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"Try putting your hand on your stomach as if you had a gastric ulcer and smile."
on 16 July 2013
Following David Bowie's none-too-bright young Prussian officer's progress through post-World War One Berlin, Just a Gigolo is one of those oddities that occasionally get thrown up by international co-production agreements. At times it's hard to know quite what to make of its blend of not quite comedy and not quite drama, the tone not helped by Bowie's stilted lead performance and atrocious delivery of his dialogue, the very evident post-production problems and some of the worst lip-synching and sound editing you're ever likely to see and hear. It may have had what seemed like impeccable credentials on paper, including a script credit for the co-writer of Il Grido, but Bowie was less than enamoured with the results: "Listen, you were disappointed, and you weren't even in it. Imagine how we felt. It was my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one."
The Thin White Duke is offered as a sort of symbol for Germany in the years between the wars: everyone wants to claim him for their own but no-one really cares about him. Pointlessly proud but aimlessly drifting without any particular talents or a sense of purpose to compensate while the Nazis gradually rise, he slowly drifts into becoming part of Marlene Dietrich's regiment of gigolos. Along the way he's teased by Sydne Rome, overdoing the Sally Bowles shtick as the revolutionary-cum-nightclub-singer-cum-movie-star upstairs, briefly kept by Kim Novak's rich widow and briefly flirts with ex-officer David Hemmings new political organisation. Hemmings certainly grabs the best role as the vegetarian atheist with a thing for young Aryan men who dreams of a new order from his underground train carriage headquarters but has difficulty rallying his idiotic supporters, who can't even get his rabble-rousing prompts quite right, but as a director he's less successful. He comes up with the odd good image or moment like the surreal shootout between communists and Nazis in a cemetery during a military funeral and one stylish old Hollywood musical number but can't really pull it all together into a coherent or satisfying whole, at least not in the 105-minute version released in English speaking territories (the German version also included on the German DVD runs six minutes shorter though there was also a 147-minute cut that was pulled after a disastrous German opening).
It's a fairly lavish production, with a distinctly 1950s supporting cast - as well as Novak there's Curd Jurgens as a prince, Maria Schell as Bowie's mother and, the film's big selling point, Dietrich in her first German film since the Thirties, though she refused to leave Paris to shoot her scenes - a bit of a problem since Bowie shot his half of their scene together in Berlin. She's hardly in the film, asking a few briefly questions and briefly reappearing to sing the title song in an empty hotel ballroom, and though clearly intended to evoke memories of German cinema's pre-WW2 heyday she doesn't really bring much to the film beyond minor curiosity value - but then the film itself is not much more than a minor curiosity itself. Certainly less than divine decadence.
While the Dutch DVD offers only the English language version (with optional German track and removeable Dutch subtitles), the German DVD includes an anamorphic transfer of the English language version with removable German subtitles and the shorter German version in a non-anamorphic transfer with no subtitles. The differences between the two are mainly the top and tail of the film: the German version has the WW1 trench scene in colour (the English has it in sepia tones), omits the scene in the French hospital where the locals mistake Bowie for one of their own, drops the two old ladies who act as a kind of inaudible Greek chorus throughout the film, moves Dietrich's faltering rendition of the song to the last reel and has a much abbreviated ending that drops Sydne Rome's reappearance to end on the ranks of Nazis standing honour guard.