Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973
Starring: Harry Baer, Marquard Bohm, Rudolf Waldemar Brem

Hanni, just fourteen, begins a relationship with Franz, a motorcycle-reading greaser who is 19 years old. She allows him to take her virginity, but he is soon arrested and imprisoned for a few months for having a sexual relationship with a minor. As soon as he gets out, they reunite, much to the horror of her conservative parents, particularly her father, who speaks increasingly of violence. Due to Hanni and Franz’s renewed relationship, she becomes pregnant, but they know no doctor will ever give her an abortion without arresting Franz again. But Hanni takes things into her own hands and develops a plan that will prevent her parents from interfering ever again.

Based on a play by Franz Xaver Kroetz, Kroetz initially worked with Fassbinder on the script, but hated the finished product because he thought it was too much like pornography. The German title, Wildwechsel, literally “Wild Game,” refers to the mating dance between the two teenagers, the chicken factory where Franz first works, and the farm location of their first sexual encounter. This blend of amour fou, sexual awakening, and Brechtian alienation affect is one of Fassbinder’s standard examinations of boredom, ennui, isolation, and the never-ending search for love. Similar in theme and style to Fassbinder’s earlier Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971) and German playwright Franz Wedekind’s chilling Spring Awakening, what appears to be a family drama, even an after-school special at times, is really an attack against post-war bourgeois values.

The two teens, Hanni and Franz, are unable to communicate with each other and it seems completely impossible for them to express love or any other emotion. On the other hand, Fassbinder portrays the parents as affectionate towards each other, yet falling apart because they are losing control of their child. Though this seems highly domesticated, it also has numerous political elements. The parents discuss the government, stating that while the Nazis were wrong, the current government doesn’t have it right either. Out of his anger and digust, Hanni’s father that says that under Hitler, Franz would have learned his lesson in a concentration camp and that he would prefer a government that gassed Jews, as long as they took care of the pig that seduced his daughter.

The violence of thought, speech, and eventually deed is related to the air of repression and claustrophobia that settles over the film. Hanni does appear to be childlike with her dresses, braided hair, dolls on her bed, a preference for soda rather than beer, and a scene where she plays hopscotch, but this is perhaps out of proportion with her parents need to control her feelings and her behavior. Her family home — as well as other buildings and offices shown in the film — are adorned with crosses and religious imagery, showing that this form of moral control is expressed throughout the society they live in. Along with Pioneers in Ingoldstadt, this is one of Fassbinder’s most unlikable films. Both are more visually realist, simpler than his stark early works or ornate later films. And both deal with the struggles of lower middle class characters to either break out of social norms or make enough money to live up to them.

SPOILERS. Based on a real-life case from the 1960s, the ending prefigures Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, another film based on a real-life tale of teens who murder a parent when they are prevented from being together. But like so much of Fassbinder’s work, the horror present here is less in the moment of death than it is in the constantly frustrated scenes of living, or trying to live. Eva Mattes was not one of his regular cast of actresses, but performs admirably in the role of Hanni, where her rounded face and childlike demeanor belies the fact that she is clearly not a 14 year old. She is also either the seducer, or at least a more than willing participant. Fassbinder’s frequent collaborator Harry Baer (Gods of the Plague) looks youthful, but defeated, as if life (or Hanni) has led him down a path not of his own choosing. Regardless, as with many of Baer’s other characters, he refuses to act or to save himself from a certain doom brought by love — or at least sex.

WIldwechsel is not available on DVD, but you can hunt it down online with some searching. It only comes recommended for fans of Fassbinder or anyone interested in seeing a companion piece of sorts to Heavenly Creatures, a look flattened out look at the battle between teen counterculture and conservative working class values. It is still a worthwhile look at the still-developing career of one of cinema’s geniuses. The soundtrack -- a blend of ironically-used romantic '60s pop songs with classical themes better suited to high melodrama -- is a clear example of this transformation and is one of the finest things about the film.

Monday, December 29, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Wolfgang Schenck, Wolfgang Kieling, Lilo Pempeit, Ulli Lommel

A woman in early 1800s Bremen, Geesche Gottfried, is oppressed by those around her, particularly her parents and her husband, who treat her without love or respect. One day, she snaps, and decides to liberate herself from the constant humiliation. She poisons her first husband, but soon finds happiness with a second man. It seems that she made the wrong decision, because her new husband is soon equally cruel and rejects her sexual and emotional advances. She disposes of him as well, and is determined to run her family business by herself, until her father objects and insists that she remarry, as the business is only fit for a man to run. But the newfound freedom she discovered at poisoning her first two husbands soon encourages her to dispose of anyone in her way, including her father, mother, children, brother, and best friend.

Bremen Freedom, a made-for-TV adaptation of one of Fassbinder’s plays, is concerned with two of his main themes: social oppression and emotional cruelty. Geesche, a real-life historic figure who was beheaded for her crimes in 1831 in Bremen’s last public execution, is a normal woman. She is perhaps a bit hysterical, but she is driven this way by the coldness and cruelty her husbands and boyfriends exhibit, as well as her parents’ controlling and demeaning attitudes towards her. Even her young children (never depicted on screen) are not a source of comfort, and a baby’s cry is a source of frustration and anxiety.

Though much about this film is blackly comic, there is a never-ending stream of oppression that foreshadows some of Fassbinder’s bleak films about women, including Veronika Voss. Though Geesche is able to find temporary liberation from her acts of murder, there is always a new oppressor to immediately replace the last and there is the sense that she will never escape this cycle. The murders themselves are less important than Geesche’s state of mind; she desperately tries to better herself through love and kindness, which is rebuked by all the men in her love, and some of the women (her mother and her best friend). Instead of living a life of happiness and triumph — she is not afraid of hard work and desires to see more of life — she can only struggle against the tide with acts of violence that move her neither up or down stream, but that keep her firmly in a place of oppression and loss.

While the thematic elements of Bremen Freedom anticipate some of Fassbinder’s future films, the style is more akin to his early films like Love is Colder Than Death and Das Kaffeehaus, a slightly earlier made-for-TV dramatic adaptation. The movement is sparse and stagey, set on a plain stage with only a few pieces of furniture. In the background, there are projected images of the beach and the ocean in red and pink hues. Again, like Das Kaffeehaus, the action is limited and purposefully exaggerated. The play was original produced with the Bremen Schauspielhaus ensemble, but some of the cast — including Fassbinder regulars Margit Carsetensen and Kurt Raab — reprise their roles for the screen.

Bremen Freedom is not available on region one DVD, but you can find it on Youtube with English subtitles. It only comes recommended to seasoned Fassbinder fans, but still has a lot to offer. It’s yet another of his examinations of personal cruelty, social oppression, and loneliness. Carstensen is wonderful here, as always, and is able to transcend the flat, staged quality of the production. Her films with Fassbinder, including The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Fear of Fear, are among his finest and most human.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Katrin Schaake

Petra von Kant, a well-known fashion designer, is introduced to a beautiful young woman named Karin. Despite the fact that Petra’s live-in assistant and design partner, Marlene, is in love with her, she begins courting Karin and invites Karin to move in. She falls desperately in love and turns Karin into a successful model; meanwhile she becomes increasingly cruel to Marlene, who is essentially her slave. When Karin abruptly leaves her to return to her estranged husband, Petra begins to have a breakdown and is desperate for Karin’s return.

