“For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown
For whom none will go mourning”
— “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” The Velvet Underground
In 1966, Andy Warhol sat down with the 28-year-old supermodel Christa Päffgen and filmed her for over an hour as bright, colorful lights and psychedelic patterns poured across her face. Päffgen, famously known as Nico, broke down and started crying while Warhol was on his second reel. In the resulting film, Nico/Nico Crying, half of which made it into Chelsea Girls, Warhol zooms in and out on his subject’s face. Sometimes he focuses on her heavily mascaraed eyelashes, sometimes on her soft peroxide-blonde bangs, sometimes on her lips, and sometimes on strange, abstracted angles. Warhol veils the “it” girl in a shroud of psychedelic mystery while a Velvet Underground soundtrack plays in the background. Nico, the Warhol superstar and Velvet Underground member, doesn’t speak — she just sits pretty, looking here and there while Warhol makes her portrait.
“Well, we took a lot of LSD,” she answers. “That was what we did.”
1988 — the year referenced in the film’s title — was the year of Nico’s death. The film follows the erstwhile superstar in her final two years, as she tours Europe in a minivan — from England, to Italy, to Czechoslovakia, to Poland, to Germany — and performs in small, nondescript concerts. By this time, she wants to be called Christa — like Nico was a costume she was made to wear, like she had moved past the self-destructive phase depicted in Susanne Ofteringer’s Nico Icon (1995), like the days of Warhol and Vogue were long over. Christa, who Warhol later called a “fat junkie,” now wears mostly black clothes, paired with boots, while her mousy brown hair sits limp on her shoulders, her eyes still heavily lined and her face still framed by bangs.
Nicchiarelli frames the last few years of Nico’s life within the context of her upbringing in post-World War II Berlin. Dyrholm, playing Nico, always carries a sound recorder around; she records the sound of a bathroom broiler just before she shoots heroin into her bruised ankle; she records the sounds of the sea at night; she records the sounds of her son’s beeping life-monitoring systems right after his failed suicide attempt.
“I was always looking for that sound,” she tells an interviewer in the film. “The sound of Berlin being bombed, the war ending, the city burning. The sound of defeat.” Dyrholm plays the aging superstar with aplomb — eyes still, face motionless, but her voice deep and guttural, with a lilting German accent.
Both Nicchiarelli and Dyrholm explore the Christa behind the Nico. They move beyond the layers of make-up that graced the covers of glossy magazines to arrive at the puffy face of a woman smeared with the blood of her suicidal son. They do so with intense precision, and without judgement, as Nicchiarelli builds up the narrative of her film through interviews with Nico’s son, Ari, and others who knew her intimately.
Before performing in a barely legal concert in communist Prague, Nico sits in a restaurant and shouts, “Heroin, we need heroin!” After finding none, almost unable to function, she walks onto the stage, greeted by her fans’ deafening cries. She sings “My heart is empty,” headbangs, shouts, and delivers one of her best performances in the film. We see police surrounding the venue, and even as the driest Communist blood runs through their veins, we see their capped heads bobbing to the beats. We see the protagonist onstage, singing through heroin withdrawal: “My heart is empty/ But the songs I sing/ Are filled with love for you.” She is, at once, both Christa and Nico; perhaps no longer feeling the need to choose one persona over another, perhaps basking in the crowd she can still send into a frenzy with her songs.
Over and over again, Nicchiarelli’s film advocates for a recognition of Nico that goes beyond her stint as a singer for The Velvet Underground. When an interviewer asks her if she would like to say something about her experience with the band, she replies with a curt “No.” Later she adds, “I only sang three songs for them. The rest of the time I was playing tambourine in the background.” There is a dogged insistence that her solo musical career stands on its own, far from Warhol’s lights and far from The Velvet Underground. Everyone seems to know some myth about her: “Nico had a love story with one of the Stones? The one who drowned?” someone enquires. “That lady is a piece of history,” another chimes in. The film, excellent in its limited and specific focus on Nico’s final years, demystifies the mystique that female artists are doomed to try to maintain. There are none of Warhol’s half-shadows and oblique lights, only the stark white light in which Nicchiarelli places Nico — her stark blue eyes glistening as she sings, always with a cigarette and a glass of wine in hand. She doesn’t spare any of Nico’s personalities a close inspection — not the failing mother nor the aging performer and definitely not the struggling addict.
There is a hunger that drives Nico as she ransacks a stranger’s kitchen in Italy, looking for a bottle of cola. She drinks it straight from the bottle when she finds it, and with her mouth full of pasta, says, “I have suffered hunger as a child during the Berlin Blockade, and then I grew up and became a model. I always dieted.” It is almost as if, for the first time, she was living the life she had always wanted; eating pasta with limoncello, fishing her makeup from a vanity case — finally letting go of the beauty that only caused her grief, recovering from her heroin addiction, and embracing saggy skin and grey hair.
Nico’s first solo album came out in 1967, and she passed away with plans of producing a few more. Amid all of the glitz of her life, it is easy to forget the artistic legacy she left behind as she played the harmonium, blurring the lines between folk, gothic, punk, and art rock. It is easy to forget that there was a girl who watched Berlin burn with a song in her heart. Nicchiarelli doesn’t forget.
Nico, 1988 is directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli and it is playing at Film Forum in New York.