Daniel Schmid, 1976
Starring: Ingrid Caven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Klaus Löwitsch, Annemarie Düringer, Adrien Hoven
The beautiful Lily Brest turns to prostitution to support her boyfriend, Raoul, though he is abusive and wastes her money gambling. She has trouble getting clients, but is soon hired by a man known only as the Rich Jew, one of the city’s most powerful men. He discovers that she is a good listener, and spends most of their time together talking about his life. Raoul becomes insanely jealous, while others around town also begin to ostracize her. Even her parents – her wheelchair-bound mother and ex-Nazi father who is a drag performer at a local cabaret – begin to hate her. Consumed with despair, she hopes to end her life and thinks the Rich Jew may be her only way out.
This Swiss-West German co-production, directed by Fassbinder’s friend Daniel Schmid, is based on Fassbinder’s controversial play, Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (The Garbage, the City, and the Death). Based loosely on Gerhard Zwerenz’s novel Die Erde ist unbewohnbar wie der Mond (The Earth is Inhabitable Like the Moon, though it seems to be unavailable in English), the play and Schmid’s film bear much in common with Fassbinder’s deeply personal later works, In a Year With 13 Moons and Berlin Alexanderplatz. With those films, Shadow of Angels shares three main themes: the commodification of human life, an exploration of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism, and a central character plunged into despair simply by trying to live in society.
The play was immediately attacked for its exploration of anti-Semitism, thanks to the fact that a character is named “the Rich Jew.” Four separate performances were banned over the years, though it has finally been staged as far afield as New York and Israel. Fassbinder was brave to attempt this, but perhaps misguided. He was deeply wounded by the backlash against the play and, in particular, accusations that he was anti-Semitic. I cannot say for sure whether or not Fassbinder was anti-Semitic, though I sincerely doubt it. His entire career revolved around depicting abused, marginalized characters, which included Germans, foreigners, men, women, gay, straight, black, white, old, young, and so on. I think he objected to the idea that there was something sacred, something inviolable, and unable to be criticized.
I think he was trying to show two things. First, that anti-Semitism lingered in Germany and had not lessened since WWII, it just became taboo to openly speak about. In his defense of the play, he said that there is an anti-Semitic character in the play – Lily’s father, the former Nazi, who admits that his role during the war was to kill Jews – because there are still people like this in Germany. Factually speaking, thousands of Nazis evaded prosecution and were reintegrated into Germany society. Secondly, that Jews — even the post-Holocaust mythic figure of the survivor — are people and are capable of selfishness, misdeeds, and exploiting others. I’ve written about this already, but more than a decade earlier, Hannah Arendt – herself a Jew and concentration camp survivor – was ostracized with Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963. The situation had changed very little by the ‘70s and it arguably would not change until a post-Holocaust TV series world (it was released in 1978 and screened throughout the U.S. and Europe in the following years), when a more varied, open discourse about war and Holocaust survivors began.
Getting down to brass tacks, calling the character the Rich Jew was remarkably misguided and Fassbinder seems to have been asking for trouble (which he often openly did). The character, played by Fassbinder regular Klaus Löwitsch, is described in the dialogue – in the film and the play – as old, fat, ugly, and horrible, but this strongly contrasted with how he is depicted here. Löwitsch was one of Fassbinder’s handsomest actors and as the Rich Jew, he is ultimately revealed as the film’s only honest, sympathetic character, and comes to be the only person who genuinely cares for Lily. It is possible that the other characters call him the Rich Jew, because they know absolutely nothing else about him and they are not interested in learning. He sits at the top of the city’s financial food chain, but is also made separate from the infrastructure.
In his essay Anti-Semite and the Jew, Sartre wrote that if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would create him. He goes on to explain that the anti-Semite is primarily a conservative being stuck in the past, resisting a changing society and that he has distilled his fears and hatred into the figure of the Jew, the ultimate scapegoat. But the scapegoat in Shadow of Angels is not the Rich Jew, it’s Lily, who quickly becomes hated by every other character in the film – especially those close to her, such as her lover, her parents, and other prostitutes – by everyone except for the Rich Jew.
Fassbinder would explore this concept of the pharmakos, the ritual sacrifice of an exile or scapegoat, many times throughout his career, including films like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fox and His Friends, Despair, Martha, In a Year With 13 Moons, Querelle, Veronika Voss, and many more, but this is certainly an early incarnation. Ingrid Caven, Fassbinder’s ex-wife, is excellent as Lily. A mixture of tragic, alluring, and emotionally void, Lily feels like a ghostly presence haunting the film. Like the Rich Jew, she is in the world, but not of it. Early in the film, she strangles a kitten out of quiet despair. This theme of choking and strangulations prevails until her death at the literal hands of the Rich Jew, who puts her out of her misery out of love.
The film is certainly flawed and at times feels like an amateur stage production with its dialogue-heavy scenes, aphorism-reliant dialogue, and stage-like sets. I can’t help but wonder why Fassbinder chose not to direct the film, though it is likely that he was simply too busy with his own projects and wanted to help out a friend. He was also deeply affected by the controversy surrounding Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod, which was banned for decades. By contrast, Shadow of Angels went to Cannes in 1976 and was entered into competition for the Golden Palm, though, somewhat mysteriously, the film has basically disappeared and is somewhat difficult to get ahold of. I can only really recommend it to fans of Fassbinder and New German Cinema. Though it is a compelling piece and there are some wonderful moments, it fails as a cohesive whole. Still… if you want to see Adrian Hoven dressed in drag, singing cabaret songs, and spouting intentionally distasteful Nazi rhetoric, here’s your chance.