Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982
Starring: Rosel Zech, Annemarie Düringer, Hilmar Thate
Veronika Voss, a former Nazi starlet, has lapsed into reclusively and paranoia by the mid-‘50s. She is unable to get hired by the film studio and is utterly dependent on a Dr. Katz, a greedy neurologist who drains Veronika’s bank account and keeps her addicted to drugs. But Veronika soon meets Robert, a reporter, and they begin an affair despite the fact that he already has a girlfriend, Henriette. Hoping to free Veronika from Dr. Katz’ obsessive clutches, Robert and Henriette team up to investigate the doctor, not realizing how dangerous it could be for all three of them.
Considered by many to be Fassbinder’s best film, this middle entry in the BRD trilogy, between The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, is certainly one of his most skilled. Filmed in black and white and inspired by Sunset Boulevard — where an aged star spiraling into madness attracts a middle-aged writer and keeps him prisoner in her house, eventually killing him — Veronika Voss is based loosely on the life of Nazi actress Sybille Schmitz. In addition to appearing in some of the best films of the ‘20s and early ‘30s including Diary of a Lost Girl and Vampyr, she continuing working during the Nazi reign, despite the fact that Goebbels allegedly disliked her. After the war, she was shunned and only worked intermittently while succumbing to depression and drug and alcohol abuse. She committed suicide in 1955, which was facilitated by a female doctor who lived with her, prescribed her morphine, and stole her money.
At its heart, Veronika Voss is a film about the loss of fame, artistic relevance, and creative power, something Fassbinder possibly feared at this point of his life. He struggled with drug addiction and, somewhat uniquely, depended on cocaine to ensure his staggering creative output. It was, of course, his undoing, and he died the following year from a drug overdose, reportedly just as he planned to quit cold turkey. While it’s easy to see Veronika Voss purely a statement about the Third Reich, war trauma, and forgetting, this addiction aspect is fascinating in regards to Fassbinder’s own life. At the same time that he developed this film, he was also planning to adapt Pitigrilli’s 1921 novel Cocaine, another tale of drug use with a fascist history. It was banned in Italy in the ‘30s by both the Catholic church and the government, thanks to anti-Semitic laws (Pitigrilli was Jewish).
It’s also a film about obsession. Like plenty of Fassbinder’s earlier works and the other two films in the BRD trilogy, Veronika Voss is focused on a protagonist obsessed with an enigmatic second character. In some ways, this is framed as a detective story or mystery with the basic outline that a man (typically a writer, detective, or reporter in film noir) meets a mysterious, alluring woman who is in trouble and he seeks both intimacy and a solution to her problems. In this case, Robert (and through him, Henriette) seeks to solve the puzzle of Veronika Voss. Fassbinder turns the genre on its head somewhat, because there is no ultimate revelation, punishment, or triumph. Veronika dies and her story simply fades away; there is no book written or criminal investigation undertaken, and it is even someone else who writes about her death for the newspaper.
While this balance between infamy and anonymity is reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss is informed as much by another film noir, Laura. In this classics noir, a detective becomes obsessed with a woman while investigating her murder and is haunted by a large portrait of her that hangs in her apartment. But she comes to life, as a different woman was accidentally killed in her place, and they fall in love when the detective catches her killer. In Veronika Voss, Robert is haunted by the image of Veronika Voss from her film appearances. The movie opens with Veronika (and Fassbinder, making a cameo as an audience member just behind her) sitting in a theater watching one of her own films. She is a spectator from a darker time, but she never comes to life, she merely fades away into the inevitability of her own death.
This image of the spectral past impinging on the present and the relief of amnesia is further symbolized by an old Jewish couple, antique dealers and Holocaust survivors also being treated by Dr. Katz for “nervous disorders.” They are survivors of the Nazi death camp Treblinka and welcome the relief of morphine from constant emotional pain. This suggestion that trauma is a wound healed only by death is constant throughout the film and two of Fassbinder’s other works — Fox and His Friends and In a Year With 13 Moons — share this abiding sense of personal misery and the desire for forgetting and oblivion. I can’t help but wonder if Fassbinder selection of Treblinka is intentional. In In a Year With 13 Moons, Saitz, the film’s seductive antagonist, is a survivor of Bergen Belsen, a concentration camp near Hanover (about three hours east of Berlin). It was used primarily for labor or transit and lacked gas chambers or gas vans; yet of the roughly 120,000 people who passed through the camp, around 50,000 were killed. It maintained the reputation of being one of the easier camps to survive.
Treblinka, on the other hand, located in Nazi-occupied Poland, was the site of mass exterminations. In the three years that it was open, nearly a million people were killed, making this the site of the second most number of Holocaust deaths next to Auschwitz. But unlike Auschwitz, the Germans were prepared for the arrival of Soviet soldiers and the camp was destroyed and an attempt was made to hide all evidence of the genocide. Treblinka was one of the camps to experience an uprising and as a result, roughly 70 people — 70 out of almost a million — survived the camp. Only a few of those made it past the war years and many of these men devoted the rest of their lives to telling their story to the world. Survivor Hershl Sperling gave testimony, but eventually committed suicide, as did another survivor, author Richard Glazar. Only one survivor remains today, sculptor Samuel Willenberg.
This intersection between drug overdose, survivor guilt, depression, isolation, and suicide can that can be found in Veronika Voss, Fox and His Friends, and In a Year With 13 Moons exposes main characters who are all tired, in pain, and, above all, ready to die. What this suggests about Fassbinder himself, I cannot fairly say, but it was the last film released before his death (though Querelle was the last one he made). Before Veronika Voss, Fassbinder’s most spectacular image of death was the eerie, blue subway station where Fox lays down to die in Fox and His Friends. Here, it is far surpassed by two images. First, Veronika’s own farewell party — seemingly held hours before her suicide — where she looks incredibly glamorous and sings the Dean Martin song, “Memories are Made of This.” The second is one of the most startling set pieces of Fassbinder’s career: Dr. Katz’s brilliant-white office, a waiting room that leads patients down a road towards death, rather than life and healing. It’s also reminiscent of the blinding-white room Willie enters in Lili Marleen when she is going to meet Hitler. This place of absence, forgetting, and death is a fitting final image for a director mere months away from his own death.
Veronika Voss comes with the highest possible recommendation and can be found in Criterion’s excellent BRD trilogy box set (along with a documentary about Schmidt). I can’t decide if Veronika Voss is Fassbinder’s greatest film, but it certainly in his top three or four and it is a masterwork that absolutely must be seen. The incredible black and white imagery is Dreyer-like in its splendor and this is certainly Fassbinder's most visually sumptuous, moving work.