Why make a movie about old Nico? Why not make a movie about young Nico? Such were some of the reactions when writer and director, Susanna Nicchiarelli, sought funding for her film, “Nico, 1988.” Early in the film, Nico says she doesn’t like being called a femme fatale, and she wants to be called by her real name, too. Susanna explained to The LA Beat, “An original idea is usually what scares the most because it’s something that has not been done before. You have to go on with what you believe in.”
Here a dark-haired junkie with a zaftig body and a sound recorder, almost fifty years old and on the road, Christa Päffgen was born in 1938, a witness to bombs dropping on Berlin during World War II, the sounds of which thereafter informed her music. Famously known as Nico, the Warhol Superstar primarily remembered as the blonde-tressed German beauty who sang with a voice like dark winter in the Velvet Underground, Christa aka Nico will now be known for something else–her life as a musician. The singer-songwriter continued to record and make music until her death in 1988. “My life started after the Velvet Underground, when I started making my own music,” she says in Susanna’s film, which portrays the musician’s life on the road as she tours to promote her latest album.
When I spoke with the star, Trine Dyrholm, who plays Christa, she talked about how cinema can address existential loneliness, perhaps not changing circumstance but offering connection. As can music. One of my favorite scenes is of a secret concert in Prague. The musicians onstage with her, and the music they play! Christa, like the music, full-bodied and in motion and loud! The audience screaming and jumping around!
“It was so intense to do that scene,” Trine told me, who performed Christa’s “My Heart is Empty,” a song from her last album, 1985’s Camera Obscura. “The Prague concert was kind of intense because that’s a very important scene in the film where it’s a liberation for the character, basically. She can’t get any drugs, and she’s so desperate and angry and terrible and then to go onstage. And suddenly she connects with her audience and does a great performance. It’s a point of no return…where she starts to get clean again after that.”
The theme of freedom in “Nico, 1988” emphasizes government, with the freedom to cross boundaries, whether it’s the boundaries of beauty, psychology, the state, or music (the Prague concert was closed down by officials in uniform). Indeed, the film opens with bombs exploding in the air. Susanna told me Christa’s “country was defeated, and she lived with the shame of…what Germany had done.” Her appetite is political, too, I think. To take up space, food, sex. To take command. To live past youth! When Christa sings and screams in that deep wail during the concert in Prague–not skinny, not young, not blonde–I felt like I was witnessing a revolution created by the film, because she didn’t appear ugly and she didn’t seem ashamed. She made demands of the band, the venue, the audience. Turn up the drums, the guitar! Listen to me! Her legs spread as she smokes and tells her lover in their hotel room that she plans to age with elegance. She seems powerful in all her hungry glory. Truly beautiful.
Talking with a compellingly attentive and tattooed man as she eats spaghetti and insists he share the sugary yellow fruit juice a friend made for him, Christa tells him how she loves to eat. She starved during the war, she starved when she was a model. Her smile charms, her manners disarm, her need informs.”That’s one of my favorite scenes,” Trine tells me. “He is inspired by a real person that Susanna talked to, he told her that they had meals together in the night…it’s a scene when she starts to reflect,” and Christa admits she misses her son. Trine points out that the scene is about the war generation, too; Christa was born during WWII and before the Berlin Wall fell. “I wanted her to eat with bad manners, she’s just so hungry. And she doesn’t care about what she looks like when she eats…it’s a woman that is loving life. I like that.” So do I. “I hate vanity when you act. I like to be vain when I’m on the red carpet and pretending to be a movie star, but when I act, I’m not vain, and I don’t want to see things from the outside, I want to do what is real for the character. She ate like…a real person.”
“Thank you for the good meal,” Christa tells him. He says, “You’re welcome.” The simplest of pleasures and words provide profound meaning, a depth of exchange. A sustaining connection.
