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.