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.)