Querelle (1982)

Only those who are truly identified with their own selves no longer need to fear fear. And only those who are rid of their fear are capable of loving nonjudgmentally. The ultimate goal of all human endeavor: to live one’s own life.

—R. W. Fassbinder on Querelle

Querelle, as everyone surely knows by now, was the last film Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed before he died suddenly in the early hours of June 10, 1982 at the age of thirty-seven. (Querelle was released posthumously.) This fact, for better or worse, lends the film a significance it probably would not otherwise hold in RWF’s oeuvre. It’s just not the one you’d pick to close this extraordinary career.

Which isn’t to say that Querelle isn’t significant. As a document in the history of gay representation in cinema, it’s got to be something of a milestone, if only for its frank and unabashed depiction of sodomy, especially when you consider the size of its budget and the fact that it was intended for international distribution. The problem with Querelle is just that it’s an often incomprehensible mess. If we’re talking queer cinema milestones, I’ll take Fox and His Friends over Querelle any day.

Some of this no doubt has to do with the fact that RWF’s breakneck work schedule and already notorious relationship with substances seemed to finally be getting the better of him. Dieter Schidor, Querelle’s producer, described RWF’s bedtime ritual around that period: if after a line of cocaine, 30 mg of Valium, and three glasses of bourbon, the director was awake longer than fifteen minutes, he’d do it all again (Hayman, p. 98). His judgment cannot have remained unimpaired under such conditions, and it shows. Querelle contains some of the worst performances RWF ever obtained, and from some very good actors: Brad Davis, Franco Nero, and particularly Jeanne Moreau are just wasted in this film.

And then there’s the source material. Jean Genet’s 1947 tale of sex and murder among sailors and criminals in a seaport underworld, Querelle of Brest, is not, after all, for everyone. It’s a specialized genre, you might say, where character is a function of desire, (and desire proportional to musculature), morality is a function of humiliation, murder is an existential act, and women are just plain irrelevant. The narrative follows a logic that is hallucinatory and nonlinear, with a plot that barely matters—which is lucky, I guess, since it’s really hard to follow. The dialog is crude and trivial, usually just the prelude to or consequence of sex or violence (or both). And because the sexuality is so overdetermined, any deeper messages of spiritual liberation are hard to grasp. This gets tedious.

With Querelle, I think, RWF set himself a seemingly impossible task: to convey the essence of Genet’s novel without compromising his own moral vision, his overriding sense of humanity. In this respect, at least, I’d say he did a pretty good job. This doesn’t make the movie any easier to watch, of course, but if you can get past the somnambulistic pacing, the suffocating milieu, the lugubrious dialog and affectless performances (not to mention the horrendous dubbing), the relentless and heavy-handed phallic imagery (and I mean relentless: there’s a reference to a prick in one form or another in nearly every scene of the film)—all of which is a lot to get past—Querelle actually fits pretty logically in RWF’s oeuvre and supports a theme absolutely central to his work from the very beginning: the necessity of finding and remaining faithful to one’s true “identity” in a society predicated on falsehood.

Synopsis
Georges Querelle (Brad Davis) is a sailor and a criminal. When his ship, Le Vengeur, docks in Brittany, he goes to visit his twin brother, Robert (Hanno Pöschl), who hangs out at La Féria, a notorious brothel, where Robert happens to be the favorite of the proprietress, Madame Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). La Féria is notorious for one custom in particular: before a client can sleep with one of the prostitutes he must roll dice with the patron, Nono (Gunther Kaufmann). If the trick wins, he gets the girl of his choice; if he loses, Nono gets to bugger him first. (Some sailors, Genet informs us, deliberately contrive to lose at this game.) Robert won his dice game, and has been sleeping with Mme. Lysiane ever since.

Querelle has a secret admirer, his superior, Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), who moons over Querelle day and night and spends most of his time dictating the details of his yearning into a handheld tape recorder—that is, when he isn’t skulking around Brest looking mournfully at the rough trade he is too timid to approach or shadowing Querelle.

Querelle visits Robert at La Féria. Robert sets his brother up with Nono to help Querelle unload a shipment of opium he has somehow smuggled. Querelle, inexplicably, is struck by the patron’s power and by the “wealth and beauty” of Mario (Burkhard Driest), the bent cop who hangs out at the Féria bar. (Querelle, presumably, is straight at this point.)

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Querelle murders Vic (Dieter Schidor), the sailor who agreed to help him unload the opium. Querelle begins by sexually propositioning Vic, but in a childishly elusive way (you know, the way boys do to hide their fear of rejection by pretending they’re not really asking what they’re asking). Genet suggests that Querelle is driven by another compulsion: to “complement” murders he’s already committed, as though a fresh murder somehow cancels out residual guilt from the preceding one. For reasons that will soon be clear, RWF does not take this approach. In the movie, Vic appears to be Querelle’s first murder, and RWF casts it in a sacred light, like some sort of ritual sacrifice.

And so Querelle begins his descent into monstrous criminality. Next stop, La Féria, where he rolls dice with Nono and deliberately loses. (In Genet, this is depicted as a logical consequence of Vic’s murder, an act of humiliation and atonement. In RWF, it’s just confusing.) Querelle, however, is surprised to find that he likes it. Robert finds out about Querelle’s escapade and the two fight bitterly, knives drawn. This prompts a strange interlude in which several members of the cast of Querelle enact a sort of Calvary scene. (Don’t ask me.)

Meanwhile, there’s a mason who works in the shipyard called Gil Turko (also played by Hanno Pöschl) who claims to be in love with a girl named Paulette but who, in her absence, comes on to her pretty brother, Roger (Laurent Malet) because he looks like his sister. (Roger himself appears to be in love with Gil.) Gil is tormented by another mason named Theo (Neil Bell), who mocks and teases Gil because he too is a childishly aggressive male who expresses his desire through taunts. (Theo really wants to sleep with Gil.) The latter eventually snaps and murders his tormentor with a broken bottle. Gil goes into hiding in an abandoned prison. This intensifies Roger’s love for Gil, with whom he now shares a dangerous secret.

Querelle decides he needs to bond with another murderer and arranges to meet Gil through Roger. Querelle immediately falls in love with Gil and offers to help him. In order to raise the cash to enable him to get out of Brest, Querelle suggests that Gil rob Lieutenant Seblon, who always carries lots of cash. To this end, Querelle procures a suit, a gun, and a fake moustache for Gil, thus ensuring that he will look exactly like Robert when he commits the robbery. (Gil, don’t forget, is played by the same actor as Robert, Querelle’s twin—son semblable, son frere!)

Seblon refuses to hand over the money, daring Gil to shoot him instead, which the latter obligingly does. After the deed is done, Querelle tells Gil he must escape on the four o’clock train to Bordeaux, then turns around and betrays him to a cop’s informer (Gunther Kaufmann, again, dressed like a Western gunslinger). Querelle’s plan, it seems, is to ensure that Gil takes the rap for Vic’s murder as well as Theo’s. Querelle has become a monster.

Querelle finds Lieutenant Seblon’s tape recorder and listens to his poetic ramblings until his superior interrupts him. Seblon tells Querelle he knows he is a murderer, and dares Querelle to stab him. Just then the police arrive to bring Lieutenant S. in to identify the robber, having arrested Gil thanks to Querelle’s tipoff. The lieutenant, however, does not ID Gil.

Querelle becomes Madame Lysiane’s lover, but only to punish Robert, whom he has already symbolically murdered by framing Gil. As if that weren’t enough, the lieutenant shows up at the Féria and IDs Robert as the guy who robbed him. (Poor Robert just does not get a break here.)

Later, on the waterfront, Seblon, lurking as always amid the sexual graffiti, rescues Querelle from a knife fight after Querelle slaps a girl for getting playful. (Querelle does a lot of that in the novel; for a guy who doesn’t know he likes men, he sure hates women.) The grateful Querelle offers himself to the lieutenant, at last able to love him.

Back at La Féria, Lysiane accuses Querelle of only loving his brother (i.e., himself). Querelle asks her if she knows who he is and, ignoring Nono’s pleas not to, declares that he, Querelle, is her husband’s plaything, Nono’s piece of ass!!! Lysiane and Nono are both devastated (for different reasons, obviously). And what about Robert? “What do I care about Robert?” answers Querelle. “I’m me!

Seriously.

A World of Images
The story of Querelle is every bit as tedious as I’ve just made it sound. Even RWF, in his way, acknowledged this.

As far as discrepancy between objective plot and subjective fantasy is concerned, Querelle de Brest may be the most radical novel in world literature. On the surface, its story, when divorced from Genet’s world of images, is a fairly uninteresting (in fact, third-class) tale about a criminal, and as such is hardly worth our while.

This is true. Without Genet’s often extraordinary poetic language—which I assume is what RWF means by his “world of images,” since literary images are created with language—Querelle would indeed hardly be “worth our while.” I’m not sure it would even make sense. The problem here, for RWF and for the rest of us, is that Genet’s world of images, though undeniably potent (and okay, yes, there’s a pun in there), is entirely verbal. It doesn’t translate very well to visual images, despite RWF’s best efforts. To take but one obvious example: a piling shaped like a gigantic penis (yes, really) is just not the same thing as a sentence in which the hero imagines the power of that massive architectural element as an extension of his own virility. It just isn’t.

This is no doubt why RWF uses so much literary text in Querelle, in the form of intertitles, third-person narration, Seblon’s recordings and, as in Berlin Alexanderplatz, third-person narration transposed into dialog. These devices can and often do backfire, however, overloading the audience with too many words, too many channels of information at once, especially when you add music, intense visual iconography, international accents and lousy dubbing. Which is precisely what happens here. The effort to decipher the continuous flow of information—not to mention Franco Nero’s often incomprehensibly thick accent—is just exhausting, and often seems to drain the narrative of its magic, its poetry. As if that weren’t enough, Peer Raben’s modernist ecclesiastical choral music (to coin a phrase)—no doubt intended to impart a sense of the sacred—often just gets in the way, drowning out both dialog and narration in an effort to make its point.

