'Film Comment Selects': Where Klaus Kinski Dies for Your Sins

Let it not be said that this session of “Film Comment Selects” lacks a consistency of vision. Past attendees of Lincoln Center’s not-exactly-a-film-festival should be accustomed to a heaping helping of the antisocial and transgressive, but a perusal of this year’s program—advertising a couple of Asian Extreme murderers, a Ciudad Juárez hitman, Nazis, grave-robbers, the Rape of Nanking, the latest from Saw auteur James Wan, and Hobo With a Shotgun—shows a downright dedication to Evil.

All this darkness is not of an identical shade. “Serial killers were always a bore in my book,” per the epigrammist Mark E. Smith—which just about covers Korean revenge-shocka I Saw the Devil. Rather more sui generis is Thomas Harlan’s experimental-theater kangaroo court, Wundkanal (1984), in which an actual Nazi war criminal—80-year-old SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Alfred Filbert—is excavated, done up like a Beckett clown, and whisperingly interrogated on film. Robert Kramer’s backstage documentary companion piece, Our Nazi (1985), soaks up the powder-keg atmosphere on the soundstage and Filbert and Harlan’s self-justifications. The Harlan/Kramer films beg a dialogue with the sidebar dedicated to the lesser-known Holocaust-themed documentaries by Shoah director Claude Lanzmann, as well as with Peter von Bagh’s Sodankylä Forever, in which footage of filmmakers speaking at von Bagh’s Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland is shaped to tell the story of the mid 20th century’s art form—moving pictures—as they respond to the mid 20th century’s totalitarian catastrophies.

The requisite bait to lure cool kids to West 65th Street is Andy Warhol’s pulsing-zoom gaze on The Velvet Underground and Nico (1966), rare synch-sound footage of the pre-album band through a stoic, hour-plus, no-vocals jam. Actress-director Isild Le Besco, here honored with a retrospective, is something of a drone artist herself. Le Besco made her directorial debut at age 21 with Demi-Tarif (2003), concerning three spastic preadolescents left to fend for themselves in Paris. In her three films, all centering on dens of feral humanity, only a funny-jarring cut to Valérie Nataf’s thickset, slatternly barbarian-woman undulating wildly at a chic discotheque in Bas-fonds, her most recent work, suggests Le Besco has powers beyond wallowing. With his own distinctive nightclub scenes, done underwater-slow, Patric Chiha arrives with an eloqent technique in 2009’s Domaine, a showpiece for stacked, turbulent Béatrice Dalle, who plays, in casting that achieves its own bizarro logic, a stacked, turbulent mathematician.

Jesus Christ, superstar: Klaus Kinski
Edition Salzgeber
Jesus Christ, superstar: Klaus Kinski

The retros, as ever, are choice. Peter Yates’s breakout, Robbery (1967), screens In Memoriam—the British director, best-known for American genre films, passed last month. A cast led by Stanley Baker, U.K. action films’ favorite blunt instrument, performs in the dogged register taken to its logical extreme in Yates’s later masterpiece The Friends of Eddie Coyle, while the director shows the action-pic bona fides of his Bullitt with a showoff opening, swinging a silver Jag through residential London streets. I Only Want You to Love Me (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film of quotidian creeping terror for German television, could have been subtitled “Death on the Installment Plan.” A provincial prole relocated to Munich becomes mired in debt, trying to guarantee his wife’s affection on layaway. The film includes a crushing Peer Raben theme, and a succession of showroom, shop, and living-room settings that make for an essay in Mitteleuropa vulgarity.

Also sifting through the rich sediment of ’70s West Germany is Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savior, in which Kinski biographer Peter Geyer presents the actor’s 1971 “Jesus Christ” performance at Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle. So crucial was the evening to Kinski’s self-perception as persecuted artist that recounting it was central in his memoir, All I Need Is Love. The event is a one-man monologue in which Kinski reintroduces Christ as a proto-hippie—dull stuff, really—but as ideologue watchdogs in the audience call out Kinski for getting rich off Edgar Wallace movies, it becomes an epic clash of dogma between lone performer and crowd, tug-of-warring over the gospel-text for their purposes, trading accusations of Phariseeism and False Prophecy, with teary-eyed Kinski torn between catering to the counterculture and wanting to horsewhip the rascals for encroaching on his stage. As he flings Matthew 7:5 like a nail bomb, Kinki’s calvary makes for living scripture at its finest.

 
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