BERLIN—Given the pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy theories in President Trump’s dumbed-down America, it’s appropriate that the late Ulli Lommel’s intermittently amusing America—Land of the FreeKS (which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival) constructs its own alternative facts in order to shed light on our current political morass.
FreeKS is pretty much the sort of mock-documentary one might expect from a former Fassbinder actor and onetime pal of Andy Warhol. Saturated with campy vignettes enacted by a gleefully grotesque cast of characters, the film, according to one of Lommel’s associates present at the premiere, aims for a synthesis of Fellini’s Amarcord and Freaks, Tod Browning’s still-shocking Depression-era horror film.
Despite the failure of FreeKS’ satirical treatment of documentary clichés to live up to this hype, there’s something bracing about Lommel’s efforts to breathe new life into the taboo-shattering spirit of Fassbinder and Warhol. Instead of confronting the Trump fiasco head-on, the cheerful German in America hangs out in Southern California (“so different from the rest of America,” as he rightly points out) and introduces us to a gaggle of eccentrics whose nuttiness mirrors our unhinged political landscape’s bizarre topography.
Even though Lommel’s comic evocation of the denizens of TrumpWorld is a somewhat scattershot affair, it’s always useful to glimpse a foreigner’s view of our “new normal,” especially given the realization that what would have once been considered mass psychosis has become almost banal. In addition, the film is much better than one might have expected from a director scorned for having the lowest IMDb rating of all time.
One of Lommel’s more amusing scenarios highlights a fractious couple torn apart by the husband’s decision to vote for Trump and his wife’s support for Hillary Clinton. They sleep in a double bed divided by a line of bricks. The husband dons a Ku Klux Klan hood while the wife’s face is obscured by a hijab—a not-too-hyperbolic rendering of how the two political sides tend to view each other.
In the wake of an interminable series of mass shootings, it’s also not too far off the mark for Lommel to concoct a support group entitled “Serial Killers Anonymous.” The comic payoff comes when a group member yearns to regain the ability to orgasm he gained after his first killing and the facilitator remarks that this guy even scares him and should be locked up. (In 1973, Lommel directed The Tenderness of Wolves, a horror film based on the gruesome legacy of Fritz Haarmann—a German serial killer beheaded in 1924.)
The film’s protracted series of skits involving the gender-bending propensities of Lommel’s fictional editor, a transgender man yearning to transition into “Erika America,” meander and prove less on target. It’s slightly difficult to align Erika’s yearnings (the president’s homophobic tendencies notwithstanding) to the main focus on Trumpism. But the sequences do give Lommel an opportunity to indulge in a bit of absurdist slapstick that evokes his debt to both Fassbinder and Warhol. Another bit focusing on the “world’s oldest porn star’s” affair with a much younger black man is also something of a misfire—a rather ineptly formulated jab at American puritanism and racism.
Like many Europeans, Lommel is both fascinated and repulsed by America’s violent streak. His effort to find some mirth in the ravings of survivalists, a violent gamer despondent after being rejected by the army as mentally ill, and an Alex Jones-like Trump supporter convinced that Clinton is a reptile in disguise, also yields rather uneven results.
In a brief sequence commemorating Lommel’s return to Berlin, however, some comic gold is struck when the intrepid filmmaker encounters a local couple promoting their website “Bring Back the Wall.” Taking inspiration from Trump’s determination to build a “great wall” on the U.S. southern border, they exemplify nostalgia for a bygone era that has surfaced in the activities of anti-immigrant parties such as Germany’s Alternative for Germany (a group with a large following in what was once East Germany.)
Toward the end of the film, Lommel’s reliably unreliable narration informs us that he grew up in the 1950s during an era where postwar Germans shared aspects of the American Dream—especially hamburgers, rock and roll, and cars offering the long-denied luxury of constant mobility. What is rather alarming about Lommel’s film is its realization that the destinies of Germany and the United States have converged. Both countries are consumer societies threatened by racist violence and the lure of the extreme right. The film seems to be saying: If America has already capitulated to these dark urges by electing Trump president, can Germany be far behind? Or as Lommel himself put it, “Why have we in the West sacrificed so much, only to gain so little?”