RWF does his best to convey the essence of Querelle through other means, with varying degrees of success. The highly stylized set (another marvelous design by Rolf Zehetbauer) and lurid backdrops, lit a sickly crepuscular orange-yellow—it’s always twilight in Brest, apparently—conveys at different times a sense of sleaze, heat, danger, hallucination, or rebirth, while always reflecting the dreamlike state in which the narrative unfolds. (RWF had originally intended to use projection screens, as in the last episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but gave up on the idea when the technique proved too confining.)

The locations—the ramparts, the docks, the abandoned prison, and of course Le Vengeur itself—are designed according to this logic: fantastic, surreal, dirty, these are almost absurdly masculine spaces, spaces where sweaty male bodies are meant to be confined—too many of them, too close together—and that effect is palpable, almost suffocating. (La Féria, on the other hand, with its ornamental etched-glass windows and mirrors, its feather boas and face-powder and ferns, its sequins and ceiling fans, is equally suffocating in its crushing femininity.) You can almost smell these places. The costumes—the low-cut wifebeater shirts, the tight sailor pants, Querelle’s pomponned cap pushed back at a jaunty and impertinent angle, the cop’s leather vest and hat, the mason’s slim-fit jumpsuit and silver hard-hat—are practically a compendium of 20th-century gay iconography as seen through a 1970s lens. Just add an Indian chief and and you’ve got the Village People.

RWF was adamant that the transposition of a literary work to film must not merely attempt to translate the author’s images from one medium to the other. In this respect, Querelle is, to my mind, something of a failure. (What is a penis-shaped piling if not a literal translation of a literary metaphor?) The one exception, which I wish RWF had relied upon more, is the way he used choreography. The movie’s two fight scenes (the first between Gil and Roger, the second between Robert and Querelle) were literally choreographed as dance and both manage to convey simply and wordlessly what all the sexual graffiti and phallic set design, the turgid dialog and ponderous narration consistently fail to evoke: the poetic fancy of Genet’s text, the almost contradictory emotions and impulses that inform his conception of desire—about which there is, as RWF acknowledges, something sacred.

The Monster in the Mirror
I can certainly understand why RWF would have wanted to make Querelle. Genet, after all, is a hugely important figure in gay literature; Querelle of Brest could very well have been one of those key texts that saved the young Fassbinder from that murderous puberty he has referred to. There are echoes of Genet in his early gangster films, too—especially Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, with their criminal outsider heroes, their desperate girlfriends rendered superfluous by the arrival of a tough, handsome stranger. I imagine, then, the decision to accept Dieter Schidor’s offer was a no-brainer, especially when it became clear that Schidor needed Fassbinder on the marquee in order to raise enough money to make the film at all. (Burkhard Driest, who plays the cop, Mario, and wrote the original script, was originally slated to direct.)

By 1982, however, RWF’s vision and worldview had moved in a different direction—if indeed it was ever anything but superficially in sync with Genet’s—and I don’t think he really knew what to do with Querelle of Brest. This is why he had to rewrite the ending and the fundamental message of the novel. This, I think, is why the film feels so cluttered and so forced. And this, it stands to reason, is why it just doesn’t work.

The novel, as I’ve said, follows a surreal and circular logic, unspooling almost like wallpaper with only the page numbers to mark the beginning, middle, and end. Querelle is a murderer when the story opens and an unrepentant murderer when it ends. Lieutenant Seblon remains a lovesick “fairy” throughout, his love for Querelle never reciprocated, a slightly comic figure, an object of scorn. Robert and Querelle, identical twins, remain locked in static, perpetual, and unresolvable conflict, attracted yet repelled like ionic particles.

RWF’s Querelle, on the other hand, follows a clear trajectory of self-discovery—a journey into the light, you might say. This phrase, the subtitle of RWF’s 1977 Despair, is more apt than it might seem. Despair, with its theme of killing the doppelgänger in an effort to escape the prison of identity within bourgeois society, is the RWF film that Querelle made me think of the most—right down to the device of casting actors who look nothing like one another to play identical twins. The double is a construct, in other words, an illusion that reflects a false identity. RWF takes this a step further in Querelle by casting Hanno Pöschl as both Robert and Gil, whom Querelle betrays presumably because Gil is a mirror image of his brother, who represents the ball and chain of inheritance, but also an image of Querelle (since they’re twins), who is a murderer. Is he thereby symbolically killing both his straight brother and the soulless criminal he has become? It would seem so, since for RWF betraying Gil is the precondition for accepting Seblon’s love.

All this, of course, is a radical departure from Genet, whose “attraction” to Querelle would appear to be based precisely on the character’s stubborn opacity, his inveterate criminality, his animal selfishness, his amorality. When Querelle finally kisses Seblon in the novel it is because he is drunk and because he feels like it (he’s probably also toying with his superior). The lieutenant tells him to be prudent, because another officer might see them; Querelle impertinently replies: “There’s nobody here but you.” RWF, however, recast this line to signal Querelle’s newly discovered capacity to love: There’s nobody but you. (Even more audacious, RWF has the sailor, not the lieutenant, utter one of the more over-the-top lines from Seblon’s diary, in which he describes his fantasy of stretching out across [your] thighs, cradled like a dead Jesus in a Pietà.)

A Time Capsule in a Time Capsule
Genet was, of course, a product of his time and, as such, Querelle of Brest reflects the predominant assumptions of mid 20th-century France, whether directly or inverted as in a mirror. Thus the novel offers a vision of homosexuality situated squarely within the defining moral paradigm of the time (Christianity) in an era when homosexuality itself was a crime in the eyes of both church and state. The underworld setting, then, is not just a device: in 1947 it was home if you happened to be a sodomite, since you’d already been branded a sinner and a criminal. At the same time, the humiliation and degradation Genet celebrates seem to enact, in their own way, the Christian trajectory of sin and redemption. (There are a lot of references to Christ in Querelle of Brest. A lot.)

Moreover, the world Querelle inhabits is unquestionably a man’s world. Genet’s vision of women (soft, passive, pointless) is firmly anchored in the bedrock of patriarchy, which he only appears to invert. Masculinity (firm, powerful, vigorous) is all that matters. This is why Seblon is a figure of scorn. He is too feminine, which makes him a fairy—whereas Querelle, a man’s man through and through, can get away with brief flights into his own femininity because he’s a “real man.” (He wouldn’t hesitate to knife anybody who dared call him a fairy.) I suspect that if Seblon is the character Genet identifies with on some level, Querelle is the character he idealizes.

Fassbinder, of course, was in a completely different place, and Querelle reflects this. In RWF’s rendition, Querelle journeys through a violent underworld to finally reach a true understanding of himself. His transgression, in other words, is not an end in itself but rather a sort of purification rite that will leave him finally able to truly love another human being with total honesty. (At the same time, Seblon finds the courage in himself to finally be loved and so becomes worthy of it.) Fassbinder wants to take us somewhere very different from where we thought we were going: out of the gutter and into the light.

In 1982, RWF could recast the signifiers of Genet’s universe—the uniforms, the tight pants, the taut, sinewy bodies—as images we would recognize from the 1970s gay scene (many of which we probably owe to Genet, in the first place). Mario looks like he’d be more at home in a leather bar than a whorehouse. Querelle could have been created by Tom of Finland. Butch Theo plays an arcade video game—pastime of many an RWF tough—in the bar where he humiliates and is eventually killed by Gil. (This, incidentally, is the sort of clever anachronism I always assumed Derek Jarman originated, with Caravaggio; but of course, RWF did it first!) These are caricatures, not characters, and I think they are meant to function the same way the cartoon-like women in Women in New York worked, as types. Querelle’s journey through this underworld of stereotypes is a rite of passage that will bring him in touch with his true self.

Querelle, then, is a “coming out” story, an allegory for its time and, as such, it’s a fascinating snapshot of a moment in history, a reflection of images and issues that I imagine would have been at the forefront of the discourse on gay culture at the time, if only briefly. (The AIDS epidemic would soon tragically eclipse all that, for too long.) In the same way, Querelle of Brest, which celebrated transgression within the context of the Christian concept of sin, reflects a previous era’s images of homosexuality, by necessity veiled in secrecy, when disclosure was unthinkable.

Both visions seem antiquated today, when the discourse around homosexuality is more likely to center on equal rights and marriage equality—once the very institution that symbolized bourgeois morality/normality par excellence—access to which neither Genet nor Fassbinder would probably ever have dreamed of. In this context at least, Querelle is fascinating to contemplate.

Coda
I hate to end on such a sad and ugly note, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dedication with which RWF opens Querelle, as if to demonstrate just how far he still was from the kind of stability and commitment we now take for granted when we talk about, say, marriage equality (which I think RWF understood and acknowledged, sadly, with this dedication):

This film is dedicated to my friendship with El Hedi ben Salem m’Barek Mohammed Mustafa

El Hedi ben Salem, of course, was RWF’s Moroccan lover in the early 1970s, famous for his role as Ali in Fear Eats the Soul. The saga of RWF’s brief relationship with Salem is a travesty of commitment. (Even involving, if Kurt Raab is to be believed, the neglect if not outright abuse and eventual abandonment of two of Salem’s five children, whom RWF had brought to Germany from Morocco with the delusional objective of starting a family (Hayman, p. 25).) RWF dumped Salem shortly after Fear Eats the Soul was made in 1973. Salem allegedly hung himself in a French prison in 1976.*

______________

*According to Wikipedia, Salem died of a heart attack. Tragic, either way.

