The New German Cinema of the late sixties-early seventies introduced the world to some of the most original and provocative filmmakers of the 20th century such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlondorff, but some of pioneers never attracted much attention outside their own country and their films are in danger of being forgotten. Among them are Helma Sanders-Brahms, Peter Lilienthal, Hans W. Geissendorfer and Thomas Schamoni, who is probably the most obscure of them all. Schamoni worked for most of his career in television, turning out documentaries and made-for-TV movies, but in 1970 he directed his only feature film, A Big Grey-Blue Bird (German title: Ein grober graublauer Vogel). A lo-fi mashup of sci-fi and spy genre elements reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), it is a playful and surprisingly entertaining cinematic “experiment” that should have found a wider audience.
A Big Grey-Blue Bird actually attracted some favorable attention from a few film critics and won two prizes from the German Film Awards, which was first established in 1951 and continues to this day as a yearly event. Yet, despite winning awards for Best Direction and Best Cinematography (by Dietrich Lohmann), the film has dropped out of sight. If it wasn’t for the film soundtrack and sound design by CAN, the renown German experimental rock band, A Big Grey-Blue Bird would probably be completely forgotten today. Strangely enough, a song from the film (“She Brings the Rain”), which was featured on their 1970 LP CAN Soundtracks and later reissued on CD in 2014, has generated a growing curiosity about Schamoni’s film over the years.
First of all, it has to be said that A Big Grey-Blue Bird was never intended to be a mainstream commercial release and was definitely aimed at a more adventurous art-house audience. Even within that narrower niche, it is definitely a manner of taste but seen with an open mind, the film is a lighthearted lark compared to some of the darker themes and subject matter of Schamoni’s contemporaries like Fassbinder’s Love is Colder Than Death (1969) or Herzog’s Signs of Life (1969).
An attempt at a plot synopsis is probably pointless but it should give you some idea of the various storylines and ideas that Schamoni introduces without ever fully committing to any of them. As the film opens, a man is operating a 16mm projector and viewing secret surveillance footage. Caught on camera is an attempted abduction of a scientist named Belotti (Walter Ladengast) who escapes but is later shown dead in a gutter. Suicide or murder?
The next scene shows a mysterious man ransacking a trashed apartment. The occupant, known as Tom, lies unconscious on the floor and is later revived by two men who whisk him out of the building and into the street before the police arrive. Luba (Sylvie Winter), their getaway driver, rescues the trio, stops to pick up their cameraman who has been filming the entire incident and drives them all to a secluded estate in the country. It is soon revealed that this group on the lam is a bunch of renegade journalists led by Gio (Thomas Braut) and they are being hunted by both the police and secret agents from an unspecified totalitarian regime.
The reason for this is because Tom, Knokke (Bernd Fiedler) and other writers in their group helped expose a government cover-up. It seems that 30 years earlier five German scientists went missing at the beginning of WW2 and were never seen again until recently. One of them, Belotti, had supposedly created a time machine of some sort and had hidden the formula. Cinque (Lukas Ammann), a wheelchair bound tycoon, wants it and orders his assistant Lunette (Rolf Becker), to find it with the help of his gun-toting cohorts. The only information they have is that Belotti confessed to hiding the secret inside a poem but what does that mean?
The rest of A Big Grey-Blue Bird tracks Tom and his friends as they flee to a sprawling lakeside mansion in Switzerland, which is owned by Diana (Olivera Katarina aka Olivera Vuco). They are soon joined by Morelli (Umberto Orsini), Diana’s lover, and eventually Cinque and his gang crash the party and create further complications that revolve around false identities and motives for wanting Belotti’s secret formula.
While all of this may sound like a typical spy genre exercise with the added sci-fi premise of a time machine formula, A Big Grey-Blue Bird feels more like a spontaneous happening with the director and cast making it up as they go along. I doubt Schamoni could even explain some of the plot complications and twists adequately just as Raymond Chandler once confessed to not knowing who committed one of the murders in his novel The Big Sleep.
Schamoni is much more interested in playing with film conventions and techniques and he approaches the whole endeavor as if it is a game with no rules. You could say this is the ultimate meta-movie about the act of filmmaking and the duality of being on both sides of the camera as the creator and participant. The act of looking and being looked at is pervasive throughout the film and the focus on surveillance and voyeurism predates Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation by four years. But the vibe is A Big Grey-Blue Bird is much more laid back and self-conscious.
