FILMS FROM THE VOID is a journey through junk bins, late night revivals, under seen recesses and reject piles as we try to find forgotten gems and lesser known classics. Join us as we lose our minds sorting through the strange, the sleazy, the sincere and the slop from the past and try to make sense of it all.
I have a confession to make. I’ve become obsessed with Eckhart Schmidt.
Schmidt, a German director whose work spans nearly six decades, is unfortunately known to American audiences for only one film: Der Fan (a/k/a Trance). Released in 1982, it attracted a cult following due to a narrative that offered a novel twist on the “psychotic woman” trope by submerging it in themes of obsession and celebrity culture, then connecting those ideas to a disturbing subversion of early ’80s new wave/NDW chic music video aesthetics. Like other similarly-minded European genre directors of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s — Jean Rollin, Michele Soavi, and Jorg Buttgereit to name a few — Schmidt was able to bridge the gap between the art-house and the out-house, to create movies that could be best described as “artsploitation.” These weren’t necessarily well-regarded horror films or thrillers, but they brought some pretension of artistic merit and could make an argument for their existing outside the flaming trash-heap of Zombi sequels and Italian cannibal films. Thankfully, the cult of European art-horror grew large enough that over the course of the 2000s and early 2010s many of the films saw release stateside and, finally, Der Fan was released on Blu-Ray by Mondo Macabro in 2015.
Sadly, Der Fan is Schmidt’s only film to see a release outside of Europe. I mention this because, while Der Fan is fantastic, it’s not his best film. That distinction belongs to 1985’s Loft.
In contrast to Der Fan, Loft is a film that is defined by its minimalism. Der Fan hints at this by reducing its rock star to a one-letter name, R. It also chooses to portray R’s relationship with its lead, Simone, in very simplistic terms, never bothering to complicate things with an extended courtship; she’s smitten before the film even starts, and he soon follows once they’ve met. But we spend enough time with Simone to understand her deteriorating psychological state even if it does seem strange. And while R is initially more myth than man, we do eventually come to meet and like him, as he gives off a warmth that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the film’s clinically cold style.
Loft, on the other hand, is almost impenetrable because of its stark refusal to provide any context, develop any of its characters, or make any attempts at motive. It reduces its participants to simple husks operating on id alone. We get no introduction, no backstory, no characterization. We begin in media res as the two bourgeoisie leads, Raoul and Raphaela, are crashing a party/gallery show put on by a group of sleazy art-punks. We quickly learn, however, that this isn’t really the beginning of the story and there are a number of events that have already happened and for the most part will go unexplained. Outside of the two leads, the other characters aren’t identified by name until near the end of the film and even then are only allowed sobriquets like Kiddo, J.M., and Joker. Raoul and Raphaela also share names similar enough it wouldn’t be hard to imagine they are supposed to represent one identity.
Loft‘s minimalism extends to how the film itself is constructed. The plot takes place entirely in one apartment loft save for a few establishing shots of Raoul and Raphaela arriving. The soundtrack is the same pulsing industrial dirge repeated ad nauseam. And each scene is lit with a limited color palette to highlight reds, blues, and yellows, while a permanent fog (“the smoke of destruction”) also lingers on-set to partially obscure line-of-sight. The set design specifically creates a sense of detachment from the proceedings by adding an otherworldly feel, as if these people might already be their own personal Hell.
All of this adds up to create a dystopian future that feels like it could have been a very real possibility at the time, and to some extent even still today, decades after the film was made. While the setting is disturbing, it isn’t so fantastic that things feel too alien; and despite the characters speaking in nihilistic poems, their motives are easily understood and ground the film in reality. Despite there being some very obvious differences between Raoul and Raphaela and their art-punk pursuers — class position is repeatedly invoked but mostly irrelevant — every action taken by protagonist or antagonist can be recognized in terms of base instinct: aggression and fear; pain and pleasure; sex and survival. If someone isn’t trying to kill another character, they’re probably trying to fuck them. It matters little their class position or station in life because everyone is cast in primitive terms — class could just as easily be a substitute for tribe.
This is what carries Loft past Der Fan. In Der Fan, Schmidt focuses narrowly on one relationship to examine how Western civilization consumes culture, sometimes in very literal ways, but in Loft he pulls back and looks at group interactions so he can stake out a much more aggressive stance on humanity. Schmidt matches Loft‘s austere narrative to a stripped down production to reduce his human subjects to their smallest selves so we can revel in how vile they (and we) are. It’s a bleak, dispiriting, pessimistic experience, and I love Loft all the more for that. It’s easy to be a nihilist, it’s much harder to be one with a legitimate gripe. Schmidt has one: we can’t solve our big problems because we are the problem. With Loft Schmidt suggests that we’re in an infinite loop of violence and tribal warfare because we’re still the same brutes we’ve always been and that’s not going to change. And by finishing that thought, Loft surpasses Der Fan to become Schmidt’s anti-human masterpiece.