Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Fengler, 1970
Starring: Michael König, Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab
Hans Boehm, a musician and shepherd in medieval, feudal Germany, visits the village of Niklashausen and claims to have received a visitation from the Virgin Mary. He begins preaching a message of revolution, where the church and state will be overturned for peace and equality and property rights will be banished. His small band of followers grows and he receives support from around the country side. When his message becomes successful, his followers are killed and he is crucified and burned at the stake.
Fassbinder co-wrote and co-directed this made-for-TV film with Michael Fengler, one of his producers and also his partner on Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? This is certainly one of Fassbinder’s most avant-garde works: a medieval period piece full of anachronisms, probably to stimulate Brecht’s alienation affect. Hans Boehm was an actual shepherd in the fifteenth century and much of Fassbinder’s loose story is faithful to Boehm’s actual biography. He did allegedly have a vision where the Virgin Mary inspired a message of social equality, which he preached around the countryside. Boehm nearly instigated a peasant revolt, but was arrested, tried for heresy, and was executed.
Fassbinder attacked the left as often as the right and The Niklashausen Journey is a good example of him getting jabs in with both groups. This is really a satire of political idealism and belief in the concept that only three people are enough to begin a revolution. Fassbinder folded in elements of revolt in contemporary, divided Germany and even the Russian Revolution. The film examines the nature of revolution and seems to state that it is the same across cultures and time periods: it ends in violence regardless of which side triumphs. The relationship between performance art, cinema, and revolution is complicated here by the necessary relationship between art and commerce – or revolution and commerce.
Boehm cannot accomplish his goals of peace and cleansing without financial support, which he gets from Countess Margarethe (a wonderful performance from Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen), a greedy, sex-hungry woman who taunts her paralyzed, sick husband and desires Boehm. A character known as the Black Monk -- Fassbinder himself rebelliously flaunting an anachronistic leather jacket and sunglasses -- also craves luxury while spouting textbook socialist rhetoric. So despite Boehm’s innocence and ignorance of the Countess’s sexual motives, he is convinced by his more knowing friends to enter into an agreement with her.
The use of politics and anachronistic elements within a period piece seem to be influenced by Godard (a standard influence for Fassbinder’s early films) and by Pasolini’s superior The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). While Fassbinder’s presence as the leather-clad Black Monk was particularly effective, Michael König’s Boehm is dressed like a hippie, often doesn’t bother to wear a shirt, and has a sort of feminine appeal with his passivity and long, blonde hair. This somewhat androgynous character is the film’s least fascinating. He is outdone by Fassbinder, the always amazing Kurt Raab (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?) as a gay bishop, living in the lap of luxury and surrounded by beautiful, half-naked men, and my Carstensen as the lustful Countess.
While this has some brilliant moments – such as a scene where three women covered in blood give a Greek tragedy-style choral call for vengeance while standing in a dump yard – the scenes tend to be repetitive and are often overly long. If you can get past the dull parts (I was particularly frustrated by the drumming in the beginning of the film), this is probably Fassbinder’s most beautiful early film, with many surprisingly pastoral sets and a lush color palette. Despite the apparent departure from stark black-and-white crime dramas like Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, this is a continuation of Fassbinder’s developing themes, particularly the disturbing exchange of love/affection and money haunted much of his career. This is also an important glimpse into Fassbinder’s life in the theater, one that will fascinate his fans.
The Niklashausen Journey is available on DVD thanks to the ever wonderful Raro Video, who released a two-disc set with Rio das mortes. This ambitious and politically confrontational work comes highly recommended, though it has its challenging moments. It’s uneven, but is ultimately satisfying and I’m not sure why it is relatively ignored within Fassbinder’s catalog. And besides, can you imagine turning on the television in the ‘70s and finding this on the screen?