Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Günther Kaufmann, Hanna Schygulla
Whity, the illegitimate, African American son of the wealthy, white Ben Nicholson, loyally serves the family as a slave. Nicholson’s other two sons are physically and mentally deficient, but beg Whity to the kill their father, as does his beautiful young wife. In an elaborate ruse, Nicholson has convinced the entire family that he is dying of a terminal illness and they will soon receive their inheritances. Whity’s girlfriend, meanwhile, a local prostitute and saloon performer, tries to convince him that he is being mistreated at home and they should run away together. Whity dutifully ignores her, until some alarming evidence comes to light.
Whity is arguably Fassbinder’s most beautiful film of his early period, thanks to contributions from Kurt Raab (who also appears uncredited as a saloon piano player), and cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. This was Fassbinder and Ballhaus’ first film together, though they would go on to collaborate for the next few years. Whity is technically Fassbinder’s only western (it’s amazing how many genres he covered throughout his prolific, but too brief career), and it does have many similar musical and visual themes as spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone and other Italian auteurs. But, like Fassbinder’s other exercises subverting genre, there is far more at work here.
First and foremost, there’s a Brechtian feel, particularly with the radical examinations of racism, emotional cruelty, and victimization. Using Brecht’s alienation effect in a particularly daring move, Fassbinder has his actors wear white face (the white family) and black face (Whity’s mother), while some of the cowboys in the saloon wear a sort of light brown face, possibly intended to be a weathered looking tan. This immediately brings to mind Fassbinder’s career-long theme that underlying racism/prejudice is an inherent element of society: not only in 1890’s American culture, but also in modern-day German and Europe. The film’s landscape — set in that particular Fassbinder world that effortlessly blends different eras and locales — includes a German cast, director, and language, the Spanish setting, an Italian cinematic genre (this is essentially a German version of a spaghetti Western), and American characters and elements of U.S. history.
The contradictory search for freedom and the refusal to be free found in Whity (and many of Fassbinder’s other films) contrasts two iconic American figures: the cowboy and the slave. The cowboy as white and domineering, whip in hand, is used as a symbol for American freedom and geographical expansion — interestingly, the only figure truly outfitted as a cowboy is played with a seductive sneer by Fassbinder himself. The slave, black and submissive, is a particularly controversial figure here because Whity essentially choses to be a slave and thrives on humiliation and punishment. This relationship between roles is complicated due to the fact that Whity — and actor Günther Kaufmann — is at the center of a complex web. Kaufman was at the end of a passionate but abusive, explosive relationship with Fassbinder during the making of the film. He is a saint-like repository for an outpouring of the other characters’ cruelty, violence, and sexual psychosis.
At its heart, Whity is a family melodrama masquerading as a western. As with some of his earlier films, many of the characters — particularly Whity and the family — move throughout the film as if they are sleepwalking or hypnotized. As the drama progresses, the family members begin to take on a greenish cast and vampiric attributes, sucking more and more from Whity and each other. Thanks to the this, and the increasingly perverse home atmosphere, the film has elements of Gothic horror, with themes of incest and S&M. The prostitute, Whity’s would-be girlfriend, is the only truly moral figure in the film, and other only one who speaks out against his exploitation at the hands of his family, which includes brutal whippings. Fassbinder’s regular star, Hanna Schygulla, is excellent in this role and casts an unforgettable shadow over the film, despite the fact that she is not the protagonist. The family members — Ron Randell (King of Kinds) as the twisted, controlling head of the family, Ben Nicholson, Katrin Schaake (What’s New Pussycat) as his sex-crazed, sadistic young wife, and Fassbinder regulars Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel as the disturbed sons — all are incredibly memorable and give some great individual performances.
Whity is a challenging, controversial film, but it comes highly recommended. It’s available on DVD from Fantoma, with cooperation from the Fassbinder Foundation. As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably Fassbinder’s most beautiful early film and is worth watching on this account alone. This marks a breakthrough for the director’s career and helped him break away from the uncertainty of The Niklashausen Journey and Pioneers in Ingolstadt and forge a path toward the gripping, bleak melodramas that would make his career just a few years later.