You can argue maybe America need a war that killed millions of young men and left their hot wives destitute during a Great Depression (prostituting to survive) or War (pressed into jobs normally occupied by men) in order to create the perfect storm for the Weimar cabaret of Brecht's wry economic savvy and Weil's woozy drinking songs and promiscuity's syphilitic ennui, something to forge the Germanic woman in a cast-iron mode where sex and mountain climbing carry the same lack of shame and guilt, a land where a pack of cigarettes or tea is more precious than mere money.
Weimar, a wellspring of decadence wherein former gorgeous tall willowy aristocrats took to the stage just to feed their food and shelter addiction. Weimar, when a cold winter made coal and firewood as as costly to one's sense of moral decency as a $300 a day heroin habit would to a junky.
There is no admittance in Hollywood or in our PC putsch climate that at the core of it all, the whole sex and dying in high society bootstrap, the shit's just fucked up. And without that admittance we cannot evolve. We're still asleep. Nothing like being bombed nightly to wake you up into the moment. And unless you're awake you can't be neither whore nor virgin but able to oscillate constantly between. Only the pre-code heroine, rising from the shackles of small town hypocritical sexism, knew the moment's intricate playful contours here in the US, and even then she had to be reshackled from 1934 until the second war, when noir would begin to free her (on certain conditions). That's just four lousy years.
But all the while the German dolls had no need for morals and so they knew when to pull the plug on their dying moms, and their confidence was earth-shattering. They didn't need layers of security, they could just blind us with aggressive charm, didn't need a fade to black to convincingly seduce us. Stalking around the room, selling $20 apples, knowing just when to fall into their john's arms, only to whirl out again a moment later and ask for a light, to keep the push and pull fluid, these dames reintroduced a state of play to the proceedings Americans had forgotten all about. Our modern maidens cannot do this now, there's too much at stake and not enough. There's no more danger, the rate of exchange is set, with a thousand intervening pimp handouts between the girl and the guy. Now a girl can't go from murdering her pimp father to seducing her way up the company ladder to happily ever to into the harrowing void of genuine openness like Babs Stanwyck could in Baby Face (1933).
Today we need female characters who are not prostitutes in the sense of today, where they're brutalized victims of white slavery in tense Liam Neeson thrillers, but crafty capitalists moving fluidly between roles--adventuress, gold-digger, a spy, a hungry urchin, and a genuine romantic partner--unswayed by a man's charisma past the point of their influence and bankroll, but that bankroll is fluid, the money paid rising and falling like stocks in a volatile market. Seduction is boiled down to its essentials until even being nice to a lonely guy for more than a 20% tip on a rainy night carries the metallic ring of coins continually hitting the bottom of a tin bucket.
The only badass German chick I've seen on an American screen lately (they're all over in German of course, hier und hier) has been Nina Hoss (below left) as Astrid, the super cool BND op in the most recent season of Homeland. We can glean a tad of the corrosive sexism of America via the description of her character on Wikipedia:
Am I exaggerating? None of your business!
|Emil Jannings and Josef Goebbels|
And isn't the moral crusader really one who is so afraid of that hell dimension they have to keep setting up stricter and more repressive Photoshop layers against it, presuming with tight enough restrictions the Rockwell layer can fuse irrevocably with the hellish real, so that the demonic ne'er can be found again? The American moral woman of post-code era was, like the Temperance League broads before her, of the staunch belief this could be achieved, reflecting her terror of the void, a terror those of us who've seen and been devoured by the horror don't share. It's the terror of the guilty, those afraid of holy judgment. They play up their piety for a reason.
The German women though, aren't afraid of the hellish dimension. They've collectively lived through it twice. They know if they just roll with it they don't have to feel bad about themselves. They might even get some chocolate out of the deal, which they can sell on the black market for nylons, or cigarettes, or vice versa.
The Women in the workplace revolution wouldn't even have happened to the extent it has if not for Hitler or that women got the vote as soon as they did because WWI dragged the nation out of the 19th century too fast for its draggy hegemonically provincial back half to retard progress, and that the Depression made prostitutes of soldier's widows, and it made gold diggers out of even once-pure mothers and daughters, just to get some ear medicine for their sick child (as in Call Her Savage). And into this world of mercenary women and dead soldiers slunk enigmatic beauties, rising and falling along the economic ladder, sometimes three or four rises and falls in a film, for if they were beautiful and clever it was never in doubt they'd sleep their way up. And they wouldn't need to suffer to become saintly; they'd just sacrifice their claims to motherhood so their son could become D.A. even if it meant he had to send her to the gallows to do it, or at any rate they'd toss away their fortunes to follow some drippy dude into the poor house just to torture us in our masochistic jealous frenzy. And then he'd sell her into white slavery to pay his gambling debts, and soon she'd be heading for the river, only to be swooped down on and carried up and up once more by Cary Grant, or at least to land where they started, so wise, or to plummet blindly back to earth with a crash and art deco memorial (like Christopher Strong).
