It's been a long time since there could be Hollywood women characters as cool as the Babes of pre- and post-Nazi Germany. Does it take economic turmoil to make dames so sexy and tough? Or was it always there in German genes? The iron-clad-but-sexually-vigorous teutonic blonde bombshell type of which I refer is a bear in the courtroom, a bore in the kitchen (all that flavorless burnt potato pancakes and stone dry roast) and in the bedroom, well, how would I know?
I just know that in films from after either war, from the Depression to the Fassbinder and Baader-Meinhof 70s, she still looms large, still towers above 99% of American actresses today.
In America, we have a dichotomy, where if a lady is good in business she has to be a cold bitch, barking and ripping people's heads off; if she's sexually active (and desirable), she has to be a dimwit with wide baby eyes agog at the world, easily seduced and abandoned, a victim of exploitation and the male gaze. But German women can be professional in the workplace without being neurotic or making the men around her feel like they lose their balls in her presence. She can exude sex yet withhold it, she can deflect their amorous advances and turn them to her advantage without breaking her stride or standards. Both sensually alive and ruthlessly cool-headed, she's it.
You can argue maybe America's actresses have never been that badass because they've never suffered, never been forced into prostitution just to get candy bars for her starving children, or firewood for their shelter in their old home's bombed-out basement. Prostituting to survive or pressed into jobs normally occupied by men due to the war effort, the surplus of available young intelligent, talented, starving, beautiful women in the Fatherland (men dead or shattered by the war) created the perfect storm for the Weimar cabaret. Brecht's wry economic savvy, Weil's woozy drinking songs, and unashamed promiscuity's syphilitic ennui sheathed the new Germanic woman in a special valkyrie armor, with wings to soar beyond the mortal morality of prudish censors to a new plateau where sex and mountain-climbing carried the same lack of shame and guilt. What is sex, after all, but exercise you don't have to get up for? Tea and cigarettes were just as valuable, if not to smoke or drink to be traded for butter and whiskey.
Weimar- 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 costly to one's chastity, morality and pride as a $300 a day heroin habit.
There is no admittance in post-code Hollywood that the whole sex and dying in high society bootstrap shit is bunk, but without that admittance we cannot evolve. We're still asleep. Nothing like being bombed nightly to wake you up, and thus awake is the Weimar woman. In your awake state you are 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 re-shackled from 1934 until the second war, when riveting jobs and noir virtue would begin to free her (on certain conditions). That's just four lousy years, from the collapse of the moral world in October '29 to its reinstatement midway through 1934.
Of these free German women, Dietrich the most emblematic. She didn't need layers of security, promises and wedding rings. She was bisexual, representing, as one critic put it, 'sex without gender.' Stalking around the room, selling 20 franc apples, knowing just when to fall into a man's arms, only to whirl out again a moment later and ask for a light, to keep the push and pull fluid, she reintroduced a state of play to the proceedings of seduction that Americans--in their DSB frustration-- had forgotten all about. With the pre-code woman she represented, there was no danger from a man, because danger was already ever-present; she swam in it. No longer afraid of him, she became the threat.
All that was gone with the production code in Hollywood, and as a result a hard-bitten Yankee girl couldnn't go from murdering her pimp father to seducing her way up the company ladder anymore. She could never get high enough to plummet down into the harrowing void like Babs Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933). She started out naive rubes and ended up a doltish rube hausfrau, gratefully indentured to some terminally integrous hick chump.
Today's American films need female sex workers who are not 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, lover-unswayed by a man's charisma past the point of his bankroll. For these capitalist self-starters, 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. You might call it being a waitress, but somewhere someone calls it 'comfort girl' cuz that's she did, comforted that lonely guy. For money! In American and British literature this kind of part-time whore capitalist is all over the place, from Moll Flanders to Scarlett O'Hara. But because of the code, the prostitute aspect is soft-soaped. Over time, soap's constant use leaves the viewing public susceptible to all sorts of common germs. Dirty German women, on the other hand, have white blood cells like Tiger tanks vs. the clean American Shermans mit their thin lame 76mm petty morality canons
As this problem widens, there's been only one badass German chick I've seen on an American screen lately (they're all over in Germany 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. She's one helluva confident, cool chick. Like Carrie Matheson without the baggage.
We can glean a tad of the corrosive sexism of America via a quick deconstruction of the blurb accompanying Hoss's name on Wiki's Homeland list of characters. Wiki notes she is "Astrid, Quinn's former lover who works for the German intelligence service, BND."
Harmless enough - but deconstruct it and you see how deeply American sexism is encoded in the choice of words: Astrid is basically the Carrie Mathison of Germany, but cooler, less neurotic, just as ferocious, smart, skilled and capable. It's a parallel the show makes sure is clearly drawn many times in the their similar look, dress style, and penchant for quick thinking that leaves most men in the dust. Yet as far Wiki is concerned, all those quality comes second to her on again/off again fling with the (white male) American, Quinn. According to WIKI, she's not first and foremost a spearheading official with endless clout and resources, but simply a girl who "works for the German intelligence service." That could mean she's a frickin' secretary. It's like if Carrie Mathison was described as "Brody's lover, who pins pictures on bulletin boards when CIA men tell her to."
|Emil Jannings and Josef Goebbels|
If you've ever gone hungry, or had the DTs, or even a really bad fever, then you know how easily the artifice of civilization and language can be wiped away, like a Photoshop image layer, revealing the true dimension below, the permanent bedrock of demonic devouring darkness that infuses everything around you. It's terrifying to behold, will make your pray for the first time in years; you'll plead for heavenly rescue or it will drive you insane with terror, or maybe you can dissolve your egoic crux in the acid bath of Hell. If you get the chance, and your ego is from your soul even partially acid-washed off, then you know that the "you" who remains no longer even winces when the devil's lash strikes, and so the devil lashes you no more, the fuel of your fear no longer feeds his fire. And lo, the artifice layer of civilization still hasn't returned because you're still hungry, but the DTs break, the fever dies off; you're free, you can see the world as it really is, without wincing, maybe for the first time ever. This is why artists to be worth a damn need to be crazy, starving, tortured long enough to see past themselves, to know there is, in fact, something there worth starving to see, something at last to paint or write about that's beyond real.