Based on Fassbinder’s play of the same name, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is one of Fassbinder's most beautiful films and marks another turning point in his career. This was his first true melodrama and the first concerned chiefly with the agony of love. It is also the first to loosely remake or be inspired by a classic film. While this is reminiscent of Joseph L. Mankiewicz All About Eve (1950) — Mankiewicz is even referenced in the dialogue — Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) is Fassbinder’s reimagining of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Lola (1981) is his 1950s West German version of The Blue Angel (1930). In all of these, a main character is driven to despair and nearly insane because of a difficult romantic relationship.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant also boasts one of Fassbinder's strongest casts. Made up entirely of female characters surrounding Petra — her assistant, lover, mother, daughter, and cousin — some of these were career-making performances, particularly from Margit Carstensen (Fear of Fear) as Petra. While Fassbinder-regulars Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla also appear, Hermann, for the first time in her career, nearly steals the film despite the fact that she has no dialogue whatsoever. Her presence is heavy and oppressive, despite the fact that she’s basically Petra’s slave and is treated with great cruelty.

In many ways, this film provides an interesting counterpoint to Fox and His Friends, which is all about the complicated relationships between a gay man (played by Fassbinder) and his lovers. Fassbinder received some criticism about his depictions of lesbian women when this film was released, but like his body of work as a whole, he is depicting the general experience of emotional pain, rather than pain specific to one type of person. Petra’s relationships with men — two marriages — ended in an accidental death for her first husband, and a divorce for her second. Though men are mentioned, this is a world entirely of women and the action never leaves Petra’s apartment.

Petra is a fascinating, Joan Crawford-like character who dons a rotating series of wigs to express her changing identity. She begins as a brunette, when she is at her most confident and superficial. After she’s fallen in love with Karin, she wears a red wig the same color as Marlene’s hair, signifying her association with submission, victimization, longing, and suffering. After Karin leaves her, Petra’s hair (and makeup and clothing) match Karin’s. Finally, when all is stripped away, she is shown without a wig, with her natural auburn locks lying lank and unwashed. Petra’s suffering — and her obsession with sex, beauty, and the naked body — is also expressed through her visually fascinating apartment, which is adored with dolls, mannequins, figure drawings, and paintings of nude figures (namely a wall-sized reproduction of Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus”).

The color palette of red, orange, brown, gold, and black, suggests richness, fertility, and warmth, but also decay. Fassbinder’s director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, captures the detailed rooms with an almost dizzying splendor and there is never a dull scene — a true achievement considered the film is made up of six scenes. The apartment also highlights another of Fassbinder’s favorite themes: class tensions. The working class Karin is constantly contrasted with Petra’s well-off, bourgeois background and lifestyle, and it is clear that — much like in Sunset Boulevard — Karin is attracted to Petra because of her fame, success, and inherent vulnerability. 

Even the way the two women express emotional pain is connected to their financial situations and different upbringings. Karin has a had a life of real pain, including an abusive husband and parents who died in a murder-suicide similar to that in Fassbinder’s earlier Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? But she is unable to focus on this due to the very real need to focus on survival and employment. She tells Petra that her parents’ story usually turns people away, but for Petra, Karin’s poverty is a source of attraction, a window of easily manipulated vulnerability. Petra’s pain, on the other hand, is represented by more superficial traumas, including a truly Joan Crawford-like scene where her female relatives show up for her birthday party and she smashes an expensive china set by stomping on it, all while her mother discovers that she’s bisexual and is pining over a woman.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant comes highly recommended and is perhaps more accessible than Fassbinder’s earlier films. It is also somewhat representative of his career as a whole, with themes like cruelty, manipulation, suffering, loneliness, and willing victimization. Criterion will release a two-disc, special edition version of the film on January 13 of 2015 with plenty of new interviews and a documentary; you should wait the two and a half weeks, because this will undeniably be the best way to see this work of brilliance on region one DVD/Blu-ray.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972
Starring: Hans Hirschmueller, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch

Hans, a fruit-peddler in 1950s West Germany, lives a life of quiet misery. He was in the French Foreign Legion during the war, but his mother lamented his return. His wife, Irmgard, despises and mocks him. One night he drinks himself into a stupor, because he laments that his mother forces him into the profession of fruit-seller, when he wanted to become a mechanic, and the love of his life married someone else due to this lowly profession. He returns hime and beats his wife in front of their young daughter. Irmgard takes their child and flees to the home of Hans’ mother, where his family — who also despise him, all except his sister Anna — sides with her. She intends to file for divorce, but Hans collapses and almost dies. During his recovery, Irmgard is kinder, though unfaithful, and his business takes off, but he sinks deeper into a hopeless depression.

Though Fassbinder was incredibly prolific throughout his career, generally making four or five films per year plus theatrical production, 1971 was perhaps strangely devoted to only one film: Merchant of the Four Seasons. This marks a major transitional phase in Fassbinder’s career, where melodrama inspired by Douglas Sirk, a German director who moved to Hollywood, began to have a bigger affect on his output and he moved away from early influences like Godard, the French New Wave, and American film noir. In a certain sense, this film is more accessible than his earlier works, but also crueler and more nihilistic. It’s not true melodrama, but remains a creation unique to Fassbinder. 

Like some of his later works, such as Fox and His Friends or Fear of Fear, this has a relatively simple and mundane-sounding basic plot: the horror of suburban life. Fassbinder’s typical themes, such as hatred, prejudice, cruelty, manipulation, and self-destruction are all present, and Hans’ only nemeses are his loved ones. Through Hans, Fassbinder explores the pain of isolation, the need for love, and the thoughtless cruelty of friends and family members who emotionally exploit Hans without a second thought. In some ways, this foreshadows In a Year With 13 Moons, a much more crippling account of the same themes.

This also marks a departure for the visual space and cinematographic themes of Fassbinder’s work. One of his regular collaborators, Dietrich Lohmann, acted as director of photography and provides the film with a look new to Fassbinder’s catalog. The palette is bright and colorful, but flat, oppressive. Fassbinder and Lohmann capture the despair and claustrophobia of the crowded, closed-off rooms of Hans’ apartment or the staged-looking domestic spaces of his mother’s house that feel staged, rather than comforting or lived-in. There is the never-ending sense that people build the structures of their own misery, though Hans’ downfall is that he has let his life be shaped by manipulative, loveless women.

Merchant of the Four Seasons also introduces some new talent to Fassbinder’s roster of actors. Though regular stars Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab, and Ingrid Caven all appear in small roles, this is the first time Irm Hermann was given a starring role in one of Fassbinder’s films. She’s excellent as Hans’ caustic, often cold wife, a dramatic character of complex emotions. Hans Hirschmueller (Alice in the Cities) is subtly powerful as Hans, a man sinking slowly and inevitably into despair and death. The handsome Klaus Löwitsch appeared as Harry, Hans’ only friend, and would return for Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Despair.

Merchant of the Four Seasons comes recommended and is a great place to begin if you’re new to Fassbinder’s work. There’s a great Arrow DVD, which includes a number of special features. This nuanced film balances an examination of mundane, every-day human cruelty and a critique of German society and the financial boom of the 50s. Devices like close-up shots of Hans in the family apartment and flashbacks of his encounter with his mother and his dream woman build a pervasive sense of his enduring misery. Fittingly, the film ends with its earliest chronological flashback, where Hans is saved from death during the war, but instead wishes that he could have died — a sentiment we horrifyingly realize he has felt since.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Lou Castel, Eddie Constantine, Marguard Bohm, Hanna Schygulla

At the beginning of a film shoot in Spain, the cast and crew are waiting the arrival of the director. They spend most of their time drinking, doing drugs, and having affairs with one another. The director finally arrives, but terrorizes everyone from his former girlfriend to his set designer and producer. He has moments of kindness or brilliance, but the majority of the time he runs around the set berating his friends or having affairs with their girlfriend. The production is beset with location and financial troubles, while the film’s star, Eddie Constantine playing himself, disagree with the decisions being made about his character. Will the production ever be completed?