 

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Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Queer Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Tagged , , ,

Veronika Voss (1982)

People are interesting to me when they’re losing. When they’ve lost, they stop being interesting to me.

—Grete (Elisabeth Volkmann) in Veronika Voss

As I’ve said many times now, one of the things I love most about Fassbinder is the way he was able to weave incredibly personal preoccupations—whether from his own life, from literature or cinema, or from history—into a fabric that had significance for a surprisingly wide audience, often in unexpected ways. As we’ve seen time and again, his best films require genuine effort on the part of the viewer: morally complex, they defy easy or superficial readings. Quite often, they even challenge us to accommodate apparently contradictory interpretations which lead us to a deeper, if more uncomfortable, awareness of the complexities of human society and the so-called mysteries of human behavior.

Veronika Voss, however, is that rare exception. I’ve watched it twice now (three times if you count the first time, years ago), when once really would have been enough. It’s that straightforward: a second viewing, plus supplementary reading from my usual sources, yielded no hidden subtext, no deeper meanings, no complications. Even after watching all the extras on the Criterion DVD, I’ve gained no new insight. I guess I just don’t get Veronika Voss. Or rather, I’m pretty sure I do get it, and too easily. What I don’t get, frankly, is the point.

But if I don’t quite see the point, I do see the beauty. Veronika Voss is an absolutely stunning film, beautifully crafted in every respect. To describe Xaver Schwarzenberger’s black-and-white cinematography as “luminous,” for example, or the camerawork as “brilliantly restrained,” the lighting as “dazzling,” or Peer Raben’s score as “pitch perfect,” does not come close to doing the film’s aesthetics justice. (Even the credits are perfect—but then, RWF’s usually were.) As though Fassbinder were finally able to give form and voice to a lifetime’s passion for the movies, now that he had all the right tools at his disposal and had really “mastered this craft.”

If Lola was all about the fifties as Technicolor decade, Veronika Voss captures the aesthetic of the forties, which is to say, the film noir era. It brilliantly evokes the eponymous heroine’s heyday as a movie star, using elements and techniques that nicely mimic the Ufa studio aesthetic (Ufa is short for Universum Film AG, Germany’s major studio throughout the Weimar and war years). RWF even used East German film stock to get that vintage black and white which we had already lost in the West. (Okay, so I did learn something from the Criterion extras after all.)

The set, designed by Rolf Zehetbauer (he did the marvelous Despair set, most notably), is a brilliant, dazzling white, overlit like some kind of hallucinatory clinic—like oblivion, like death. (Thomas Elsaesser has cleverly decribed Veronika Voss as a film blanc rather than a film noir.) The effect is quite startling. The occasional blacks—Veronika’s rhinestone-embellished dress, or Gunther Kaufmann, dressed as the ubiquitous American GI, singing “Sixteen Tons” in a too-white dining room—only serve to heighten the impression of terrifying whiteness. This effect, of course, also reflects our heroine’s mental state, as we’ll soon see.

I could go on and on. The costumes! The make-up! The halos and starbursts from the lights! The country music on the radio! The wipes and iris-outs that terminate key scenes! Technically, Veronika Voss marks RWF’s pinnacle as a craftsman—which is all the more impressive when you consider that the entire movie was made, start to finish, in four months’ time. (Shot in November and December of 1981, it screened at the Berlinale in February 1982.) It is certainly the closest he would ever come to making a Hollywood studio–caliber film, with all the sense of glamour and magic—and, yes, a certain degree of conventionality—that implies. If you didn’t already know Veronika Voss was an RWF film you might not even recognize it as such.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe achieving recognition for this level of technical mastery was enough, in 1982, when real mainstream success was finally within RWF’s grasp. And in this respect, at least, he was right. Veronika Voss won the Golden Bear award at the Berlinale, under the approving gaze of Joan Fontaine and Jimmy Stewart, only months before RWF died. (Of course the Berlin jury probably gave him the award to recognize “lifetime achievement,” i.e., to compensate for their failure to recognize The Marriage of Maria Braun, a hypothesis which Juliane Lorenz corroborates. Kind of like giving the Best Director Academy Award to Martin Scorsese for The Departed, when everyone knows he should have gotten it for Raging Bull.)

Will The Real Veronika Voss Please Stand Up?
The third in what has come to be known as The BRD Trilogy (though labeled BRD 2, God only knows why), Veronika Voss is set in Munich in 1955. It is the story of a once-adored, now mostly forgotten German movie star (Rosel Zech), desperate to make a comeback, who wildly latches onto an innocent journalist, Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), the way the drowning grasp indiscriminately for life support only to drag their rescuer down with them. Aging and alone, forgotten by all but an elderly few, we know it’s just a matter of time before she goes completely under. Especially since, as we quickly learn, Veronika Voss is a morphine addict, beholden to her sinister neurologist, Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who feeds her addiction at a price sufficiently inflated to ensure her patient’s eventual ruin. The doctor, in cahoots with the functionary in the department of health responsible for monitoring opiate prescriptions (Erik Schumann), trades services and substances for the future inheritance of her patients’ estates. When they die, the doctors get everything.

Veronika Voss was actually based on the true-life story of Sybille Schmitz, one of Germany’s more celebrated actresses of the 1930s (she played supporting roles in Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl and Dreyer’s Vampyr, for example). Unlike certain other well-known Weimar-era actors, however, Schmitz stayed in Germany under the Nazis and continued to work, if less frequently than in her prime, and in fewer leading roles. After the war, her career rapidly declined. Broken and alcoholic and addicted to morphine, she committed suicide in 1955 in the home of her neurologist, with whom she had been living. (Consider that your spoiler.)

Various excuses for Schmitz’s decline have been offered over the years. The prevailing one seems to be that directors were “discouraged” from casting her in leading roles during the war due to her dark and smouldering, vaguely “semitic” appearance, which did not conform to the Führer’s ideal of Aryan womanhood (as exemplified by, say, Leni Riefenstahl). She herself is said to have claimed that she was blacklisted during the war because she rejected Goebbels’ amorous advances. (Never mind that in 1945 she was thirty-six years old, well over the industry-standard sell-by date for leading ladies, and anyway already reputed to be unstable.)

In RWF’s telling, however, a colleague of Robert’s, Grete (Elisabeth Volkmann), explains that Veronika Voss was actually a favorite of Goebbels and only changed her story, claiming to have been blacklisted by him, after the war. As if to support this, RWF cast the very blonde, sharp-featured Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss, thereby foreclosing any possibility that the leading lady’s decline could be attributed to antisemitism. These choices were no doubt intended to make the audience’s relationship to the heroine all the more ambivalent and to increase the conflict we feel in identifying or empathizing with her. In this regard, RWF was right to make them.

Veronika Voss and Lili Marleen
Although officially one-third of the BRD Trilogy, Veronika Voss bears little resemblance to its brethren. Neither Lola nor Maria Braun—strong, independent, resourceful protagonists—would ever allow their vanity to get the better of them, for example, let alone tolerate the sheer dependence which is the defining characteristic of drug addiction. At the same time, Veronika Voss doesn’t seem to have anything very coherent to say about the Bundesrepublik in the 1950s—except perhaps that women like Veronika Voss had no place in it. In this regard, Veronika Voss as a character is actually more like so many of RWF’s classic victims (Martha, Effi Briest, Margot [Fear of Fear], Fox, Hans Epp [The Merchant of Four Seasons]) . . .

The RWF film to which Veronika Voss best invites comparison is in fact Lili Marleen, also based on the story of a real-life artist popular during the Nazi era. Both Sybille Schmitz and Lalle Andersen (the singer on whom Willi in Lili Marleen was based) were hugely popular in their heyday, achieving something like iconic status during their peak. Both achieved—or sustained—fame under the Nazis. Both later claimed to have run afoul of Goebbels (although neither demonstrated reservations about working under him when times were good). Both saw their fame dwindle after the war.

But that’s about as far as the similarities go. Although Veronika Voss is technically the more accomplished film, it seems to lack the moral and philosophical tension that is the hallmark of RWF, and which elevates Lili Marleen from the wartime weepie it might at first glance appear to be to a more profound meditation on the power of art, which can transcend circumstances and the talent of the individual artist, and acquire a more profound meaning for audiences.

In Lili Marleen, there is a fundamental conflict between the audience’s sense of morality and their knowledge of history, on the one hand, and the heroine’s personal ambition and instinct for survival, on the other, which ensures near-constant tension. Whereas in Veronika Voss, any such conflict has already been resolved, well before the movie has even begun. The real story of Veronika Voss, the one we might actually find moving, or thought-provoking, or at least morally ambiguous—how she conducted herself under the Nazi regime for example, or what compromises or sacrifices she had to make to keep working, how and why her marriage ended in 1945, how she came to succumb to drug addiction, not to mention what sort of actress she was, what sort of art she made—that story has taken place well before the opening credits roll. What’s left to the viewer is merely epilogue.

Everything we know about Veronika Voss is hearsay. We take it on faith that she was a magnetic actress whose work enthralled or incited or consoled audiences under the Third Reich without seeing any evidence of it; we accept the news that she benefited from or even actively supported the Goebbels propaganda machine without question because we have no basis for questioning anything we are told about her. The film’s few flashbacks don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, either: Veronika Voss is a delusional narcissist, in love with the mystery and glamour of movie stardom. That’s it. What’s more, the single film clip from her earlier career, with which RWF opens Veronika Voss, seems intended merely to foreshadow the actress’s own death (and permit RWF a Hitchcock-style cameo). It doesn’t tell us anything about Voss as an artist or a human being. Having missed the entirety of her upward trajectory and stardom, all that’s left for us as viewers is to bear witness to her final descent. This is just not very interesting.

