“Your honor, I’m just a late capitalist subject navigating a vicious and frankly unfair system. Isn’t the culture industry truly to blame, for producing these desires in me—and failing to provide me with the means to fulfill them legitimately?... I’m as much if not more of a victim of the store I shoplifted from.”
Many people would find this type of reasoning specious and self-serving. Deploying shibboleths like “culture industry” and “late capitalism,” these lines read like a pastiche of leftist thought: capitalism creates false desires; unjust social structures make crime more likely to occur; the capitalist class has greater agency than the would-be consumer. In our current moment, which has seen a rebirth of class-based politics, we might be more likely than we were in the recent past to feel at least some sympathy for this kind of argument. Sympathetic or not, however, we might also find ourselves laughing. For these words are uttered in a courtroom by the hapless protagonist of Softness of Bodies, a comedy about an entitled white American twenty-something living a bohemian life in Europe. She’s been charged with shoplifting expensive designer clothes.
Directed by Jordan Blady and first released in 2018, Softness of Bodies has recently enjoyed a second life due to its release on Amazon Prime and the rising profile of its star, Dasha Nekrasova. (Nekrasova is the co-host of Red Scare, a popular Manhattan-based podcast about politics and culture.) The film merits this renewed attention, both because of the depth of its themes and because of Nekrasova’s magnetic performance.
The character played by Nekrasova, Charlotte “Charlie” Parks, is both a poet and a thief. An American layabout living in Berlin, Charlie spends her time hanging out with her lover Franz (Moritz Vierboom), engaging in quasi-therapy sessions with her infinitely patient roommate, Remo (Johannes Frick), and reading her poetry in coffee-shop performances. This poetry (written by Nekrasova) is formless and wistful, usually a list of items or observations united by an idea, which surprises halfway through with an arresting line: “I don’t want to die in this party”; “The thing about bodies…they rot…and money can’t stop it.”
Charlie shoplifts not because she’s poor but because she’s a kleptomaniac (“I can’t help it”). However, she and her roommate certainly don’t have much money: she can barely afford to buy laundry detergent, and when she asks Remo for eight hundred euros to pay a fine, he responds, “I don’t have ten euros.” Somehow she gets by, and it would be wrong to say that she lives in poverty. But she does live in the type of squalor that often comes when you’re only getting by.
Poetry and metaphorical theft have often been linked. “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal,” Charlie says, quoting T. S. Eliot. (She’s accused of plagiarizing from American poet Kenneth Koch’s work.) Poetry and theft are the two activities through which Charlie escapes the world of money, competition, and opportunity-cost calculations that is stressing her out. Poetry is free creation, and theft means free shoes.