Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Michael König, Günther Kaufmann
Hanna, a beautiful, but aimless young woman, wants to get married to her boyfriend Michael. Unfortunately, he reunites with a childhood friend, Günther, and the two begin obsessively planning a trip to Peru. They’re convinced that they will manage to find the legendary treasure of the Rio das Mortes (which they think is in Peru, but is really in Brazil); Michael just coincidentally happens to have a map. They scrimp, save, and sell belongings, much to Hanna’s chagrin, and finally manage to secure the funds they need. But will Hanna really let them go without her?
Fassbinder’s third made-for-TV film after Das Kaffeehaus and The Niklashausen Journey is one of his lesser known efforts and probably for a good reason. This somewhat sloppy work has almost no character development whatsoever and feels even more improvised than Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? It’s no wonder that one of his films from this period would seem a little slapdash: he directed 12 feature-length films in less than three years. His fellow New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff is credited with the story, which could have been an interesting tale of two young men on a preposterous search for treasure – while Fassbinder was filming this, another colleague, Werner Herzog, was off shooting Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about another search for treasure in Peru.
Unfortunately Michael König (The Niklashausen Journey) and Günther Kaufmann (Gods of the Plague), whose characters share their names, are almost unforgivably dull. They have the same close male bonding and implied homosexual desire that marks Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher (briefly in the form of a male character and his john), Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, and The Niklashausen Journey. But their characters – and important plot points -- are simply undeveloped. The treasure map, for example, is barely mentioned and it’s certainly not given any dramatic emphasis. Michael simply mentions that he has one and it will lead them on their search for wealth and far-off dreams.
Fassbinder’s regular star Hanna Schygulla carries the film in her role as Hanna. Her near-homicidal jealousy is not really explained in this film, outside of frustration that Michael would rather run away to Peru than marry her, but seems to be a culmination of her roles in Fassbinder’s previous films. She is abandoned in Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The Niklashausen Journey, while in Katzelmacher she feels a romantic longing for an impossible love. Her sense of need, longing, and abandonment builds on her roles in these earlier films and feels like a rehearsal for later entries, such as The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen.
Schygulla’s repressed sexuality nearly explodes at several moments, namely in the film’s best scene. She and Fassbinder share a dance – with Fassbinder wearing his traditional black leather jacket – while Schygulla is clad in a lingerie-like red dress that bunches up her waist as they dance to Elvis. It has little to do with the rest of the plot, but it is the most captivating scene in the film. Her uninhibited dancing perhaps speaks to a sense of unfulfilled sexual longing; indeed Michael and Günther are sitting at a table, deep in conversation about their trip, and are ignoring her.
She is also the locus for the film’s larger discussion of marriage. Rio das Mortes opens with Hanna talking on the phone to her mother, who is nagging her with questions about when Hanna and Michael will be married. After this, she meets up with a friend who is excited to be getting a divorce. In another early scene, she attends the meeting of a Marxist group she’s joined (another common theme in these early Fassbinder films). With her sexy black lingerie, glamorous fox stole, and carefully applied makeup, she is sorely out of place at the radical feminist group (called USSA – a combination of USA, USSR, and the SS) who claim that women’s behavior leads directly to their own repression. Later, Michael and Günther stop at a gas station (the owner is played by a bumbling Kurt Raab) who discusses travel and vacation destinations through the lens of his wife and their experience as a married couple.
Michael and Günther are also involved in this interplay about marriage, as they move in together and combine finances to go on a trip that is framed as a honeymoon by Michael’s mother, who says she’s been saving some money for his marriage. Though many things are left unresolved, they get to go on their trip because they find a woman who will simply give them the money. This search for wealth is also expressed in every single of Fassbinder’s earlier films, though it generally results in discord, disappointment, arrest, or death. Here, Michael and Günther are simply able to board the plan while Hanna watches them from a distance, heartbroken and ready to shoot.
I can’t help but wonder if the confusion of Peru and Brazil (the actual location of the Rio das Mortes, the River of Death) was intentional, or is just another example of the inherent sloppiness of Rio das Mortes. The film feels rushed and unfocused and I can’t really recommend it. But fans of Fassbinder and Schygulla will at least want to check it out for the excellent dance sequence. If you’re interested, you can find it on DVD from the wonderful Raro Video as a two-disc release with The Niklashausen Journey.