From Homage to Cliché
Of course, the movie to which Veronika Voss owes the greatest debt is Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic. (Funny that I should have been reminded of Billy Wilder when writing about Lola.) The principals and the premise are basically the same: an aging and delusionally vain former movie star from a previous era (Gloria Swanson) desperately latches onto an innocent younger man, in this case a screenwriter (William Holden), in an effort to engineer her comeback. The outcome ultimately is the same, too. (She fails, if slightly less spectacularly or definitively than Veronika Voss).

I think this is a huge problem for Veronika Voss: the very fact of Sunset Boulevard makes it feel like a cliché. Whether RWF or Peter Märthesheimer or Rosel Zech intended it (and my guess is they did not), I don’t think audiences could fail to read Veronika Voss as a reimagined Swanson (albeit with a twist). With Sunset Boulevard, Wilder effectively defined not just a category—which Veronika Voss clearly falls into—but a paradigm and a vocabulary, too. (Nobody was “ready for their close-up” before Gloria Swanson made it a common household phrase, after all.) Did the figure of the vain and delusional aging movie star locked up in her crumbling mansion, living on nostalgia and longing for her former glory, even exist in the collective consciousness before Sunset Boulevard?

But it’s not just that Wilder got there first. What thrilled audiences, and still gets them today, no doubt, is the fact that Gloria Swanson was played by Gloria Swanson, an actual screen legend of the silent era. Who, I might add, had an actual body of work audiences could reference (whether or not they’d actually seen any of her films, if that makes any sense). Which put Rosel Zech in a doubly-compromised position: not only did she have to suffer comparison to a real and legendary star of the silver screen, she had to create her character without the benefit of a backstory. All her “work” had to be done in her character’s abject present.

This, I think, explains why Zech just doesn’t carry Veronika Voss, despite her obvious talent and perfect period face. At a disadvantage from the start, the script gives her nothing to work with—no actual body of work in the character’s past, no interesting conflict in the present, no depth, really, of any kind. (It’s interesting to note that Peter Märthesheimer considers Veronika Voss to be his most perfect script. While Syd Field might agree, I certainly don’t. Tells you something about the difference between art and craft, nicht wahr?) She has only two modes: delusional megalomania and abject addiction. It just isn’t enough. (And as everyone knows, there’s nobody less interesting than a drug addict.) Veronika Voss is a cliché.

Dream Factory vs. Economic Miracle
So if the subject of the film isn’t interesting, what’s left? Can it be that the faded movie star schtick was just a pretext, that Veronika Voss was really intended as a portrait of the catastrophic yet irresistable power of drug addiction? I certainly hope not. For one thing, RWF himself was using cocaine quite heavily at the time, which would make such a portrait either self-loathing or hypocritical, wouldn’t it? (He was also planning a film, Cocaine, which was not going to be, shall we say, judgmental.) In any case, RWF already said everything Veronika Voss seems to have to say about heroin addiction in The Third Generation, and more efficiently, more effectively and, in my opinion, more poignantly in a handful of brief, wordless scenes with Y Sa Lo. Rosel Zech’s histrionics seem like broad pantomime in comparison.

Maybe drugs were really just a metaphor. Drug-induced illusions as substitutes for cinematic ones, cinema as opiate of the masses, etc.? Seems like a pretty trite and simplistic metaphor to me, and one which I just can’t imagine RWF subscribing to. (Movies, after all, are what “saved” him. That said, without them, he probably would have sunk into total dissipation himself, so maybe there is something to this metaphor.) More interesting to me is the notion that drug addiction symbolically represents the last resort of—and the means of exploiting—the otherwise forgotten and weak in the newly reconstructed BRD.

There is some basis for this. In Veronika Voss, Dr. Katz has a kindly, unnamed elderly client (Rudolf Platte) who is also utterly dependent on the evil doctor’s ministrations. He and his wife (Johanna Hofer) own a high-end antique shop, the contents of which the old man has willed to Dr. Katz. When the fateful day finally arrives when the couple can no longer pay Dr. Katz for prescriptions, she cuts off his supply. Unable to live without morphine, the old man and his devoted wife take a fatal overdose of sleeping pills.

Here’s where it gets interesting: in a previous scene we learn that the old man bears a tattooed number on his forearm, from Treblinka. Detritus left over from the Third Reich, he is an unfortunate and uncomfortable reminder of sins best forgotten. There is no place for him in Germany’s brave new world—just as there is no place for Veronika Voss. In the postwar BRD, both Nazi victims and accessories are ignored or forgotten, swept under the carpet, as part of the collective amnesia that seems to have been a precondition of the Wirdschaftswunder.

Unfortunately, this thread is not sufficiently explored to have much of an impact; it is almost immediately eclipsed by another plotline involving Robert’s bewilderingly magnanimous girlfriend (Cornelia Froboess), who runs decisively afoul of Dr Katz in an effort to secure evidence of her illegal drug dealing. And anyway, Veronika Voss’s own one-dimensionality pretty thoroughly undermines the point. A victim of her own absurd vanity, any effort to align her with victims of the camps seems, frankly, obscene.

So. Was I expecting too much from this film, from RWF? Am I too close to the subject, too focused on what I know he was capable of? Probably. This may be one of the inevitable drawbacks of my project this late in the game: I’m thinking of all the movies that came before, comparing, measuring, judging, even as I write about this one.

Or maybe the problem is just one of context. After all, RWF had many other films on the back burner in 1981–82, some approved, others in cold storage until financial backing could one day be obtained—from Gerhard Zwerenz’s The Earth Is Uninhabitable Like the Moon to Pitigrilli’s Cocaine to Rosa Luxemburg, already in preproduction. If I were looking at it today in the context of all those other films that should have come after it but didn’t, Veronika Voss would probably seem like a strange and interesting little genre piece, one more example of RWF’s incredible range as an artist. Maybe the problem is simply that he died too soon.

 

 

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Lola (1981)

Esslin: Would you want to live in a world that has lost all morality? Where there’s only evil and depravity and corruption?

Lola: Gladly. My only problem is they never let me really join in.

RWF and the BRD
It’s tempting to overstate RWF’s role as postmodern chronicler of 20th-century West German history. After all, at some point or other he depicted nearly every major period of that history, from the Weimar Republic through the Third Reich all the way up to the Red Army Faction-dominated “German Autumn” of the late 1970s (assuming that still counts as history since it was happening in real time?). And yet, if you look at his entire body of work, only a handful of RWF’s films were actually set in the historical past; the vast majority took place in a more or less timeless present.

This should come as no surprise. If you accept the premise that one of RWF’s principal concerns was to depict how people behave in a society warped by a particular set of values—forged in a particular place and time, admittedly, shaped by actual events and responses to those events, sure—then it stands to reason that he would focus his attention on those values at work in society, rather than on that society’s history—at least not in the way such history is typically rendered.

This might explain why RWF made only one film actually set during the Third Reich (Lili Marleen)—the defining event of the 20th century in Germany, after all—but three in the Weimar era which led up to it (Despair, The Stationmaster’s Wife, and Berlin Alexanderplatz)—and why none of these films’ focus was actually on capital-H History at all. In Fassbinder, History takes place offscreen, while his characters are busy trying to get on with their lives, contending with their fellow citizens’ values and judgments. (One interesting exception might have been Rosa Luxemburg, but I doubt it. Anyway, RWF sadly died before production could even begin.)

This might also explain why RWF set the majority of his historical films during the postwar period under the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer—an era, much like the Eisenhower years in the U.S., famous for its absence of capital-H History. This is the period of the Wirdschaftswunder or “Economic Miracle,” when the Bundesrepublik (BRD) that Fassbinder’s generation would come of age in came into being and defined itself as a “social market economy.” It marks that fateful crossroads, after the catastrophe of the Third Reich, when a nation starting over from scratch made the collective decision to look forward rather than back, to pave over its tragic and criminal past, suppressing its own grief as well as its guilt in the process, rather than confront it.

The fifties also happens to be the period in which the cinematic conventions and genres from which RWF drew his greatest inspiration were rooted, and this, I think, is no coincidence. (The classic big-screen domestic melodrama in particular, epitomized in the work of Douglas Sirk, scarcely existed before or after the nineteen-fifties.) These were the movies RWF grew up on, after all, in a childhood largely—famously—spent at the movies, and it would be easy to explain away his lifelong fascination in these terms.

But of course it’s not that simple. The fact is, although RWF “tried on” many Hollywood genres during the course of his career, the one that fit him best was not even his first choice, and probably not a childhood favorite, either. If the domestic melodrama fit him better than the others, it’s because it had evolved in the U.S. precisely to depict the dark side of postwar prosperity and bourgeois morality from the vantage point of its victims (women, mostly) on a personal, psychical level. It stands to reason that RWF would be drawn to its narrative themes and stylistic techniques as a vehicle to explore the postwar West German malaise, too.

Better Living Through Color
While Lola is not, strictly speaking, a melodrama, it directly tackles the phenomenon of the Wirdschaftswunder, both thematically and stylistically, using conventions associated with the cinema of the period. (The fact that it’s not a proper RWF melodrama might even explain why it was greeted with some ambivalence when it was released, especially since it was bound to be compared to that quintessential Wirdschaftswunder masterpiece, The Marriage of Maria Braun.)

Lola is a bizarre sort of hybrid, combining stylistic elements of both melodrama and musical comedy (another American genre that reached its baroque zenith in the fifties) and it derives its highly exaggerated visual and narrative style from this strange mixture. Although both Lola and Maria Braun can be described using the same premise—Germany’s trajectory is reflected in the heroine’s dazzling ascent up the new economic ladder—the later film, being a comedy, does so broadly and directly. Whereas in Maria Braun, reconstruction takes place in the background and the prostitution is largely metaphorical, in Lola, these elements are presented literally: Lola’s main characters are a city building commissioner, a real estate developer, and a prostitute. (Can’t get much more literal than that.)

