Film/DVD: review

Prince in Hell
Prinz in Hölleland

Prince in Hell
Directed by Michael Stock

1993, Germany — 93 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama

Set in post-reunification Berlin, two men find their attempt at love entangled with drugs and jealousy.

Review

ImagePrince in Hell is, to date, the only feature film made by director/ co-writer/ co-star Michael Stock; his one other directorial credit is "Sternenstaub verloren...," a 2005 short. Released in 1993, Prince in Hell is an example of the German branch of the gritty and reflexive New Queer Cinema, which was then being defined by such landmark works as Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, Todd Haynes's Poison, and Derek Jarman's Edward II. Stock's casting the featured role of the drug dealer with Harry Baer recalls his debt to the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with whom he worked on many films. Of the dozens of films I've reviewed through this Website, Prince in Hell is one of only two or three which I did not initiate: a copy was included with my requested reviewer DVD of Wolfgang Petersen's extraordinary 1977 debut feature, The Consequence. Still, I've spent many hours looking at Prince in Hell closely and mulling over its techniques and disturbing assumptions – primarily because I admire Water Bearer Films, whose releases include six key films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and dozens of international GLBT pictures. Prince in Hell has some effective elements, primarily the acting of the three leads, but there are many aspects that could have been much more effective; and the ending... well, my rant comes in the "spoiler" section – along with a suggestion for how a different, yet simple, ending might have salvaged the picture. Although I'm far from prudish, I want to NOTE that, unlike the many other films reviewed at this site, this one contains some graphic scenes of violence, drug use, and exploitative sexuality.

ImageThe story of Prince in Hell, set in a gypsy-like caravan soon after the reunification of West and East Germany, is an uneasy mix of simple and would-be complex. The plot involves the disintegrating relationship of political activist and basically decent guy Stefan (Stefan Laarmann – also a co-writer) and East German heroin junkie Jockel (Michael Stock), and their back and forth involvement with the ingratiating but downward-spiraling bisexual Micha (Andreas Stadler). Another storyline involves Micha's young son Sascha (Nils-Leevke Schmidt) and his fascination with the creepy, exhibitionistic jester Firlefanz (Wolfram Haack – also a co-writer), whose grotesque puppets enact a gay fairy tale paralleling the relationship of Stefan and Jockel. Central to the disintegration of these characters is the bloated drug dealer Ingolf (Harry Baer), who 'pulls their strings' with heroin, instead of puppet wires.

The film's strongest aspect is the performers, especially Laarmann, Stadler and Stock, but virtually all of the performances feel right – even when the movie's implied worldview, discussed below, feels horribly forced. I was sorry to learn at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), which has an atypically incomplete listing for this film, that it is the only motion picture done by the talented Stefan Laarmann. He brought his self-named character to life with fullness and, as discussed below, offered a perspective which could have salvaged the entire picture.

ImageFor most of the cast, Stock relies on an improvisatory approach, using actual residents of West Berlin's multi-ethnic – and defiantly countercultural – Kreuzberg neighborhood (Stadtteil Kreuzberg), along a remote part of the then-recently fallen Berlin Wall. The Kreuzberg stretches along a half mile of the Landwehrkanal, which crosses east and west through the city. The film's primary location was authentic: a so-called Wagenburg (literally 'car castle' – the subtitles translate it as 'caravan'), where people live out of their trucks and cars, sometimes covered in wild graffiti. In the brief German Wikipedia article on this little-documented film, Stock reportedly said that he just shot the people around him. (Speaking of the subtitles, US audiences may find a periodic jolt of double culture shock, as the German slang is Britishized with terms like 'sod' and 'wanker.')