Based on the shooting of Fassbinder’s film Whity, this autobiographical, comedic work is one of the best films of his early period and one he considered to be one of the finest of his career. Beware of a Holy Whore is perhaps the strongest example of Fassbinder’s undeniable impulse to make his art autobiographical and his tendency towards intense self-criticism. For while the cast and crew of the film in progress are flawed — selfish, immature, lazy, greedy, and more — the blame for the failure of both the production and the group environment is placed on the director, Jeff. Though Fassbinder acts in the film, Lou Castel (Fists in the Pocket) stars as an idealized version of the director — blonde haired, blue-eyed, “Aryan” looking, and physically fit, he speaks to Fassbinder’s life long frustrations and insecurities with his physical appearance. 

But Jeff repeats many of Fassbinder’s real life behaviors, including numerous bisexual affairs, possessiveness, terrorizing his cast and crew, physically abusing girlfriends like Irm Hermann, and so on. His regular Anti-Theater cast of misfits appear, several of them starring as themselves, including Hanna Schygulla as the lead actress, New German Cinema director Margarethe von Trotta as Jeff’s lover, Ulli Lommel, Kurt Raab, and more. The cult European actor Eddie Constantine appears as himself, as the star of Jeff’s movie. While Constantine got his start playing Lemmy Caution, a hardboiled detective in a series of French films, he was also the star of Godard’s Alphaville. Though by Beware of a Holy Whore, Fassbinder was beginning to move away from early influences like Godard, there’s an undeniable link to the French New Wave director both with the presence of Constantine and in the fact that Beware of a Holy Whore is a counterpoint to Contempt (1963). The latter was Godard’s melodramatic meditation on movie making, which combines a failed marriage with between a young woman and her screenwriter husband, just while his career is finding success.

But while Godard focuses on a disintegrating marriage, Fassbinder’s film examines the failure of group collaboration. Beware of a Holy Whore is one of his funniest films and combines a blend of satire, caricature of Fassbinder and his collaborators, and is a successful work of existential comedy. Something of an advanced version of Katzelmacher, the drama of Beware of a Holy Whore comes from the fact that the group as a whole is bored and dissatisfied. This ennui and aimlessness is further aggravated by being trapped in the villa with drugs, alcohol, sex, and emotional drama. The hotel/villa becomes a claustrophobic prison, which the camera paces anxiously, peering around corners and ceaselessly spying. Like many of Fassbinder’s other films, it balances the drama (in this case comedy) with moments of uncomfortable violence and cruelty, where a vicious slap or an inappropriate sexual encounter is played out before the eyes of all.

One of Beware of a Holy Whore’s greatest achievements, which extends to the early work of Fassbinder in general, is that it both is and isn’t a “gay” film. Fassbinder has many gay or bisexual characters — this extends to nearly all the men in Beware of a Holy Whore — but writes them into the film without calling attention to their sexual orientation or promiscuity. There is something far more natural about the sexual atmosphere of this film than some of the works by his contemporary (or later directors identifying as gay). The mechanism with which he presents the film’s numerous affairs is akin to sleight-of-hand: you see it and it is present, but it also disappears within the film’s larger themes of emotional cruelty, selfishness, and despair. Fassbinder was truly a pioneer in queer cinema, because he refused to elevate typically victimized characters (the later In a Year of 13 Moons is the culmination of this) and sought to prove that gender, race, sexual orientation, and class do not predispose — or hinder — a person from being cruel and manipulative: it is simply part of being human.

This is one of Fassbinder’s most accomplished works to date and comes with a very high recommendation. His long time collaborators Kurt Raab, as art director, and Michael Ballhaus, the cinematographer, began to reach new heights with this film and the previous
Whity, both of which mark turning points in Fassbinder’s career. To see the trajectory from Katzelmacher to In a Year of 13 Moons, you need look no further than Beware of a Holy Whore, which clearly shows Fassbinder’s development and burgeoning genius. It’s available in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder with Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Günther Kaufmann, Hanna Schygulla

Whity, the illegitimate, African American son of the wealthy, white Ben Nicholson, loyally serves the family as a slave. Nicholson’s other two sons are physically and mentally deficient, but beg Whity to the kill their father, as does his beautiful young wife. In an elaborate ruse, Nicholson has convinced the entire family that he is dying of a terminal illness and they will soon receive their inheritances. Whity’s girlfriend, meanwhile, a local prostitute and saloon performer, tries to convince him that he is being mistreated at home and they should run away together. Whity dutifully ignores her, until some alarming evidence comes to light.

Whity is arguably Fassbinder’s most beautiful film of his early period, thanks to contributions from Kurt Raab (who also appears uncredited as a saloon piano player), and cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. This was Fassbinder and Ballhaus’ first film together, though they would go on to collaborate for the next few years. Whity is technically Fassbinder’s only western (it’s amazing how many genres he covered throughout his prolific, but too brief career), and it does have many similar musical and visual themes as spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone and other Italian auteurs. But, like Fassbinder’s other exercises subverting genre, there is far more at work here.

First and foremost, there’s a Brechtian feel, particularly with the radical examinations of racism, emotional cruelty, and victimization. Using Brecht’s alienation effect in a particularly daring move, Fassbinder has his actors wear white face (the white family) and black face (Whity’s mother), while some of the cowboys in the saloon wear a sort of light brown face, possibly intended to be a weathered looking tan. This immediately brings to mind Fassbinder’s career-long theme that underlying racism/prejudice is an inherent element of society: not only in 1890’s American culture, but also in modern-day German and Europe. The film’s landscape — set in that particular Fassbinder world that effortlessly blends different eras and locales — includes a German cast, director, and language, the Spanish setting, an Italian cinematic genre (this is essentially a German version of a spaghetti Western), and American characters and elements of U.S. history.

The contradictory search for freedom and the refusal to be free found in Whity (and many of Fassbinder’s other films) contrasts two iconic American figures: the cowboy and the slave. The cowboy as white and domineering, whip in hand, is used as a symbol for American freedom and geographical expansion — interestingly, the only figure truly outfitted as a cowboy is played with a seductive sneer by Fassbinder himself. The slave, black and submissive, is a particularly controversial figure here because Whity essentially choses to be a slave and thrives on humiliation and punishment. This relationship between roles is complicated due to the fact that Whity — and actor Günther Kaufmann — is at the center of a complex web. Kaufman was at the end of a passionate but abusive, explosive relationship with Fassbinder during the making of the film. He is a saint-like repository for an outpouring of the other characters’ cruelty, violence, and sexual psychosis.

