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.