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.