Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf
Von Bohm, a straight-laced building commissioner, arrives in the town of Coburg for a new position. What he doesn’t first realize is that corrupt local industrialist Schuckert controls the town and plans to gain control over von Bohm. Determined to change the system, von Bohm bitterly resists, but soon falls in love with Lola, the attractive daughter of his landlady. He plans to marry her, but then learns that she’s also the star attraction at Schuckert’s cabaret club and brothel. Will he go on a moral crusade against Schuckert, or will his love for Lola convince him to change his tune?
The third part of Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy is this candy-colored melodrama and satire set during the economic miracle in Germany in the late ‘50s. Many of Fassbinder’s films were about the corruption, cruelty, and hypocrisy inherent in German society. Throughout his body of films, he suggests that this emerges from a rift caused by WWII, one that never healed, but was happily glossed over during the immediate postwar American occupation and the economic miracle. Most Nazis and collaborators were never prosecuted, but simply reintegrated into German society alongside surviving Holocaust and war survivors. This sense of greed, murky morality, and a desire to forget the past and forge anew is at the heart of Lola.
In Lola’s precursors – Berlin Alexanderplatz, Despair, and The Marriage of Maria Braun – Fassbinder suggests that a decent person is unable to survive in society. Lola examines this theme through the Technicolor light of Hollywood melodrama and romantic comedy, as von Bohm repeatedly struggles against the external demand that he should give up his lofty ideals and just conform like everyone else. Von Bohm’s good-hearted but ridiculous character is inspired by Professor Unrat, Heinrich Mann’s novel that was also the basis for Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). Where the protagonists differ is the key to Lola. In The Blue Angel, Professor Rath is a respected member of the community and staunchly opposed to the local cabaret and the sexual pleasures it promises until he meets the singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Obsessed, he marries her and effectively becomes her slave and is forced to work as a clown in the cabaret. This humiliating new life and Lola’s promiscuity drive him to violence, madness, and death. Von Bohm, on the other hand, begins with the same rigid morality. But where Professor Rath – and many of Fassbinder’s protagonists – are driven mad by love and society, von Bohm simply surrenders in what is perhaps Fassbinder’s most cynical conclusions.
The concepts of rationalization and amnesia are at their brightest and boldest here. The elaborate visual world of the film symbolizes these qualities. The artificial, candy-colored lighting and set pieces has a Disney World vibe to it and continually – even during scenes set in nature – evokes the unreal, the staged, and the performed. Much like Lola herself. Though von Bohm appears to be the protagonist, she is ultimately the film’s commanding presence. Sukowa’s marvelously energetic, physical performance is full of an abandon unequaled by any of Fassbinder’s other female stars.
While Lola has much in common with The Marriage of Maria Bran – both films are ultimately concerned with a marriage, a love triangle, a business arrangement, and an assured woman who prostitutes herself for financial independence – they are drastically different in tone thanks to the performances of the female leads. Sukowa’s petulant Technicolor beauty is aggressive and confrontational. In some ways, she is more reminiscent of Rita Hayworth in Gilda than either the sultry insolence of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel or the calculating cherubic glamour of Hanna Schygulla in The Marriage of Maria Braun. Like Hayworth’s famous song and dance number, “Put the Blame on Mame,” Lola gives a parallel performance full of intoxication, sexual abandon and complete with a strip tease. Both of these performances follow a scene where the male protagonist learns that Gilda/Lola is promiscuous.
Through the relationship between Lola and von Bohm, the film examines the contrast between fantasy and perception, idealism and industry. Their courtship and eventual marriage is equivalent to the business contract Lola has with Schuckert, though Fassbinder leaves no one confused about which relationship with more important, both to Lola and in the world of the film. Von Bohm’s inexplicable obsession with her ties Lola to the other films in the BRD trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronika Voss, and it is this irrational attachment that is ultimately his undoing.
Fassbinder doesn’t use many of his stock cast here, instead choosing relative newcomer Barbara Sukowa (she also appeared in his Women in New York and Berlin Alexanderplatz around the same time), who gives a mesmerizing performance that promised future greatness. The male leads, von Bohm and Schuckert, were played with equal, if surpassing skill by East German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl (Jacob the Liar, A Love in Germany) and Mario Adorf (The Lost Honor of Katherine Blum, The Tin Drum), both delivering two of their best performances. I firmly believe that throughout his career Fassbinder manipulated his standard cast of actors – many of whom were not particularly talented or experienced – to achieve his own ends, but Lola is a film that benefits as much from incredible direction as it does from three solid performances.
Lola comes highly recommended and is a great starting point for newcomers, as it is one of Fassbinder’s most accessible films. It is a melodrama, but one with humor, tragedy, sex, and above all it concerns a woman determined to control and enjoy her life regardless of the cost (one of Fassbinder’s enduring themes). His examination of Germany’s reconstruction built on greed, exploitation, and amorality is one of his lightest, yet most biting works. See it as soon as possible and pick up Criterion’s BRD Trilogy DVD box set.