Hostage: The Christine Maresch Story

(aka Savage Attraction, Frank Shields, Australia, 1983)


From its furiously sudden opening, intercutting the wheels of a truck barrelling down the highway and quick flashes of Christine Maresch (Kerry Mack) suffering domestic violence, Hostage: The Christine Maresch Story is one of the very few tough, lively exploitation films to have emerged in Australia. Shamelessly sensationalist, graphic and melodramatic, it reaches some of the expressive heights cinephiles know from the B films of Edgar Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis or Samuel Fuller. Yet these very qualities have condemned it, in more conservative and genteel circles of film culture, to being ignored or merely faintly praised.

Christine Maresch’s true-life story (1) is Australia’s equivalent to America’s Patty Hearst saga. Indeed, as an example of what Robin Wood calls “the woman’s nightmare”, Hostage anticipates Paul Schrader‘s treatment of similar material in Patty Hearst (1988). The logic and drive of both films is truly nightmarish. Christine finds herself coerced into marrying deranged, suicidal immigrant Walter (Ralph Schicha) – with a sinister priest advising “it’s a godly act”. Then, once he has persuaded her (by this stage she is pregnant) to relocate to Germany with him, she discovers he is part of a Neo-nazi movement (the film’s gloriously unsubtle insertion of archival sound and image of Nazism recalling especially Fuller’s Verboten! [1959]). At the height of her increasingly doped-out misery, Christine becomes Walter’s accomplice in a dangerous series of robberies.

One of the points made with great precision by the film is the extent to which Walter’s psyche is a mass of unfounded projections and delusions, both sexual (romanticising Christine’s ‘purity’ and then exploding with paranoid possessiveness and jealousy) and political (his father, in whose name he continues the Nazi cause, simply informs him that “the war is over”). Even his eagerness to rob banks seems fuelled by the newspapers’ description of him and Christine as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, and later he eulogizes the team of Baader and Meinhof: “Now there’s a relationship that worked!”

Shields has a strong understanding of the kind of characterisation best employed in genre films of this sort: strong, elemental lines of ambivalent conflict between the protagonists (love/hate, trust/suspicion, sadism/masochism) are dramatised, and then shifted or redefined at key turning points (such as when Christine softens towards Walter after his act of compassion in Turkey, and his resolution to give up his past). Often the film milks its thrills from tense, triangular situations: Will Walter’s Nazi comrades support or dump Christine? Will their baby go towards him or her during their final shipboard confrontation (a finale that anticipates Dead Calm)? On a more culturally specific plane, the film uses wonderfully the resilience and droll humour of Christine as an iconic Australian working-class woman, fiercely clutching her baby and deflating Walter’s absurd ego even in the midst of events most debilitating to her body and spirit.

Hostage‘s spiritedly melodramatic mélange of personal and collective psychoses, B movie sensationalism and socially touchy subject-matter (such as domestic violence), true story interest and fanciful fictiveness, makes it one of the most explosive, enduring and significant movies of Australian cinema in the ’80s.


1. Christine Maresch’s book Hostage (Melbourne: Sphere, 1983), on which the film is based, is a remarkable document in its own right. Shields was instrumental in encouraging Maresch to commit her story to print (see p. 177). back

© Adrian Martin November 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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