Just A Gigolo

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I think we have to look back on Just A Gigolo with a certain amount of irony…it was an atrocious movie. -David Bowie

Shout! Factory has made available on BluRay the long elusive German film Just A Gigolo (1978). The first time that I saw this film I watched a VHS transfer on youtube in my freshman dorm. This new release, certainly by comparison, is immaculate. Seeing David Bowie in his dashing Weimar era suits is always a breath taking experience.

Just A Gigolo, in the years since its release, has survived on a kind of cult status. It isn’t that the material really lends itself to the “cult film”, rather it’s more that the cast members each enjoy a significant following that, when each following comes together, elevates Just A Gigolo. In addition to featuring David Bowie as the lead, Just A Gigolo was also the final film for both Kim Novak and Marlene Dietrich; both women titans of the cinema.

Just A Gigolo takes an ironic and satirical approach to depicting the rise of fascism during the Weimar Republic. In director David Hemmings’ hands the film undulates from style to style in this effort. The styles utilized include the musical, slapstick, pastiche, surrealism, and perhaps even one or two more. The bottom line, however, is that these aesthetic shifts never really feel cohesive and fail to give the episodic structure of the film a sense of narrative unity. If it weren’t for the magnetism of David Bowie Just A Gigolo may not even be watchable.

The structure of Just A Gigolo clearly owes something to the tradition of the Picaresque novel. Yet it is almost antithetical since the protagonist of Just A Gigolo is steadfastly unchanging, naive, and obsessively trying to remain connected to Prussian traditions. Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski (David Bowie) survives WWI only to return home to a changed Berlin. In a socially liberated urban center, the disillusioned Paul falls in with Captain Kraft (David Hemmings) who sets Paul on the path towards Nazism. Paul’s friend Cilly (Sydne Rome) frees him from the oppressive Nazis and, inadvertently, sets him in the company of Baroness von Semering (Marlene Dietrich) as one of her gigolos.

Imbuing this fractured narrative with such a range of styles, while admirably ambitious, only succeeds once or twice. One of these instances, the choice to literally have the Nazis living underground in subways, the satire manages to pay off more than once. The real power of Just A Gigolo comes from an emotional level in scenes of existential crisis in which Paul is confronted with a facet of himself through the perspective of another character. These intimate scenes of melodrama is what makes the scenes between Paul and Eva (Erika Pluhar) so compelling.

David Hemmings once said of Just A Gigolo “In the end all the characters opt for the easy way out. They all sell themselves”. It’s a fair summation of the film, obviously, but it also speaks as to why David Bowie abruptly departed from acting after completing Just A Gigolo. When Bowie came onto the project he spoke with certainty that he was transitioning his career from rock star to movie star, following up The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) with another leading role. So when a new arena tour was announced Bowie was asked why he seemed to be turning his back on film acting so abruptly. His reply was simply “I need the money”.