At its heart, Whity is a family melodrama masquerading as a western. As with some of his earlier films, many of the characters — particularly Whity and the family — move throughout the film as if they are sleepwalking or hypnotized. As the drama progresses, the family members begin to take on a greenish cast and vampiric attributes, sucking more and more from Whity and each other. Thanks to the this, and the increasingly perverse home atmosphere, the film has elements of Gothic horror, with themes of incest and S&M. The prostitute, Whity’s would-be girlfriend, is the only truly moral figure in the film, and other only one who speaks out against his exploitation at the hands of his family, which includes brutal whippings. Fassbinder’s regular star, Hanna Schygulla, is excellent in this role and casts an unforgettable shadow over the film, despite the fact that she is not the protagonist. The family members — Ron Randell (King of Kinds) as the twisted, controlling head of the family, Ben Nicholson, Katrin Schaake (What’s New Pussycat) as his sex-crazed, sadistic young wife, and Fassbinder regulars Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel as the disturbed sons — all are incredibly memorable and give some great individual performances.

Whity is a challenging, controversial film, but it comes highly recommended. It’s available on DVD from Fantoma, with cooperation from the Fassbinder Foundation. As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably Fassbinder’s most beautiful early film and is worth watching on this account alone. This marks a breakthrough for the director’s career and helped him break away from the uncertainty of The Niklashausen Journey and Pioneers in Ingolstadt and forge a path toward the gripping, bleak melodramas that would make his career just a few years later.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer, Irm Hermann

Alma and Berta, two young women in the small town of Ingolstadt, are excited by the presence of handsome young soldiers, who have arrived to build a bridge. The soldiers become somewhat bored and restless, as they would rather be fighting a war than building a small bridge, and pursue affairs with the women of the town. The more practical Alma has sex with several of the men, some just out of sympathy, while other affairs are in exchange for payment. The more idealistic Berta falls in love with a handsome, but illusive soldier, Karl, and becomes agonized when Karl doesn’t return her feelings.

Based on a play by Marieluise Fleisser, a protégé of Brecht’s (he directed the original production), Pioneers in Ingolstadt was originally written in 1928, but adapted over the years and revised in 1968. It was one of the few films not based on material of Fassbinder’s own, though it contains his themes of people’s inherent selfishness and cruelty. In some ways, this is similar to Michael Haneke’s later The White Band, a film about immorality, cruelty, and corruption within a small town, which acts as a microcosm for humanity on the brink of fascism and war. Fassbinder’s made-for-TV film does not make quite the same powerful statement, but exists in a world constantly on the verge of Nazism.

Like The Niklashausen Journey, this film is made up of a blend of elements from different time periods – Nazism, nineteenth century villagers, Weimar, and contemporary Germany. Despite the film’s flaws, Fassbinder succeeds in building the sense that something horrible is about to happen and violence will explode on the screen at any moment. There is the sense that the soldiers would rather be fighting a war than building a bridge, though it’s a shame that none of their characters are really developed. Multiple soldiers revolve around the two primary female characters. Fassbinder regular (and his long-time partner) Irm Hermann appears as Alma, the protagonist who trades sex for money and cooly, confidently struts from man to man.

Berta – Fassbinder’s most frequent star, Hanna Schygulla – is her opposite in nearly every way and yearns for love. This is a continuing theme of many of the characters Schygulla played for Fassbinder throughout her career from her first film with him Love is Colder Than Death, to his made-for-TV film before this, Rio das Mortes. The general plot outline is that she loves a man and tries to achieve commitment, but he leaves her for a close bond (occasionally homosexual) with another man. Here, she is responsible for some early melodramatic elements, which would possess Fassbinder’s later work. Her character also seems obsessed with victimization and she becomes a willing martyr, sacrificing herself on some sort of romanticized ideal of love.

Berta’s would-be lover is a soldier named Karl, played by Fassbinder-regular Harry Baer. He is a similar character to various men found in Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague (also played by Baer), The American Soldier, Rio das Mortes, and more: an aloof man uncertain of his purpose in life and almost pathologically desired by a woman. He does not openly reject her, and perhaps cruelly encourages her feelings, but prefers the company of men.  This battle of the sexes includes class tension, but is ultimately more frustrating than Fassbinder’s other films from this period. Like Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, and even more so, Rio das Mortes, little actually occurs in Pioneers of Ingolstadt. The characters sleep walk through their love affairs, squabbles, and building the bridge. Fassbinder uses the bridge as a bit of black comedy, an ironic metaphor for alienation, a symbol of the gaps rather than connections between characters.

Frustratingly, Pioneers in Ingolstadt presents a number of interesting themes, but fails to fully develop any of them. The film is available on DVD, but is only recommended to seasoned Fassbinder fans. This is a minor work created between more interesting projects, such as Whity (1971), which marked the dramatic end of his relationship with Günther Kaufmann, who co-stars in Pioneers in Ingolstadt; and Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), which captures the stress and insanity of Whity’s set. Watch it if you’re interested in Fassbinder’s development, particularly in his use of Hollywood melodrama.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Michael König, Günther Kaufmann

Hanna, a beautiful, but aimless young woman, wants to get married to her boyfriend Michael. Unfortunately, he reunites with a childhood friend, Günther, and the two begin obsessively planning a trip to Peru. They’re convinced that they will manage to find the legendary treasure of the Rio das Mortes (which they think is in Peru, but is really in Brazil); Michael just coincidentally happens to have a map. They scrimp, save, and sell belongings, much to Hanna’s chagrin, and finally manage to secure the funds they need. But will Hanna really let them go without her?

Fassbinder’s third made-for-TV film after Das Kaffeehaus and The Niklashausen Journey is one of his lesser known efforts and probably for a good reason. This somewhat sloppy work has almost no character development whatsoever and feels even more improvised than Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? It’s no wonder that one of his films from this period would seem a little slapdash: he directed 12 feature-length films in less than three years. His fellow New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff is credited with the story, which could have been an interesting tale of two young men on a preposterous search for treasure – while Fassbinder was filming this, another colleague, Werner Herzog, was off shooting Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about another search for treasure in Peru.

Unfortunately Michael König (The Niklashausen Journey) and Günther Kaufmann (Gods of the Plague), whose characters share their names, are almost unforgivably dull. They have the same close male bonding and implied homosexual desire that marks Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher (briefly in the form of a male character and his john), Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, and The Niklashausen Journey. But their characters – and important plot points -- are simply undeveloped. The treasure map, for example, is barely mentioned and it’s certainly not given any dramatic emphasis. Michael simply mentions that he has one and it will lead them on their search for wealth and far-off dreams.

Fassbinder’s regular star Hanna Schygulla carries the film in her role as Hanna. Her near-homicidal jealousy is not really explained in this film, outside of frustration that Michael would rather run away to Peru than marry her, but seems to be a culmination of her roles in Fassbinder’s previous films. She is abandoned in Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The Niklashausen Journey, while in Katzelmacher she feels a romantic longing for an impossible love. Her sense of need, longing, and abandonment builds on her roles in these earlier films and feels like a rehearsal for later entries, such as The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen.

Schygulla’s repressed sexuality nearly explodes at several moments, namely in the film’s best scene. She and Fassbinder share a dance – with Fassbinder wearing his traditional black leather jacket – while Schygulla is clad in a lingerie-like red dress that bunches up her waist as they dance to Elvis. It has little to do with the rest of the plot, but it is the most captivating scene in the film. Her uninhibited dancing perhaps speaks to a sense of unfulfilled sexual longing; indeed Michael and Günther are sitting at a table, deep in conversation about their trip, and are ignoring her.

