For proof positive that looks can kill, search no further than Susanne Ofteringer's Nico-Icon. Chronicling the downward spiral of the German fashion model-cum-Velvet Underground chanteuse and Warholian “superstar,” the documentary is a disturbing discourse on the transformative nature of beauty, and how it empowers and elevates as surely as it warps and isolates. Recalling the camerawork of the Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey film Chelsea Girls (featuring a sobbing Nico), Ofteringer opens with glamour shots from Nico's teen-age catwalk days, then cuts to a horrific vision of her warbling Jim Morrison's “The End,” now a rotting junkie with demonic eyes.
Ofteringer presents an unreadable Valkyrie both made and unmade by her ice-princess blankness. Was her customary silence a sign of untouchable deepness, or an unrelenting dullness? “She had no inner life,” says former Factory denizen Viva. “There was nothing to talk to her about. She had no interests.”
“Poor Nico,” says an eccentric friend from her Parisian days. “She was just an object, and she didn't want to be an object.”
“You are beautiful/ And you are alone,” a young Nico chants with the sepulchral sadness that would inform her later music. Afraid that any hard-earned achievements would be forever overshadowed by her natural beauty, Nico gleefully destroyed it, along with her femininity. “I have no regrets,” she says in a creepy interview from 1986, “except that I was born a woman instead of a man.”
Though Nico's haunting charisma is undeniable, she has historically been considered an untalented opportunist who piggybacked on the art of brilliant men like Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, John Cale, and avant-garde French filmmaker Philippe Garrel. Nico-Icon marks the emerging revisionist consideration of her oeuvre. “Look at what she was writing at that time,” Cale says. “There was no one doing anything remotely similar.” He call's 1969's The Marble Index (which he produced) “a contribution to European classical music.” In any case, it's a bleak masterpiece that arrived a decade before post-punkers like Joy Division and goths like Bauhaus made their own music of doom and gloom. Just three years before her death of a brain hemorrhage in 1988 at 49, Nico released Camera Obscura, a visionary mix of ghostly vocals and improvisational noise.
Still, following the lead of James Young's perversely humorous book Nico: The End (Young appears in the documentary), Ofteringer's Nico is a dead-end kid, a failure, a junkie whose disintegration shrouded everyone around her. “That's why it's so sad,” says Edith Boulogne, grandmother to Nico's son, Ari, by Alain Delon. “To have all the assets and still fail.”
By the film's close, Nico has become a ghoulish parody, callously wanting to record the sounds of the life-support system hooked up to her clinically dead son (he recovered). A protofeminist who despised other women, Nico refused to let her physicality dictate her destiny. She may have been a failure, but at least it was on her own terms.
Nico-Icon opens Fri, Sept. 8, at the Castro in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.