Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Brigitte Mira, Ingrid Caven, Karlheinz Böhm, Margit Carstensen
“Everybody is out for something. Once you realize that, everything is much simpler.”
The Küsters family – mother Emma, her son Ernst, and her unpleasant daughter-in-law Helene – are in the midst of their evening routine when they learn why Herr Küsters is late coming home from work. After a psychological breakdown, he has beaten the factory foreman to death and then killed himself. Mother Küsters is in shock and doesn’t understand how her loving, if reserved husband could do such a thing. But no one in her life seems to care: her unsympathetic son and daughter-in-law go on vacation, as planned, and though her daughter arrives for the funeral, she is only trying to publicize her singing career. Mother Küsters meets some sympathetic Communists and joins the Party, but soon learns that everyone has their own agenda.
Inspired by Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krausen’s Journey to Happiness (1929) -- Jutzi also filmed the first version of Fassbinder’s later masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz – Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is one of Fassbinder’s most overtly political films. He criticizes left and ring-wing politics, the media, and seemingly all of society. Apparently upon its release, threats of bombing and violence were called in to German theaters screening the film and its explosive impact has not lessened almost 40 years later. All of the film’s characters – except for Mother Küsters herself – are depicted as self-serving, callous, and fatuous. Küsters’ own family abandons her, a seemingly sympathetic journalist turns her husband into a violent drunk, and the Communists who befriend her soon lose interest in her quest to publicly restore her husband’s memory.
Fassbinder’s critique of “armchair” activists is particularly nasty. Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstensen appear as a wealthy married couple with beautiful, expensive clothes to make their beautiful, expensive home – which the husband tells Mother Küsters his wife inherited – and they write articles no one reads, do not actually know any working class people, and only encourage her to visit them if she will listen to political diatribe and show up for Party rallies. Their utter uselessness is contrasted by a smug anarchist (Matthias Fuchs, also the anarchist in Lola) who tells her that the Communists don’t care about her and they are only interested in talk, not action.
The anarchist’s behavior is foolish – he encourages Mother Küsters to occupy the newspaper office that printed the article about her husband. Notably, the film has two endings (SPOILERS). In the first, they occupy the newspaper office and the anarchist and his two friends draw guns and take hostages, to Küsters’ horror. It is revealed by several text paragraphs over a freeze frame of her that when they go outside, with the building surrounded by the police, Küsters is accidentally shot trying to keep her son (who has arrived) out of harm’s way. In the second ending, they non-violently occupy the office and stage a sit in, insisting that they won’t leave the floor of the reception area until a new article about Herr Küsters is written. The reports and office manager laugh at them and leave for the night. The anarchist and his friends also give up shortly after, leaving Mother Küsters depressed and by herself. The building’s aged superintendent is kind to her and convinces her to come home and have dinner with him, where they will discuss the problem of what to do about restoring her husband’s memory.
The disparate endings complicate a reading of the film. The first ending is admittedly more shocking and violent, but also dramatically unsatisfying because it is conveying by text rather than action. It is a frustrating disavowal of Küsters’ overt struggle to restore her husband’s reputation, and her underlying quest to find love and support in an inherently selfish society. Mother Küsters’ script, from Fassbinder himself, is rich and full of comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, and has a power that lingers far beyond either of the endings. Part of this strength is due to Brigitte Mira’s portrayal of Küsters. Mira was fresh off of a similar portrayal of a lonely housewife in the equally political Fear Eats the Soul, and in Mother Küsters she is more than just the Brechtian symbolic mother; she is also a warm and likable character, one of Fassbinder’s most dramatically developed.
What is particularly unique and hopeful about Mira’s roles in Mothers Küsters and Fear Eats the Soul is that her character – despite being aged and working class – is able to integrate new ideas, people, and political concepts into her life. Regardless of which ending you prefer to Mothers Küsters, it doesn’t detract from her role as a figure of innocence, change, active vigor, and hope. In many ways, she is Fassbinder’s ideal figure and, unlike Mira’s Emmi in Fear Eats the Soul, she does not contribute to her own victimization, truly a rarity among Fassbinder’s cinematic rogue’s gallery. While domestic spaces are vitally important in most of Fassbinder’s films, he frequently depicts figures who are driven insane by their domestic lives – Martha, Why Does Herr R Run Amok, Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fear of Fear – but Mother Küsters, one of his few mother figures, the center of the domestic space, is allowed to separate herself from it and exert her own influence.
Mothers Küsters Goes to Heaven is one of Fassbinder’s crucial films, though like Martha and Fear of Fear, it is one of his lesser seen works. It’s fortunately available on DVD and remains one of his least aged works. Certainly the costumes and set pieces are from the ‘70s, but the political climate has remained frighteningly the same, for example, there is a point where Küsters basically discusses the 1%/99% in a speech she gives to the Communists.