Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ulli Lommel, Anna Karina, Macha Meril
Ariane and Gerhard, a wealthy married couple, are heading out on separate weekends. Though they both pretend to be traveling, they are actually meeting their long-time lovers. Their disabled daughter, Angela, plans it so that both couples – Gerhard and his French mistress Irene, and Ariane and her lover Kolbe, who is also Gerhard’s assistant – will wind up at the family’s country house. Though the adults initially overcome the awkwardness with laughter, Angela soon shows up to further complicate things and manipulate the tense environment. She forces her parents, their lovers, the angry housekeeper, her strange son, and Angela’s mute governess to partake in a game of Chinese Roulette, which is sure to end in violence.
Jean-Luc Godard once stated that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Fassbinder certainly played with this convention in Chinese Roulette, one of his lesser seen triumphs that runs the gamut from Gothic horror and psychological melodrama to country-house mystery. His first international production, this film is also somewhat unique in his catalog in that it focused on an ensemble, rather than a single, tormented protagonist. The film focuses almost equally on its eight characters, a blend of Fassbinder’s regular actors and new faces: Angela (Andrea Schober of Merchant of the Four Seasons), her parents Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and Gerhart (Alexander Allerson from My Name is Nobody and Battle of Britain), their lovers Irene (Godard’s muse and former wife Anna Karina) and Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), the housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira), her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), and Angela’s nurse (giallo actress Macha Meril).
Angela is one of Fassbinder’s more mysterious characters. She is sympathetic, but also seems to be the antagonist. She clearly blames her parents for her disability and wants to get revenge on them. She states that she fell ill 11 years ago – the same time that her father took Irene as his lover – but doesn’t explain the exact nature of her illness. Her revenge is primarily psychological and in the form of forcing her family together for an uncomfortable weekend, where her very appearance wears on her mother. Her coup de grace involves a game of Chinese roulette, where the members of one team ask another team questions. Their answers all refer to one unanimous, but secret person that the other team must figure out.
While the parents and their lovers are incredibly bourgeois, there is something otherworldly about Angela, perhaps because of her disability. She is not the only character that feels out of time and place. Gabriel, the housekeeper’s strange, adult son, is asexual and has a bizarrely Aryan appearance with white-blonde hair. He spouts Nietzschean philosophy, which he claims is his own writing, though Angela reveals at the end of the film that she knows it is plagiarized. Her mute governess also has this somewhat supernatural sense. These three figures seem to have emerged from out of Gothic literature: a disturbed girl on the verge of sexual maturity kept prisoner by her disability, her beautiful, obedient, and silent maid, and a sexually ambiguous servant who aims above his station and is capable of violence.
While Chinese Roulette is different from many of Fassbinder’s other films, it does contain some of his reused themes, namely emotional cruelty, family alienation, and a complicated relationship between a mother and her child. Angela’s father seems to love and indulge her, but her mother is inexplicably filled with hatred. She carries a gun in order to point it at Angela when frustration and rage overwhelm her. The implication is that she will inevitably resort to violence. And unlike Fassbinder’s earlier films – such as I Only Want You to Love Me, Martha, The Merchant of the Four Seasons, and others where a persecuted character is hated for no reason by their mother – the dislike is mutual. Angela blames and harassed her mother and is delighted at obvious signs of Ariane’s torment.
Shot in the country home/small castle owned by Fassbinder’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, the Gothic themes and sense of impending violence are further expressed by Chinese Roulette’s visuals. Characters are bisected, framed, and confined by shots of glass artifacts, windows and window frames, doorways, ornate mirrors, and strange display columns in the middle of rooms. The lush countryside becomes more menacing as it is contrasted by the dark forest that surrounds the estate, shots of Angela’s collection of old, creepy dolls being removed from the trunk of a car, and a scene that focuses on a rotting stag head. This was Fassbinder’s biggest budget to date and it is certainly one of his most beautiful films, perhaps only eclipsed by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Veronika Voss.
Chinese Roulette comes highly recommended. For whatever reason, it is not usually listed among Fassbinder’s masterpieces, but it certainly deserves a viewing or two and may appeal to those bored by Fassbinder’s films about working-class oppression. It is available on DVD, though I would love to see it on a mid-period Fassbinder Criterion box-set alongside Martha and Whity. Fans of restrained Gothic thrillers will also definitely want to check this out.