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Film: Above it all

A new film captures the strange mystique of Nico, the accidental icon. By Louise Gray
She was Andy Warhol's protegee, yet he never made her portrait. She sang with one of the most influential rock groups off the Sixties, the Velvet Underground, yet, in a 20-year recording career, never troubled the pop charts. French film star Alain Delon fathered her son, Federico Fellini filmed her in La Dolce Vita, and Lee Strasberg taught her acting (in the same class as Marilyn Monroe), and yet her involvement in film was always marginal at best.

For Warhol and many others, she was the epitome of European mystery - an icy Teutonic goddess from the war-wastes of Berlin; a Vogue cover girl before she was 20 who had hung out with Sartre in Paris. And for others, she was what she became: a fog-horn-voiced freak; a middle-aged, doom- laden junkie who made quirky records and died in 1988 after falling from her bicycle in Ibiza.

Now, Nico is the subject of an extraordinary film: Nico-Icon. Extraordinary not just because of its subject or the characters who peopled her life, but for the indelible yet elusive impression Nico has left behind. Like countless others, the film's 35-year-old Cologne-based director, Susanne Ofteringer, spent her teenage years listening to the Velvet Underground. "I never met her," she says, "but I thought it interesting that most of the people I met in the course of making this film had been hurt by her, and yet there was this strong affection for her."

Nico was capable of appalling provocations. German audiences were infuriated by her singing "Deutschland uber Alles" complete with its last, Nazi verse. She was also given to trotting out cringe-making soundbites. "I made a mistake," she said to journalist Mary Harron after being dropped by Island Records in the Seventies, the label that launched Bob Marley. "I said to some interviewer that I didn't like negroes - that's all. They took it so personally." Icons are not images of the great and the good, this film suggests. They are images that are strong enough to resist any clear interpretation: this is their source of power and mystery.

And Nico, born Christa Paffgen in Cologne 1938, defied all attempts at definition. Former Velvet John Cale, the viola player who was to produce much of Nico's solo work, speaks of the "child-like state to which she'd periodically regress, for safety's sake". Paul Morrissey, Warhol's film- director and Nico's former manager, remembers: "People were always interested in her. But she, for her part, took no interest in them. She had no interest in humans in any real way." It was as if, through a combination of physical beauty and psychological distance, that Nico managed to become an icon without any help from Warhol. She achieved through passive means what many spend their entire lives pursuing actively.

Tracking down the real Nico for her film was a daunting task for Ofteringer. Nothing was clear: initial research in Germany was a dead-end. There were no Paffgens left to trace. Ofteringer's first call to the Velvet Underground's former guitarist Sterling Morrison paid off, however. Morrison led her to John Cale. He closes the film, singing an exquisite arrangement of Nico's Marble Index song, "Frozen Warning", accompanying himself on a grand piano in Julian Schnabel's New York studio.

It's in Europe that Ofteringer's film really gathers momentum, as she uncovers stories of grotesque betrayals and romances, of familial love and abandonment. "I found it interesting how stories would change as different people spoke," says Ofteringer. "Nico's father, we're told by her aunt Helma, died in the war, killed perhaps by the Gestapo, perhaps in battle. At the end of the film, Nico's son Ari is talking about his grandfather as an archaeologist, a spy, a man who helped Jews. You don't just get a portrait of Nico, but a micro-portrait of the lives she touched."

"Nico was peculiar, she was extraordinary," says Morrissey. "It was a very potent, mysterious quality. I think there are so few now who have any mystery - they're all so vulgar. Take Madonna. A real whore kid. `Buy my records! I'm a whore!' This isn't interesting, it's a kind of stupid vulgarity that kids think is cute. Nico was out of her period. I'd situate her in the Thirties or Forties, the Dietrich period, although she wasn't sexy like Dietrich. She didn't jump around onstage like she wanted to get humped. She was above all that. She was above everything."

She was also, says Morrissey, a figure of contempt, whose talents were obscured by her beauty and by the more vocal artists around her. Cale, who speaks of Nico with unguarded affection, is clear about her musicality. "She had no training, she was deaf in one ear and yet she wrote some pretty melodies. There was nothing to compare her with at the time. Nico was an extension of European classical music. That was her tradition."

But the origins of Nico's iconic status lie, suggests Cale, in the German word, Sehnsucht, meaning longing, which Wolff applies to Nico in Ofteringer's film. It's a word redolent of German romanticism, of directionless and objectless sadness. "The iconic comes out of her drive to be a nothing," says Cale. "There was such a powerful nihilism in her use of image, her lack of substance. She really wanted to be a nothing and at the same time do it with as much flair as possible. A strange contradiction"n

`Nico-Icon' is released tomorrow