it was not only for her physical attributes that she consolidated herself as an icon. When she meets Andy Warhol, he thrusts her into The Velvet Underground as a lead performer along with Lou Reed. The scene is New York in the 1960s and as artists were experimenting to create their art, the now Nico, whose stage name is wrongly credited to Andy Warhol, displayed more and more her morbid nature. Ofteringer contrasts the porcelain and ladylike image Nico had in the beginning of her career — as she posed as a housewife and played other patriarchal roles in magazines — and her moody, melancholy picture which translated who she really was. The documentary doesn’t try to idealize Nico as an untouchable celebrity, it flows showing people’s impressions on her, her impressions on herself and its simplicity allow us to be closer to such an enigmatic woman.

A young Christa Päffgen in her modeling career.
The documentary shows different nuances of Nico.

Before Nico came to prominence in 1965 as a Warhol star, she had a rapid affair with the french heartthrob actor, Alain Delon, from this relationship bore a son named Ari. Delon always denied his paternity, proving he is a total jerk, but Nico also had issues in raising her child. She left Ari under the care of Delon’s mother, who appears both bitter and emotional in the film. Ari’s grandma satirizes her son’s huge success by saying that she doesn’t live in a castle. Despite being adopted by Delon’s grandparents, Nico ragged the child with her in her roving bohemian lifestyle. The boy grew up into the same destructive world as his mother. He immersed himself in both artistic and drug scene. It was Nico who introduced heroin to him but he didn’t seem as angry at Nico as his grandma was. Ari says his mother was a free spirit, a “gypsy”. Although their relationship was controversial, they lived together until her death. The French actor was not the only lover she had during that time. She also slept with Brian Jones, Iggy Pop — who claimed to have contrived his first STD from her in the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — and Jim Morrison. Her encounter with the last one was also narrated in the punk book as well as in the documentary Danny Says, based on the career of the 70s eccentric publicist , Danny Fields. Nico and Jim did not share a word to each other and she was afraid of him. But this didn’t stop her from falling in love with him. She proudly said that he was the one who got her into writing her own stuff. She would belittle herself as an artist and composer. She dyed her hair with a bright red because he had an obsession with redhead girls, yes like Pamela Morrison. When Nico proposed to marry him, he laughed at her and she slapped him in the face — Well done girl! After quitting The Factory scene, much to Lou Reed’s desire, Nico started a relationship with the french director Philippe Garrel, which lasted ten years. They had an intense life together, sharing needles and experimental movies. It was the junkie actress Tina Amount who introduced Nico to Garrel. She is featured in the documentary as a big fan and friend of hers. Nico’s hair was darker just like her mood. From the end of the 60s on, Nico recorded funeral dirge albums experimenting with different instruments and most of them were produced by her long time friend and musician, John Cale. 1970 Desertshore was used as a soundtrack for her collaboration with Garrel in the movie La cicatrice interieure .

Ari Päffgen and his mother in 1981. Despite Delon’s denial, it’s impossible not to notice their resemblance.
Nico, Ari and Philippe Garrel during the 70s.
The Marble Index is the second solo album of Nico. I love how the 70s Nico looks like 70s Rita Lee. Another rock and roll goddess.

At the end of the 70s, Nico’s performances became limited to post-punk gigs around Europe, they weren't that crowded . The doc features glimpses of them and also interviews with people who toured with her until 1988, the year she passed away. At her 40s, Nico resembled a today Christiane F., being a heroin addicted for 15 years. The more she stayed away from the mainstream, the more Nico could be herself. Nico-Icon allows us to hear Nico herself speaking on her behalf. The German goth priestess had a nihilistic view of herself — she hated beauty standards and wished for a physical decay. As one of her band members recalled in the film, she would take a knife to threat whoever messed with her, as well as dozens of needles to the bus tour, only to pass them to anyone close to her if there was a police inspection. As I said before, Susanne Ofteringer either idealize her cult image or deconstructs it. She allows us to make our own conclusions about Nico. Although she led an unconstrained life, Nico was one of those few women who broke with standard impositions for her gender. Her destructive nature was a way out of the superficial stardom which she could have fit into. Nico has inspired other women to search their particular kind of freedom. Fare thee well little sis ♥

Nico and singer Patti Smith in 1977.
Nico in 1987, one year before she passed away.
This is the new biopic movie on Nico’s last moments. It’s been released this week and I am so looking forward to watch it!!!

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Larissa Oliveira

Larissa Oliveira

Brazilian teacher, writer and zinester. I write about women in Arts. I also write for https://medium.com/@womenofthebeatgeneration_

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