An unforgettable scene of her son as a child among tortoises intensifies meaning through mysterious and quieted sounds, intimating a distant power. With that, the filmmaker suggests Christa’s lifelong search for the sounds of defeat, the sounds of the bombs falling on Berlin. Christa’s often recording sounds–including the sound of the bathroom pipes, the ocean, and the sounds of the hospital room where her troubled son recuperates – looking for that sound. She falls in love with the harmonium, an odd organ. The sounds she generates from the musical instrument make me wonder if it’s her way of controlling defeat. “My Only Child,” from 1970’s Desertshore by Nico, Trine describes as a “simple song, but beautiful. And tough.”
Christa can be rude and selfish, repeatedly forgetting the names of the people who help her; taking many lovers while getting engaged; doing drugs as she makes people wait and sometimes watch; stealing because it’s more fun than asking. The bruises on her body are self-imposed. She was never a victim, the director-writer tells me, not even when people used Christa for her image. “She used her beauty to get out of Berlin, to eat, because she suffered hunger as a child, and modeling made it possible for her to feed her family and herself…She used her beauty to go on with life, but once she got rid of that, and she was able to use just her music, that was the moment in which she felt more in control.”
On the wall against which Christa leans as the band makes touring arrangements are flyers. One flyer shows a headless armless Venus in scraggly black and white, and another proclaims the word “punk.” “Do I look ugly?” asks the Punk Venus as she readies for her concert. “Yes,” the political philosopher manager tells her. “Good,” she says. “I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.” Christa carries her faithful sound recorder with her everywhere, risking jailtime in a foreign country by refusing to leave until her recorder is retrieved. Her political philosopher manager, played with an endearing debonair grace by John Gordon Sinclair, controls her finances and she entrusts him with the care of her son, her delightful landlord brings her buttercups, her sometimes very talented bandmates endure her tirades. The attentions of men are plentiful–Jim Morrison told her to record her dreams–and in the film, archival footage by Jonas Mekas is interwoven, gracefully and with great restraint. She’s high and slow and self-involved as others – bored, besotted, annoyed, or amazed – wait for her and work with her.
The film seems so real that I forgot that Nico died. When I saw “Nico, 1988” the second time, my boyfriend whispered, “Is that the real Nico?” Trine is so believable and so real it’s as though the film is a documentary. A more colorful and sophisticated cinema-verite with its sky-blue gates, pink painted bicycle, and the yellow of flowers and fruit, there is never a false moment in this beautiful film, which is structured by narrative devices usually reserved for men: that of being on the road, and being interviewed. A woman writer and director tells a woman’s story with a woman as the star, and it’s shot by a woman, too, cinematographer, Crystel Fournier. It makes me believe feminism is working.
“I think it’s a very important film,” Trine told me. “I think it’s very important to have complex female characters on screen, and more of them. They don’t have to be likeable all the time. They don’t have to be beautiful. They just have to be human beings. She was maybe the most beautiful woman in the world at that time, back in the 1960’s. She was defined by men all the time, by Andy Warhol, by being in the Velvet Underground, being a model. I think she didn’t fit that narrowed image, she wanted to be respected for her art, and not her beauty…If that’s the only thing you are – you are a beautiful woman, you are an object, you are somebody seen from the outside – what kind of identity is that? There’s much more to the story.”
My mother describes the film as stately. The elegant oils of decay, the fading of color still bright, the ruins of bombed-out buildings. The insistent intimacy of a car, sharing sweat and drugs and the fears of proving passable identities in passports, suggest the difficulty in making one’s way across borders, whether it’s beauty, land, addictions, music, or death. The gates of passage are not pearly but sky-blue. Trine says, “We make art to share all the existential things that we can’t really talk about. We don’t have that many words for existential loneliness but we can recognize it, and we have all these things that we can share in a moment when we go to the cinema.”
Trine always looks for “cracks in the character, when you can invite the audience into the inner chaos of the character, so you feel something that they are struggling with, maybe you don’t understand it but you can connect with something…Every time I work, I’m looking for the contradictions.” For example, Christa is strong, but when is she weak? “There’s a lot of issues with this character. That’s why we make cinema,” explains Trine. “To describe all the existential things that we cannot really talk about, but we can connect with them in moments, through characters and stories.”
