When I read Scott Adlerberg’s excellent appreciation of the gangster film Performance on Criminal Element last summer, I thought, “At some point I should do a piece about that other Rolling Stones-related crime movie I like so much, A Degree of Murder.” So, nine months or so later, here I am doing that.
A Degree of Murder is a German film from 1967. While it is next to completely unknown now, it won some prestigious awards in its home country at the time of its release, and it was Germany’s entry into the Cannes Film Festival in ’67. It was directed by Volker Schlöndorff, the second film made by the man who was then part of the New German Cinema movement that also included the likes of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Schlöndorff was just starting an illustrious film career that’s still active and that reached its high point when he won both an Oscar and the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes in 1979 for directing The Tin Drum.
The Stones connection in A Degree of Murder is two-fold. First, Brian Jones made the soundtrack. Second, it starred Anita Pallenberg, who was also in Performance (alongside Mick Jagger), who was Jones’s lady friend at the time, and who would later be the mother of Keith Richards’s children. For Jones things around the film didn’t turn out well. The soundtrack, on which Jimmy Page and Nicky Hopkins and some other notables played along with the Stones, never got formally released; and this seems a great shame as the exotic and swank music sounds superb in the film. If this wasn’t heartache enough for the ill-fated Jones, shortly after the movie was made, Pallenberg left him for Richards. Jones was fast losing his place in the band by then and never again was on good footing in his life, which as we all know ended amid suspicious circumstances in ’69.
In the movie Pallenberg portrays Marie: a hip, jaded, exotically beautiful young city dweller who works as a waitress in a café. At the story’s outset, Marie and her boyfriend mutually agree to part ways. But before the guy walks off into the sunset on his own, he shows up in the wee hours at the apartment they’ve been living in together. He wants to get his things out of the dresser drawers but he also wants one last booty call with Marie. She’s not into it, but the more she resists the more he insists, until he finally starts trying to physically force her. The guy keeps a handgun around, just for kicks, and when Marie can’t make him leave her alone she grabs the weapon and points it at him. She only means to playfully scare him off, but in the end the gun fires and he dies on the spot.
So now Marie’s got a body of which she needs to be rid. Knowing she’ll need help, she goes into a bar and finds a good-looking ruffian named Gunther, pulls him aside and explains her predicament while offering him a cash reward for his assistance. Gunther agrees, but it’s still just the morning and they know they need to wait for nightfall to smuggle the corpse out of the apartment building and to wherever they’re going to take it. So they’ve got some hours to while away. With the dead ex-boyfriend rotting away in the flat, Marie and Gunther hit a couple cafes for some drinks and pastries and a game of foosball, and she rides on a mechanical horse out in front of a shop. Later, in a shocking scene that might have made some people leave the theater at the time, they get it on in the apartment, just feet away from the dead body of Marie’s former lover. I’ll leave off the plot description there and let people new to the movie find out what becomes of the pair’s (actually, trio’s, as they eventually bring in a third party to help out) efforts to remove the corpse from the apartment.
The movie has a lot going for it. The “evil beauty” Pallenberg and Hans Peter Hallwachs, who plays Gunther, both simply look great on the screen. Schlöndorff was already showing his great directorial chops, as the film is shot nicely and the engaging, hip and suspenseful story moves along briskly. There’s definitely the New Cinema/French New Wave feel, with lots of arty touches like trippy flashback scenes. And just the daring content of the story—a look at the activities of amoral, live fast/die young youth of the day—is cutting edge. That the soundtrack was done by a Rolling Stone, and that it sounds so good during the film, didn’t hurt a bit.
I can see this movie wowing lovers of the features made by the above-named experimental auteurs, as well as French New Wave directors like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, etc. I can see it being enjoyed by anyone who just likes a good, edgy crime story. It could also thrill those who appreciate any movie made about late ‘60s counterculture figures. And some people might be drawn to it simply because they’re interested in all things Rolling Stones. And, if you’re like me and you fit into all four of these categories, you might just call this odd film a personal favorite.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.