It seems somehow wrong to be moved by a film about Nico, the ’60s’ chilliest ice maiden. It’s not the fate of the model, actress, and singer that makes Nico Icon affecting, however; her degradation and eventual death (in 1988, from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a fall from a bicycle) appears to be just what she desired. What German filmmaker Susanne Ofteringer’s remarkable documentary poignantly demonstrates is not Nico’s essential humanity—that seems beyond reach—but the damage done to the people she left behind.
For those who don’t know the story, Nico was born Christa Päff-gen in Cologne in 1938. According to Nico, her father was drafted, wounded on the eastern front, and then euthanized by the Nazis; skeptics suggest that he simply abandoned his wife (or lover) and daughter, which would be apt. Some 20 years later, Nico was to cede her only son, Ari, to his putative grandmother; once, when visiting him after a four-year absence, she brought him a single orange as a present. (Later she gave him another gift, heroin, to which he took as extravagantly as his mother.)
Never comfortable in Germany, Päffgen moved to Paris as a teenager to become a model, and then on to Rome and London; along the way she adopted the name of a friend, director and scenemaker Nico Papatakis (who’s interviewed in the film). She appeared briefly in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and recorded a single produced by Jimmy Page. In New York, she starred in Andy Warhol films (notably Chelsea Girls), which suited her lethargic style better than working for Fellini. Warhol and his lieutenant, Paul Morrissey, also recruited her for a band they were sponsoring, the Velvet Underground. She sang “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and of course, “Femme Fatale.”
Sex “was too vulgar for her,” argues one detractor. Nonetheless, Nico was romantically linked to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Jackson Browne (all of whom contributed songs to her first solo album, Chelsea Girl), as well as Jim Morrison and Brian Jones (who can be glimpsed with her in Monterey Pop). She presumably had sex at least with French actor Alain Delon, generally regarded as Ari’s father. Delon has never acknowledged paternity, but his mother did; Edith Boulonge raised Ari for most of his childhood, even though her acceptance of the boy caused Delon to shun her. (She hadn’t seen her son in 17 years, she grieves in the film; soon after that interview, she died.)
A dogged documentarian, Ofteringer has tracked down most of the logical commentators, including Velvets John Cale and the late Sterling Morrison (but not Lou Reed), as well as Jackson Browne, Billy Name, Danny Fields, and many lesser-known observers of the legend. The result is anything but solemn, as Ofteringer crosscuts performance footage of the doomy late Nico with fashion spreads and TV commercials she did as an ingénue and contrasts admirers who would advance Nico’s legend with those happy to depreciate it.
Whether glimpsed when she was a stunningly lovely young woman or a ravaged middle-aged one, Nico’s face is a powerful image. While some acquaintances commend her intelligence, however, others maintain that there was nothing behind the mask. “She had no interests,” says former Warhol superstar Viva. James Young, who wrote a hilarious book, Nico: The End, about playing keyboards for the smack-scourged singer in the ’80s, portrays the experience as black comedy; younger and more cynical than the Warhol Factory crowd, Young can’t see Nico’s death-trip aesthetic as profound or her life as a tragedy.
Ofteringer, a daughter of Cologne herself, has a vested interest in Nico’s mystique; this is not a debunker’s film. Still, it entertains a variety of interpretations; the director’s use of split screens, a homage to the ’60s, also suggests her willingness to observe her subject from various vantage points. What lingers most resonantly, however, is not the commentary of Nico’s acolytes or agnostics but the sight of her 80-year-old aunt, Helma Wolff, tearfully singing along with “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Nico may have escaped her beauty and her life, but not her other great nemesis, her German bourgeois heritage. CP