Die Tote von Beverly Hills
Dead Woman from Beverly Hills (1964 / West Germany / Michael Pfleghar)
The 1960s were an interesting decade in German cinema. The crisis of the German film industry, which had recovered rather quickly after the Second World War and reached a peak during the 50s with the production of commercially reliable products that were often banal reenactments of a successful formula, had become apparent at the beginning of the new decade, when the public had slowly tired of the fast-food formula of "Heimat-" and "Schlager"-films, the reeanctment of sentimental love-stories disguised as costume epics, and the various other methods of escapism, designed to satisfy the Wirtschaftswunder ( the specific term for the economic boom in Germany in the 1950s and early 1960s) mentality of the wider public, which didn't want to know anything about the past, but everything about the future. While the creation af a new German identity was on the agenda, few people tried to recall alternative German film history as it could have been witnessed during the Weimar Republic between World War I and the Third Reich. Instead the same popular formulas that had been in use throughout the world since the creation of the medium, and which had also been appropriated to fit the ideology during the fascist regime, were merely redesigned to fit the newly fashionable and imported concept of American Democracy. The mixture was a weird conglomerate, in parts reminiscent of the popularity of US lifestyle concepts during the 20s (now in the guise of the repressed 50s), that was also trying to further develop the idea of a detached mythological German identity in a historic No Man's Land, which had become so popular during Hitler's reign. If you throw in the slowly blossoming consumer mentality, and the idea of anything goes paired with supposedly conservative values, the picture becomes clearer. One could probably draw strong parallels to Italy's development after the war, both in society and the emerging film-industry. It isn't a coincidence that especially those two countries came to rely heavily on international co-productions during the 60s and early 70s to ensure economic success. And with hindsight it seems merely a curious historical coincidence that Italy was chosen for the revaluation of cinematic reality through its Neo-Realist movement, while German films made in the same vein during and shortly after the war were largely ignored. If Bazin had seen some of the so called East and West German "Trümmerfilme", he would have probably realized that there wasn't a big difference between the two approaches (though arguably, Italy had the more interesting directors - Staudte and Käutner were hardly as talented as Visconti and De Sica).
Now in come the young turks of German cinema with the manifest of Oberhausen, only one year after the German film industry had taken its hardest blow in 1961, witnessing a national and international crisis during which not only numerous production houses and distributors were closing down (the renowned UFA had to merge with the Deutsche Filmhansa) while the market share of German films decreased from 47,3 % (in 1960) to 32,1%, but also the Venice Film Festival disapproved of all 5 possible German entries for its competition, and the jury of the German Film Awards refused to decorate any feature films at all (the spots for best Director and Scriptwriter also remained empty). The situation in 1961 may not have been as desolate as Volker Schlöndorff described it ("I will return to my homeland to make films, because there are none."), but Werner Schroeter about nailed it, when he later stated: "In a country like Germany, radical aesthetics aren't possible anymore. You have to put it on, like our terrorists. Why, everything has already permanently been laid to rest through the intoxication of money and middle-class life." This would also be a fitting description for the main theme of Die Tote von Beverly Hills .
The production history of the movie sounds as troubled as the story of the film itself. Hans-Jürgen Pohland, producer and co-writer of Die Tote von Beverly Hills , was one of the signers of the Oberhausener manifest, and when he and Michael Pfleghar (the film's director) decided to make a movie together, they indeed had the rights for the novel by Curt Goetz on which the film is loosely based, but couldn't find any investors. Despite the circumstances, they took the risk of shooting the film independently on location in Beverly Hills, and somehow they managed to convince the entire crew to join them in this adventure. Fortunately, Pohland and Pfleghar weren't complete novices in the field of filmmaking (both had already experiences from working for German television), and they were able to assemble a team of talented professionals and amateurs for this endeavour. I'll refrain from giving a long-winded description of the complicated plot of the film. Let me just say that it's a clever blend of 60s style German cinema (combining the established commercial patterns with a modern view on society) with the influence of the French New Wave and other emerging film schools, set in an all-American lanscape that feels completely out of place. It's a story about an inncocent girl who finds herself betrayed by society, and subsequently loses herself in a net of ideas and expectations that are encouraged and confirmed by a society from which she initially tried to break free. But as her love stemmed from a self-inflicted Phantasma, so does her life mirror more a dream (or a movie) than any concept of reality. At once banal and profound, satire and melodrama, the film manages to elude a definite meaning, mirroring merely your own ideas about the world we live in. Shot in Cinemascope, cinematographer Ernst Wild (who would later also do the camera for Niklaus Schilling's Rheingold ) uses an impressive palette of textures switching between stark black & white photography and surreal and psychedelic color sequences to mirror the fragmented narrative structure of the film and the psycholgical states of its female protagonist Lu (an outstanding performance by Heidelinde Weis). Alternating between present and past, the film employs a large number of flashbacks in order to reconstruct the life story of the heroine, who is both used by others as well as using them for her own plans - similar to the relationship between the narrative of the film and its star. Heidelinde Weis thus has to portray a young girl that slowly turns into a kind of femme fatale, a transformation which she pulls of with incredible panache, while still retaining a charisma all of her own. The film takes her seriously while making fun of her, in the same way the filmmakers have treated their product. At first glance a crude mixture between art and trash that barely manages to hold the balance on the tight-rope walk it has set out for itself, the open-minded viewer is released with an insight into the mechanics of the human soul that goes far beyond the seemingly perfunctory construction and the homemade psychology of the film. If we return to the situation of the film industry at the time of its making, we can further shed some light on the importance of such a film at such a time. To quote a German filmcritic from 1964 (loosely translated) : "The penchant for the exotic, [...] has become the dominant feature of recent film production, resulting in an unparalleled phenomenon: the disappearance of the German character and the German milieu from German cinema." One can see the film as a clever and entertaining spoof of conventional Hollywood films (as well as their German imitators), but one can also try to find a deeper significance in its postmodern pastiche of playful ideas and inspired half-truths. At the cinema screening I attended, one viewer even found a deconstructionist stance in the film, which Pohland couldn't consciously confirm. But even if the film isn't always a revelation, it is definitely the much needed breath of fresh air everybody in the industry was talking about. Too bad, nobody took enough notice.
Unfortunately, Die Tote von Beverly Hills remains one of the many unknown gems that got produced during the 50s and 60s (some independently, some not) and which are nowadays almost forgotten, because of the (critical) focus on 70s German cinema when personal films by Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders became en vogue with the international film community. Nevertheless, Pfleghar's film was at its time a critical and commercial success. Not only was it nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes where it got awarded the Technical Grand Prize in 1964 - as well as being well-received by the German film magazine Filmkritik - but it was also an instant hit with the audience (Pohland speaks of 3 Million visitors in Germany alone - even in those times an extremely impressive figure). Still, it's hard to imagine if the audience of those times was perceptive enough to understand the subtle and subversive take on Germany's obsession with the American Way of Life. After all, Douglas Sirk's lush melodramas during the late 50s (with which Die Tote von Beverly Hills shares some characteristics) also hardly got their public attention because of his denunciation of the cold-hearted environment in America's idolized upper-class. Like one German critic clearly observed, German and American sensibilities could have hardly been farther apart during the early 60s, but in this regard the two countries may share the fate of being in need of a later reevaluation of some of its cinematic output.