Popular with audiences and controversial with critics, Le Club des chômeurs evokes the faded social and architectural remains of Luxembourg's industrial glory to illustrate the identity of this "in-between," multicultural nation. Gérard Kraus examines Luxembourg's answer to The Full Monty.
Given the fact that only a very small number of Luxembourgish films have been produced to date, Andy Bausch's Le Club des chômeurs (The Unemployment Club, 2002) can and has to be interpreted as a representation of Luxembourg's cultural identity. Shot on location in the country's industrial heartland and deliberately avoiding the stereotypical view of the country as a nation of bankers, the film has proved to be a considerable hit in its domestic territory.
Yet Le Club des Chômeurs, with its obviously highly fictionalised and uncomplimentary depictions of nostalgic losers and petty thieves and its "immature" screenplay, is in some ways a misleading view of Luxembourg hardly being in any way representative of the cultural reality of the nation's identity (as a small group of critics in Luxembourg has been keen to point out) . How, then, can these two seemingly contradictory positions the film has on Luxembourgish culture be reconciled, and why did it attract such popularity?
Slackers and thieves
Le Club des chômeurs tells the tale of five unemployed men who in order to pass their time and for mutual support have created a "club". Every member is supposed to adhere to two rules:
- Nobody works
- Every franc earned comes from trickery, illegal work or unemployment benefit.
The club is lead by the film's central character, Geronimo (actually named Jérôme, but given his nickname for his love of Native American culture). The other members are Théid, who lives in the past and likes to tell of accident in the factory he worked in; Abbe, a hypochondriac who wants to be classified as too ill to work; Frunnes, who is overwhelmed by debt; and Sonny Boy, the youngest member, who secretly breaks the club rules by sneaking off to work.
During the story, Geronimo's deaf childhood friend Petz loses his job as a projectionist and joins the club. Meanwhile Geronimo falls in love with Angie, the employee responsible for his case at an employment agency, and the club's stock of stolen mobile phones and computers gets stolen by the French criminal gang that the club wanted to sell the items to. This leads Frunnes, who is desperate to reduce his debt, to rob a bank. Sonny Boy, who has become more and more alienated from the club, is discovered to be working and is expelled from it. In the end, Geronimo, Abbes and Théid go to jail for burglary, and Geronimo marries Angie.
Before considering this plot in detail, it is worth looking at Luxembourg, its culture and its cinema history in order to better understand the implications of Bausch's work.
A nation of in-betweens
The whole story plays in Luxembourg, a 1000-square-mile country in the heart of Europe, with Germany, France and Belgium as neighbours. The population of around 440,000 (nearly 40 percent of whom are foreigners) live in one of Europe's best-known tax havens. Due to it's situation, crammed in between three bigger countries, Luxembourg is a cultural curiosity, and its three official languages—German, French and Letzebuergesch—add to this multiculturalism. Luxembourgish children learn German at the age of five and French at six, with teaching in the native tongue, Letzebuergesch.
Up to October 2001, RTL Tele Letzebuerg only had one hour of programmes per day in Letzebuergesch and two on a Sunday. This picked up with the creation of a daily three-hour programming on RTL, the creation of Tango TV and the establishment of Chamber TV, which broadcasts live coverage of Luxembourg's parliamentary sessions. With such a nascent media landscape, Luxembourg has been constantly bombarded by mostly French, German and Belgian television. This outside influence can also be found in other parts of society, most notably on the arts scene.
Due to its "in-between-ness" and the fact that most of the cultural products produced in surrounding countries were deemed acceptable to the Luxebourgish scene, up until the mid-1980s the country had only toyed with the concept of having a national cinema. The two main names to have survived in memory are René Leclère, who made nine films between 1937 and 1953, and Philippe Schneider, who produced more than 30 titles between 1945 and 1979. Even so, these early works were little more than tourist or industrial films. In the late 1970s, two poles of development emerged, building their reputation in the Luxembourgish amateur film scene, which was changing direction from the established holiday films presented at the national amateur film competition.
