Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Helen Vita, Ingrid Caven
Walter Kranz, a revolutionary poet, has run out of money and his publisher refuses to advance him anymore funds until he turns in some new work. He lives with his wife and disturbed brother, but spends his time trying to milk money from his various lovers, including a Marxist mistress, the wife of his friend, and a sadomasochist nymphomaniac who wants Walter to threaten her with a gun. He accidentally fires it, killing her, and is under investigation from an inspector, who seems to know that Walter is responsible and is only waiting for some evidence to turn up. Meanwhile, an obsessed fan turns up and declares her undying devotion.
Fassbinder’s regular actor and artistic director Kurt Raab stars in what is perhaps Fassbinder’s only true comedy. Satan’s Brew has elements of slapstick, irony, social criticism, and anarchistic black comedy. This film is completely off the wall and may not appeal to everyone, but is definitely one of Fassbinder’s triumphs. It seems to mock his beloved themes of family, identity, sexuality, and working-class suffering. Instead of struggling middle-class characters, Walter and his family could be wealthy if Walter didn’t squander all of his money on mistresses, prostitutes, and costly miscellany. In many of Fassbinder’s films, a frustrated, tormented protagonist struggles to assert their identity in the face of a cruel society and unsympathetic, uncaring family members. Here, it is the protagonist’s overwhelming identity, appetites, and selfishness that repress and punish the family.
Satan’s Brew can be seen as an evolution of Beware of a Holy Whore, his other film with elements of comedy or satire. As with that work, Fassbinder seems to be mocking himself, particularly his reputation for selfishness, his dictatorial and manipulative relationship with his cast, crew, and lovers, his numerous vices, and his apparent talent for self-deception. And where most of his other films imply that cruelty can be found in all people, Satan’s Brew suggests that sadomasochism is inherent in everyone, an obsessive but perverse drive for sexuality that shapes all of the characters. This is intimately linked with role-playing and identity changing. Characters mold themselves to the desires of their partners, or, in the case of Walter, enforce changes on others.
Walter’s inherent fascism is symbolized in the use of the gun, which changes throughout the course of the film. At first, it is interchangeable with a sex object. Walter finds it hidden in a drawer with dildos and uses it sexually before shooting (accidentally or intentionally?) his partner while she is in the throes of orgasm. Her murder gives the film a crime/murder subplot so common to existentialist novels. Walter is hounded by a grim-faced detective (Ulli Lommel), but later, the murdered woman returns to life. While many of Fassbinder’s films show an obvious Brechtian influence, this belongs more in the anarchistic absurdism of Antonin Artaud. The film begins and ends with quotes from his writings and expresses some of his ideas about shocking and affecting the audience with various avant-garde techniques.
The striking cinematography and set pieces — another sign of Fassbinder’s growing maturity — is bolstered by brave, unusual performances from some of Fassbinder’s regular collaborators, including a bespectacled Margit Carstensen as Walter’s obsessed fan, Andrée — I honestly didn’t recognize her at first — as well as Helen Vita (Berlin Alexanderplatz) as Walter’s long suffering wife, and Volker Spengler (In a Year of 13 Moons) as his brother Ernst, who longs to have sex with flies and builds a collection of them around the house.
As I said, Satan’s Brew is not for everyone, but it’s a brilliant work that mocks everyone from wealthy artists to left-wing revolutionaries. There is something operatic about the film, as it blends a study of the performative nature of sadomasochism and the link between genius and madness. If you enjoy very dark, unusual black comedies with plenty of sex and explicit subject matter, this is likely to be one of your favorite Fassbinder films. It’s available on DVD, though, as always, I’m hoping it will get a special edition release at some point. Fans of Kurt Raab will especially want to check this out, as he gives one of the finest performances of an underrated career.