At various points in the movie, some of the characters seem to break the fourth wall and question what they are doing or comment on the role playing. “If everything turns out to be nonsense, that would be terrible,” someone states at an air strip rendezvous. Later, Bill (Marquard Bohm), one of the fugitive journalists, spots two rival agents approaching them, noting, “I think I’ve seen them before…maybe in the movies.” In fact, film noir icon Robert Siodmak, director of The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), shows up in the second half of the film as one of the missing scientists.
Most telling of all is the scene where Cinque’s thugs have cornered Knokke, Tom’s cameraman pal, and are shooting at him. Suddenly one of the gunmen asks Knokke to film the scene again and he obliges. Then Knokke gives the gunman the camera and runs away to a rock quarry where he is filmed being murdered. The faux-seriousness reaches the pinnacle of absurdity in the final moments of the movie when most of the major characters are massacred by a machine-toting assassin. It’s quite possible that Schamoni created the whole thing as a poker-faced prank. Another interpretation is that the film could be unfolding in Tom’s mind like a dream and all of the characters and situations are the products of his over active imagination.
And, in case you are wondering, the title A Big Grey-Blue Bird comes from a line in the Arthur Rimbaud poem “Bottom.” In the film Tom takes the poem apart line by line looking for clues in the words which might serve as code breakers for Belotti’s time travel formula. It is just one of many fanciful but inspired moments in a movie that is deceptively scattershot.
Equally unconventional is the look of A Big Grey-Blue Bird which mixes black and white 16mm footage with gorgeous color cinematography. Some sequences are scored to music with no dialogue and there are little film homages like a noir lighting effect in a screening room sequence highlighting velvety wisps of cigar smoke around Cinque’s head. In addition, the film editors, Peter Przygodda and Elisabeth Orlov, often cut back and forth between two storylines or sets of characters without offering closure on either. The result can create a frustrating start-stop effect but it can also result in a compelling, hypnotic rhythm.
Adding immeasurably to the film’s entrancing quality is the music of CAN, which can go from a beatnik jazz riff to a psychedelic rock track. In an interview by Jon Dieringer of Screenslate with Irmin Schmidt, the group’s founding member, the musician recalled, “In the film there are these people spying on each other, and they have these electronic instruments and screens they’re working with. And for the sound in the film I recorded lots of shortwave sounds and turned them into sound design. I brought these sounds I had edited to the studio, and Can played to them. Then I edited them back into the film, and these sounds became music, and then they became reality again, and that was very interesting as sound design work.”
Schmidt also admitted that A Big Grey-Blue Bird baffled a lot of people when it first premiered in Germany: “…this film was not such a big success because it’s much too crazy, and even understanding German, you can’t follow the story. It’s quite confusing. But it is in a way a very nice and hippie-esque version of Germany at that time. It’s not that dark, like most of Fassbinder’s work. It’s pretty strange and crazy.”
One final note about the film’s cast. Most of the cast members are German actors who are not that well-known to American audiences but there are a few exceptions. Umberto Orsini as Morelli is an extremely versatile Italian actor who has enjoyed plum roles in critically acclaimed dramas such as Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s The Sea (Il Mare, 1962) and art-house fare like Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966). He is equally at ease in genre exercises like Violent City (1970), a Charles Bronson crime drama, or titillating Eurotrash like Interrabang (1969) and the giallo Puzzle (1974). Paired opposite Orsini is Serbian actress Olivera Katarina (aka Olivera Vuco) as the heiress Diana and her exotic beauty has been well exploited in such infamous international hits as Mark of the Devil (1970) and Arne Mattsson’s sexploitation drama Ann and Eve (1970), in which she plays a lesbian nightclub singer.
The only other cast member in A Big Grey-Blue Bird whose name might look familiar is Klaus Lemke as Tom, the main protagonist. Lemke is better known as a director/writer in Germany and is another lesser-known mover and shaker in the New German Cinema, who ended up making controversial exposes about the disaffected youth culture like Rocker and Liebe, so schon wie Liebe (both 1970).
It is unlikely that A Big Grey-Blue Bird will ever attract enough attention at this point to spawn a cult following. Nevertheless, Thomas Schamoni is assured a place in German film history; he was one of the founding members of Filmverlag der Autoren, a collective of young filmmakers who helped distribute indie films outside of their country’s traditional film industry. Their efforts introduced the New German Cinema to the world and included such breakthrough films as Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Winders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, all released in 1972.
A Big Grey-Blue Bird is available as a nice looking DVD-R in German with English subtitles from European Trash Cinema. If you have an all-region DVD player, you might be able to find the official German DVD release by Zweitausendeins Editions from an international seller.
Other links of interest: