Tuesday, February 10, 2015

BAAL (1970)

Volker Schlöndorff, 1970
Starring: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta, Hanna Schygulla

Baal, a slovenly poet, briefly becomes the talk of the town before driving his supporters away. He prefers to spend his days drinking and womanizing with no concern for anyone but himself, which frequently leads to trouble. He seduces Joanna, a friend’s girlfriend, and she kills herself when Baal declares that he does not love her. He wanders through the German woods and impregnates another woman, Sophie, and then abandons her. In a drunken stupor, he kills his closest friend, Ekart, and goes on the run from the police, until he ultimately dies along, like a beast, in the forest.

Baal, based on famed German writer Bertolt Brecht’s first play, explores the cult of the genius, an anti-heroic figure who chooses to be a social outcast and live on the fringe of bourgeois morality. Writers from Byron to Jean Genet have lived in and helped create this mythic model and it is no wonder that a young Brecht was attracted to the type and perhaps saw himself in that mold. As a 20 year-old, Baal was one of my favorite plays, but revisiting it over a decade later, it’s clear that in many ways, it’s a juvenile work. Fortunately or unfortunately, this quality translates to the film adaptation.

For years, Baal was unavailable thanks to the efforts of Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow, who disliked the adaptation and had it barred from public viewing or release. Finally, in 2011, thanks to the efforts of Juliane Lorenz, head of the Fassbinder Foundation, Brecht’s granddaughter granted restoration and release rights, so that this minor, yet underrated film can finally be seen by fans of the playwright and of New German Cinema, as it involves three of the movement’s key personalities: Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Margarethe von Trotta.

Nearly everyone associated with making the film was young and several of them were in the early stages of what would amount to brilliant careers. Schlöndorff had directed three feature films before this (along with some shorts and assistant directorial work), while Margarethe von Trotta – who he would soon marry – had only acted in a handful of films and was still five years away from her first directorial assignment. Star Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who would eclipse them both with his directorial talent) was headway into his career by this point; though he just began directing in 1969, he would have seven feature films under his belt by the end of 1970. And actress Hanna Schygulla, who appears here, was slowly already on her way to New German Cinema stardom thanks to her work with Fassbinder.

Overall, Baal is insignificant in comparison to Schlöndorff’s career as a whole, which includes assistant directorial work on films by Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Pierre Melville, plus his own successes like The Tin Drum, Young Törless, A Degree of Murder, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, and Coup de Grâce, which should be included in any list of the best works of New German Cinema. The quality of direction and cinematography here is certainly not among Schlöndorff’s finest, but it does match the spirit of the source material. There is a certain punk and anarchistic sensibility that would linger in much of New German Cinema and in Fassbinder’s films in particular.

Fassbinder is perfect as Baal, though the role brings to mind a chicken or egg scenario. It’s hard to say how much playing this role influenced him or whether Fassbinder’s own self-mythologizing coincidentally created a Baal-like character over the years: an anarchistic artist living against society’s rules and norms with his persistent drug use, numerous male and female sexual partners, and rumors about his manipulative, cruel tendencies towards romantic and working partners alike. Baal has a homoerotic relationship with his friend, the musician Ekart, and it is his most intense, enduring relationship. Similarly, Fassbinder’s most consuming relationships were with men (though he also dated, lived with, and even married women).

Fassbinder is absolutely the reason to see this film, as he is simply perfect as Baal. His complex performance is a blend of roguish swagger, the constant threat of violence or seduction, charisma, ugliness, and a sensitivity that belies Baal’s more thuggish qualities. This adaptation plays up the character’s bestial nature in the sense that Baal is more a part of the natural world than he is of human society. In one of the film’s most thrilling scenes, he is shown comfortably running his hands through the mud, looking at home in the filth. Baal has numerous forest scenes and shots of Baal wandering through pastoral landscapes, and it is ultimately to this green world that he returns.

Baal is perhaps a forgotten curiosity among the annals of New German Cinema, but it will be a pleasant discovery for many cinema fans. It comes recommended, particularly for Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, and von Trotta devotees, though I’m not sure when it will be available on region one DVD. It screened almost exactly a year ago at Berlinale in its restored form (with von Trotte, Schygulla, and other in attendance), so I would assume that a release is on the horizon. 

No comments:

Post a Comment