A Pure Place screens at Grimmfest Easter Edition 2022
A Pure Place begins with a wide shot of Athens, and then shows two young siblings shoplifting for their junkie mother (Chara Mata Giannatou), who waits for them on a littered beach. This is an impure world, where even the innocence of childhood is tainted. The boy finds a dirty teddy bear amongst the garbage in the sand and, with his older sister’s help, washes it in the bay water, visibly wringing out the filth, as a bearded man dressed in pure white stands opposite watching. After the opening credits – a sinister montage of black-and-white stills of the man surrounded by children, or making soap, or staring at a statue of a snake-entwined goddess holding a cup – we return to the siblings, still children but somewhat older, and now on an island. “Come on, Stinky,” says Paul (Claude Heinrich), just before his sister Irina (Greta Bohacek) squats to pee on the ground. Paul is talking to the piglet that they are leading along the path, but his words – the first heard in the film – encapsulate a general sense of malodorousness and corporeal abjection, as we see both kids now covered head to toe in dirt, while once again the bearded man, Fust (Sam Louwyck), observes from a distance in his perfect, pristine white.
What this introduction establishes is both a strong thematic contrast between filth and cleanliness, and a certain continuity between these children’s earlier life in the real world of the mainland, and their current situation on the island, which is like a distorted microcosm. For here too they are downtrodden and dirty, the discards of a society that looks down upon their squalor. Irina and Paul are now ‘Firstlings’, confined to labouring in the fetid soap factory ‘downstairs’, while those privileged to reside ‘upstairs’ with Fust lead a life of well-scrubbed luxury. Ruling over this rigid hierarchy is Fust himself – showman and magus, industrialist and fascist, cleanfreak and cult leader, father and god. For the many stray children who have been brought over to this island, Fust has elaborated a complicated religion combining elements from Greek and Teutonic mythology. He controls the Firstlings with the promise (occasionally granted) of upward mobility, and controls those upstairs with the promise that their achievement, under his guidance, of total purity will grant them access to Elysium in the afterlife. He is at once charismatic and creepy, as a man who has stage-managed his perverse childhood dreams into a scenario where all those around him are the players and pawns, readily manipulated, exploited and sacrificed to serve his wayward vision. As Irina is chosen by Fust to ascend upstairs and starts to see for herself the rot hidden beneath its slick utopian façade, Paul, abandoned by his sister, leads a rebellion among those downstairs.
Here co-writing with Lars Henning Jung, Greek-German director Nikias Chryssos has created an insular world that is all at once a place of ritualised fantasy and a refuge from, and parody of, the reality beyond its sea-girt confines. In this Greek setting, the ‘family’ gaslit and bamboozled by patriarchy evokes Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009) and Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence (2013) – and like Walerian Borowczyk’s Goto, Isle Of Love, (1968), Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), the Quay brothers’ The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005) and Gareth Evans’ Apostle (2018), A Pure Place lets its characters play out their absurd endgame in a bounded island community that one man has constructed in his own deranged image.
It will gradually emerge that Fust’s totalitarian regime may not just be metaphorically Nazi-like in nature, as the German spoken by everyone in this Greek setting, the cult of personality which Fust has built around himself, the ‘downstairs’ workers who are treated as literal Untermenschen, the labour camp-like soap factory (eventually used as an actual gas chamber), all point to the island as an exiled remnant of the Third Reich – a notion lent credence by the backstory of Fust’s father (Adrian Frieling). What is more, the end of this closed body politic evokes not only the Kool-aid of Jonestown, but also the toxic last days of Hitler in the bunker (The Bunker is also, as it happens, the title of Chryssos’ previous feature).
The purity with which Fust is so obsessed is of course a Nazi fixation, even if it is here exposed as no less a myth than the goddess Hygieia whom the islanders worship and who embodies cleanliness. Yet the brand of purging that Fust seeks will turn out to be treacherous, even terminal. For his promised Elysium is found not in the divine firmament, but between a virgin’s legs or in a sleazy strip bar, and is sullied by its very discovery – and even those who survive Fust’s oppression will be forever soiled and scarred by it, just as he was by the traumatising vices of his own father. And so, for all its sleekly attractive stylisations, A Pure Place remains just as focused on the more sordid aspects of human nature, which, it implies, can never be fully expiated or cleaned away. Fust’s perfect, hermetic world will turn out to be no less flawed and imperfect than everywhere else.
strap: Nikias Chryssos’ slickly stylised ‘cult’ movie exposes the fascistic flaws and filth in one man’s insular utopia
© Anton Bitel