Stylistic elements are handled just as boldly. The costumes, of course, are fabulous as ever: of the period, but with a brilliant campy twist. The lighting is beyond expressive—or even expressionistic—beyond garish. It’s completely nuts! (Let me put it this way: it makes Berlin Alexanderplatz’s flashing neon lights seem restrained.) There are office scenes in Lola in which one character is lit blue, another pink, while the lamps emit cadmium yellow and the background is chartreuse, and there are shots where Barbara Sukowa’s hair is lit one color, her face another. (Just imagine what the brothel looks like.) And Xaver Schwarzenberger does things with eye lights—another classic Hollywood staple, usually reserved for leading ladies—that almost made me queasy.

Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich’s script (and, yes, they’re the same people who brought us The Marriage of Maria Braun) is crisp and clever, and the overall pace is uncharacteristically brisk. (Very Hollywood—made me think of Billy Wilder at times.) The scenes are cut surprisingly tight, punctuated by highly stylized dissolves, like a caricature of classic studio editing. Which, of course, they are, because that’s the point. Lola feels like a gorgeously dressed Technicolor confection . . . on hallucinogenics. It reflects the spirit of the era—exuberant, materialistic, hedonistic, technologically obsessed, enthralled with all things shiny and new—while making you uncomfortably aware of its artifice. It’s delightful and disturbing at the same time.

Synopsis
Marie-Luise, stagename Lola (Barbara Sukowa, in a role it turns out she was born to play—who knew?), is a singer and top earner in a high-end brothel in Coburg. Aside from her nightly performances onstage, she has only one client who keeps her on retainer, the irrepressible Herr Schukert (Mario Adorf). Having sired Lola’s illegitimate daughter, Marie, Schukert essentially owns Lola (a point he happily makes later in the film). As the biggest real estate developer in town, he also owns, for all intents and purposes, the cream of Coburg’s citizenry, including the mayor (Hark Bohm), police chief (Karl-Heinz von Hassel), and top banker (Ivan Desny), their wives, and even the brothel owner herself.

This arrangement, from which all happily profit, is threatened by the arrival of an upstanding new civil servant, Herr von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), appointed to run the planning department. At stake is the Lindenhof project, the biggest construction project in Coburg’s history, which will make everyone in Schukert’s cabal unprecedentedly rich, but which requires planning department approval.

Still, von Bohm immediately earns the respect and admiration of his peers. His marvelous spinster secretary, Fraulein Hettich (Helga Feddersen), falls in love with him at once. His housekeeper, Lola’s mother (Karin Baal), declares him a true gentleman, on a par with her late husband. Even the incorruptible Esslin (Matthias Fuchs), Lola’s strangely chaste boyfriend who works in the planning department by day and reads Bakunin, protests German rearmament, and moonlights as the drummer at the brothel by night, approves of him. This piques Lola’s interest.

Initially, von Bohm supports the Lindenhof project, thus earning the approval of the city’s “power elite.” When even Big Daddy Schukert starts singing von Bohm’s praises to Lola—all the while making it clear that a guy like von Bohm would never have anything to do with a woman like her—she hatches a campaign to win von Bohm’s favor.

Which, as primly- but fashionably-dressed Marie-Luise, she almost effortlessly achieves. A few economically crafted scenes later, von Bohm has bought a ring and Marie-Luise has accepted his hand in marriage. At the last minute, however, our heroine gets cold feet and fails to show up at the dinner party intended to introduce her to the power elite (Schukert and his cronies, in other words), presided over by her own unwitting mother (von Bohm invites his housekeeper to join him at table, much to the horror of the petty Power Elite Wives, led by Frau Schukert (Rosel Zech)).

Later, both Schukert and Esslin seek safe harbor with Lola and end up in a bidding war for her services. Esslin, of course, does not have the capital to compete against a captain of industry like Schukert, and quickly loses. Lola, miserable, throws them both out. Esslin decides to take his revenge on Schukert.

Meanwhile, von Bohm, dejected, throws himself into his work, preparing to approve the Lindenhof project. Esslin decides it’s time to open his boss’s eyes to the true nature of the cream of Coburg’s crop and takes him to the brothel—just in time for Lola’s nightly appearance. When Schukert proudly pronounces that the chanteuse is his own private whore, von Bohm, appalled, storms out. This unleashes a fury in Lola (and gives us an amazing performance by Sukowa) in the form of her signature song done as a kind of frenzied strip tease, culminating with her riding on Schukert’s shoulders, dress torn off, gloved arms waving over her wildly dishevelled coif, echoing that iconic late-fifties image of Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.

Von Bohm withdraws his support for the Lindenhof project and vows to destroy Schukert “and his whores.” He consults Esslin on the subject of Schukert’s methods and pores over past contracts looking for evidence of conspiracy. He goes to a local newspaper editor with the story of Coburg’s corrupt development practices but is met with incomprehension: “You promised me a scandal, but you brought me contracts.” Von Bohm is undeterred: if Schukert is playing according to the rules of the game, then the rules must be changed!

At first only Esslin knows the truth that drives von Bohm in his righteous campaign, but Schukert soon figures it out. When von Bohm scandalously, publicly joins the antiwar protesters (whom Esslin has abandoned, having accepted a job from Schukert, of all people) Schukert tells him: “Take her. Undress her. Throw her down on the bed. Do whatever you want to her. She’s a whore.” Von Bohm, dressed in his brand new sport suit, purchased originally to impress Marie-Luise, shows up at the brothel, bottle in hand, just in time for the floor show and announces his intention to do just that.

Order is restored. Marie-Luise/Lola and von Bohm are married; the Lindenhof project is approved, the ground ceremoniously broken by the distinguished Herr von Bohm himself; Schukert, who has purchased the brothel, presents the deed as a gift to Lola who will hold it in trust until Marie’s twenty-first birthday, when she will become the official proprietor. Hooray!

Everyone Has Their Reasons
Lola
, as you may know or have surmised, was inspired by the 1930 Josef von Sternberg classic, The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings. Whereas the original depicts the inexorable and inevitable downfall of a pompous and upstanding professor who falls for a man-eating nightclub chanteuse called Lola Lola, RWF turns the equation on its head. Our hero’s downfall comes not from a love that crosses social boundaries and taboos but from the unsustainability of ideals in a world where everything, even love—especially love!—can be bought and sold. Which makes Lola’s ending seem all the more cynical. Order is restored not when the male protagonist is punished for his naïvité but when he is rewarded for abandoning his principles, when the film’s only idealists (Esslin and von Bohm) accept “the rules of the game” and give up their respective ideals.

In the last scene of the film, little Marie climbs up into the hayloft Lola had previously used to offer herself to von Bohm and asks her new daddy if he is happy. Yes, he replies, staring off into the countryside. I am happy. (Lola, by the way, is off servicing Schukert—in her wedding veil, no less, which she gleefully tells him costs extra.) It’s an utterly perverse moment, of course, but it has to be said: every one of our principal characters—not just Lola—is better off than they were before.

Was RWF really that cynical?

MARIE (after the wedding ceremony, running into Esslin’s arms): Are we going to talk philosophy again?

ESSLIN: Only if you give me a kiss first.

MARIE: First you have to buy me pink lemonade.

VON BOHM (laughing): She knows the rules of the game.

And yet. In countless films (too many to name)—not to mention in his own life—RWF consistently maintained that love really is best conducted like a business in which everybody profits. He repeatedly reminded us of the extent to which desire informs even the loftiest aspirations, of the disfiguring power of sexual repression, of the fact that “everyone has their reasons” for doing what they do and that those reasons are rarely intellectually or even altruistically motivated. In The Niklashausen Journey, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (in which Esslin’s Matthias Fuchs played the terrorist, Knab, btw!), and especially The Third Generation, revolutionary idealism is just desire cloaked in righteous garb. As dishonest, in its way, as the punishing morality and hypocrisy of the institutions the revolutionaries seek to overthrow.

For RWF, then, maybe business—of which prostitution is perhaps the purest example—is not the problem. (Cinema, let’s not forget, is a capitalist art form, too.) Maybe the problem with capitalism is the fact that a handful of privileged and powerful men who hide safely within and behind existing institutions have rigged the game to ensure that only they and their cronies profit. Thus Schukert, who rose to prominence from a proletarian background, is not even a villain in Lola. With his magnanimous good cheer and his voracious appetite, he’s actually a strangely likeable character.

Schukert knows exactly who he is and what he wants and he makes no bones about it. He does not espouse the hypocritical morality of his peers, nor does he pretend to care about politics or ideology. Leaving church one Sunday, he confounds his cohort by making a contribution to Esslin’s antiwar protesters. (“I make a contribution here, I give something there. A man of free enterprise should have fingers in many pies.”) This makes him more honest than the rest of the Coburg elite (including his wife), who eagerly profit from his schemes but disdain his egalitarianism.

But wait. Have I just fallen into a trap, lost in RWF’s diabolically constructed hall of mirrors? Isn’t what I’ve just described precisely the message of so many classic Hollywood films, namely that paternal capitalism is part of the natural order of things and that it’s only a few greedy individuals who ruin it for everyone else? Have I mistaken RWF’s mastery of cinematic codes for acquiescence to the dominant ideology they traditionally promoted, ignoring the Brecht-like extent to which he exaggerated narrative and stylistic elements so that you can’t help but notice the ways your emotional responses are normally manipulated? Or have I just forgotten how much RWF liked his comedies truly black?

