"You can't just enter a universe in the middle!" admonished a young "Dungeons & Dragons" player to the protagonist of Steven Spielberg's E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. This profound observation is relevant to the uninitiated viewer of AFFENGEIL, a quirky experimental documentary from maverick
German filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim.
Born Holger Mischwitzki, Von Praunheim has remained a more marginal figure than several of his contemporaries in the New German Cinema movement. Whereas Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlondorff and Wenders have been intermittently fascinated by America and on occasion have toyed with the mainstream, Von
Praunheim has remained a staple of museum and festival screenings. A prolific, openly gay filmmaker, he has made issues of politics and sexuality, particularly gay and lesbian sexuality and the politics of AIDS, the major focus of much of his work. AFFENGEIL is a different matter: it's a mostly
lighthearted, sometimes poignant, and playfully experimental profile of a remarkable woman, actress/dancer/free-spirit Lotti Huber, and her ten-year or so relationship with the filmmaker.
Subtitled "A Trip through Lotti's Life", AFFENGEIL is not a traditional star profile or a standard documentary. It would make an excellent triple bill with Maximilian Schell's MARLENE, an unconventional portrait of Marlene Dietrich, and Orson Welles's F FOR FAKE, a witty meditation on the
sometimes fictional nature of reality. AFFENGEIL investigates what constitutes the documentary approach to filmmaking. By filming obviously staged events, problematizing the veracity of interview subjects and acknowledging and analyzing the biases of the writer-director, this often fascinating
film makes the audience wonder what is real and what is fiction.
The film begins with a little toy stage and whimsical background music that would not be out of place in a puppet show. The opening credits are drawn on a slate with brightly colored chalk. We first see Lotti Huber as a charming little old lady puttering around in a camera shop. She asks the
salesperson if she can have a free catalogue. He gives her the booklet and walks away while Lotti totters over to a fancy video camcorder on display. There's a cut to a close-up of her eyes darting back and forth in an exaggerated manner. She then quickly places the camera in her valise, leaves
the store, gets directions from a uniformed gentleman (a policeman? a soldier?) and he gallantly helps her across the street.
Lotti arrives at an apartment and presents the now giftwrapped camera to a strapping, dark, bespectacled man whom we soon learn is Rosa Von Praunheim himself. He eyes the gift suspiciously and asks if it was stolen. "In the world of big business," she replies, "we call it a transaction." Lotti
wants Rosa to make a documentary about her. "And you will film my life. As I am. How I laugh ... how I cry ... how I dance ... how I live. Just as I am!" Rosa squeezes fresh orange juice and walks down a corridor where we see posters for his films--including some with Lotti--and shelves of books.
He joins the older woman on the couch and pops a video into a VCR. We see Lotti on a stage against a black background. Dressed in black with a black cape decorated with sparkling golden designs, she seems at times to be floating across the stage surrounded by stars. In front of an unseen audience,
she begins to tell her colorful life story.
The rest of the film consists of interviews, photographs, film clips, field trips and numerous arguments between the documentarian and his subject--some obviously staged, some convincingly real. We frequently return to the little old woman on stage playing to her appreciative audience. "Just as I
am," instructed Lotti and just how is she? Perhaps Rosa puts it best when he describes his first impressions of her: "What a gaudy beast! So theatrical and affected and artificial!" Claiming to be seventy-five-years-old at the time of filming, Frau Huber has the kind of face, figure and personal
style that would only appear in American films in the work of John Waters.
Short, chubby and overly made-up, Lotti is a genial grotesque and a consummate performer; she is always acting. Consequently she is a vastly entertaining interview subject as she recounts her many adventures. However, one begins to wonder after awhile if all her stories could possibly be true. Von
Praunheim plants these suspicions by beginning some scenes as if depicting an interview or documenting a meeting and pulling back to reveal we are watching a video on a monitor while Lotti denounces it as untrue, inaccurate or cliched.
As a youth in Weimar Germany, Huber was encouraged by her independent mother to concentrate on her studies. "Forget kitchen, church and children. Study! Everything else comes later." With such encouragement from home, Lotti developed into an unconventional artistic personality. Dancer,
restaurateur, teacher, model, movie extra and finally actress, Lotti had a rich and varied life. Although a German Jew, her family allegedly never took Nazism too seriously until Lotti was placed in a concentration camp in 1937. The love of her life was Hilbert, a tall blond German who was the son
of the mayor. An old school friend reported her to the SS for breaking German race laws as a "Jewess" living with an Aryan man. Hilbert was thrown into prison where he was shot while she went to a camp in punishment for her forbidden love. This powerful sequence is abetted by documentary footage
of the concentration camp and prison executions and then undermined somewhat by Lotti's vaguely ludicrous interpretive dance of the experience. Von Praunheim invites us to speculate as to which piece of "evidence" is most real.
Frau Huber tells her audience that the tale of her escape is "unbelievably fantastic" but neglects to tell the story! She skips to how she was invited to study music and dance at the Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem and went on to gain fame as a dancer of pantomimes and parodies. A delicious
dramatization depicts Lotti dancing in a Cairo cabaret before an enthusiastic King Farouk with the irrepressible actress playing both parts. Clearly this is not a normal sober documentary.
Like an initially delightful guest who eventually overstays her welcome, AFFENGEIL goes on for much too long. It would have been a much stronger film at half its 90-minute length. Lotti's reflections on such important issues as the parallels between the rise of Nazism and the skinhead movement are
well meaning but obvious. Perhaps the ideal viewer for this film is one who is intimately familiar with her work in previous Von Praunheim films. Nonetheless AFFENGEIL is a memorable experience that--like its subject--is often fabulous. (Profanity, nudity, sexual situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: "You can't just enter a universe in the middle!" admonished a young "Dungeons & Dragons" player to the protagonist of Steven Spielberg's E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. This profound observation is relevant to the uninitiated viewer of AFFENGEIL, a quirky expe… (more)