In our clamped-down PC climate, it's a revolutionary stance, a refusal to play the PC militant feminist game. And isn't it a game? Are bitter frumpy lesbian professors really that different than straight midlife crisis divorcee males in their advocation of whatever philosophy makes their look and lifestyle most valid in the eyes of cute co-eds? I'm not saying they're even conscious of it. But damn, girls. To paraphrase the Lady Eve, the good girls aren't nearly so good nor the bad guys half so bad, or something - and it's that 'something' that the Weimar girl embodies. In this world, even the cabaret singing is a form of prostitution, with music and kinky clothes, with sex being the selling point of course, but only a sicko, a Ken Starr or Penny Arcade, or a Karl Malden in Baby Doll, would bother digging so deep under the surface to expose it and demand a blow-by-blow account of what paid for what. Same with barmaids soliciting drinks in exchange for a a sympathetic ear, or dance hall girls providing a soft shoulder for lonesome sailors to cry their dimes out on, actresses winning gold statues and foreign princes, or Broadway hoofers mining diamond bracelets along the Great White Way. They're all, in their way, using sex for money. Same with acting itself. As Loreli Lee would say, you don't have to be gorgeous to be a great actress but my goodness doesn't it help?
Getting back to the prostitute thing: what about the girls who come over with their friends to hang out, drink with you, take it back upstairs and in exchange for letting them 'borrow' some money they make all the seduction moves for you, sleep over and leave before you wake up, presuming any bankrolls or quaaludes they see lying around are meant for them but they're not prostitutes! Depending on who you ask anyway. I confess I don't know anything about this whole quaint custom. I've been propositioned by middle-aged guys in my old neighborhood if I wore my shorts down to NYC Video on 1st and 51st more than I'd see streetwalkers. When I first moved to NYC there were still blocks downtown in the village where you'd turn a corner and bam, it would be insane, drunken black ladies garish with make-up, dresses a world too small for their rotund, massive curvy bodies, bobbling around like a parade float in the breeze, anchored by eight inch pin point heels, a minuscule handbag like Dumbo's flying feather; menacing pimps in white furs strutting around, shaky crackheads eyeing your car for signs of wealth or the cops; everyone (including us) with open beers in brown bags, loud soul music (back before rap took off) with bass so heavy you felt it in your bones three blocks away coming from some low rider car. There was a route going up and around 7th Avenue and below Houston, where cars would just circle around and around, barely moving, everyone stopping every three second along double parked tailgates to say hi to someone or start a fight or buy drugs or sex. For us, a bunch of white dudes newly moved to the city it was like a magician lifted a curtain on our workaday David Dinkins-cum-Giuliani world and there it was: the NYC of the 70s.
Not long after (this was around 1991, the same drive would just show cars driving up, wondering where everyone was, cracking beers from trunk coolers, and getting promptly arrested, noise ordinances passed strictly to get rid of this Friday night tradition. And all along 7th Ave up from Houston: sad young suburban black teenagers pouring out open beers as I'd stagger past, drunk, to Max's fold-out in 17th St, where I'd pass out and watch channel 68 with one eye shut and try to write down a number from one of the Asian lady services ("You have time today?") over and over, never quite getting it all down but it didn't matter, i wasn't going to call, just thinking I would eased my existential lonesome, for that commercial played in a loop with about seven others, in between snippets of the Robin Byrd Show. Good lord, that show sure didn't help my depression, that cable access sex show was to real sex what one of those sun-faded, turned blue pictures of Chinese food are in the windows of take-out joints. Even now I can't see a sun-faded turn-to-blue video cover or picture in a window without wanting to kill myself. All those wasted hours nosing through crappy VHS boxes, looking for something worth getting. Wasn't that the whole reason I'd come to NYC, to escape those boxes? And there was Robin Byrd, like Poe's hideous faded-to-blue heart.
In the old movies I knew of, but didn't then like, there was always the bragging Gene Kelly with his little black book of unseen dames. Thanks to Lane Pryce asking how much he owed Don after hooking up with a woman at his place, I finally could know what those black books meant. No wonder they were such a sure thing! These are the 'party girls'? The Foreign legion of Women? Not really at the bordello level, but at the swinging apartment paid for by either one rich sugar daddy or a slew of less exclusive gentlemen (the $50 for the powder room in Breakfast at Tiffany's). If not for the code who knows how sophisticated the various levels of prostitution, gold-digging, party girl operations, and dance hall hostesses could be by now. That's progress for you. Now it's too late. My naivete has set in stone, like the moralists photoshop layer dream was right after all -- or else it's just my Puritan Pilgrim blood.