The first of the two poles, the AFO (Atlantic Film Organisation), was based in Echternach and was made up of "secondary school teachers, who since the end of the sixties made 16mm films with a certain success." This group produced, for example, Congé fiir en Mord (Holiday for a Murder, 1981), Mumm Sweet Mumm (1989) and Dammentour (1992).
The second pole was called Nasty Arts and hailed from Dudelange. Amongst its members were Andy Bausch, Jani and Jean Thiltges, Christian Kmiotek and others that have become major players in Luxembourg's media landscape today. Their first short films, including Rubbish (1978), Vicious Circle (1979), Vu Kanner fiir Kanner (From Children for Children, 1979), Abgrenzungen (Delimitations, 1980) and Tote Hoffnung (Dead Hope, 1980) are, along with the films produced by AFO, considered by many to be the cradle of Luxembourgish film.
According to Paul Lesch, the birthing hour of Luxembourgish cinema was in 1981, when both AFO and Nasty Arts presented feature-length films in Letzebuergesch: Waat huet en gesoot (What Did He Say, AFO,1981) and When the music is over (Nasty Arts, 1981). Due to financial restraints and the absence of state funding, the production of a Luxembourgish film was, and as shall be shown later, still is problematic, and so since 1982 a Luxembourgish film has been released only about every other year.
In 1988, Troublemaker, Andy Bausch's second feature length film, was released. Its production had stopped and then restarted after the Saarland Broadcast Company had agreed to provide further funds and co-production support. As Viviane Thill notes:
The film was very successful especially amongst youngsters. It made a national star of Thierry Van Werveke (whom Andy Bausch had discovered during his short film days) and attracted 15,000 people to a commercial cinema. It created Andy Bausch's reputation in Germany.
In 1989, the National Centre of the Audiovisual was created as an extension to the ministry of culture in order to centralise the efforts that were made in this area, and the Fond National de Soutien à la Production Audiovisuelle (National Fund of Support for Audiovisual Production) was founded in 1990. With the help of the Fund, Luxembourg was able to attract producers from all over the world, and whereas 110 films made from 1899 to 1990, between 1990 and 1999 the number produced was 120.. The opportunity was thus created for Luxembourgish production firms to co-operate with foreign companies, for local crews to gain experience (and earn money) and to a lesser degree for Luxembourgish actors to play in co-productions and alongside international stars such as John Malkovich, Matthew Lillard and Willem Dafoe.
The rewards of these measures are obvious: not only did the economy profit but the artistic value of some of the films is also high. The downside to this is that very few of these films were made in Letzebuergesch.
Having thus established the situation of the Luxembourgish film as a minority product amongst international co-productions in its own country, we can see the importance of film-makers like Andy Bausch, Geneviève Mersch and Pol Cruchten (the first Luxembourgish director to have shot a US production—Boys on the Run, 2001) who have remained interested in Luxembourgish films.
Le Club des chômeurs was shot on location in the southern part of Luxembourg called the Minett, where the nation's iron ore reserves were exploited from the late 19th century up until the middle of the 20th century. The shooting of the picture took place over 22 days between 20 March and 14 April 2001 and the film was shot on DigiBeta Video cameras.
Andy Bausch explains this method and time frame of shooting by the limited budget that was at his disposal. Indeed, Bausch had already contacted Lars Von Trier in order to shoot Le Club des chômeurs according to the Danish filmmakers Dogme 95 rules; he discarded this idea as it seemed too restraining.. The film was co-produced by Iris Productions (Luxembourg) and Fama Film (Switzerland) for the grand total of EUR 959,000, with EUR 732,000 (or 76 percent of the budget) coming from different state-dependent funds.
The film was released in January 2002 and the distributors claim that more than 40,000 people have seen the film in cinemas (although the range 35,000 to 37,000 is probably more reasonable). By comparison, the French hit Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amelie, 2001) had about 34,000 visitors in 43 weeks and in 2001 total cinema admissions for all films amounted to 1,414,000. Distributer Paul Thiltges has estimated that this should put Le Club des chômeurs amongst the ten, if not five, most popular films of 2002. On a further note, from the film's DVD and VHS release in October to the end of November 2002, the film sold 4900 DVDs and 2000 cassettes. This proves that the market for Luxembourgish films does exist and that people are willing to see Luxembourgish film.