Maybe. Probably. What I love about this strange little movie—what I love about all his movies—is the variety of readings RWF demands of you, some of them downright contradictory, once you scratch below their often deceptively simple surface. Like all his great satirical films (Mother Küsters, The Third Generation, even Satan’s Brew*), Lola is a morality tale that refuses to moralize, a comedy whose message is that the joke is on us, which somehow remains thoroughly entertaining, even as it makes us squirm. Lola may not be a great film, but on its own terms, in its own way, it’s kind of perfect.

___

* Although I stand by my original assessment, I do now see the beauty of Satan’s Brew, by the way, even if I still don’t particularly like it.

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Tagged , ,

The Little Chaos (1966–67)

There’s been a lot of Fassbinder buzz lately, both online and in festivals. (The recent Lincoln Center retrospective has me wishing I’d stopped over in New York for more than a few hours en route to Europe last month, that’s for sure). The latest item that keeps cropping up on the Internet is the 1966–67 short The Little Chaos, generously posted to Vimeo. (Suddenly, RWF is everywhere: even Andrew Sullivan linked to it!) So excited about this little breakthrough was I that I decided to break my own rule and watch it out of sequence.

I’m really glad I did. Now that I’m three films away from the end of RWF’s career (!), I can’t help but see this earliest of efforts in a completely different light than I would have had I watched it before all the others. (Only The City Tramp—to my knowledge unavailable—and a lost short called This Night This Night preceded it.) Indeed, had I not watched it so far out of sequence, I don’t think I would have had anything to say about The Little Chaos at all, beyond noting the extent of the young Fassbinder’s indebtedness to mid-sixties Godard.

RWF was twenty-one years old in 1966. Had he been a student at the time, we’d call Das kleine Chaos a solid if derivative little student film. Of course, we knew JLG was an important influence—just watch Love Is Colder Than Death, or Gods of the Plague, or The Niklashausen Journey, and you’ll see it quite clearly—but the extent of the imitation here is a little surprising. The film is a compendium of early-Godard stylistic elements: Breathless-style jazz snippet as our antiheroes pointlessly pile into their VW Beetle, drive about a hundred feet, abruptly park and pile out; bored, aimless young trio (two guys and a girl, of course) who hatch a plot to commit a seemingly gratuitous crime (cf. Bande à Part); exuberant young outlaw protagonist (RWF himself) emulating a Golden-Age Hollywood actor (here I’d say it’s James Cagney to Belmondo’s Humphrey Bogart); collage of cultural references, mostly cinematic (lots of posters), right down to that JLG mainstay, a character reading aloud to the audience. They’re all here. Even the woman our trio ends up robbing wears a fur-collared suit I would swear I’ve seen before, maybe on Anna Karina, in some Godard movie or other (Une Femme Est Une Femme?).

But Fassbinder is not Godard, even if it seems impossible to overstate the importance of the latter’s influence here. RWF’s emphasis on style (“No style without morals and no morals without style”), his intense fixation on Hollywood cinema (especially Raoul Walsh), his fascination with the gangster genre in particular (I’m pretty sure that’s a poster for White Heat on the wall behind RWF’s character in a key scene, although you never see the title), these preoccupations, though shared by Godard, seem different.

For one thing, RWF’s interest in Hollywood does not seem particularly intellectual, as Godard’s did. If the latter’s fascination with Hollywood can be described as theoretical and semiotic and political,  RWF’s, by contrast, strikes me as emotional—primal, even, practically visceral. Which is not to say that RWF was not plenty intellectual—he was!—nor is it to deny JLG’s own intense romanticism. But if you had to pick one-word descriptors for each director’s approach, I think “intellectual” and “emotional” would serve quite well.

This, at any rate, is how I make sense of RWF’s criminally angry young protagonist in The Little Chaos. There is an almost sociopathic intensity simmering just below the surface of his performance—which finally boils over, inexplicably—that overshadows the clever cinematic self-reflexivity that structures this tiny film. (Did I mention, it’s only ten minutes long?) Like a witty and intelligent joke delivered by a murderous clown, it’s a little uncomfortable, a little de trop, especially if you approach it in the context already established in early Godard. But in the context of RWF’s life and work and, of course, his own peculiar relationship to classical Hollywood cinema, it makes perfect sense.

To put it very simply, in a very literal way, I think the movies offered a kind of lifeline to the young RWF, by which he was able to find a way of understanding himself in the world (i.e., postwar German society). And I think this understanding, for him, was personally, fundamentally liberating. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that movies (as he said about the novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz) actually saved his life. And I think he saw cinema (and theater) as a means of reaching other people and saving their lives, too. Hence the attraction to populist genres like the crime film and melodrama.

This, I think, is a very different relationship to Hollywood than, say, Godard’s, even if their ultimate goals as filmmakers were arguably the same. Whereas the latter’s fascination with Hollywood was shot through with moral ambivalence (classical cinema as guilty pleasure?)—hence the emphasis on deconstruction as a means of undermining and exposing classical cinema’s relationship to bourgeois ideology (with which his own fascination made him complicit)—I’d say that Fassbinder’s was fueled by something that strikes me as much more—how do I put this?—much more generous and ultimately optimistic, if less rhetorically coherent. With its direct line to the emotions and the subconscious, it’s ability to tap into our deepest desires, cinema, says RWF, has the power to actually help us free ourselves from the stifling constraints of bourgeois society.

So what I’m trying to get at here, which The Little Chaos has only just made me realize, oddly enough, is the extent to which even Fassbinder’s earliest efforts were revolutionary—not just in terms of the dominant cinema, or societal norms, or politics (which came later), but even in terms of their critical response to cinema itself. Which I could never have grasped had I not spent the past two years following his trajectory.

Sigh. I can’t help but think I should really watch those early gangster films again.

Posted in German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Tagged , ,

Addendum: History and Lili Marleen

I was a little nervous about publishing my post on Lili Marleen, given its handling of such a profoundly troubling and sensitive history. While Fassbinder’s position regarding Germany’s horrific past has always seemed clear to me, his work has at various times triggered accusations of antisemitism (especially after his play Garbage, the City, and Death, a work which I have not mentioned in this blog)—as well as homophobia (Fox and His Friends) and misogyny (too many to name)—and I feared I would be walking into a minefield. There is a fine line between “nuance” and “ambivalence,” and I hope I have made the distinction clear (not to mention the often trickier distinction in Fassbinder between “character” and “type”).

In the meantime, several astute readers have pointed out an irresponsible and thoughtless reference in my last post to “the concentration camps in Poland” and, later, “Polish concentration camps.” This, of course, is incorrect usage, and I have corrected those errors to the more accurate “German concentration camps in occupied Poland” (and later, “concentration camps”). As a former copy editor, I know better, and must apologize for the naive assumption that anyone reading this blog would know “what I meant.” As time passes and history grows more distant, subject to interpretation and dangerous equivocation, this kind of accuracy becomes more and more crucial; I have no excuse for such sloppiness.

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Uncategorized

Lili Marleen (1981)

I think it’s possible to say something about National Socialism, which is specifically German, simply by showing what was appealing about it. The parades had a certain aesthetic of their own that appealed to people. The swastika had a certain aesthetic appeal. The slogans about community and Volk and so on all had their appeal.

—RWF, interviewed in 1980, reprinted in
The Anarchy of the Imagination (p. 66)

After the pinnacle of Berlin Alexanderplatz I reckoned Lili Marleen was going to require some downshifting—from Fassbinder’s most important, personal, and highly idiosyncratic work to his most expensive, most commercially mainstream one. I expected this to be a tough one to write about (a little glossy, a little slick). But at least I knew the production values would be high.

As it turns out, the toughest part of reviewing Lili Marleen in 2014 isn’t having to reconcile an uncharacteristic idiom or a depiction of the Third Reich that focused more on spectacle than atrocity, but rather finding a decent copy of the film at all. After some fruitless searching, I settled for a DVD-R copy I found at a legendary San Francisco video store. No doubt transferred from somebody’s VHS cassette, the color and the resolution were, not surprisingly, abysmal. And because, like Despair, the movie was shot in English, then dubbed, it sounded more like a Japanese monster movie than a European film festival entry. (Why didn’t this bother me in Despair, also shot and dubbed in English? Maybe because they used Dirk Bogarde and Andrea Ferreol’s actual voices? Or maybe the sound mix was just better?) So much for those production values.

My husband found a streamable version on the Internet. Dubbed in German with no English subtitles, at least I could hear Gottfried John’s voice rather than some hired hack who does spaghetti westerns. And the color was stunning, so I could appreciate the gorgeous cinematography, too. After about five minutes, however, Part 1 (it streams in two parts) started to lose sync. This continued until the image track was at least five minutes ahead of the soundtrack. Bad enough for any movie with dialogue, but in a movie centered around a song (i.e., set to music)? Oh, and did I mention the commercials that blasted every fifteen minutes, usually in the middle of a scene? Back to the DVD-R.

How does a movie of this scale and stature just disappear? With one of Germany’s most successful producers behind it and the biggest budget RWF would ever have at his disposal for a single feature film (10.5 million DM), you’d think Lili Marleen would be the one movie sure to have survived. (Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is seven times longer, cost only 2.5 million more.) Instead, you can go to practically any video store with a decent foreign film catalog and find Love Is Colder Than Death or Katzelmacher or even Whity, while Lili Marleen is nowhere to be found.

Ironically enough, it may be precisely the big-production provenance that ensured the movie’s disappearance. My assumption is that it all comes down to video rights, and that the Fassbinder Foundation must not have them. Which, if I’m correct, is especially sad, since RWF publicly proclaimed his eagerness to enter into this strange partnership as a means of ensuring both artistic freedom and large-scale distribution.

