Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
In the opening sequence of Flesh City, an engrossing new experimental/punk/horror feature by Thorsten Fleisch, we observe a series of brutal, violent, and abusive interactions between patrons of a hip underground club in Berlin. It’s as if these poseurs are trying to demonstrate to themselves how sophisticatedly realistic they are, by treating each other like trash. Their vile mistreatment of others is meant to show off their worldliness, their discerning resignation to the reality that people are all assholes, only out to use each other for thrills. (Their pose is also a convenient excuse for avoiding the far more difficult task of trying to actually care for other people.)
What are we to make of the infantile stance of these club-goers? Can we admire their glamorous sophistication? (Difficult.) The film doesn’t tell us what to think, but its tone quickly veers towards the overtly satirical, embedded in a masterfully psychedelic texture of flashing colors, techno music, and jarring rhythms. The story, a typical psychotronic tale of a mad scientist unleashing mutations among the populace, is generally subservient to the pulsating beats and rapidly intercut shots of concrete buildings, and this texture carries the film’s real message. It may not be possible to sympathize with any of the people in the story, but the real protagonist is the city of Berlin. The film abounds in gorgeous black and white photography of deserted, Brutalist concrete housing complexes and factories. Flesh City is just as much a “city symphony” ode to Berlin as the 1927 Walter Ruttman film, but cut with a frantic 21st century rhythm, as it reveals beauty in the decaying and aggressively ugly buildings.
The story is frequently interrupted by segments from a cable TV music show called “Magic Nihilism,” featuring witty music videos of songs which revel in their nihilist poses, such as “Nuclear Fanboy” and “Dead Baby.” These clever send-ups of folk pop and synth pop songs are not really interruptions at all, but highly entertaining digs at the pretentiousness of the nihilistic hipster stance. A subplot about a performance artist who calls herself “Womb Envy” is even more pointedly satiric, as she croons out a two chord, one line ballad about how she “gave too many fucks.” She pours generous doses of vocal burn into her singing, as if to channel every world-weary German torch singer who ever sang before her. While Lenya or Dietrich would have crooned about their lost loves with ultra-sophisticated lyrics and melodies, this girl’s bare bones composition implies that artistic craftsmanship is just fluff, and a sexy stance of erotic regret is all that counts.
The visual style of Flesh City could be described as the experience of using psychedelics in a world where the peace and love of the hippies has utterly vanished. (It was probably never a possibility in Germany to begin with.) One of the nihilist music videos is from a band called “Happy Hippie Holocaust,” a name which could sum up the film’s visual qualities and nihilismus. The sounds and colors are still mesmerizingly hypnotic, even while, emotionally, you feel like crap.
The climax of the film involves the transformation of the city’s electrical grid into living tissue, a literal “flesh city.” If the death factories of the Nazi era were a collective cultural nightmare about industrialization, then Fleisch’s film is a 21st century version; a nightmare about a networked world and its encroachment on our bodies. (Thankfully, this nightmare is only a movie.) Significantly, the network’s fleshy tendrils attack the victims through their eyeballs, poised to spawn a population of phone zombies. Older technologies are depicted with a distinctly nostalgic, romantic cast; a vinyl LP and a film projector enable the only moments of affectionate human contact in the story.
The transformation of Berlin into a fleshy network unleashes the film’s completely abstract climax, a thrilling flicker film of color fields mixed with throbbing electronic music, which explodes out of the screen. It’s what Fleisch does best, and his skill in this area is well-known to fans of his 20 years of experimental shorts.
Fleisch’s visual mastery may be most evident in the climax, but his knife-edge editing makes the film engaging and surprising throughout. The droll, witty dialog deftly deflates the hipster poses of the film’s characters, and the film is filled with musical pleasures as well, from bands such as Trash Gallery, as well as from the filmmaker himself. It’s a film that first seduces you with its body-horror, underground mystique, and then rips apart its own pose, leaving you with a riotous celebration of color and sound, uncomfortable in some ways, but exhilarating.