Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, 1970
Starring: Kurt Raab, Lilith Ungerer
Herr R., a draftsman, lives an orderly life. His lovely wife wishes he would get a promotion, in order to buy her more things, and his boss hopes he will advance. His young son struggles somewhat in school because of a speech impediment, but Herr R. helps him with homework. His parents come for a mostly pleasant visit, though his mother criticizes his wife for being vain and irresponsible. He and his wife go out with friends and he drinks a little too much. Herr R.’s life is mundane and dull, but soon he violently forces his way out of the routine.
Considered Fassbinder’s fifth film, there has been some speculation that his involvement was minimal. He supposedly co-directed Warum läuft Herr R.? with Michael Fengler, who acted as a producer on some of Fassbinder’s work (such as Gods of the Plague and The Marriage of Maria Braun) and also co-directed The Niklashausen Journey with Fassbinder. Fengler has claimed repeatedly that Fassbinder was barely on set and that he probably should not have received a directing credit. Fassbinder’s star, actress Hanna Schygulla, also said in an interview that this film should be considered Fengler’s work. Regardless of which man was responsible for what, it’s not difficult to view this as a Fassbinder work.
There are many similarities with some of his later films and the theme – bourgeois repression – was certainly one of his favorites. There are similar anti-bourgeois notes in Fear of Fear (1975) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975). Fear of Fear, a film similar to Herr R, but from a wife’s perspective, is about a woman who begins to go mad after the birth of her second child. Both films contain a repressive mother-in-law, doctors carelessly and unsympathetically diagnosing away problems, and Raab appears as the woman’s tormented neighbor. He is the only character to understand her misery, but she runs from him in fear. As in Herr R, he hangs himself.
Fassbinder apparently referred to Herr R as “the most disgusting film I ever made,” but much of the violence and horror is on a psychic level. Herr R’s violent acts – SPOILER ALERT – at the conclusion, where he beats his son, his wife, and her friend to death with a candlestick and then hangs himself is a production of nihilistic exhaustion, rather than rage. The horror of an ordered life, divided up into meetings and appointments, is expressed with some black humor, but this is undoubtedly one of Fassbinder’s bleakest films. Herr R.’s life is so dull, so tedious, that his acting out in any way – and his death – is a much-needed moment of relief. Somehow, even Herr R’s coworkers seemed relieved when his body is found, hanging by his own tie, in the office bathroom.
Kurt Raab, one of Fassbinder’s regular actors (and set designers) is not quite as sublime as in Fear of Fear, but he gives a wonderful, understated performance. There is something sad and lost about Raab’s slightly pudgy face and big blue eyes, which Fassbinder exploited for a number of films. His Herr R – named after Raab himself – is ordinary, kind, and sympathetic, and yet there is also something pathetic and even repulsive about him. He carries the film and steals it away from any of the other performers, including Fassbinder regulars and members of his Anti-Theater cast: Lilith Ungerer (Katzelmacher) as Frau R, Fassbinder’s mother, Lilo Pempeit, Harry Baer, Hanna Schygulla, Ingrid Caven, Irm Hermann, and Peer Raben.
It is worth noting that, in a few ways, this does not feel like a Fassbinder production. It varies widely from his first four feature films – Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, and the made-for-TV movie Das Kaffeehaus. Much of the dialogue is improvised, hinting that this is perhaps a collaborative group work in the style of the Anti-Theater plays. Fassbinder genuinely frowned on improvisation and took control of most of his productions. Herr R is also less stylized than Fassbinder’s other films with shakier, more uncertain camera work.
Whether this is Fassbinder’s film or Michael Fengler’s, it undoubtedly fits within the larger framework of Fassbinder’s career. It requires patience, as many of the early scenes are agonizingly slow in their detailed portrayal of the minutiae of Herr R’s life. Overall, Herr R is rewarding and is certainly one of the must-see works from early in Fassbinder’s career. Fortunately, you can find it on DVD, though without many frills. Fans of Kurt Raab and suburban/bourgeois hysteria films will be delighted by this bleak, tightly controlled work that benefits from multiple viewings.