Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Vitus Zeplichal, Elke Aberle, Alexander Allerson
While in a prison, a young man named Peter relates his tale to a therapist. Much of his early life was spent trying to win his mother’s love, for naught. As a young adult, his training as a bricklayer gives him the skills to build a house for his parents. They are appreciative and loving for just a few weeks, then his mother returns to her callous indifference. He marries Erika, a local girl and decides they will move to Munich to impress his parents. He gets a low-paying job in construction, but tries to prove his love for Erika with lavish presents and furniture for their apartment. This quickly puts him in debt, though he seems addicted to spending and refuses to ask his parents for financial help. When he loses his job, it puts him quickly over the edge…
I Only Want You to Love Me is one of Fassbinder’s lesser-seen made-for-TV movies, but one that fits snugly with the core themes of domestic hell, social alienation, and economic repression found in almost all of his films from the mid-‘70s. Beginning with The Merchant of the Four Seasons and continuing through Bremen Freedom, Jail Bait, Eight Hours are Not a Day, Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Nora Helmer, Martha, Fox and His Friends, Fear of Fear, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, by I Only Want You to Love Me, Fassbinder had examined nearly every angle of this theme with a variety of abused and oppressed characters as his protagonists.
If I Only Want You to Love Me remains a minor effort in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, it is because he had already examined the following protagonists: a man who commits suicide after his oppressive family drives him to despair, a woman who systematically poisons her oppressive family, a teenage girl who goads her lover to kill her controlling father when he tries to keep them apart, a woman who dies after she is abandoned by her oppressive family because of an old affair, a woman who leaves her family when she realizes how oppressive it is, a woman driven insane by her abusive husband, a gay man driven to suicide by his manipulative and greedy lover, a woman driven insane by her family, and a woman driven to communism by her husband’s murder-suicide.
While I Only Want You to Love Me is based on the 1972 non-fiction book Life: Transcripts Behind Bars by Klaus Antes, Christiane Ehrhardt, and Heinrich Hannover, the material is hardly new to Fassbinder. Peter – Satan’s Brews’s Vitus Zeplichal in a remarkable performance – is an evolution of The Merchant of the Four Seasons’ Hans, a man driven to insanity because of the cruelty he experiences at the hands of his mother. She rejects the life he imagines for himself, insisting that he become a fruit seller, and coldly frustrates his attempts at intimacy and affection. Peter’s mother is cut from the same cloth and it is interesting to follow the trajectory of Fassbinder’s mother characters up to this point.
At best, these mothers interfere with their sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law, and are controlling and driven by bourgeois obsessions. Sometimes they are seem to be sympathetic and understanding, but only if their children follow the behavior they deem appropriate (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Jail Bait, Effi Briest). Later, they are perverse (The American Soldier), cruel (Merchant of the Four Seasons, Bremen Freedom, Fear of Fear), and insane (Martha). Notable exceptions are the three characters played by Brigitte Mira in Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, where the protagonist of both is a mother treated cruelly by her children. Peter’s mother is the first to practice actual physical abuse. In an early scene, the young Peter brings her a bouquet of flowers taken from a neighbor’s garden. What Peter and his father sees as an act of generosity and love is taken to be a criminal act by his mother, who beats him with a wooden hanger until it breaks.
This theme of the mother and her vital importance to I Only Want You to Love Me makes this one of Fassbinder’s most quietly personal films. Fassbinder’s own childhood was allegedly a lonely, difficult one, and was marked by his parents’ divorce and his mother’s frequent absences. He noted in an interview (which can be found in The Anarchy of the Imagination) that he spent much of his time alone at the cinema, which soon became his stand-in for family and affection. Fassbinder’s own mother would appear throughout his films, beginning with a role as the grieving mother in Gods of the Plague. Though she only appears in a side role in this film, her aloof, almost disdainful beauty is echoed in Ernie Mangold (Before Sunrise), the prolific actress who plays Peter’s mother.
In I Only Want You to Love Me, Fassbinder uses the mother figure – represented by Peter’s mother, his wife Erika, who soon becomes a mother, Erika’s kindly but lonely grandmother, and even the prison therapist – as a conduit to explore the evils of the West German economic miracle. This time of financial prosperity is turned into an authoritarian prison by Fassbinder, a place of paranoia and anxiety where everyone seems to be against Peter and can tell that he is somehow different, somehow inferior. In typical Fassbinder fashion, Peter makes many mistakes and seemingly entrenches himself in misery on purpose. Every time he wants to feel loved, he buys another large bouquet of colorful flowers for a woman (his mother, his wife, her grandmother), echoing the first bouquet that earned him a vicious beating.
Perhaps ironically, the colorful flowers, symbolic of nature, fertility, romance, and courtship, are otherwise absent from the film’s gray industrial landscape. Munich is depicted as a bleak, urban space devoid of color or life. The film’s most beautiful scenes, courtesy of Fassbinder’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, are stark shots of the Munich subway, which Peter rides all day because he no longer has a job, but hasn’t admitted this to his wife. Like Fox’s suicide in the subway in Fox and His Friends, this is a death journey, a descent into a middle class hell that culminates in dissociation, violence, murder, and incarceration.
Available on DVD from Olive Films, I Only Want You to Love Me is a fascinating example of Fassbinder at his most introspective and psychological. It is marked by excellent cinematography and performances, as well as solid score from Fassbinder’s regular collaborator Peer Raben. It’s not an ideal starting place for newcomers, but is a must-see for Fassbinder fans, as it examines an issue Fassbinder struggled with throughout his life: the desperate, often misguided search for love.