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 moral 'normal' 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 with enough prim glaring; her vehemence reflected her terror of the void, a terror those of us who've seen and been devoured by the horror (who've "made a friend" of it) no longer feel. It's the terror of the guilty, those afraid of holy judgment, that motivates their moral harangues. They play up their piety for a reason, it's deflection at it's most obvious and clueless, the kid who hasn't studied for his test trying to throw off the teacher by accusing another kid of cheating.
The German women aren't afraid of the hellish dimension for they've collectively lived through the tortures and starvations. They know if they just roll with it they don't actually need to feel bad about enjoying it, and will be as pure as any moral crusader after a good long shower. 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 while the moral woman--the Joan Crawford or Loretta Young brand MGM repentant--won't accept them, or even forgiveness.
Maybe the women in the workplace revolution wouldn't ever even have happened if not for the wars. Women got the vote because WWI dragged the nation out of the 19th century too fast for its draggy hegemonically provincial back half to retard, and that the Great Depression made prostitutes of soldier's widows, and gold diggers out of even once-pure mothers and daughters --eventually starvation is almost as effective a tool for loosening morals as opiate addiction. And into this world of mercenary women and dead soldiers, there slunk enigmatic beauties, rising and falling along the economic ladder, sometimes three or four rises and falls in a film. If they were beautiful and clever (and not hamstrung by MGM guilt or sanctity) it was never in doubt they'd sleep their way up and out of the gutter 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. If it meant he had to send her to the chair when he grew up, so what? They'd toss away their fortunes to follow some broke private into the desert just to torture Adolphe Menjou. Or they'd believe the lies of Ricardo Cortez would then 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 a remote land where she could start over, or came home only to plummet blindly back to earth with a crash and art deco memorial. Morality might get her in the end, to please the censors, but her clothes were never as flashy, it was clear everyone but the Haye's office was sneering.
But that's the bizarre thing about it, after the feminine sexual awakening of the 70s, and the bachelor pad Playboy subscription backdraft 80s, came the feel-bad post-90s PC clampdown, the provincial morality reboot, the return of women as helpless Blanche Duboises rushing to the PC stasi over a single patriarchal leer, all while demanding equality, doubling the workforce and halving the salary and then demanding six months maternity leave within a month of being hired. But hey, here they are. Men can't say no to them. Never could. If we open our eyes we can see just how much power women really do wield in the patriarchy - presuming of course, they know how to use men (and are pretty). The PC stasi say there's no such thing as a woman using a man, only a woman falling for the man's idea he's being used by her, an idea that benefits only him and the status quo.
God help us. I mean in certain circles of academia, all heterosexual acts are assault. Was Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High the last American girl to ever be allowed to say "it's just sex"?
In our clamped-down PC climate, Cates' line constitutes 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 to paraphrase the Lady Eve, I do believe 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 her 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 act she performed to get what item.
Same's true with barmaids soliciting drinks in exchange for 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 prince husbands, Broadway hoofers mining diamond bracelets along the Great White Way. They're all, one way or another, using sex for money. Same with acting itself. As Loreli Lee might 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 girlfriends 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 (as experienced in Mad Men) but 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, gold lame dresses a world too small for their zaftig shapes; wasted and weaving around like a parade float in the breeze, miraculously anchored by eight inch pin point heels, a minuscule handbag lifted out at their side like Dumbo's flying feather; pimps eyeing you eyeing them, shaky crackheads eyeing your car's hubcaps; 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. If you were hammered and courageous it was a beautiful sight. 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 on this one last downtown block, like a reservation.
Not long after, staring around 1992, one would see cars driving up, wondering where everyone was, cracking beers from trunk coolers, and getting promptly arrested, being made to pour them out into the gutter, noise ordinances passed strictly to get rid of this Friday/Sat night tradition. The roads were all blocked off so that 'the circuit' was impossible. And all along 7th Ave up from Houston I saw sad young suburban black teenagers pouring out open beers under cop supervision as I'd stagger past, drunk, to Max's fold-out couch on 7th and 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 faded-turned-blue picture in a window without wanting to kill my faded, blue self. 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 MGM musicals 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.
The censors had -- I wouldn't doubt--a time with the Holly Golightly approach of asking the guy for $50 to tip the powder room attendant, keeping it of course, and then delivering---what? a dollar to the attendant, a hand job at the door to the fella? The censors won't let us know whether it's just a night of basking in her gamin aura, 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 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 in 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, Moll Flanders, 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 lover 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 a girl will be faithful to you just because you kissed her at the ball last year). 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 around, even in theater the way they were in the era of Bergman and Fassbinder. They don't even know who Fassbinder is. They hate subtitles. Imagine, Hollywood screenwriters who don't even know who G.W. Pabst is. But Fassbinder gets it, and his Marriage of 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. Some women demonstrate this kind of capitalist urge in Mad Men only to lose their tenuous footing as sexism underhandedly knocks them over, but Maria never falters. She 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' 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 him 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 kind of 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. Vot else can zey do? They're addicted. Aus Deutschland, wo es nichts anderes zu tun!