There are many reasons RWF would have chosen to make this project in this way at this time, not least of which would have been his love of Hollywood cinema: if, as he pronounced with such grandiosity post-Berlin Alexanderplatz, he really had “mastered this craft” why wouldn’t he want to prove it by finally making that blockbuster? At the same time, independent film in Germany, which relied heavily on grants, appears to have been in crisis. Only a few years before, RWF had announced that he was leaving Germany, proclaiming he’d “rather be a street sweeper in Mexico than a filmmaker in Germany.” Maybe he really believed that big money and infrastructure would give him the artistic freedom he felt he was losing as the state-subsidized climate became less hospitable to the kind of work he wanted to do. (And it’s not like he was alone: Wim Wenders actually went to Hollywood around this time to make the reportedly disastrous Hammett.)

Or maybe to make sense of this paradigm shift all you have to do is remember why and for whom RWF repeatedly claimed to make films in the first place. He was always clear that he was not interested in merely pleasing critics or a cult following of like-minded purists. His goal, I think, was always to reach a broader audience, to make them think, to help them help themselves in some way by opening up new ways of thinking about society and their place in it. That’s why television was such a logical medium for him: it enabled him to reach a lot of people all at once, people who would probably never have bought a ticket to go see a film like Rio das Mortes or Pioneers in Ingolstadt—or even Berlin Alexanderplatz. In this regard the whole notion of “selling out” seems irrelevant.

For me it’s exciting to see whether I can succeed in making a film that tells its story in such an expensive and expansive way, that is, tells it in such an audience-effective way, and in spite of that conveys all the inconsistency of human beings that I see in them. But if in the end it turns out just to be big and successful, I’d consider it a failure. But that’s precisely the exciting part, and it’s one of the factors that made me feel I just had to try. It’s a story which you could also fail completely with. [Anarchy, p. 59]

The fact is, if you can get past the hideous dubbing and the Hollywood patina and Giancarlo Giannini—not to mention your assumptions about what constitutes intellectual and political correctness in cinema, which I gather many people can’t—Lili Marleen is really a strange and fascinating addition to RWF’s oeuvre. It works in a surprisingly “audience-effective” way as a technicolor melodrama and a musical, while at the same time continuing his project to create a sort of social history of Germany in the 20th century, all while remaining true to his deepest values. The fact that the presentation did not conform to most people’s conception of what such a film should be is, I think, all the more to his credit.

Synopsis
Hanna Schygulla plays Willi, a cabaret singer living in Zurich in the 1930s. She has a wealthy pianist fiancé, Robert Mendelsson (Giancarlo Giannini), who is Jewish and, she soon learns, works for a sort of underground railroad operation, smuggling false passports for Jews into Nazi Germany, and their money and other valuables out. Robert’s father, David (Mel Ferrer), does not approve of or trust Willi—she laughingly describes herself as “Aryan back to the stone age”—and fears she could easily compromise their entire operation. He devises a clever plan to let her travel to Germany with Robert, only to ensure that she is denied re-entry to Switzerland on the grounds that she has too many outstanding debts. (Swiss neutrality famously did not benefit those without money.) Robert, ever the romantic hero, vows to remain true to his girl, however. If he can’t bring her back to Switzerland, he will continue to find ways to see her on his increasingly perilous trips to Germany.

In Germany, Willi calls on an admirer she met in Zurich for help. Not only does Herr Henkel (Karl Heinz von Hassel) turn out to be a big-time entertainment producer, he also happens to be a Gruppenführer in the SS. Willi knows an opportunity when she sees one and, under the guidance of her benefactor, records a song from the first World War called “Lili Marleen.” When the record gets played on Radio Belgrade, the song becomes a runaway hit with the troops. Willi, whom everyone now knows as Lili Marleen, becomes hugely famous. Although Goebbels doesn’t approve of the song, the Führer even invites her for an audience.

Willi and her partner on piano, Taschner (Hark Bohm), are invited to perform, presumably at the Führer’s request, in a grand Nuremburg-style extravaganza, accompanied by full orchestra, which is also broadcast on the radio. When Willi declines an invitation from Gruppenführer Henkel after the show, the latter has her followed—straight to an assignation with Robert, who is in Berlin on a mission and has chosen to disregard warnings from a colleague (Udo Kier), who tells Robert about Willi’s new life wining and dining and, by implication, sleeping with the Nazi elite. The next day Robert is arrested and “Lili Marleen” is put on the blacklist.

Willi agrees to embark on the German equivalent of a USO tour to entertain the troops on the Eastern front, from which Gustav Eisenmann, the leader of the underground (played by RWF, natürlich) asks her to smuggle film footage of the German concentration camps in occupied Poland. (How she is supposed to get this tour approved when her song has been blacklisted remains a mystery.) In Poland, however, she is betrayed to Henkel by one of the girls on the tour (Barbara Valentin), who spies Willi hiding the concentration camp film in her bra before returning downstairs for an encore.

Just when things are starting to look hopeless, Henkel’s ubiquitous right-hand man, von Strehlow (Erik Schumann), rescues the film from Willi before the men sent to search her room can find it. Who knew the Gruppenführer’s second in command was actually a mole for the underground? (Unless, of course, he only just decided to betray the Nazis to help Willi, for whom we later learn, he has feelings. This is never explained.) Willi gives him the film and returns downstairs where Henkel has ordered a strip search of the entire company, men and women alike. The next day he informs Willi that she has been summoned to Berlin and that her pianist will be sent to the Russian front.

David Mendelsson negotiates the return of Robert and a tiny group of Jewish prisoners using the footage from the concentration camps as ransom. The Nazis return Robert but significantly short them on the number of other Jewish prisoners returned, offering instead a tiny trickle over an extended period of time. Once Robert has been safely returned to the Swiss side, Aaron (Gottfried John), a key member of the underground, blows up the Germans on the bridge that connects the Swiss and German borders, despite their agreement.

Meanwhile, Willi has attempted suicide and been arrested by the Gestapo. Eisenmann orchestrates an announcement through Radio Calais in liberated France that Lili Marleen has been murdered in a German concentration camp, knowing this will destroy troop morale. At Goebbels’ command, Henkel hastily secures Willi’s commitment from her hospital bed to perform that night in her most spectacular appearance yet, disproving the rumor of her demise. Willi, half dead, drags herself on stage for this final pageant, dressed in an amazing form-fitting silver gown and turban. (Which made me think of the robot in Metropolis, although Barbara Baum says it was just supposed to look like a suit of armor, holding Willi together.) By the end of the song, Taschner and his company have been shot down on the Eastern front (he leads them to the sound of “Lili Marleen” broadcast from the other side of a hill, not realizing the radio is in the hands of Russian troops) and the German High Command has unconditionally surrendered.

Willi returns to Zurich, where Robert, now hugely successful, is conducting a symphony orchestra, and watches, ecstatic, from the dressing room. After the performance, Robert and his new wife, Miriam, enter, to Willi’s dismay. (We know about Miriam but Willi does not.) When Robert goes back on stage, Willi slips out and leaves the theater (and Robert), presumably forever.

So. Lili Marleen looks like a Hollywood-style WWII costume drama and uses that genre’s conventions, its language, very well. The color, the costumes, the lighting and compositions, the script by Manfred Purzer—with whom I gather RWF had fundamental artistic/philosophical differences, so more power to the director for making it work—these things all function as in a big-budget studio film. There are no Brechtian overtones here, no manic circular tracking shots and, most confusing of all, no emphatic or definitive statements about or depiction of the horrors of the Third Reich as you might expect or hope.

And yet. There is something slightly off about the finished product, which should be seamless and satisfying in terms of audience expectations, but is not, quite. If this were a classic Hollywood-style drama, for example, Robert would be a noble and tragic hero instead of the two-dimensional narcissist he comes across as. (More privileged than heroic, he’s like a prince who fights alongside the rank and file, but on a much better horse, knowing he will return from battle to a nice meal and a warm bed.) Henkel would be more sadistically evil and von Strehlow more heroic. (And Aaron would certainly never have blown up the Nazis on the bridge after a deal had already been struck.) The love story between Robert and Willi would be central to the narrative rather than the pretext it feels like. And Willi’s ultimate sacrifice would move us to tears, which it just doesn’t.

Willi is not a classic heroine—she is not even that much of a victim, especially when you consider what victimhood in Nazi Germany looked like (to put it mildly). By film’s end, she does not seem to have learned the usual lessons (the necessity of taking a stand against evil, for example, or even the importance of fighting for your man at all costs) nor do her goals—survival and success as an entertainer—appear to have changed in any significant way. Only her circumstances have. Similarly, neither von Strehlow’s enormous risk in helping safeguard the concentration camp footage nor his rejected love for Willi are depicted with any great dramatic intensity. These are just things that happen, things people do in extreme circumstances; these characters are who they are and they do what they do under the circumstances they find themselves in. Sound familiar? We’re in Fassbinder country now.

If this film doesn’t meet our expectations, however, it’s not just because RWF wants to show us characters who behave like real people (ambiguous, ambivalent, neither wholly good nor evil, worthy of understanding if not love), nor is it simply because the film does not satisfy our desire to see Nazis and their supporters depicted clearly and simply and, in the end, decisively punished (although, of course, both of these explanations are valid.). If Lili Marleen doesn’t quite work the way we expect it to, it’s because the actions and even the fate of a handful of characters—all of them flawed—are not really the subject of the film. The true subject of the film, and, I would even go so far to assert, its moral center, is the song “Lili Marleen.”

Recorded in 1939 by Lale Andersen (her biography was the inspiration for Purzer’s script for the movie), “Lili Marleen” really was the closest thing you could find to a “soundtrack” to World War II in Europe, used to sign off the Soldatensender Belgrad (Soldier’s Radio Belgrade) broadcast every night at 9:55 pm. The song was ubiquitous, selling over a million copies during the war alone, and became hugely important to the troops on both sides of the conflict. In the film, the song is a constant presence, so much so that it gets a little annoying.