She is also the locus for the film’s larger discussion of marriage. Rio das Mortes opens with Hanna talking on the phone to her mother, who is nagging her with questions about when Hanna and Michael will be married. After this, she meets up with a friend who is excited to be getting a divorce. In another early scene, she attends the meeting of a Marxist group she’s joined (another common theme in these early Fassbinder films). With her sexy black lingerie, glamorous fox stole, and carefully applied makeup, she is sorely out of place at the radical feminist group (called USSA – a combination of USA, USSR, and the SS) who claim that women’s behavior leads directly to their own repression. Later, Michael and Günther stop at a gas station (the owner is played by a bumbling Kurt Raab) who discusses travel and vacation destinations through the lens of his wife and their experience as a married couple.

Michael and Günther are also involved in this interplay about marriage, as they move in together and combine finances to go on a trip that is framed as a honeymoon by Michael’s mother, who says she’s been saving some money for his marriage. Though many things are left unresolved, they get to go on their trip because they find a woman who will simply give them the money. This search for wealth is also expressed in every single of Fassbinder’s earlier films, though it generally results in discord, disappointment, arrest, or death. Here, Michael and Günther are simply able to board the plan while Hanna watches them from a distance, heartbroken and ready to shoot.

I can’t help but wonder if the confusion of Peru and Brazil (the actual location of the Rio das Mortes, the River of Death) was intentional, or is just another example of the inherent sloppiness of Rio das Mortes. The film feels rushed and unfocused and I can’t really recommend it. But fans of Fassbinder and Schygulla will at least want to check it out for the excellent dance sequence. If you’re interested, you can find it on DVD from the wonderful Raro Video as a two-disc release with The Niklashausen Journey.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Fengler, 1970
Starring: Michael König, Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab

Hans Boehm, a musician and shepherd in medieval, feudal Germany, visits the village of Niklashausen and claims to have received a visitation from the Virgin Mary. He begins preaching a message of revolution, where the church and state will be overturned for peace and equality and property rights will be banished. His small band of followers grows and he receives support from around the country side. When his message becomes successful, his followers are killed and he is crucified and burned at the stake.

Fassbinder co-wrote and co-directed this made-for-TV film with Michael Fengler, one of his producers and also his partner on Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? This is certainly one of Fassbinder’s most avant-garde works: a medieval period piece full of anachronisms, probably to stimulate Brecht’s alienation affect. Hans Boehm was an actual shepherd in the fifteenth century and much of Fassbinder’s loose story is faithful to Boehm’s actual biography. He did allegedly have a vision where the Virgin Mary inspired a message of social equality, which he preached around the countryside. Boehm nearly instigated a peasant revolt, but was arrested, tried for heresy, and was executed.

Fassbinder attacked the left as often as the right and The Niklashausen Journey is a good example of him getting jabs in with both groups. This is really a satire of political idealism and belief in the concept that only three people are enough to begin a revolution. Fassbinder folded in elements of revolt in contemporary, divided Germany and even the Russian Revolution. The film examines the nature of revolution and seems to state that it is the same across cultures and time periods: it ends in violence regardless of which side triumphs. The relationship between performance art, cinema, and revolution is complicated here by the necessary relationship between art and commerce – or revolution and commerce.

Boehm cannot accomplish his goals of peace and cleansing without financial support, which he gets from Countess Margarethe (a wonderful performance from Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen), a greedy, sex-hungry woman who taunts her paralyzed, sick husband and desires Boehm. A character known as the Black Monk -- Fassbinder himself rebelliously flaunting an anachronistic leather jacket and sunglasses -- also craves luxury while spouting textbook socialist rhetoric. So despite Boehm’s innocence and ignorance of the Countess’s sexual motives, he is convinced by his more knowing friends to enter into an agreement with her.

The use of politics and anachronistic elements within a period piece seem to be influenced by Godard (a standard influence for Fassbinder’s early films) and by Pasolini’s superior The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). While Fassbinder’s presence as the leather-clad Black Monk was particularly effective, Michael König’s Boehm is dressed like a hippie, often doesn’t bother to wear a shirt, and has a sort of feminine appeal with his passivity and long, blonde hair. This somewhat androgynous character is the film’s least fascinating. He is outdone by Fassbinder, the always amazing Kurt Raab (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?) as a gay bishop, living in the lap of luxury and surrounded by beautiful, half-naked men, and my Carstensen as the lustful Countess.

While this has some brilliant moments – such as a scene where three women covered in blood give a Greek tragedy-style choral call for vengeance while standing in a dump yard – the scenes tend to be repetitive and are often overly long. If you can get past the dull parts (I was particularly frustrated by the drumming in the beginning of the film), this is probably Fassbinder’s most beautiful early film, with many surprisingly pastoral sets and a lush color palette. Despite the apparent departure from stark black-and-white crime dramas like Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, this is a continuation of Fassbinder’s developing themes, particularly the disturbing exchange of love/affection and money haunted much of his career. This is also an important glimpse into Fassbinder’s life in the theater, one that will fascinate his fans.

The Niklashausen Journey is available on DVD thanks to the ever wonderful Raro Video, who released a two-disc set with Rio das mortes. This ambitious and politically confrontational work comes highly recommended, though it has its challenging moments. It’s uneven, but is ultimately satisfying and I’m not sure why it is relatively ignored within Fassbinder’s catalog. And besides, can you imagine turning on the television in the ‘70s and finding this on the screen?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970
Starring: Karl Scheydt, Elga Sorbas, Jan George

"W as in war, A as in Alamo, L as in Lenin, S as in science fiction, C as in crime, and H as in Hell."

Ricky, a Vietnam vet with an American solider father and a German mother, returns to Munich after the war. He is convinced to take a job as a hit man; he’s hired by three disgruntled policemen under pressure to close out a few undesirable cases. Between killings, he has several liaisons with women, visits his icy mother and disturbed brother, and reunites with his beloved friend Franz. But the German underworld proves to be a place of violence and betrayal where no one, not even Ricky, is safe.

Based on a one-act play that Fassbinder wrote and directed, The American Soldier is an altered version adapted for the screen. It is also supposedly based on Irving Lerner’s 1958 film noir, Murder by Contract. A man takes a job as a contract killer when he needs money, but his two contacts eventually betray him. The American Soldier was initially supposed to be a vehicle for Fassbinder’s then-boyfriend Günther Kaufmann (Gods of the Plague), but as their relationship began to self-destruct, he reimagined the production. Some biographical elements remain – Kaufmann had an American G.I. father and a German mother, though Karl Scheydt. Though he was new to the Anti-Theater group and this was his first film, he would go on to appear in later films like The Niklashausen Journey and Merchant of the Four Seasons.

Many other members of his regular troupe appeared, including director Marguerethe von Trotta as a maid, Ulli Lommel as a gypsy, Igrid Caven as a nightclub singer, Irm Hermann as a whore, and Kurt Raab as Ricky’s brother. The American Soldier is certainly one of Fassbinder’s most violent, abrasive films. The cast of characters – whores, dirty cops, gamblers, gypsies, and more – are straight off the pages of a pulp novel. This is also more overtly misogynistic than his earlier films. Women are at best ignored, at worst murdered. In one particularly grating scene, Ricky throws a prostitute out of his car (presumably because she talks too much) and shoots her with blanks, laughing at her fear and humiliation.

