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.