The film Wetlands (Feuchtgebiete), which opens in select American theaters on Sept. 5, may be the most obscene non-pornographic movie the Germans have ever made—an impressive feat for a country that boasts the oeuvre of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was as famous for full-frontal male nudity (often his own) as he was for his biting characterizations of the Federal Republic. But even the risqué The Marriage of Maria Braun is basically The Sound of Music compared to Wetlands, an adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s mega-bestselling book of the same name, which I like to call Fifty Shades of Gross.
In a recent course about sexuality in German literature, I taught an excerpt of Wetlands, the book tour for which involved Roche selling out massive circus tents. But the book is so graphic that, even though my students were all over 18, I had them sign a release before I’d even hand it out. I don’t think I have ever had a class so eager to receive an assignment.
Think I’m exaggerating? Here is the first page, which focuses on the intersections of chronic hemorrhoids and anal intercourse. Indeed, the primary narrative of the story is nothing less than trials and tribulations of the posterior region of protagonist Helen Memel—a high school student, by the way—for whom the terms “uninhibited” and “hygiene-averse” are gross understatements (in both senses of that adjective).
As Helen recovers from emergency surgery—due to a shaving incident that resulted in a septic anal fissure—she shares her litany of sexual and secretory proclivities, which include but are not limited to: intentional close contact with dirty toilet seats; the use of vaginal discharge as perfume; the insertion and “birthing” of avocado pits; the directive to her many partners that “a good pirate also sets sail on a red sea”; and, perhaps anti-climactically, an outright refusal to wash her face, lest it disturb her hundreds of layers of mascara.
That last compulsion is connected with Helen’s insistence that her neglectful and mentally disturbed mother once cut off her daughter’s eyelashes in a fit of jealousy. Indeed, as the story progresses (and is drawn out, as Helen intentionally—and excruciatingly—prolongs her stay in the hospital), we learn that our protagonist’s innumerable sexual and bodily quirks are the result of trauma from her parents’ divorce. This, of course, makes the actual theme of Wetlands—despite surface content that I sincerely promise will shock the unshockable—itself quite conservative and tame.
The film is one that even the sexually laid-back Germans watch with half-covered eyes (“Nothing was spared,” said one of my German friends who’s seen it). So I’ll be interested to see how American audiences—stereotypically both prudish and hygiene-obsessed—receive it. I’m guessing reactions will be similar to the one Adam B. Vary, senior film reporter for BuzzFeed, had after the Sundance screening: He proclaimed it not only “NSFW” (duh), but also “WTF.”