This film makes up a loose trilogy with Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague. All three are influenced by American film noir and the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. Each has a slow build and some sluggish moments within the script, but explosive social criticism. The trilogy also all includes the character Franz Walsch. Played by Fassbinder in Love is Colder Than Death and The American Friend (and Harry Bauer in Gods of the Plague), Walsch is a minor criminal, a wannabe outlaw and anti-hero. He is perhaps at his most charming here as Ricky’s childhood friend and muscle. Their close-knit relationship is the only example of genuine affection or tenderness within the film.

The other relationships are violent, brief, or exploitative. Ricky is like a blend of La Samouraï’s Jef Costello and Kiss Me Deadly’s Mike Hammer. He treats other characters much like Spillane: though he does have some morals, he manipulates women and is quick to explode with violence towards the citizens of the underworld. Two of the film’s most fascinating scenes address this issue of relationships. In the first, which blends humor and melancholy, a hotel maid (von Trotta) interrupts a sex scene between Ricky and a temporary girlfriend to tell a story about two doomed lovers – this is essentially the plot of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). In the second scene, Ricky visits his very strange family, which includes his cold, aloof mother and needy, autistic-seeming brother.

The film’s moving theme song, “So Much Tenderness,” was written by Fassbinder and his regular composer Peer Raben. Fittingly, Günter Kaufmann performed the vocals. It is both poppy and haunting and works perfectly with the film’s themes, as well as its incredibly transgressive conclusion. The film ends with a four-minute, slow-motion death scene that must be seen to be believed: Ricky’s brother rolls around with Ricky’s body as he dies, in a blending of sexual agony and grief.

The American Soldier will certainly be an acquired taste, but it is one of Fassbinder’s most haunting early works. It comes recommended and should be particularly enjoyable for anyone who has a love of film noir. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains most of his other early films, including Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.

Monday, December 15, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, 1970
Starring: Kurt Raab, Lilith Ungerer

Herr R., a draftsman, lives an orderly life. His lovely wife wishes he would get a promotion, in order to buy her more things, and his boss hopes he will advance. His young son struggles somewhat in school because of a speech impediment, but Herr R. helps him with homework. His parents come for a mostly pleasant visit, though his mother criticizes his wife for being vain and irresponsible. He and his wife go out with friends and he drinks a little too much. Herr R.’s life is mundane and dull, but soon he violently forces his way out of the routine.

Considered Fassbinder’s fifth film, there has been some speculation that his involvement was minimal. He supposedly co-directed Warum läuft Herr R.? with Michael Fengler, who acted as a producer on some of Fassbinder’s work (such as Gods of the Plague and The Marriage of Maria Braun) and also co-directed The Niklashausen Journey with Fassbinder. Fengler has claimed repeatedly that Fassbinder was barely on set and that he probably should not have received a directing credit. Fassbinder’s star, actress Hanna Schygulla, also said in an interview that this film should be considered Fengler’s work. Regardless of which man was responsible for what, it’s not difficult to view this as a Fassbinder work.

There are many similarities with some of his later films and the theme – bourgeois repression – was certainly one of his favorites. There are similar anti-bourgeois notes in Fear of Fear (1975) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975). Fear of Fear, a film similar to Herr R, but from a wife’s perspective, is about a woman who begins to go mad after the birth of her second child. Both films contain a repressive mother-in-law, doctors carelessly and unsympathetically diagnosing away problems, and Raab appears as the woman’s tormented neighbor. He is the only character to understand her misery, but she runs from him in fear. As in Herr R, he hangs himself.

Fassbinder apparently referred to Herr R as “the most disgusting film I ever made,” but much of the violence and horror is on a psychic level. Herr R’s violent acts – SPOILER ALERT – at the conclusion, where he beats his son, his wife, and her friend to death with a candlestick and then hangs himself is a production of nihilistic exhaustion, rather than rage. The horror of an ordered life, divided up into meetings and appointments, is expressed with some black humor, but this is undoubtedly one of Fassbinder’s bleakest films. Herr R.’s life is so dull, so tedious, that his acting out in any way – and his death – is a much-needed moment of relief. Somehow, even Herr R’s coworkers seemed relieved when his body is found, hanging by his own tie, in the office bathroom.

Kurt Raab, one of Fassbinder’s regular actors (and set designers) is not quite as sublime as in Fear of Fear, but he gives a wonderful, understated performance. There is something sad and lost about Raab’s slightly pudgy face and big blue eyes, which Fassbinder exploited for a number of films. His Herr R – named after Raab himself – is ordinary, kind, and sympathetic, and yet there is also something pathetic and even repulsive about him. He carries the film and steals it away from any of the other performers, including Fassbinder regulars and members of his Anti-Theater cast: Lilith Ungerer (Katzelmacher) as Frau R, Fassbinder’s mother, Lilo Pempeit, Harry Baer, Hanna Schygulla, Ingrid Caven, Irm Hermann, and Peer Raben.

It is worth noting that, in a few ways, this does not feel like a Fassbinder production. It varies widely from his first four feature films – Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, and the made-for-TV movie Das Kaffeehaus. Much of the dialogue is improvised, hinting that this is perhaps a collaborative group work in the style of the Anti-Theater plays. Fassbinder genuinely frowned on improvisation and took control of most of his productions. Herr R is also less stylized than Fassbinder’s other films with shakier, more uncertain camera work.

Whether this is Fassbinder’s film or Michael Fengler’s, it undoubtedly fits within the larger framework of Fassbinder’s career. It requires patience, as many of the early scenes are agonizingly slow in their detailed portrayal of the minutiae of Herr R’s life. Overall, Herr R is rewarding and is certainly one of the must-see works from early in Fassbinder’s career. Fortunately, you can find it on DVD, though without many frills. Fans of Kurt Raab and suburban/bourgeois hysteria films will be delighted by this bleak, tightly controlled work that benefits from multiple viewings.

Friday, December 12, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, Hanna Schygulla

Also known as, The Coffeehouse, this 1970 made-for-TV film is a theatrical adaptation of Das Kaffeehaus, based on a work by eighteenth-century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni (the original is titled La bottega del caffè). This film is similar in many ways to Fassbinder’s second feature-length movie, Katzelmacher: a group of bored and frustrated friends and acquaintances gather to discuss their love lives and their feelings… but mostly their financial woes. Various affairs occur, as well as the suggestion of sadomasochism, and minor betrayals. As in Katzelmacher, their bourgeois woes, inherent repression, and boredom turns their social activities into a prison and a source of horror or violence. In this case, a one-room structure they can’t or don’t escape from.

Goldini’s characters work well with Fassbinder’s usual themes of bourgeois financial anxiety and emotional cruelty. The original play follows Ridolfo, a servant turned businessman, his former client’s spoiled son with a gambling addiction, and the son’s neglected wife. What began as a three-act comedy of manners, confused identity, and romantic drama is more in line with the avant-garde theatrical techniques used in Fassbinder’s first few films, where his characters are remote, unemotional, and somewhat otherworldly. Though some of the characters are completely absent from the stage during certain scenes, there are many instances where they remain frozen in the background as part of the set, like ghosts or somnambulists.

Fassbinder apparently only loosely based his production on Goldini’s play (which I have not read). Goldini’s original was set in a casino and neighboring hotel, while Fassbinder moves the action – or lack thereof – to a much more bourgeois environment: the titular coffeehouse. His set is a single stage with a white background, white carpet, and a couple of plain chairs. In this sense it is very similar to the simplicity of Love is Colder Than Death. In both, style is stripped bare with little more flare than the actors striking poses or remaining still for much the play’s duration. The takes, perhaps understandably, are very long and this is much more like a filmed play than his other theatrical made-for-TV movies, such as the later Bremen Freedom (1973) or Nora Helmer (1974). Unless I missed something, the camera didn’t seem to cut at all during the film’s running time.

