Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
Starring: Elisabeth Trissenaar, Kurt Raab, Bernhard Helfrich, Volker Spengel, Udo Kier
Hanni and Xaver Bolwieser – a small-town train station manager – are newly married. Though Hanni’s affections don’t quite equal those of her obsessive, passionate husband, they seem happy. But soon Hanni begins to control her husband’s life, barring him from drinking and socializing late into the night. She also has eyes for Merkel, a local butcher, and begins an affair with him while also convinced Xaver that they should lend him money to open a restaurant and brewery. Gossip of their affair spreads its way through the town, though Xaver is determined not to believe the worst about his wife.
Based on a novel by Oskar Maria Graff, The Stationmaster’s Wife was originally known as Bolwieser, an over three hour-long, two-part TV film. The version I’m reviewing is the 112-minute theatrical cut released a few years later in 1983, which retains the central plot, but excised some of the subplots and lengthier scenes between Hanni and Xaver. The main distinction between the two versions is the title. While there may not seem like much of a difference between the titles Bolwieser and The Stationmaster’s Wife, the focus of the film is truly on Xaver Bolwieser’s descent into humiliation and despair.
In many ways, this Madame Bovary-like plot sticks with Fassbinder’s fascination of the mid-‘70s: infidelity. Every single one of his films from this period deals with marital and domestic frustrations – Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Nora Helmer, Martha, Fox and His Friends, Like a Bird on a Wire, Fear of Fear, I Only Want You to Love Me, Chinese Roulette, and Women in New York. Even the two films not directly concerned with a married couple, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven and Satan’s Brew, still concern the effects of marriage, sex, love, and family on the main character. But while Satan’s Brew and Chinese Roulette mark dramatic changes in Fassbinder’s career, Bolwieser is an elevated exploration of previous themes: emotional cruelty and the oppressiveness of social and domestic spaces.
By this point in Fassbinder’s career, Bolwieser is also the culmination of Fassbinder’s views on sex and love. Hanni and Bolwieser represent an individual struggling against sex and love, respectively. Hanni fits in with Fassbinder’s other repressed wives struggling for power, the protagonists of Nora Helmer, Effi Briest, Women in New York, Lola, Lili Marleen, and side characters in The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Fear of Fear, and others.While Hanni craves sex and equates it with personal freedom in some way, it is a destructive force in her life. Her affair with Merkel and the hairdresser nearly ruin her and seem to be an addiction that she craves but cannot escape from. Sex, for most of Fassbinder’s women, is ultimately violent. In many of his films, it includes physical violence: slapping, biting, pushing, pulling, and overall aggressive behavior that causes pain rather than pleasure. In Martha and Bolwieser, there are scenes that suggest a woman’s husband is raping her and though there are moments of tenderness, there is the sense that it will never be enough for Hanni. Because of this, she is both monstrous and sympathetic and Fassbinder draws parallels between her and the Bolwiesers’ pet bird: a beautiful, yet caged creature, filling the apartment with its unsettling cries signifying an endless need.
Love has a similar effect on Bolwieser. Kurt Raab, in what is perhaps his best performance for Fassbinder, plays one of the director’s most tragic characters. While many of Fassbinder’s other protagonists are complicit in their own exploitation and destruction, Bolwieser seems to desire self-eradication through masochism related to his insatiable appetites. He is both likable and unlikable. On one hand, his overwhelming appetites for sex, food, affection, alcohol, and Hanni seem interchangeable. On the other hand, Bolwieser’s determination to turn his head and remain blind from the truth is a pathetic trait, one that links him inevitably towards the German (or even European) complicity in the Nazi atrocities during WWII.
Like Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Bolwieser seems to exist in a fictional time and place, in an imaginary version of the years between WWI and WWII. This is yet another of Fassbinder films that examines the German society – albeit subtly – and its obsession with rules, rituals, and authority. Bolwieser’s transition from pompous bureaucrat to dejected prisoner and his replacement by an a member of the Nazi party continues his exploration of German history and its effect on contemporary life.
Bolwieser comes highly recommended. Though it falls just beneath his classics, it’s well worth seeing thanks to Raab’s powerful performance. The theatrical cut is available on DVD, though I would very much like to see the three-hour version sometime soon. Keep an eye out for the expert use of visuals. I would say that it’s one of his most beautiful films to date, but it’s hard to say that at this point, when so many of them qualify for that designation. Either way, Fassbinder and Ballhaus are able to transform mundane domestic spaces into places of wonder, tragedy, and confinement. It’s hard to believe that works of this power were made for television in the ‘70s and I would hope that contemporary TV directors and producers could learn from its example.