Sunday, March 7, 2010


I was up for a challenge this weekend and I accepted more than one. Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Spectrum Theater for a double-feature (interrupted by lunch) of Shutter Island and The White Ribbon -- more on those films later. The Albany Public Library issued a different kind of challenge. Among their new arrivals in the foreign-film section was the co-winner of the 1980 Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, a 175-minute saga of a hapless gastarbeiter from Sicily who meets misadventure at the Volkswagen factory town. I was game and I think I'm better for the challenge.

Werner Schroeter's name meant nothing to me before this, but he's a figure in the "New German Cinema" movement of the 1970s, one who's still active today. He cast a non-actor, Nicola Zarbo, as a poor Sicilian named Nicola Zarbo who follows a trail blazed by fellow Sicilians to Wolfsburg, where he hopes to raise money for his family with a job at Volkswagen. His father is a drunk, demoralized by the fact that the local landlord arbitrarily raised the asking price for a piece of land that Dad had been saving for for many years. This first of three roughly equal episodes is effortlessly picturesque, Schroeter and cinematographer Thomas Mauch (a frequent collaborator of Werner Herzog) showing a strong eye for the landscape and the dessicated architecture of the island. He has no illusions about the quality of material life there -- Nicola must emigrate to find a decent-paying job, after all, -- but he seems to see Sicily as the site of an authentic, humane culture, if only to set it up for a favorable contrast with a soulless bourgeois utilitarian Germany. His Sicily is a place where people really do burst into song nearly all the time, albeit not in musical-comedy fashion. This is not a musical, and if anything the Sicilian section is an exercise in neo-neorealism, but Schroeter (an opera director on the side) wants to show that Sicily has a music in its soul that has, presumably, gone silent in his own homeland.

Nicola reaches Wolfsburg without having secured a job, knowing only that he has a cousin living there already. But the cousin's German wife won't have relatives flopping in her apartment. The best the man can do is hand Nicola 20 marks and tell him to head for a hostel that other Italians had already recommended to him. But our hero has no idea of how to get there in the dark, and our first hint of how alarmingly unworldly he is comes when he spends the night in some bushes and idly burns the money, just to watch it burn. Come the morning, he falls in love at first sight with Brigitte Hahn (Brigitte Tilg, another first-and-only time actor), a teenage mechanic who steers him to a nearby pub run by an Italian woman, Giovanna (professional thespian Ida di Benedetto). She doesn't take scheissen from bigoted Germans, including an old boyfriend of Brigitte's, and she'll enforce discipline with a broken bottle if necessary.

Above, Brigitte mimes "Sicily" in an effort to communicate with Nicola. Below, their date at the amusement park.

Joanna not only runs her own pub; she's her own bouncer, too.

Nicola does land a job at VW, but has a hard time learning German. He regards Brigitte as his girlfriend, and even writes home claiming that he's engaged to her, but she's only using him to make her old boyfriend jealous. It works, but it results badly for him and his pal, because by the time they cross his path again he's feeling pretty jealous himself. This segment ends with an anarchist pal of Nicola's messing with a crime scene to help him set up a self-defense claim.

The final hour of the film is Nicola's trial for double murder. It comes with a drastic shift in style to illustrate the protagonist's disorientation amid the German babble and rapid-fire Italian translation, and his incomprehension of the local legal process. Social realism yields to surrealism and subjectivity. It leaves you wondering how much is playing out in Nicola's crumbling mind and how much is the director's objective absurdity. But it actually fits in with the clips from an amateur Passion Play we keep cutting back to throughout the picture. I've read a review that accuses Schroeter of making Nicola into a Christ figure, but I think the director only means that this is how Nicola has come to see himself, as a martyr if not a messiah. In fact, his isn't a Christlike fate. He's actually on the brink of acquittal when he suddenly claims responsibility for the crimes, as if grown sick and tired of efforts by defense attorney and witnesses like Joanna to portray him as a victim of German society or larger economic forces. This third episode skirts the edge of over the top, but it's really a smart ploy by Schroeter to freshen up his audience for the last long haul of the show.

Schroeter's title seems to force a choice on viewers: the soulful, intimate poverty of Sicily or what Joanna describes at the trial as "this land without light, without sun, without song, without chatter." But she seems finally to protest too much, and one sympathizes slightly with the prosecutor who says we're due to hear some German emotion after all the Italian emotion expressed already. Schroeter makes it clear that anti-Italian bigotry is rife in his country, not to mention patronizing minstrel-show like representations of Italian culture like the song a woman sings at an amusement-park talent contest. His main point, I think, is not to say that Palermo is better than Wolfsburg, but to say that the cultures are simply incompatible, a state of affairs exacerbated by the economic circumstances that bring Sicilians like Nicola to Germany. Nicola may have been deranged by his time in Wolfsburg, but the derangement began back at home.

From the length alone, maybe, you can tell that Palermo Oder Wolfsburg is a hugely ambitious film, and this is one of those cases where the ambition alone may justify cinema buffs in giving Schroeter three hours of their time. Whether you decide that he jumps the shark during the trial or not, you'll see some remarkable images and performances in a vivid document of its time in two nations.

There's no trailer available, but claims that you can watch the film free on its site.

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