A matter of identity
The film opened to mixed reviews. Most critics welcomed Bausch's newest work with positive reviews and articles. A small group of critics, amongst them Viviane Thill, made it clear that they didn't like the film for its language, its depiction of the Minett and the immaturity of its screenplay and characters, among other points. Viviane Thill has especially pointed out the fact that Bausch's directorial style hasn't evolved and that since A Wopbopaloobop A Lopbamboom (1989), which also takes place in the Minett region, Bausch had devolved.
A small controversy broke out over this, from which it emerged that the director or his entourage don't seem to take criticism too well. Though it also demonstrated that the evolution of a nation's cinema is not only made through active talent but also through the critics. In this case, they obviously wanted to see something new from a person they expected to do better.
So how can Le Club des chômeurs be seen as a representation of Luxembourg's cultural identity?
It is important to note at this point that the concept of Luxembourgish cultural identity is not only complicated by its in-between-ness and, therefore, the influence of German, French and Belgian culture, but also by the fact that it is subdivided in itself, with the Minett region that Bausch portrayed as having a distinct identity. Expanding from above, this region was the heart of Luxembourg when steel was its lifeblood.
In this period, the ARBED steelworks employed a large proportion of the residents of this part of the country and people joined, as Geronimo explains to Angie in the film, as they thought it would be a job for life. Today, most of the steelworks run with a very small number of people, the melting ovens have been torn down and all that remains are the "Cathedrals of the South", the ruins of the steel-working industry or "objects for photographers," as Théid calls them in the film.
Le Club des chômeurs picks up on this issue, and all throughout the film the Schmelzen (as the factories are called in Letzebuergesch) are in the background, the most prominent use being the crane shot at the beginning of the film and near the end, both of which capture the Native American ritual that Geronimo and Petz perform in order to restore Geronimo's sexual power (as if the "castration" of ARBED has caused Geronimo's problems in bed). When Angie sits on her balcony alone waiting for Geronimo to call, a slow tracking shot brings into frame "de stoolenen A", the symbol of the ARBED, synonymous once for the strength of Luxembourg's steel industry. Then, Angie turns towards it and sighs. Her reaction not only meaning that she regrets that Geronimo doesn't call her but also what the ARBED did to him and all the others that had to go. It also points to what the sign stands for now, the decline and disappearance of the industry.
Thierry Van Werveke's role as Geronimo is, as it was in previous Bausch productions that of the likeable, not-too-clever loser. Bausch claims that his "heart goes out to the little man," namely the working class, "because the Luxembourgish people also have other faces" than those represented by the banker stereotype. In his own words, Bausch wants to illustrate a side of Luxembourg that is not obvious, that you have to search for in the former steelworker housing blocks in this industrial region.
The film reflects this by its focus on those whom fate has neglected. All of the members except Sonny Boy refuse to get a job, because they have become disillusioned by work and have more or less accepted the way life has treated them. Sonny Boy is the only one who isn't disillusioned and is sick of living poor.
By addressing this issue of the unemployed not wanting to work, Bausch has stung the Luxembourgish establishment. For one of the nations with the lowest unemployment rate in the world, unemployment could be construed as a somewhat invalid topic for a film. But Bausch himself argues that "even if there are only five unemployed people in Luxembourg, they would be people like you and me and they would be worth making a film about."
The title of the film also caused some trouble. Nicolas Steil, the producer of the film commented that due to the obviousness of the title a number of potential investors refused to invest. Maybe this could have been different if the originally planned title, "Steel Crazy after All These Years", had been used, since it hints more closely at the steelworking context of the film and the fact that the glory days are past.
Another point that has be argued upon and is in fact a point that links many of the negative reviews is the sense of nostalgia that is present in the films. Predominantly represented by the Schmelz and the ruins thereof, but also through other remains from the past: The Cinema de l'usine (Factory Cinema) that Petz works in and the graffiti on the football stadium gate that seems to date from the 1930s. A lot of these little nostalgic moments find their way into the film and point towards a general sense of longing for the good old times.
