Criminal high jinks with a different kind of family
Family, aka “the F word,” comes in many forms, or so says Hermine Huntgeburth’s bittersweet black comedy The Trio (1998). This German film, which played to approving audiences at the 1999 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, offers a peculiar, perhaps unique vision of family: an aging evil queen, his tomboy daughter (by a “heterosexual misadventure”), and his lover. What binds the three isn’t exactly a staple of family values – they’re petty thieves who stage elaborate scenarios to separate various upright citizens from their money – but ultimately they indeed find value in their feelings for each other.
The aging queen is Zobel (Götz George), who looks like a dissipated linebacker (or one of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things”), but parades around in ermine, alternately charming and abusing his daughter and lover. The ermine notwithstanding, he’s the leader of the group by sheer force of will and a flair for dramatizing every little thing. His daughter is tough gal Lizzie (Jeanette Hain), who tries to keep some of her father’s excesses in check, particularly as concerns his lover Karl (Christian Redl). One of her specialties is picking up a guy at a bar and robbing him while they make out. Poor Karl, who wears a pitiful wig and returns Lizzie’s kindness by trying to protect her from daddy, endures endless humiliations. Zobel upbraids him for bungling jobs, threatens to expel him from their trailer and their lives, and forces him to prance around in a spangly dress lip-synching to a Motown tune as a prelude to lovemaking.
Karl’s hold on life never seems more than tenuous, and when he dies after a car accident, Zobel and Lizzie are inconsolable. Fortunately, they remember that Karl had been robbed shortly before his death by a fetching young mechanic, Rudolf (Felix Eitner). Lizzie seeks him out, the two get emotionally and sexually involved, and Zobel brings him in to fill the place of their deceased partner. Lizzie ridicules his bad poetry (“My blood screams and foams in agony”) but is deeply drawn to him. She and her father train him in the nuances of the pickpocket’s life. This includes a pledge to uphold the golden rule of their work – “No exchange of bodily fluids within the group” – and an occasional hard kick to the balls when the situation gets desperate. Rudolf, whose promise seemed initially to reside entirely in his handsome face and studly frame, turns out to be a suitable replacement for his predecessor in more ways than one. It seems he’s as casual about his sexual partners as he is with other people’s money, and inevitably, he and Zobel are soon carrying on a red-hot love affair whenever Lizzie isn’t looking.
Like other films on the subject (Bresson’s Pickpocket offers a high-art example), this one is a virtual primer for viewers contemplating a life of petty crime. There are newspaper tricks, the sudden “accidental” bumping into someone, and the ever-popular fake blind man. The film lovingly details these scenarios, which are ingeniously laid out and often funny, as when a pursued Lizzie hurls a wallet over a railing and it lands in the soup of a horrified diner.
The Trio is also charmingly upfront in giving up the queer goods. While the always horny Lizzie only scores occasionally with Rudolf – he seems disturbed that she can “only do it under pressure” – he and Zobel have a genuine, almost chemical connection that saturates their encounters. One literally steamy sequence has the two going at it in a shower, with Rudolf enthusiastically kissing and licking his surrogate father and Zobel nervously submitting. In the tradition of such comedies, of course there’s a nosy landlady who peeks in, followed by a disgusted Lizzie, who denounces them both but is soon followed by the remorseful, conflicted Rudolf.
The best thing about this sweet, funny little film, besides its upbeat treatment of the queer angle and the solid acting, is its refusal to apologize for these full-bodied, fuck-it-all characters. Through an ever-changing sexual dynamic and in spite of their marginal, sometimes violent existence, the director always grants them their humanity, even when it’s the operatic Zobel at his most wicked.