ImageThe picture offers some solid technical elements, including Moss Fitzpatrick's beguilingly grotesque puppets; Lorenz Haarmann's cinematography – which captures the disoriented feel of this world; Margarete Heitmueller's sound – which is simultaneously naturalistic and symbolic, as when she counterpoints street noises with the characters' shifting emotional states (most dramatic is her use of drumming during the chicken slaughter – don't bother looking in the credits for the standard disclaimer about "no animals were harmed;" it's unlikely that the bird had a stunt double); Uwe Lauterkorn's crisp editing. (Haarmann and Heitmueller have had continuous professional careers in their fields.) All of these elements also work together to create a strong rhythm which keeps this hour-and-a-half film moving. But good editing is not the same as good narrative construction.

Even the brief plot summary, four paragraphs above, suggests the film's fracture lines. It employs three different perspectives – the Fassbinder-inspired melodrama of the Stefan/Jockel/Micha ménage à troi, the 'innocent' perspective of Sascha, and the 'diabolical' viewpoint of the insufferable jester Firlefanz – but none of them is effectively developed. Perhaps Stock would have been better served by seeking inspiration in a powerful, if straightforward, tale of addiction like Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945 – trivia buffs take note: in Charles R. Jackson's original 1944 novel, the Ray Milland character was gay), then combining that strong classic narrative with his improvisatory non-actor approach.

ImageFor people interested in German cinema, perhaps the most shocking appearance in this film is Harry Baer, all but unrecognizable from his recent Fassbinder days. The svelte bad boy of, say, Gods of the Plague (his languorous nude scene there has become iconic) is here a bloated, lecherous drug dealer. His presence also, of course, invites comparisons to this picture's (unwitting) aesthetic godfather, Fassbinder, not least in the central addictions motif. The comparisons are revealing.

Both Fassbinder and this film employ distancing techniques as a key element. While Fasbinder uses the distance implicit in the excesses of melodrama to give us a rich opportunity, both emotional and intellectual, to contemplate meaning, Prince in Hell falls short. Recall the playfully reflexive opening, in which Jockel and Stefan – sitting by the Landwehrkanal, comfortably affectionate with each other – mock the passing off-screen tourists. They look directly into the camera, hence identifying us with the schmoes, whom they laughingly say are deluding themselves, convinced that they (we) are seeing the "real" Berlin by "visiting the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag."

ImageThis seemed a promising opening, with likeable performance yoked to a broader socio-political perspective, managed with a light but incisive touch. And I don't mind being put in the schmo position, so long as the film ultimately shows me the error of my ways – and reveals the promised "reality." But this film never delivered. Instead, it kept escalating with increasingly would-be shocking scenes, which merely seemed increasingly phony, even as it tried to foist its implicit – one-sided and ugly – worldview on us. Like too many other movie-makers, Stock confuses bleakness with profundity.

By contrast, Fassbinder, often working with budgets as microscopic as Stock's, knows that the space between story and audience is filled not only with a politically charged (Brechtian) openness but with humanity. This is one of Fassbinder's unique, and defining, qualities, from the minimalism of the early picture Katzelmacher (do not miss this film!) to the over-the-top baroque pyrotechnics of his last work, Querelle. In Fassbinder, the form (inflection of image, sound and movement) provides not only a commentary on the action but a rich meaning for each of us to discover and interpret. For example, in one of his greatest final films, and unlike Prince in Hell a profound work about the nature of addiction, Veronika Voss, his stylized use of melodrama, and his elliptical narrative technique (which reveals both her devolved psychological state and the historical/socio-political forces which enabled it), allow us to understand the complex, and contradictory, facets of this drug-addled former Nazi movie star, as she descends to the expected pathetic/tragic fate. In other words, we fully understand, and hence can empathize with, Veronika, however alien her life may be. By unfortunate contrast, that does not happen in Prince in Hell, which early on shoots off in two other narrative/thematic directions.

