Thursday, January 8, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Joachim Hansen, Barbara Valentin

Fassbinder’s made-for-TV film, Nora Helmer, is an adaptation of Ibsen’s famous 1879 play, A Doll’s House, and follows its plot relatively faithfully. A beautiful young housewife, Nora, is trying to convince her tight-laced, bourgeois husband, Torvald, to give her some extra money for the holidays, even if he has to borrow it. Torvald, who has recently been promoted to bank manager, enjoys spoiling Nora, but lectures her about the dangers of borrowing money. Though he treats Nora like a child, she has a dark secret. Years ago, when Torvald was ill, she borrowed money from another bank employee, the disreputable Krogstadt, though she told Torvald her father gave her the funds. It seems that she forged her father’s signature to provide collateral and after Nora making small, private payments for some time, Krogstadt is going to blackmail her, which could ruin her and Torvald’s current success and possibly their lives.

The impact of A Doll’s House cannot be understated. At its time, it was seen as an attack on the institution of marriage and an aggressive appeal for the rights of women. Its message also has a relationship with the writings of Kierkegaard, who wrote regularly about the individual’s struggle to remain separate from the overwhelming masses. In The Concluding Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, he wrote, “To be a particular individual is world-historically absolutely nothing, infinitely nothing — and yet, this is the only true and highest significance of a human being, so much higher as to make every other significance illusory.” Ibsen and Kierkegaard’s careers may have overlapped in the 19th century, but this existential concept of the importance of the individual is critical to Fassbinder’s work as well.

While Ibsen’s Nora is depicted as little more than a spoiled child, thanks to the treatment she has received from her father and husband, Fassbinder’s Nora is a notably different creation. Fassbinder stated that Nora used her “suppression as an effective means of terrorism.” His version is still the portrayal of a struggle between a free-thinking woman and an oppressive society, but Nora is far from being a victim of circumstance. She is less sympathetic here than the play (as are all the characters), and any softening elements – such as her devotion to her children – are absent. There is something of Lady Macbeth about her, particularly with the opening shot where her hand appears massive over Torvald’s, red nails glittering sinisterly.

Fassbinder did not see A Doll’s House as a work of women’s liberation, but yet another example of the restrictive, manipulative elements that exist in society. The parallel struggle between Nora and Thorvald and Nora and Krogstadt are power games, and in this case, money means power. Nora is at an immediate disadvantage because she does not have an inheritance or steady income, and is not a property owner. Thorvald, supposedly more morally upstanding than Krogstadt, does not treat her as an equal, but either as a helpless child to be tolerated and cared for, or as an attractive object and status symbol.

As with most of his films, Fassbinder refuses to have clear-cut victims and perpetrators. Because of this, Nora is somewhat more complex, but so is Krogstadt. The reason he is changing their agreement and blackmailing her is because Thorvald, in his classism and snobbery, is going to use his newfound power at the bank to fire Krogstadt and replace him with someone more appealing. The dialogue implies that Krogstadt has thus far not bothered Nora and quietly unobtrusively collected his money each month. Without reading too much into it, there is something of a Jewish stereotype about Krogstadt. He is dark and pale, a money lender (and collector), and he is clearly ostracized at the bank and in the Helmers’ social circle for no apparent reason. This sort of dated European stereotype was the sort of thing that Fassbinder loved to explore in his work – notably with In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) and the much criticized play Shadow of Angels.

Themes of sexism and classism were par for the course in Fassbinder’s films during this period with works like Whity, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and The Merchant of the Four Seasons, and it is unsurprising yet fascinating that he chose to adapt a work of classic theater that dealt with similar themes. Fassbinder typically preferred to write his own scripts or adapt his own plays, but his adept use of A Doll’s House emphasizes that many of those themes remained unchanged in 1974 – and some 40 years later in 2015.

Fassbinder meticulously crafted the visual world of Nora Helmer. It is reminiscent of his more ornate films like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but has the sense of timelessness seen in Pioneers in Ingolstadt. Nora looks like a prosperous bourgeois housewife, though from a somewhat ambiguous time period hinting at the nineteenth or early twentieth century. The Helmer home is filled with large, pattered mirrors and a labyrinth-like assembly of doorways and windows that frame and confine the characters. Nearly every shot is obstructed by lace or lattice work, and the characters are divided by ornate furniture or shot reflected in mirrors. The house – as well as the female characters – is outfitted in cold, pale colors and saccharine pastels with meticulous decorative detail, highlighting the “doll’s house” aspect of the story.

Nora Helmer comes recommended – particularly to Ibsen fans – but it is unfortunately unavailable. Hopefully the Fassbinder Foundation will restore and release it sometime soon, because it belongs solidly with Fassbinder’s fascinating trilogy of “women’s films” – depicting a series of abused and repressed housewives – from 1974 alongside Effi Briest and Martha. This might not be an essential Fassbinder work, but it is well worth watching, particularly for a preview of his endlessly fascinating interplay with difficult works of literature (this would culminate in his masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz).

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