Ander Jung's character, Théid, is the personification of this. During the beginning flashback, when all of the members are introduced, we learn and see that he has lost his right index finger in an accident. Throughout the film, he keeps on telling anecdotes of accidents happening in the factory, the more gruesome the better. When a camera team wants to interview Geronimo when they surprise the club doing shady business, Théid's comment—"Sure I can tell you some stories [about the factory], how much tape do you have?"—makes it clear that he is willing to share his former life with everybody. Théid is based on a stereotype that can sometimes be encountered in Luxembourgish bars, even if some people deny this.
The Native American theme can also be viewed as a nostalgic one, with Geronimo's obsession being something of a security blanket for him. He and Petz have played "Cowboys and Indians" since their childhood—the days when the social and economic outlook was rosy. Their return to this game is thus a double regression.
In nearly every interview Bausch has made for this film, he mentioned the influence that films like Brassed Off (dir Mark Herman, 1996, UK) and The Full Monty (dir Peter Cattaneo, 1997, UK) went into the Le Club des chômeurs, and they are quite obviously given a tip of the hat during the rehearsal scenes and when a stripper walks into the hen party. Most importantly, both these British films deal with unemployment, and both examples above can be argued to be excellent examples of expressing the cultural identity of a small region (the English county of Yorkshire) that is often marginalised by more pervasive cultural powers (the London-based, southern English culture that, for example, long dominated the BBC, the media and the arts scene). It is, therefore, possible to say that by transposing the idea of the film about unemployed men/women from Yorkshire to Luxembourg and changing the obvious signifiers of location, Bausch achieves a Luxembourgish representation of its own marginalised cultural identity.
Another very important notion addressed in the film is that of multiculturalism. The preacher when talking to Petz addresses it in numbers: "there are over 60 nations living here." Luxembourg has been and still is a very multicultural country. At the beginning of the industrialisation workers came from Italy to offer much-needed labour. This first wave of immigration has settled in through what Hagen Kordes defines as marginal integration—introducing the foreign person by first putting them at the borders of society and slowly incorporating them. The notion of marginal integration has also been picked up on by Viviane Thill, who highlights Vero and Petz's Portuguese surname—Zamboni. The Portuguese wave of immigration that started in the 60s is not yet fully incorporated.
This aspect is presented by Angie's friend and lover in Le Club des chômeurs. During a conversation that leads to the breaking-up of their relationship, Angie and Lino talk about him leaving to go marry another Portuguese woman and live in Portugal. Later, when Angie and Teresa discuss her leaving Lino at work, Angie says "Fucking Portuguese," to which Teresa replies "Fucking Luxembourgish." Angie then points out that Teresa has changed her nationality to Luxembourgish, promting Teresa to answer back "Tough luck, now I am as valuable as you are." It is as though being Portuguese in Luxembourg makes somebody of lesser value. This strongly underlines the point made above that the nationality issue and the place of the foreigner in Luxembourgish culture is strongly dependent on the model of marginal integration.
Finally, in many interviews Andy Bausch has noted that the concept of national cinema is important to him.
Every country needs cinema that is produced in its own language and that is about its own issues. Iceland is a very small country too, but has its own films, much poorer countries than Luxembourg have their own cinema culture.
Thus Bausch establishes himself as a defender of the national cinema culture representing the nation's culture and using the nation's language. And as the co-screenplay writer (with Jean-Louis Schlesser) of the film, it seems quite obvious that his nostalgic sense and vision of Luxembourg, and specifically the Minett region, can be read from the film.
In conclusion, it can be said that even though it is a very debatable film, both stylistically and in its content, Le Club des chômeurs has to be considered as a representation of a Luxembourgish culture. The culture the film represents might be one of dreamers, nostalgics and hopeless cases in the Minett region. But considering that the film takes place in Luxembourg, its cast and crew consist in its majority of Luxembourgish people, its use of Letzebuergesch and its represention of a side of Luxembourgish life, albeit a fictitious and arguably unrealistic one, it's undeniable that the film holds some reflections on the nature of the culture it depicts.
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