The regular Antiteater (Antitheater in English) players and stock characters Fassbinder would use for many of his films appear here, including Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab, Harry Baer, and Fassbinder’s then-lover, Günter Kaufmann. This is one early work where Fassbinder himself is conspicuously absent. I can’t really say much about the performances, as they are intentionally dialogue-heavy, flat, and full of Brecht’s A-effect. This is the sort of thing spoofed in American animated sitcoms like Family Guy or The Simpsons, with dramatic, yet simple costumes and unexplained, dramatic screams at the ends of acts. Certainly an acquired taste.

The original play Das Kaffeehaus is relatively unknown to English-speaking audiences, which may make it seem like a fairly random selection for Fassbinder to adapt, but it has something of a history within German theater and television. There were productions throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the first television version was made just a few years prior in 1964. Fassbinder, of course, made it his own. He kept the loose period costumes, but used many of his Antiteater techniques. There is certainly less comedy and a heightened sense of melancholy or despair. Fassbinder and his group performed this before filming the television production and, despite the jarring avant-garde elements, it feels well-rehearsed.

For rabid Fassbinder fans, this is fascinating because it’s essentially your only chance to see the Munich Antiteater group on film as they were on stage. It provides an important link between his cinematic creations and the group work that inspired and shaped them. It is probably unnecessary for everyone else, though it is also relatively difficult to get ahold of. There is no DVD release and though it’s on Youtube right now, it lacks subtitles. (Thankfully I speak enough German to get by.)


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970
Starring: Harry Bauer, Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta, Günther Kaufmann

Picking up loosely where Love is Colder Than Death left off, a criminal named Franz is released from prison. He immediately meets up with his girlfriend Joanna, a singer at a cabaret. She becomes frustrated when he ignores her to meet up with his brother, who is soon killed. Franz begins a new relationship with a woman named Margarethe, which soon turns into a threesome with Franz’s friend called the Gorilla, an underworld figure who was hired to kill Franz’s brother. Franz and the Gorilla begin planning a heist, so the threesome can live in comfort, much to Margarethe and Joanna’s dismay.

Gods of the Plague is similar to Fassbinder’s early work, but it’s also a clear departure, a more stylized and mature expression of his early themes. Later in his life, Fassbinder would consider it to be his fifth best film. This can be considered the second film in a loose trilogy with Love is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier. All contain film noir elements are essentially Fassbinder’s interpretation of a combination of American and French crime films. The trilogy centers on a leather jacket-wearing character named Franz, who is played by Fassbinder himself in Love is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier. Harry Baer (Katzelmacher) takes on the role for Gods of the Plague and is excellent. His portrayal of Franz is different than Fassbinder’s; sexier and more assured, though almost somnambulistic. He allows the other characters to direct his actions and even, in one scene, to undress him as he remains motionless.

The nudity here is both erotic and casual. While Love is Colder Than Death has an undercurrent of homosexual desire and Franz and Bruno have a proxy relationship through Joanna, in this film there is openly a threesome between Franz, Margarethe, and the Gorilla. This was possibly influenced by the presence of Günther Kaufmann, who co-stars as the Gorilla. Fassbinder wooed Kaufmann and the two were in a tempestuous relationship for several years, despite the fact that Kaufmann was married with a family. Fassbinder bought him expensive gifts (including several pricy cars, which Kaufmann subsequently destroyed) and their relationship often reached dramatic heights until it imploded – on the set of Whity – a few years later.

Compared to the Franz-Joanna-Bruno relationship, this new interpretation has far more warmth and affection. This seems to be primarily due to Kaufmann’s portrayal of the Gorilla, with his frequent hugging and generous smiles. The Gorilla is almost unnaturally expressive, compared to the film’s other more reserved characters and Fassbinder previous characters in Love is Colder Than Death and Katzelmacher. This may be a good place to start for those new to Fassbinder, as the Gorilla and Margarethe are less abstract and closer to characters in a standard drama. New German Cinema director Margarethe von Trotta is wonderful here as the enigmatic, sensitive Margarethe.

The use of the same/similar characters throughout Fassbinder’s early films has a somewhat surreal effect. Hanna Schygulla returns as Joanna, though this time she isn’t a prostitute, but a cabaret singer (at a club called Lola Montez, a reference to the Ophuls film about a courtesan who rises through society to be the king’s mistress), though she plays out the same drama – her jealousy causes her to inform on Franz, this time leading to his death, rather than imprisonment. Franz and the Gorilla’s big heist is planned at friend’s supermarket – in Love is Colder Than Death, Joanna and Bruno stole a number of things from a similar (the same?) market. Fassbinder’s regular players -- Ingrid Caven, Kurt Raab, and Irm Hermann -- also appear in small roles that adds some humor to the film’s romantic, serious tone. Fassbinder himself can be seen briefly as a man buying porn magazines. (One of the film’s most amusing conceits is that the woman selling pornography is also selling information, but forces each customer to peruse her selection first.) Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder's mother, appears as Franz’s mother in one of the film’s most emotional scenes in an odd blending of fiction and reality.

Franz’s dream for the future oddly echoes Jorgos’s words about Greece is Katzelmacher – he wants to go to an island and drink wine, eat seafood, and bask in the sun. As with its more overt sexuality, Gods of the Plague is also more open about the characters’ middle-class financial anxiety. Advertising and artwork is more obviously important – Joanna sits next to a Marlene Dietrich poster, a giant poster of a model that looks exactly like Margarethe is plastered above her bed, and she spoils Franz by buying a poster of an emperor that he resembles. It is clear that all three images represent the corresponding character’s ideals. Joanna, for instance, wants to be worshipped and idolized; it is likely the fact that Franz ignores her that inspires her to betray him. Franz gets himself into trouble to begin with because though he seems cool, tough, and aloof, he wants to be wealthy and pampered.

Though it lacks much of the humor and whimsy of Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague is a more emotional film. It comes recommended and is an important evolution of Fassbinder’s key themes: bourgeois anxiety, cruelty in relationships, and a desperate longing for love. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains most of his other early films, including Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, The American Soldier, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lilith Ungerer

A group of friends who are frustrated – sexually and financially – spend their days sitting at cafes, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, gossiping, and having affairs with each other. A Greek worker, Jorgos, moves into the area and rents a room from Elisabeth, one of their friends. They become upset by his presence and rumors circulate about his sexual prowess and Communist principles. The group’s romantic dreamer, Marie, falls in love with him, while the others begin to plot violence.

A sexual slur referring to foreign workers, particularly those from the Mediterranean, “Katzelmacher” is the subject around which this film revolves. Though Jorgos is not present for the majority of the movie’s running time, what he represents to the German characters is more important than his individual identity. This second feature from Fassbinder, based on his own play of the same name, is the first of his “bourgeois” films, which all focus on the dull trauma of middle-class life. Katzelmacher in particular examines fascism on a daily level and hints that the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust may be that hatred and intolerance has not disappeared, but simply found more mundane mask.

