Long before Udo Kier became the go-to eclectic supporting actor who stole his scenes in films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), the sci-fi fantasy Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (1997) and numerous films by Lars von Trier, the German actor was already firmed established as a cult film icon from the 1970s. In addition to playing the lead in two Andy Warhol productions, Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), he starred in the sadistic period piece The Mark of the Devil (1970), Just Jaeckin’s S&M erotica The Story of O (1975), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and R.W. Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979). Kier, who was born in 1944, is still going strong today at age 78 with more than 250 film and TV series in his filmography and a rare leading role in Swan Song (2021), in which he plays a retired hairdresser who agrees to perform one last makeover on a deceased client. But if you want to see him at the beginning of his career, look no further than his debut feature film Shameless (German title, Schamlos, 1968), in which he plays a ruthless young gangster who tries to muscle in on his rival’s business operations in Vienna, Austria.
Kier was initially discovered by actor/director Michael Sarne (Myra Breckinridge, 1970) who cast him in his short film Road to Saint Tropez (1966), a road movie romance. Kier was little more than a pretty boy diversion for the female lead in that 30-minute vignette but, the actor’s almost delicate male model features were not really ideal for romantic leading men because of his eyes. They are piercing and lack warmth but are perfect for characters who are menacing, decadent or emotionally detached.
As Alexander Pohlmann, a conniving hustler whose ambitions exceed his skill set in Shameless, Kier inhabits his role as if he was born to it. Allegedly based on a true story, the film is bookended by Pohlmann’s brief autobiographical confession: “I come from a small, lousy circus family. I worked as a knife thrower and trick shot artist. When I was 15, I’d had enough and left. In the big city I started to build up a young gang. We have contracts with a lot of bars and shops. We protect them. We don’t make bad money at it…but then I met Annabella and the whole thing started…”
Annabella (Marina Paal) is an oversexed, jaded exhibitionist with the morals of an alley cat yet she is smitten with Alex and willing to do whatever he wants. First, he hires her away from Max Fuhrmann (Herbert Kersten), a racketeer who runs a prostitution racket in the city. Many of his whores operate out of “love carriages,” small camper vans parked along the highway, but Annabella has a more diverse and wealthy clientele that she often hooks up with in bars and nightclubs.
When we first see her in action Annabella is gyrating wildly on the dance floor of the Gloria Bar, which spotlights her striptease act as the main attraction. Once Alex entices her away from Max’s control, a war breaks out between the rival gangs and it becomes a struggle for survival between the old school gangsters and the younger, more rebellious upstarts.
Directed by Eddy Saller, Shameless was the director’s second film after his debut feature, Torment of the Flesh (German title, Geissel des Fleisches, 1965), a tale about a serial killer who preys on showgirls. Both films were dismissed as trash by most mainstream critics at the time but are now recognized as significant examples of the new post-war cinema that was emerging in Austria in the late 60s. Shameless, in particular, has an angry pre-punk tone and depicts an angst-ridden generation grappling with alienation, despair and amorality in the wake of Hitler’s defeat.
At the same time, Shameless wallows in sensationalism and decadence but this is an exploitation film that is made with considerable skill and verve. It also functions as a morality tale about the consequences of criminal activities while serving up generous doses of nudity, sex and violence. But just when you think the film is settling into a gang war melodrama, it pulls the rug out from under you with a major plot twist involving Annabella.
[Spoilers ahead] It seems the young vixen has aspirations of being an actress and has also been secretly filming her sexual liaisons with clients for blackmail purposes. When she takes a fancy to Michael Hohenberg (Louis Soldan), a well-known actor, we assume she is going to use him to advance her career but instead Annabella is found murdered in his home. The actor is arrested, tried and eventually released for lack of evidence but Annabella’s father, a Sicilian fruit merchant, demands justice and hires Alex to kidnap Hohenberg, hold him hostage in the basement of a nightclub and make him confess before executing him. Needless to say, it doesn’t pan out that way.
What Alex discovers in his interrogation of Hohenberg is that there are many more suspects who would have profited from Annabella’s death and Max, the rival gang leader, is the most suspicious of all. In the end, the film becomes a tough, uncompromising noir in which many of the main characters wind up dead except for the most loathsome one of all. There is also a disturbing late act revelation of incest which accents the nihilistic mood of the film.
Saller establishes a nervous, frenetic tone from the start which is punctuated at times by rapid-fire editing montages or hand-held black and white camerawork by Walter Partsch during action scenes. The driving rock influenced score by Gerhard Heinz keeps things moving along at a brisk clip, especially during the night club scenes where one of the background songs is a novel version (or possibly a complete rip-off) of “The Beat Goes On,” a pop hit for Sonny & Cher. Despite his talent, Heinz must have enjoyed scoring exploitation and genre films because his filmography is chock full of titles like The Brazen Women of Balzac (1969), Don’t Get Your Knickers in a Twist (1971), Superbug, the Craziest Car in the World (1975), Vanessa (1977), an Emmanuelle rip-off starring Olivia Pascal, and Jess Franco’s Bloody Moon (1981).
The main attraction in Shameless, however, is Udo Kier and he is convincingly cold-blooded and menacing despite his slender, non-threatening physique. He even engages in some violent fisticuffs, subduing one thug with karate chops to his neck. The final knockdown, drag-out brawl with his rival Max is also brutal. The other interesting aspect of Kier’s performance is his emergence in the second half of the movie as the most principled of the on-screen thugs; he ends up conducting the kangaroo court trial of Annabella’s supposed murderer, a sequence that shares some similarities to the criminal underworld persecution of child killer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) in Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
There is never a dull moment in Shameless but some of the most memorable scenes stand out for their perverse sense of humor. For example, the scene in which Max, cigar in mouth, takes a bubble bath and berates his henchmen while they stand around watching him is like something out of a thirties screwball comedy. A flashback sequence when a murder suspect named Johnny (Thomas Astor) first meets Annabella at an art happening is even nuttier. She is the main ingredient in a monster pancake created by the notorious avant-garde artist Otto Muehl. Along with other volunteers, Annabella is coated in raw eggs, various liquids, flour, and pillow stuffings before fleeing the room like a tarred and feathered victim.
For those who don’t know, Otto Muehl was co-founder of Viennese Actionism, a violent 60s movement that used the human body as a surface for its art using blood, feces and other bodily fluids. His art happenings became much more confrontational and obscene in later years as witnessed by his appearance as a member of the Therapie-Komune in Sweet Movie (1974) by Dusan Makavejev. Muehl also created a controversial living experiment called the Friedrichs Commune in which he was later accused of sexually abusing minors along with drug-related charges and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Shameless has never been released in the U.S. on any format but you might be able to find a German DVD import of it from some online sellers. The PAL disc is in German only and you would need an all-region DVD to view it. An easier option might be purchasing a decent DVD-R copy with English subtitles from European Trash Cinema.
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