ImageAfter its opening five minutes, focused on Jockel and Stefan, film turns to a second intriguing major perspective, that of the young boy Sascha, trapped in the film's chaotic world of broken-down caravans, drug addiction, and sharing your living space with goats and pigs. Viewing adult experience through the lens of childhood is a difficult but potentially rewarding technique, as Henry James revealed in his groundbreaking psychological 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, a tale of a dysfunctional family told entirely from the young daughter's point of view. Such a radical shift in perspective can reveal much about both the young observer and the objects of their inquiring gaze. Cinema offers several rich examples of this insightful strategy, including such otherwise divergent films as Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950), René Clément's Forbidden Games (1952), Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955), and Wim Wenders's Alice in the Cities (1974). If only Michael Stock had boned up on them, instead of Ulrich Edel's grim teen drug movie, Christiane F. (1981), which the main characters in Prince in Hell mention they had recently seen on TV. (Trivia buffs take note: Edel broke successfully into directing US film and television with Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr., whose book Requiem for a Dream, as shrewdly filmed by Darren Aronofsky in 2000, is arguably the best picture about drug addiction.) The boy Nils-Leevke Schmidt is very talented in his scenes, but he made no other films, and one can surmise that he was a non-professional actor. Let me respectfully speculate that perhaps it was technically not feasible to use Sascha as the film's defining perspective.

ImageA couple of minutes later, yet a third major narrative strategy pops up, as we're forced to see the action from the point of view of the repellant jester Firlefanz, whose eye makeup is a telling cross between that of Klaus Maria Brandauer in Istvan Szabo's Mephisto (1981) and Divine in John Waters's Pink Flamingos (1972 – from the final scene of which Stock steals wholesale for this film's wretchedly unsatisfying end, discussed below in the "spoiler" section). Firlefanz seems intended as a sort of part-Mephistopheles (shades of Mephisto, mentioned above) and part-Shakespearean jester, like the one in King Lear – although Stock might have been more specifically thinking of Ran (1985), in which Kurosawa both expands the Fool, renamed Kyoami, and makes him transgendered. But actor and co-writer Wolfram Haack, who receives top billing in the end credits, lacks the range to bring any credible depth to what should have been the film's most provocative role. What makes Firlefanz so skin-crawlingly grotesque is not so much his garish, and derivative, make-up; rather it's the feeling that here is a person profoundly out of touch not only with the world around him (in costume, he parades his naked groin up and down the crowded streets of the Kreuzberg) but with himself. Haack depicts the extremity of self-loathing – yet his writing and performance seem merely a pose, rather than a thematic device which could have enriched the film by providing an extreme emotional perspective on this world. A richly disturbing – and completely succesful – example of this type of character is Thersites in Shakespeare's deconstruction of the Trojan War, Troilus and Cressida; that play has a worldview as bleak as the one here, but Shakespeare's genius as both psychologist and poet allows his creation both life, as a deformed man (both externally and internally), and philosophical/moral insight into the deluded Greeks and Trojans, not least the romance-besotted couple of the play's title (whose emotional instability would make them feel right at home in this movie's world).

Firlefanz stages – for a bunch of wide-eyed but clearly impoverished kiddies – a gay puppet show called "The Prince in Hell," which all too obviously parallels, but never illuminates, the main story of Jockel and Stefan. Even worse, Firlefanz's play is about the impossibility not only of love but specifically of same-sex love, when one of the character finds he prefers "magical mushrooms" to his stalwart boyfriend. Don't these kids get enough gay-denigrating messages from the mainstream culture? In fact, the Firlefanz through-line becomes profoundly distasteful, as he dangles his manhood in virtually every scene, even around his young audience. With the US's Federal Communications Commission now imposing a fine of $500,000 for each "indecent incident," Firlefanz's exhibitionism alone would have cost this film hundreds of millions of dollars, which is rather more than its total budget.

The fatalistic device of the puppet master has been much more effectively used in countless works, beginning with the ancient Greek tragedians (the gods are the ones pulling the strings) and extending to Thackeray's oft-filmed 1847 "novel without a hero" Vanity Fair (the author's own end-page drawing shows Becky Sharp and her cohorts as puppets going back into a toy box) to, say, Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide (1969), whose black-clad stagehands (considered "invisible" by Japanese theatre conventions) both remind us of the live actor's relationship to its source, the 1720 doll-drama The Double Suicide at Ten No Amijima, and provide an unnerving commentary on the two protagonists' tortured pull between transgression and morality. Clearly, that's what Stock was striving for with the puppet play here, but there are too few scenes of the puppets and way too many redundant scenes with the self-loathing Firlefanz sans puppet theatre.

Any of these three somewhat experimental perspectives, or even a much simpler one à la The Lost Weekend, might have helped yield an effective film, but none is sufficiently developed, and they all feel forced.

ImagePerhaps the best, and easiest, solution for structuring the film would have been to clarify Stefan's role as the central character – letting us experience the actions and themes through his everyman's eyes. Stefan is by far the most most likable character: he's responsible, attempts to understand the larger socio-economic and political forces at work, tries to help his friends, yet he's clearly no plaster saint. Laarmann the screenwriter gives Laarmann the actor enough scenes to show Stefan's all-too-human side, as with his shyness, jealousy, frustration, not to mention that drunken tirade in a seedy bar (where he learns never again to knock off a drag queen's wig), his misguided choice of boyfriends (going from Jockel to Micha is so frying pan to fire), and his at times excessive flexibility: would you wait patiently outside a disgusting underground pit while your lover (Jockel) has sex with strangers, whose forbidden allure is that they may be undercover cops trying to entrap homosexuals. In other words, Laarmann makes Stefan human, unlike the one-sidedly bleak worldview which permeates the film. Below in the 'spoiler' section, I'll sketch out a different ending, focused solely on Stefan, which might have retroactively salvaged the entire benighted picture (or not – you decide).

ImageBesides muddled perspective(s), Prince in Hell presented another frustration in how it raised many potentially rich themes but never developed any of them. Principal among these concepts is the social implications of the recent reunification of Germany (the film was made, and appears to be set, in 1993). In the symbolism department, the West seems represented by Stefan, while the East is Jockel, and presumably Micha; Firlefanz is, as always, odd man out. The culture clash motif only comes into focus, for the first time, in the dialogue near the end, when Stefan (less noble than ever) makes some snarky comments about Jockel and Micha – involving the theft of his camera – which are tinged with anti-East German stereotypes. Of course, there is even a suggestion of prejudice built into the formerly East German characters' names: Jockel slightly suggests the English slur 'yokel' (a word whose etymology is lost), while Micha's name is double-edged: both Germanic suggesting 'mich' (me, myeslf) and 'non-Germanic' with its Russian or Eastern European connotations. Other names are also fraught: Sabine sounds French (always good for a soupçon of decadence), while it refers to the infamous ancient rape of the Sabine women. Disturbingly, Stock is unflattering to Sabine in many ways – even making her take fashion cues from Boy George circa Culture Club. Since the strung-out Sabine is the only principal woman in the cast, one could easily call Prince in a Hell misogynistic. Ironically, the most revealing name goes to Firlefanz, which is a medieval German word for a ring dance which, in general usage, is a synonym for insignificant information and lack of connection, as well inappropriate excitement around a thing, and awkwardness; it's now become a cliched name for German punk bands and artists. Well, if the pointy jester's shoe fits...

In the cold comfort department, much of this film's value comes in allowing us to see the achievements of other filmmakers dealing more imaginatively and successfully with comparable themes – recall the urban wastelands of Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) and The Last of England (1988), as Stock clearly did judging by the final five minutes of this movie. Also compare this film to Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose stunning debut feature, Accattone (1961 – also released by Water Bearer), set in the same down and out milieu as this film, is at once an psychological study, socio-economic analysis, and cinematic poetry. The visions of those films, for all of their despair, horror, and sometimes crushing boredom – and all made on budgets as minuscule as Prince of Hell's – are aesthetic, like "The Waste Land" of Eliot's epochal 1922 poem, or Dante's Hell. Unfortunately and unsatisfyingly, Stock's Hell seems like nothing more than a bleak pose.

