This short film from Germany, The Super (Der Super, '85), is a troubling and extraordinary piece of work.
It is based on A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner. The novel, which was published in '78, is about the residents of Dropsie Avenue, a Bronx tenement.
This adaptation, set in Depression era Germany, detours much from the original in terms of specific plot points, but the source's grim tone is intact.
Erich Bar is 'Scuggs' (love that name!), a fat, freakish bully who pushes around the Jewish residents of his building.
Scuggs' applecart is well and truly knocked over, though, when he stomps upstairs to confront a tenant about a plumbing issue... and comes face to face with the seemingly angelic Rosy (Natalia Bitnar).
Recovering from his encounter with Rosy, Scuggs retreats to his filthy quarters -- to masturbate and reflect on his desperate existence.
Despite the Super's surly nature, we see a softer side of him in this sequence.
Though not invited, the mischievous Rosy slinks upstairs and visits the vulnerable Scuggs at his lowest ebb, and proposes a deal.
I must note that the luminous Bitnar's performance in The Super is quietly incendiary. Somehow, she walks a fine line between vixen and victim without a single misstep. That she didn't do more acting is a great shame.
Erich Bar, too, is amazing as Scuggs, bouncing effortlessly from surly to strangely child-like.
Although the presentation of this "seduction" sequence is restrained, its power is palpable, and we find our sympathies entering a strange spin cycle.
When Scuggs pays Rosy, the little girl absconds with his cashbox.
As any normal bloke would would do, Scuggs sends his hound after the thieving moppet.
But she conveniently drops a poisoned bone on the stairwell, quickly ending the pursuit.
It becomes obvious at this point that the little vixen's visit to Scuggs' den of greasy desire was part of a more elaborate scheme.
Let me be up front here -- Der Super fucks with us from the very beginning. What we see is never what we ultimately get, and when we do get something, we're not sure it's what we want.
That is the film's magic. That's what elevates it to the pinnacle of transgressive art.
Adapted from the Eisner graphic novel by director Tobias Meinecke, the film is extravagantly photographed by Czech DP Igor Luther, who shot The Tin Drum (and close to a hundred other features and shorts), and smells of Polanski's The Tenant. Music by Gunter Winkler, which swings between music box and dark strings, is the perfect compliment to the potent imagery, and never overwhelms.
Meineckie's depiction of the tenement's frightened residents and portrayal of general paranoia mirrors the current Child Sex panic that is sweeping the globe. I guess something had to replace the Reds under the bed. Now it's Reds (or is that Peds?) in your kid's bed?
Is Scuggs a pedofile? A pathetic opportunist lacking a moral compass? Or a victim of truly dark forces?
Is Rosy just a little girl oblivious to her emerging sexuality? A calculating devil in the body of a juvie?
The answers to these questions are left to the audience.
Like all good fairy tales, this one comes full circle.
A new Super is sought after Scuggs' demise and the little darling is on the front step to greet the first applicant.
He has a dog, too. Though probably not for long.
The film was produced by Klaus Schreyer and quickly fell into obscurity.
News has emerged that A Contract With God... is heading for the big screen again with four directors to helm one story apiece.
It's difficult to imagine how any new take on Der Super would even come close to Meinecke's almost forgotten masterpiece.