As with all his early films, particularly the previous Love is Colder Than Death, the characters are flat and emotionless. They seem to be somnambulists in a state of inertia where they are unable to act or think on their own, merely react to their environments. The boredom and slowness of daily life is seen as repressive and claustrophobic to these very ordinary twenty-something. Their boredom and frustration leads to violence, which is initially depicted as mild and routine. Characters are emotionally or physically abusive with no obvious consequences. The mild domestic violence and prostitution that occurs is more disturbing than similar scenes in Love is Colder Than Death. When a would-be thug slaps his prostitute girlfriend in the first film, it is not a particularly surprising act and is within the bounds of the world of fantasy violence adopted by the characters. Here, it is far more jarring that bourgeois young adults engage in prostitution – both men and women – hit their partners for minor annoyances, and have a conversation discussing the easiest way a man can hit his girlfriend to cause an abortion.

The scene of the men beating Jorgos is surprisingly pathetic, an act that is disturbing not because of the degree of violence, but because of Jorgos’ innocence and ignorance (Fassbinder himself appears in this role and is utterly charming) and the suddenness with which they attack him. The act is not really premeditated, but the prejudice, xenophobia, and hatred has been there all the time, boiling under a surface of calm civility. In this way, Katzelmacher introduces nearly all of Fassbinder’s important future themes. There is violence inherent in a repressive society, which all of his “bourgeois” film are concerned with. Despite only a few films with overt references to the Third Reich, nearly all of his movies suggest that the legacy of hatred and intolerance from WWII had not disappeared, despite post-war peace and prosperity. This hatred is also mirrored on the individual level with cruelty and manipulation as the key factor in close relationships in Katzelmacher (and Fassbinder’s later films).
And yet, the most horrifying thing about Katzelmacher is that these characters are all presented as normal. Like Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” in reference to Adolf Eichmann, these characters reflect the the tedium inherent in normative social interactions – instead of zoning out in front of the television, they sit at cafes and gossip about friends and neighbors; they have affairs and complain about their romantic partners. The group includes many of Fassbinder’s regular cast of performers, including his star, Hanna Schygulla, as the lovely Marie. Though she seems to be innocent and romantic, she is also exploiting Jorgos for the exotic fantasy he and his homeland represent. Irm Hermann (The Merchant of Four Seasons) is supremely disdainful as Elizabeth, another character who is charmed by Jorgos -- because he pays rent on time, unlike her needy boyfriend.

This film was a minor splash, compared to Fassbinder’s later works, but was successful enough to guarantee a future for his career. The visuals are less extreme than Love is Colder Than Death, but are still influenced by the avant-garde theatrical techniques Fassbinder used for the stage – flat, distanced, and seemingly emotionless. They make take some getting used to for audiences not familiar with Brecht or Godard.

Katzelmacher continues Fassbinder’s early trend of confrontational filmmaking meant to challenge with seemingly every frame. It’s not my favorite of his early works, but still comes recommended. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains many of his similarly-styled early films, including Love is Colder Than DeathGods of the PlagueThe American Soldier, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969
Starring: Ulli Lommel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hanna Schygulla

Franz, a minor criminal, is called to meet with a larger crime syndicate who insists that he join their organization. He refuses and his beaten. A handsome young gangster, Bruno, is sent to follow Franz back to Munich. Though Franz gives him an old address, Bruno eventually tracks him down through the lovely Joanna; Franz is both her pimp and boyfriend. To gain Franz’s trust, Bruno kills a man he’s hiding from, along with a waitress who witnesses the shooting. Though he is arrested, there is no evidence. Bruno, Joanna, and Franz’s threesome intensifies and they plan a bank robbery, though Joanna begins to get cold feet…

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first feature film followed on the heels of such early New German Cinema efforts as Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless and Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (both released in 1966). Though Love is Colder Than Death was met with negative reception upon the film’s release, Fassbinder effectively revolutionized and took over the movement. This nihilistic blend of American gangster movie, film noir, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), and Brecht’s theatrical philosophies, this would set the stage for Fassbinder’s prolific early period and insure an increasing amount of critical attention. Love is Colder Than Death is an experimental, emotional detached, and challenging work, the thrilling herald of a hypnotic career from one of cinema’s geniuses.

Dedicated to directors Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub, and characters Linio and Cuncho from spaghetti western classic, Bullet for the General (1966), Fassbinder immediately begins the film with a declaration of his influences and inspirations. Though Love is Colder Than Death is essentially a stark crime film with complicated relationships and a somewhat tragic conclusion, it is sprinkled with some welcomes instances of dark humor. The cinematic in-jokes Fassbinder uses – such as naming one of the victims Erica Rohmer – would continue throughout his career. There’s a particularly hilarious scene where Bruno and Joanna rob a store, covering up the crime with a purchase of toilet paper.  This feels like a comic extenuation of the illicit drugstore meeting in Double Indemnity. There are many references to other films, including another funny scene where Franz stumps a shop girl with his question to find a pair of sunglasses like those worn by the cop in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

But these light moments are few and far between. This is a film full of seemingly emotionless protagonists with basic dialogue and a stark set. The cinematography from Fassbinder’s early collaborator Dietrich Lohmann is almost oppressive in its flatness and emptiness. The characters congregate in empty rooms with blank, white walls. When they go out into Munich, the streets are ominously empty.  I’m sure this was unintentional and is due to Fassbinder’s budget, but it serves to illuminate the fantasy world growing around the three criminals. Fassbinder suggests that they are trapped in the capitalist system just like everyone else and are mistaken to glorify crime (over normative social values).

Franz, Joanna, and Bruno are as inhibited as the bourgeois characters that haunt Fassbinder’s later films. They adorn costumes – leather jackets, fedoras, overcoats, and dark glasses – and pretend to be ruthless murderers and arch-gangsters. But they are trapped by this pretending, as they are unable to forge a new path for themselves. The gay subtext present in the relationship between Franz and Bruno – who clearly desire each other – is a theme that would not be fully realized until later in Fassbinder’s career. The complex, often homoerotic relationships between men is a regular feature of American gangster movies and, even more so, film noir. The sense of perpetual frustration and longing between Franz and Bruno is the film’s emotional core, though they are forced to channel these feelings through Joanna.

Their interactions through her – which soon turns into Franz forcing Joanna to have a sexual relationship with both men – seem to become obvious, and it is likely a sense of jealousy that inspires her to call the police before their planned robbery. She seems to sense that their desire for each other is stronger and she will eventually be abandoned. Here, Fassbinder is likely including – or predicting – elements of his own life. Though he identified as homosexual and had many boyfriends, he generally also had a primary female partner. Interestingly Hanna Schygulla (Joanna) was one of the few actresses who worked with him repeatedly but only maintained a distant friendship. She is excellent here, and Joanna introduces some of the common themes Schygulla would represent throughout Fassbinder’s films: naiveté, selfishness, and vanity, mingled with a sense of loss or abandonment.

Fassbinder gives a solid performance here as the enigmatic, animalistic Franz. It’s incredible to think that he directed such an impressive first film and wrote the script, designed the sets, and starred. His co-star, the handsome Ulli Lommel, was not from Fassbinder’s theater group, he went on to become a regular fixture in Fassbinder’s films. Also look out for other regular players in small roles, such as Katrin Schaake, Liz Soellner, Gisela Otto, and composer Peer Raben and future Fassbinder star Kurt Raab in small roles. Also keep an ear out for Raben's excellent and chilling score, a composition that feels fresh and unique despite its coldness.

Love is Colder Than Deal is a confrontational and challenging film, one that examines the conditions that lead to crime within society and individual failures. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains many of his similarly-styled early films, including Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.