A highly mysterious, contentious and nerve-wracking film, The Fan (Der Fan) confounded many German audiences upon its 1982 release. Starring a then-17-year-old Désirée Nosbusch, Germany’s Brooke Sheilds, the film gained notoriety for its depiction of underage sexuality.
A psychological drama about hero-worship, The Fan follows the life of Simone, a teenage loner who obsesses over her favourite pop star “R” (played by real-life new wave singer Bodo Steiger). Simone spends her days playing hooky from school and wandering the streets of Berlin while listening to songs on her Walkman. Sometimes she goes down to the post office to see if “R” has responded to her numerous fan letters.
Over time, Simone proves to be a pain both at home and at school, giving her parents the brush-off and rudely dismissing her teachers. Her objective is clear: To meet “R” and make him fall in love with her. This could play out like a comedy. Except that Simone is pulling no punches; she is dead serious about the business of love and will seemingly stop at nothing to meet her object of affection. When she does, there begins the slow-winding descent into a personal hell to which she’s shamelessly submitted herself.
In many quarters, Eckhart Schmidt’s film was raked over the coals by audiences and critics, as well as Nosbusch herself (who would accuse Schmidt of exploitation following production of the film). Admittedly, its unapologetically thorny displays of teenage lust (and nudity) make a most disturbing and difficult watch. What exactly does Schmidt intend to say about the deplorable megalomania that results in sexual degradation? And just who is he pointing a finger at?
The Fan seems to, indirectly, illustrate the subversion of power by way of celebrity. It’s a close-cutting examination on fame and how it allows easy access to the public sublimation of teenage sexuality.
For most of the film, Nosbusch performs as though under a spell, either somnolently delivering her lines or walking as though in a trance. Despite this somewhat impenetrable agency in obsessive desire, there’s an emotional cavity here in which we discern a troubled and lonely child. One scene has Simone dressing up (as though on a date) to watch a televised performance of “R” singing his newest hit. It’s pathetically sad and Schmidt sets up the scene to reveal the gloomy economy of Simone’s home life (her family, almost entirely disengaged with one another, watches TV in the dark).
Yet another scene has the teenager getting into fisticuffs with a postman when he laughingly dismisses her naïve belief that the pop star has finally responded to her barrage of letters. At a remove, this would seem like dark, bleak comedy. Pushed up to the thin skin of what is actually a highly sensitive drama, moments like these are at once disturbing and oddly moving.
In one of the most chilling and insidious scenes, Simone, having finally met her idol, is taken back to the pop star’s home. There she moves from room to room, exploring the apartment with an almost predatory curiosity. Eerily, the decor (sheets strewn from ceilings) resembles Nazi banners, streaking the premises ominously with the red, white and black of swastika flags and the brown of Nazi uniforms. Indeed, Simone has now found herself in a lot of trouble. But her mental instability makes it unclear just who is truly in danger here; the way Schmidt intercuts scenes of a curious, prowling Simone with scenes of a coldly aloof “R”, priming himself for an act of statutory rape, effectively subverts the line between victim and aggressor.
This is a point of revelation in the film, a turn which throws the question of blame into such a dizzying orbit such that the uncomfortable answer is returned with debilitating force. The denouement, a climax of bloody ritualism (echoed more than a decade later in Zulawski’s Szamanka (1996)), is made all the more horrific by the filmmaker’s refusal to divulge any reason behind Simone’s psychosis. Her brutally violent confrontation with the object (now target) of her desire is at once cathartic and traumatic—for she has been released from her obsession yet imprisoned by her madness.
There are not many extras on this release. An interview with Schmidt reveals his attempt to parallel the sexual subversion of a young teen with fascist movements like Nazism (hence the signifying colours to be found in the pop star’s apartment). He goes on to explain how this underlying theme most likely went unnoticed due to the controversial subject matter.
Mondo Macabro presents The Fan as a double-disc packaging with both a DVD version of the film as well as the Blu-ray, for convenience’s sake. The image on both discs is extremely clean (with the Blu-ray obviously edging out in the image quality) with an understandable amount of grain for a film this old. The colours are even and nicely rendered, despite the fact that most of the colour palette is muted, employing greys, beiges and faded purples (representing, no doubt, a cold, dour, existentialist Berlin—the only world Simone seems to know). Sound comes through clearly (if just a tad on the flat side) with no real distortion. The film is in German with English subtitles.
The Fan is highly disturbing, at times questionable, viewing. There’s much to be said (on either side of the argument) about Schmidt’s casting of an underage actress in a story of sexual trauma. His scenes of Nosbusch and Steiger partaking, somewhat reluctantly, in the erotic abandonments, are filmed sensitively but through an uncomfortably voyeuristic lens. Nosbusch would, shortly before the film’s release, take Schmidt to court, demanding the removal of a few scenes she felt infringed on her rights as a child actress (the two have since made up and are now friends). Their work together here reveals a tense, uneasy realm in which we, perhaps guiltily, watch one type of exploitation in order to understand yet another.
The Fan will turn off many (and infuriate more than a few). There’s no getting around the fact that the scenes of a young girl’s sexual indoctrination (and ultimate subjugation) are difficult, painful and heartbreaking to watch. In the end, however, it is Nosbusch’s brave, subtle and perspicacious performance that not only saves the film from the grindhouse floor, but elevates it to a perspective of insight and understanding.