There's is not exactly a sex for cash up front quick bordello transaction, more like the Holly Golightly approach of asking the guy for $50 to tip the powder room attendant, keeping it of course, and then delivering---what? The censors won't let us know whether it's just a night of basking in her gamin aura, a hand job in the cab, or a snog in the foyer of Tiffany's, the unspoken assumption that as soon as it's open, 9 AM or whenever, the horny guy and Holly will be there, the diamond bracelet like a marriage license at MGM, a ticket to ride. Sex it seems in American movies comes with a very high price tag, until around 1968. If you want an extra-marital fling you have to pay the girl's entire rent and keep her in furs and jewels until, at last, you walk in on her with her gigolo boyfriend (remember her forgotten man?) and chastened, run home to your wife and children. Did you remember not to write her any love letters?? If you did, and she still has them, the paying doesn't stop. For not all forgotten men are willing to go into bootlegging like everyone else, they'd rather live off their women especially now that you've been muleishly kicking their stall. There's a name for guys like that but before I can say it someone always bashes me in the back of the head with a bottle and steals my gold pinkie ring, thinking I'm dead and hightailing it to the tropics. By the time they learn I just got a minor concussion, it's far too late to return, for they've already bashed another one. And this time, they got to hang, for the kid, so he can become a DA.
European imports like Marlene and Greta hit their marks and quivered their lips but it was because they were in the moment, they lived between the marks in ways directors not versed in theater didn't understand, that they resonated, and to see Maria Braun in Fassbinder's Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) walk into a room and start playing around with items--even in the bombed out wreck of a city she's as happy as a lark-- is to feel the energy link between Polly Peachum, Dietrich and Fassbinder through to.... whom? Ich weise nicht. Or to paraphrase Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, you Germans certainly have a funny way of bombing a city down just to build it back up again.
THE MATA HARI OF THE ECONOMIC MIRACLE
In the Hollywood pre-codes and in Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) they are slow complicated maneuverings oscillating between push and shove within a single scene. Rather than needing whole reels of crying by the window just to call or come running to the airport at the last minute, girls who came of age watching Friends insist no flight can ever be just quietly snuck off to, no mistress quietly visited in a sly 5-7 without the other finding out and making a ruckus. Maria Braun's great gift is to be able to change the dynamic of a relationship within the actual scene via small push-pull mannerisms, going in for a kiss, whirling away again, etc. back and forth, to avoid all the usual traps sitcom-saturated Americans dive into (as in presuming after one snog you're going to get married, or expecting a girl to be faithful to you just because you kissed her at the ball). She keeps the sexual chemistry fluid, the sense of play opens up, and it becomes a kind of magic, very close to what it's like when hooking up on acid (as seen in the Warhol bathroom in Midnight Cowboy), a swirling pincer movement and advance-retreat-advance somewhere else while the opposition is moving forces to where you just advanced kind of a wave tactic. It is not a romantic blitzkrieg as we have today - where screenwriters don't know how to write such stuff because they're not in theater the way Bergman or Fassbinder were, they don't even know who Fassbinder is. They hate subtitles. Imagine, Hollywood screenwriters who don't even know who G.W. Pabst even is. But on Hulu Plus lurks almost the entire Criterion back catalog--it's worth getting just for the Germans! Fassbinder gets it, and his Maria Braun is his finest creation, a perfect synergy with actress Hannah Schygulla that functions as both feminist parable and economic critique. Maria uses more than just seduction to move up the ladder, she helps build the business, using keen fiscal acumen to merge into a partnership with a post-war Marshall plan industrial clothing corporation. The kind of skill and sex combo that some women demonstrate in Mad Men only to lose their tenuous footing as sexism underhandedly knocks them over, Maria never falters, kicks back, never cowers or cries in the bathroom or throws it all away to become an actress or a mother. Her kind of courage would come with either the 'crazy' as in bi-polar druggie nymphomaniac or 'ball-buster' frigid bitch extreme tag here in the US. But in Germany she is very very sane, ambitious, and able to soar ahead of the men without them feeling resentful, able to drink and fool around (and murder GIs) without penalties or moral judgement, without psych wards and counsellors. Like Polly Peachum, she does it all for a husband (Mack the Knife is in prison or on the lam; Maria's husband is in a POW camp) but when the husband returns he's still merely a figurehead, a pimp in name only --it's more that the woman is demanding equality for her man rather than vice versa. He's a strutting peacock, or a shattered shell of a war vet, and either way, little more than a figurehead on the mast of the Black Freighter.
Compared to that quick decisive action, virtue is hardly worth a loosie.' Leave the noble starving to Loretta Young and Joan Crawford over in the States; the German women shall not be so easily snowed under. And they shall have smooth Camel taste, and maybe a radio. What else can zey do? They're addicted. Aus Deutschland, wo es nichts anderes zu tun!