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DVD SAVANT

Der große Verhau
(The Big Mess)


Der große Verhau
Edition filmmuseum (Region 0 PAL) 22
1969 (71) / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 90 min. / Der grosse Verhau / Street Date March 16, 2007 / EUR 24,99
Starring Vinzenz Sterr, Maria Sterr, Sigfried Graue, Henrike Fürst, Hajo von Zündt, Sylvia Forsthofer, Hark Bohm
Cinematography Thomas Mauch, Alfred Tichawsky
Art Direction Achim Heimbucher, Hannelore Hoger
Film Editors Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus, Maximiliane Mainka
Written and Directed by Alexander Kluge

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

How obscure does a film have to be to be obscure? I've been nursing a personal 'gotta see' list for thirty years. To name just one, Herostratus is an experimental feature from 1967 that appeared only at a few festivals and then in art school showings, and has now reached the status of legend. I've even dreamed about it, dreams apparently inspired by seeing a single still of a woman in a dark coat with a narrow waist. Alexander Kluge's Der große Verhau is another long-awaited film, a West German art effort that piqued my interest because of enthusiastic coverage in a couple of Science Fiction reference books. The Phil Hardy Sci-Fi Encyclopedia lauds it as a counterculture rebuttal to 2001: A Space Odyssey, offering an alternate vision of space as a frontier of commercial exploitation and fraud. Variety caught Verhau at the '71 Venice film festival and called it an anti-film, saying that "its chances for the regular market are practically zero." With an endorsement like that, how could Savant resist?

I've asked people about Der große Verhau for years. Even a friend in the video business in Frankfurt couldn't find any reference to it. Now it's available in an R2 disc, through a company called Edition Filmmuseum, associated with the Filmmuseum München and the Goethe-Institut München. Here's an Amazon.de listing. Der große Verhau is a political statement from an intellectual German filmmaker, and is best suited for fans of visionary radical concepts, or Science Fiction fans motivated to see everything in the genre.

Synopsis (with spoilers):

The year 2035. It's a hot time in the Krüger star system, where small entrepreneurs strive to eke out a living on the edge of civilization. We see two families en route in a tiny spaceship, searching for a planet where they can work away from the domination of The Suez Canal Company, which has just taken over. Big sections of the galaxy have been deeded outright to large corporations that exploit raw materials. Unlicensed operators are pursued as pirate outlaws. Where corporations compete for territory, bürgerkrieg or civil war results. The Suez corporation extends its influence with a vast space fleet. Some ships sell protection to new territories while others run banks or carry out anti-insurgency operations. We see the construction of a new cruiser called the En Cascade. Admiral Von Schaake (Hark Bohm) cannot get his vendors to make the ship's systems operational, and on its first trial run a fire breaks out on board. Von Schaake is distracted from emergency and rescue efforts by agents eager to win the salvage contract for the ship's scrap metal. Elsewhere the fleet is beset by multiple mutinies and fragging incidents.

Senior citizens Vincenze and Maria Starr (playing themselves) buy a small spacecraft and go into the 'accumulating' business, wrecking other ships and then raiding them for scrap and items of resale value. Their latest haul nets $87 million from a fence operating on a small asteroid. When the Suez Canal authority moves in, the Starrs switch to selling forged passports. When arrested, they give the following accounting: They keep 25% of the loot. 35% goes to their bank loan and 25% to the rebels. The Starrs say they like the rebels because "they still honor many human rights and will let you get ahead."

Unlicensed space pilot Douglas (Siegfried Graue) works for Fraü Fürst's Joint Galactical Transports (JGT) a non- Suez Canal Co. outfit and therefore illegal. Fürst (Henrike Fürst) hires anybody who can fly and serves routes where the monopoly influence is not strong. Douglas keeps trying to steal client contact information that could allow him to set up his own business. Fürst catches him each time, but lets him off because good employees are hard to find. Douglas shoots down and raids some ships on his own, and spends his earnings on liquor and drugs in a space brothel with Sylvie Szeliga (Sylvia Forsthofer). Meanwhile, Suez seizes JGT and forces Fraü Fürst to sell out. Douglas now tries to steal some plans from a Suez Company outpost and is pursued by a tank. To quell an insurgency, the corporation inaugurates an unending bombardment of the planet Krüger 60. Millions are forced to live in bunkers. The final scene has Mr. Hunter, 'the last American', eager to go to space. He asks for landing instructions on a corporate fleet ship and arrogantly orders a fancy meal to be prepared for his arrival. The warship instead blasts his capsule to bits.