What I found most disturbing, and wrong, with this movie was how its posturing actually trivializes evil, rather than reveals anything meaningful about it. Confronting, understanding and challenging darkness is, of course, essential – but Prince in Hell never does; in fact, it all but glamorizes (self-)destruction while obscuring its social roots (which Stefan is grappling with through his reading and activism). There have been many works, both horrific in their revelations yet beautiful in their aesthetic achievement, which explore evil, including the films already mentioned by Pasolini, Fassbinder, and Jarman. To take just a few major literary examples from gay or bisexual authors, there are the nineteenth century French poets Baudelaire (Flowers of Evil) and Rimbaud (A Season in Hell); novelists Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Kafka (The Trial), Genet (Querelle), and Burroughs (Naked Lunch) – if only Stock had boned up, at least, on such mind-bendingly revealing film adaptations as Fassbinder's Querelle and Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991). There are even some 'sparkling entertainments' made far richer by their dark and deconstructive cores, like gay filmmakers George Cukor's 1940 The Philadelphia Story (about a family's disintegration – before understanding and reconciliation are possible) and Vincente Minnelli's 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis (the baby sister's horrific imagination – reflected in the MGM-brightness meets noir-shadows visual strategy – encloses the family).

Unfortunately, Prince in Hell never even approaches those works. It never questions its own ugly assumptions; it just continues to pump them up – bleakness on steroids – until they self destruct in the abysmal final sequence.

SPOILER ALERT: I'm now going to discuss the ending of this film.

ImageThe godawful final five minutes – when Firelefanz commits suicide by actually hanging himself (unlike the parallel scene near the film's beginning, which was a sham) – crystallize what's wrong with the entire movie. In a nutshell, the ending tires to be Shattering! (capital S and exclamation mark), but instead is ludicrously bad because it's so phony – and because it never answers the questions posed by the puppets: "What does it mean?" Heartless and/or relieved audience members might even clap at Firlefanz's suicide, because he is such an annoying a**hole. Of course, that was not the intention – far from it.

Seeing, for the first time, Firlefanz denuded of his jester's makeup implies that this is supposed to be bald Honesty; the fact that it is literally the end of the film gives it even grander pretensions, namely, that this is a Vision Of The Unvarnished Hideous Truth Of Life ITSELF! In a pathetic attempt to compound the would-be shock and awe of this resolution – and to keep John Waters's lawyers away re a Pink Flamingos copyright infringement – Stock actually has the unnervingly quiet little boy watching (as he did in the much earlier 'rhyming' scene). Vastly more disturbing than the scene is the abusive implications of forcing a real-life child, actor or not, to watch this excresence. The coup de grâce comes with a tail-wagging dog enthusiastically gobbling down the chunks of Firlefanz's feces, which plop out of his hanging corpse as rapidly as, say, gagging and/or guffawing audience members exiting the theatre. In truth, rather than be shocked by this ludicrously repellant image, I kept wondering what the turds were actually made of, since they so delighted the pooch: considering their source, my guess is ham.

ImageOkay, now that we've recovered from the horror (the horror), let's look at the (ahem) philosophical implications of this scene, which reflects the underlying worldview of the entire bitter film. It is a view of human nature fully as rancid as that of any gay-hating right-winger weaned on deceptively labeled "traditional values" – which are founded on the self-fulfilling belief that people are weak, self-indulgent, lusting, bestial... and nothing more (until they're "saved" by utter conformity to one or another absolutist, yet unprovable, belief system). Examples of such "traditionalist" types, in this movie, would include the gratuitous Neo-Nazi gay bashers who are predictably trundled out near the end – since all 'serious gay dramas' have to have bashers... and the story needs to be wrapped up with bang... or two. It seems no accident that there is a religious connotation to the title (Hell), even though it's defined, within the puppet play, not as Satan's own gated community but rather as a terrestrial "forest named Hell." A medieval view of "sinful" human nature is as endemic to this movie as the heroin being shot up. But rather than explore its own self-contradictory underlying assumptions, the film increasingly focuses on scenes of hot sex between 'super-cute guyz.' Countercultural freedom? Hardly. Prince in Hell is ultimately as anti-human as the traditional mainstream society its benighted protagonists think they have escaped – yet rather than that being the provocative underlying theme, the movie merely wallows in its implicit belief that the wages of sin is Firlefanz's fate, and Jockel's and Micha's and Sabine's. The one possible exception is Stefan – although his offscreen namesake must share some of the blame for the self-blindered script.

Considering the toxically reactionary core of the film, not to mention its technical problem in being unable to decide on which competing narrative focus it wants to use, I think a simple yet resonant new ending – clearly focused on Stefan – could have been very effective. As it is now, Stefan just disappears after Jockel's death, then we cut to Firlefanz's suicide. Yet if we had ended clearly focused on Stefan's perspective, the entire picture might retroactively have been made to seem more coherent (of course, its self-loathing worldview is nothing if not consistent).

ImageImagine simply holding an extended close-up of Stefan for a long take, while offscreen – next to him – his ex-lover Jockel is dying in the hospital bed. In the establishing shot, we could have seen that Micha is also there. Then we would cut to and hold on Stefan's close-up. We would see, and intuit, Stefan's dawning fuller understanding of his world, and its destructive limitations. At the same time, we would experience a richer connection with the – now clearly defined as primary – protagonist. Structurally, we would have moved from the blinkered perspective of the tourists in the opening scene (mocked by Jockel and Stefan) to some kind of insight, even as we would have overcome the central psychological, social, and spiritual problem – the theme – of the film, its profound disconnection, by connecting with Stefan. No voice-over explaining away anything; then after Jockel dies, we could see Stefan simply letting go of his hand. Silence. Cut to a brief scene of Stefan packing his bags. Cut to a shot of Stefan taking a final look at the caravan, with Micha, wasted, out of focus in the background. Cut to Stefan, a small bag in hand, leaving to find – and create – a better life for himself.

An ending along those lines would have allowed us to empathize with Stefan, to bridge the many gaps which separate us – whether by time, culture, or anything else. As the great gay humanist E.M. Forster wrote in his masterpiece, Howards End, "only connect" – but first, of course, must come real understanding.

But that's not at all the resolution of Prince in Hell. Its greatest failure is that at the end we're left with nothing but... what comes out of Firlefanz.

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Crew

  • Directed by Michael Stock
  • Written by Michael Stock, Stefan Laarmann, and Wolfram Haack
  • Cinematography by Lorenz Haarmann
  • Edited by Uwe Lauterkorn
  • Sound by Margarete Heitmüller
  • Music by Tom Stern, Alex Hacke, Chrislo Haas (Ash Wednesday, Andreas Vetter, Alexander Christou)
  • Puppets and Puppet Theatre Design by Moss Fitzpatrick

Cast

  • Michael Stock as Jockel
  • Stefan Laarmann as Stefan
  • Andreas Stadler as Micha
  • Wolfram Haack as Firlefanz (the Jester)
  • Nils-Leevke Schmidt as Sascha
  • Simone Spengler as Sabine
  • Harry Baer as Ingolf
  • Andréja Schneider as the Singer

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DVD

Water Bearer Films' DVD transfer of this film, originally shot in 16mm, has fairly good image and sound quality. Among Water Bearer's other notable releases are six films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Wolfgang Petersen's extraordinary debut feature, The Consequence.

DVD Details

Reviewed September 13, 2006

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