Seminal Performance: Michael Fassbender’s Harrowing Precursor to ‘Shame’ in a Sexualized Airline Commercial


At Flavorwire, we often pay attention to the new, but we make sure to do so not at the expense of what’s come before it. In “Seminal,” a bi-weekly column, we examine earlier, under-acknowledged exemplars of dramatic mastery from revered actors’ careers — moments that should be described as, dare I say, seminal. This week, we’re focusing on the physically committed Michael Fassbender and his 1998 commercial for Scandinavian Airlines, a near-unwatchably troubling precursor to his hungry role in Hunger and his sex addicted role in Shame. Be warned: this a deeply realistic portrait of the disease and of the urge to use fly Scandinavian Airlines, and as such, the commercial is NSFW:

In Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Michael Fassbender proved he could multitask by doing single take scenes while being very skinny. Then, he may have shocked you in Steve McQueen’s next film, Shame, with his wrenching portrait of a man who, lacking an emotional connection to the world around him, decided to put his penis in it. Here, Fassbender proved he was an actor who was willing to go the extra mile in a long race of harrowing humps. But if you thought he learned it all for that role, well, you’re wrong. With no aim of diminishing the actor’s creative and procreative accomplishments in those films whatsoever, it feels important to bring attention to an earlier role, and one that I daresay was more potent in its lack of ostentation — not to mention more tragic in Fassbender’s depiction of perennially untapped longing — for physical connection, for the contents of a refrigerator, and ultimately for a seat on a Scandinavian Airlines plane.

In a commercial short psychological character sketch for SAS — an airline whose acronym also denotes its sly wit — Fasssbender plays a man who’s become such a harrowing horndog as to have been rendered totally nonverbal, so enslaved is he to his libidinous yearnings. When we’re first introduced to this nameless id, we see him awakening next to a Pepto Bismol-pink stuffed bunny rabbit. His look suggests legitimate shock, as though he’s so sexually insatiable that he may have, in the heat of the moment, decided to take the stuffed toy as a bedmate, and only in that famous 20/20 of hindsight can he realize that banging the bunny was an act of perverse desperation. But already, seconds in, the anonymous director inserts a masterful twist: the camera pans over and we see that, in fact, Fassbender’s character’s partner in soulless coitus was actually an animate human. If you’ve ever awoken to fear you’ve drunkenly made love to a stuffed bunny rabbit, you’ll note the aching verisimilitude of Fassbender’s performance of equal parts contentment and repulsion, and then relief at the sight of a human.

Oh, but don’t assume that relief lasts for long. Soon, Fassbender’s tragic fuckboi finds himself in the heat of a new urge, one that’d go on to inform the actor’s performance in Hunger. Both hungry and thirsty (a film we have yet to see: we’re waiting, McQueen!), Fassbender softly smacks his lips in a palpable depiction of dryness and longing as he lies in bed, next to the sleeping woman and her infantilizing toy. And then the pivotal question: will his character shake this narrative trajectory entirely to walk to the fridge? You better believe he makes that journey, because this is Fassbender, and no journey — no matter how physically and emotionally brutal — is too challenging.

This is when the true training for Shame begins to show itself. Just as the actor’s member nonchalantly filled the screen in one of the opening shots of that film — depicting the tyranny of the wants of the barbaric and utilitarian phallus — here he learns to make a similarly bleak thesis statement solely using his buttocks, while also managing to hide their German Irish accent. Exposed in the middle of a TV commercial, melancholically backlit by fridge, the cheeks collide and clench to make a statement about how our ever-more alienating existence can lead to addiction to the idea of connection, rather than to connection itself. For butt-cheeks, being two separate entities, can squeeze to find closeness, but can never truly unite, as many a wedgie has cruelly underscored.

Fassbender’s Macbeth co-star Marion Cotillard said of this moment, “I wept for the tushes.”

Sir Mix-a-Lot said, “I was very impressed by this performance.”

A less soulful actor — say, a Brad Pitt — may show his buttocks to dazzle his fans, but instills them with no interiority or conceptual integrity. Fassbender was said to have actually gotten his inspiration from one of the other rare, expressive cinematic butts, that of Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura — particularly the heartrending moment when he puppeteers the buttocks to ask for Binaca spray.

The end of the short psychological character sketch for Scandinavian Airlines, is, it should be noted, an actual portrayal of the the exact emotion mined in the movie Shame: shame. For, as he’s exposing himself to the fridge (which, in this man’s tormented mind, could be his next sex partner), the light switches on, and it’s revealed that he’s standing naked in front of the woman-with-stuffed-bear’s mother. He scrambles to shield his character’s overused genitalia with a houseplant. The tragic ending sees the unnamed sexbot finding himself stuck in a societal loop — this social repression will only further fuel his desires in a sick cycle of hunger and shame, Hunger and Shame, and apparently will even soon lead him to buy a plane ticket from a company called SAS.