The synopsis makes Der große Verhau sound like a grandiose anti-establishment space epic. Although we don't know if George Lucas ever saw the film, the similarities between the all-devouring Suez Canal Corporation and The Empire are rather striking, what with smugglers and scavengers representing the only 'free' activity in the star system. The opening titles (which date the film as 1969) scroll upward, but not over a star-field. Some sources claim that the film is based on a 1966 book, Monopoly Capital by Marxist economists Baran and Sweezy, but the book is apparently about dry economic theories, not a satirical critique of corporate expansionism. Der große Verhau is a big anti-capitalist joke. Instead of a brave new frontier, space is just another territory to be exploited for profit.

This isn't a perfect world, and the problem with Verhau is that watching it is a chore. The interest on the conceptual level doesn't translate into a fun experience. Very little of the sweeping storyline is visualized and almost no action of any kind takes place; all of the space scenes are like place-holders for missing 'real effects.' In place of a narrative are two hours of voiceovers and Godardian inter-title cards establishing the politics of the conflict in broad terms, or listing particulars about the activities of the space fleets. The costumes are mostly crude improvisations. The purposely amateurish spaceship models look like random auto parts assembled in odd patterns. The spaceship interiors are ordinary rooms or industrial spaces filled with clutter and random equipment.  1 The space pilots work in tiny compartments surrounded by garbage, and even Admiral von Schaake suffers in cramped meeting rooms. The En Cascade dry dock appears to be an ordinary shipyard. The brothel is yet another compartment filled with paper and pillows. Voiceovers and inter-titles tell what there is of the story.

The overall tone is of a sophomoric skit with most of the humor missing. Everything is archly comic but only once or twice can the film be called funny or clever. The episode with the senior-citizen scavenger pirates could be taken as a conceptual joke on the interview-driven documentary style. The fleet security agent (a woman in a leather trench coat) calls for absolute secrecy, even as a press agent with a video camera continues to film everything that happens. Der große Verhau plays like an elaborate student film that presents its anti-establishment ideas in a purposely scattered style. In the film's defense, its view of corporate colonialism reaching to the stars now seems much more accurate than Stanley Kubrick's orderly investigation of space. But the film remains more an object of research and a political statement than an entertainment.

Alexander Kluge has received plenty of attention in the art film world. When Der große Verhau was shown in Venice, even Variety's reviewer was impressed with his reputation as the most intellectual of the new German directors. Others may think the whole movie is an incoherent trifle, or that it was produced under the influence of controlled substances. For a further reference on director Kluge, Michelle Langford has written a Senses of Cinema article that I link to here.


The Filmmuseum's Region 0 PAL DVD of Der große Verhau is an acceptable transfer of a project that may have been filmed in 16mm. The image is sharp but colors are variable and some scenes are grainy; the lighting is nothing to write home about. Of course, if we accept this as an anti-movie, such concerns are by definition irrelevant. Subtitle options are included for English and several other langugages.

The opening titles seem to be video-generated, indicating that the film originally may not have had any. Credits details differ from records in print (Sigi Graue instead of Siegfried Graue, etc.) The 2-disc set includes three other Alexander Kluge short films and one feature, Willi Tobler un der Untergang der 6. Flotte from 1972. It's a followup that takes place in the same galaxy in the same time period; a clever man loses his family and becomes a press agent for the Admiral of the 6th Fleet. It's equally intellectual and just as frustrating. The disc cover illustration resembles nothing in either feature.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Der große Verhau (The Big Mess) rates:
Movie: Um ....
Interesting, and probably important to die hard Sci-Fi addicts.
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Other films by Alexander Kluge: Willi Tobler un der Untergang der 6. Flotte (1972), Der Tag ist nah (1997), Raumfahrt als inneris Eriebnis (1999), Dad gab's nur einmal (2006).
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: August 30, 2007

Special thanks to Andreas Kortmann for aid in securing a copy of this disc

Footnote:

1. Oddly, around the time that Roger Corman was putting together cheapjack space movies like Planet of Horrors in his Venice shop, his young art directors were using the word 'kluge' (or 'klooj') to describe making a set look lived-in simply by adding clutter and extraneous bric-a-brac. 2001's clean and antiseptic look is the exact opposite of the Kluge Look. This probably has nothing to do with the German filmmaker Alexander Kluge, but that didn't stop Savant from making an unwarranted connection. One online definition of the ill-defined word 'kluge' is Here.
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