Christa’s relationship with the past interested the filmmaker. “I don’t like people always talking about the past and saying “those were the days,” I think it’s always an excuse not to live your present,” Susanna told me. She perceived that once Christa changed her look from blonde icon to dark priestess, Christa took control, “turning around every cliché about beautiful women” who long for the days of their youthful beauty. “She herself would say that she became in control the moment she stopped being the icon, the moment she stopped being the beauty queen,” Susanna told me, mentioning that Andy Warhol said Nico became a fat junkie who disappeared. “No way, she did a lot of interesting stuff,” Susanna said with conviction. Her film proves it, too. When Susanna was 34 years old, she read an article by a man who said that Nico’s life was over at 34. “I remember being so angry at that. Nobody would ever say that of a man.” Christa didn’t disappear, and she made her most interesting music when she got older, influencing the Goth and New Wave movements. Susanna told me she’s telling Christa’s story the way it really happened.
Part of what happens to women’s lives in patriarchy is that their stories get erased by men who write about them – or don’t write about them. With “Nico, 1988,” a woman writes about a woman and now I’m writing about them, too. Christa had a “very strong way of affirming her presence in the world,” said Susanna. “She wanted her space, and the attention she deserves.” Susanna observes that “men can be handsome in their 50’s” in films, multi-dimensional and productive, but women are usually young. She told me that she read an interview about an Italian politician who said her comrades actually began listening to her when she started having some white hair. “White hair gives us some authority…finally,” said Susanna. And yet, in American cinema, women are told to hide the evidence of their age – and their growing authority.
“Nico, 1988” is one of my top ten favorite films. The film itself is tactile with its square format, gritty appearance, and analogic support. Trine’s performance as Christa is flawless, and she provides her own vocals. She prepared for the role by intensive discussion with the director to fulfill the vision; conducted research of concerts, documentaries, archival interviews (including one in which Christa said her only regret is that she’d been born a woman and not a man); studied Christa’s pictures, mannerisms, gestures, and body movement; wore the clothing and donned the wig; and ruminated on the character’s world view. “Working with the music, that was the key work for the character, to find the voice of our Nico,” said Trine, who has a background as a singer, making the cut for the Eurovision Song Contest when she was 14, and two records, touring with her own band. Susanna and Trine shared extensive research, including Susanna’s exclusive interviews with Christa’s Czech and Italian promoters, her manager in Manchester, her friend in Italy, and her son, Ari, in Paris. Susanna and Trine worked together to interpret rather than mimic what they learned. “We didn’t want it to be an imitation, we wanted to do our version of Nico,” Trine told me.
When the award-winning Italian director-writer flew to Copenhagen to meet Trine the Danish star, Susanna told Trine: “You don’t look like Nico, you don’t sing like Nico, but I think that you have the right spirit to play the character, so let’s do our version. So that’s what we tried to do to find the truthfulness.” Susanna’s impeccable script shows that the extraordinary can be found among the ordinary – the marble index of words. The actor told me, “I’m 46. I intend to do complex characters that are 40 plus. I think it’s very important to see real people on the screen…You have to fight a little for this sometimes,” Trine says, but it’s “very important to take responsibility…to put in all the nuances.”
I’m not even jealous that I didn’t make this perfect film. As my mom explains, “You’re just so glad they made the film.” The film warns viewers that the music may be hard for some to take, but I took it all and loved every second of it. Gatto Ciliegia contro il Grande Freddo reinterpreted Christa’s music with Trine.”Through the songs I imagined the atmosphere of the film,'” Susanna told me, “and the way I wanted it to be.” With the energizing chaos of noise, there is that relentless motion of quiet. As with revolutions.
The film opens on Friday, August 3, exclusively at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. On Friday, August 10, the film’s run includes Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and NoHo 7 in North Hollywood and the Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.