In fact, the song is played five times—three times in its entirety—not including the record with the skip in it, which plays continuously while Robert is held captive. That’s nearly fifteen minutes of “Lili Marleen” in a 120-minute film! Each rendition of the song marks a significant moment in the war and uses subtly different instrumentation. When war is declared (during the recording session for the record) and in the first radio broadcast of the newly pressed 78 on Radio Belgrade, the accordian (connotations of Volk), and snare (that marching band mainstay) dominate. In the first major performance, which takes place at the height of the Blitzkrieg, when German victory looked all but assured, the orchestra features a huge brass section, strident and martial. And in the final performance, which closes with the radio announcement of Germany’s unconditional surrender, the balance shifts to the more melancholy string section.

But it’s not as a formal structuring device that the song is most important. Each of the major transmissions of “Lili Marleen” is intercut with haunting tableaux of men in the battle zones: some fighting, a few being blown to bits, most sitting silently, wistfully, transfixed by the song. You can’t even tell which army’s soldiers you’re looking at in most of these images.

And this, I think, is the point: For three minutes every night at five minutes before ten between 1942 and 1945, men on both sides of a brutal conflict they neither initiated nor chose were united in a shared longing—the essence of humanity, I would argue—by a sentimental song about a sentry who misses his girl sung by a woman they would never lay eyes on. For three minutes, in other words, the war lost its meaning, its momentum. For three minutes every night those men were in some sense free.

This is powerful stuff—a fact not lost on Joseph Goebbels (nor on Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, and all the other totalitarians savvy enough to recognize the liberating, anarchistic potential of art) and I think it must have been what attracted RWF to this story in the first place. For me, these scenes, though disconnected and brief, are the heart of the film, while the rest of the narrative feels more like connective tissue. (Which isn’t to say that the story of Willi and Robert isn’t important—the film couldn’t exist without it—but I do think it goes a long way to explain why that story feels as hollow as it does.)

This is born out in what is surely the film’s climax, Willi’s performance for the troops in occupied Poland. After “Lili Marleen,” Willi walks off stage and the troops go wild, demanding an encore, chanting her name. Gruppenführer Henkel, the master of ceremonies of the event, tries to lead them in a rousing Sieg Heil! but is drowned out by their chants of “Lili Marleen”! “Lili Marleen”! Unable to regain control, he gives up and sends Taschner to bring Willi back. During her absence, the event degenerates into a free-for-all, a Dionysian bacchanal with drinking, dancing and a complete breakdown of discipline. By the time Willi returns, officers are dancing onstage, soldiers are climbing up into the rafters, and Gruppenführer Henkel is wearing a pink feather boa over his SS uniform. Total anarchy.

This, says Fassbinder, is what art can do.

 

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Berlin Alexanderplatz – Part XIV: Epilogue – My Dream of Franz Biberkopf’s Dream by Alfred Döblin (1980)

“Okay, now I have mastered this craft.”

—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, upon wrapping Berlin Alexanderplatz (quoted in Chaos as Usual)

If Part XIII seemed a little lackluster, let’s just say the Epilogue more than makes up for it. It certainly puts to rest any questions I might have had as to why RWF seemed to be in such a rush to get to the end. What a finale! Spectacularly surreal yet surprisingly coherent, the Epilogue works as both conclusion to this sprawling fifteen-plus–hour epic—it really does tie up an awful lot of loose ends I assumed would never be tied—and as a kind of encapsulation of the worldview that informed not just this movie, but the entirety of RWF’s career. I really didn’t expect this.

From the opening scene in the cemetery where Franz goes searching for Mieze’s grave—RWF uses the same street where nearly all the film’s exteriors were shot, by the way, transformed in broad daylight only by torches, candles, and the occasional coffin—accompanied by a pair of angels in electric golden wigs (played by Margit Carstensen and Helmut Griem), we know we are in a reality removed even from the rest of the story, a reality shaped not just by desire and loss, guilt and shame and fear, but by a singular genius who had been dreaming this dream of Franz Biberkopf’s for a very long time indeed.

Franz, exhausted and despairing, having abandoned hope of finding and killing Reinhold, gets himself arrested by the police. So who should he run into in prison but . . . Reinhold! Turns out he also got himself arrested on minor charges using a false identity via stolen papers. (What better place to hide from a murder rap than prison?) The encounter plunges Franz into a hysterical coma, a catatonia-like state from which he cannot be roused. At first the authorities assume he’s faking it, but they soon have no choice but to transfer him to a mental hospital for treatment.

What follows is a kind of Walpurgisnacht in Franz Biberkopf’s head in which the multitude of characters who have had a stake in his story all come home to roost, condensed and displaced as in dreams, scattered and reconfigured in a sort of narrative kaleidoscope, loaded with symbols that mutate and shift as the episode progresses. Mieze’s murder, the moment when Franz’s arm is crushed by the wheels of the car, Reinhold’s visit to the Salvation Army, Lüders robbing the widow . . . it’s all there, revisited by a rotating cast of characters in a handful of hallucinatory, brilliantly repurposed locations, accompanied by a tapestry of idiosyncratic but by no means arbitrary musical selections (the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Kraftwerk, Leonard Cohen, Elvis . . .). It’s crazy-audacious and it works. By the time Franz Biberkopf is hoisted high on his crucifix, Glenn Miller on the soundtrack and a mushroom cloud on the rear-projection screen (seriously!), it all comes together. It really does.

The Death of a Child and the Birth of a Worthwhile Human Being
Franz, the angels explain, has failed to grow up. To do so he must embrace Death, whom he’s managed to avoid up to this point through stubborn denial and a naïve but unshakeable faith in his own strength. (This denial has taken many forms, ranging from the refusal to acknowledge that he in fact killed Ida—technically, she died of “complications” from his beating—to his failure to even consider the possibility that Reinhold really tried to kill him when he threw Franz under the car.) But now, he has no choice: he must accept Death, embodied (not surprisingly) by a revolving cast of characters: Herr Baumann (Gerhard Zwerenz), Lüders, Reinhold . . . In doing so, Franz must at last face up to his own culpability. (I’ll come back to this.)

The hallucinations pile up and intermingle, grow ever more bizarre, more baroque, the symbolism more loaded. Lüders becomes Reinhold; the widow becomes Mieze; Franz is run over by Herbert and Eva; Mieze is run over by Franz and Reinhold, while Cilly sings accompanied by Willy on piano; Pums and his men run the slaughterhouse in which Franz and then Mieze are slaughtered and flayed; Reinhold wears enormous false eyelashes when he wields the whip that lashes Franz, and a crown of thorns as he enumerates Franz Biberkopf’s sins; the Jewish wurst vendor from the subway wears a concentration camp uniform with a Nazi armband and carries an armful of Franz Biberkopf dolls, each in SA uniform; Frau Bast and Meck complete a Nativity Scene with Biberkopf as the Baby Jesus in Nazi garb before Franz is hoisted onto the cross and finally crucified (see above) . . . You get the idea.

Franz Biberkopf eventually “dies,” only to be reborn as . . . a night watchman in an automobile factory. He testifies at Reinhold and Meck’s trial. (Meck is let off; Reinhold is convicted of manslaughter and gets only ten years.) He drinks at Max’s bar. He has learned that no man is an island, that there is strength in numbers. Neither RWF, nor Döblin before him, has much more to say about him. He is an assimilated member of society now, decent at last. As RWF himself was quick to point out, he will probably end up voting for the Nazis in 1933.

Sugar and Dirt
So what sins is Franz punished for, exactly? They’re actually harder to pin down than you might think. Ida’s death, of course, is the most obvious, but it’s not the only one, and it may not even be the most important. (By the end of the series, we’ve seen that sequence when Franz beats her to death at least half a dozen times, to the point where the event ceases to have much impact.) Eva blames Franz for allowing Mieze to be sacrificed on the alter of his own vanity. Reinhold accuses him of being more interested in competing with him than protecting Mieze. The women from his past who haunt Franz’s dream say he’s a pimp and a burglar who puffs himself up. Do all these crimes really warrant the same punishment, though?

In Berlin Alexanderplatz I think they do, though possibly in reverse order of importance to the conventional moral wisdom. (Here, Franz’s failure to acknowledge his feelings for Reinhold, for example,or even to grasp the ways the existing power structure ensures the misery of the working classes and turns men like Franz into cannon fodder, seem no less serious than killing his girlfriend). Curiously, it’s Reinhold—the ultimate serpent in the soul of the serpent—who puts it most succinctly:

You go on about crooks and swindling, but you don’t even look at people. You don’t ask why and how come. How can you be such a judge of people when you don’t have any eyes? . . . And the world should be as he wants it. It’s all quite different, my boy. Now you can see it. It couldn’t care less about you, the world couldn’t.

To which Meck later adds:

The world needs different guys, brighter ones, who see how things are: not made of sugar, but of sugar and dirt and all mixed up together.

Franz thinks the world owes him sugar in return for his own good intentions. He is too focused on trying to remain decent to actually see the world and the people in it for what they are: complex, compromised, corrupted by the institutions that define and control them. Franz Biberkopf’s great sin is to assume that all he needs to do in life is stand firm and resolved and decent, when in fact the very concept of decency is a meaningless illusion in a corrupt society.

It’s no wonder Franz doesn’t understand the position of workers like Eddy (Part X) or the anarchists whose meetings he attends with Willy (Part IX), with their insistence on solidarity over individual initiative. (Whereas he thinks a cynical crook like Willy, who gets off on heckling the socialists and the movement anarchists, is smart as hell). In Part IV he rambles on about being “loyal and true” to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, as though “loyalty” was the point of the workers’ uprisings after the Great War. He doesn’t understand the hatred a Nazi armband inspires among Dreske’s comrades (even though Franz himself used to be one them) nor the sad resignation of the sausage vendor in the subway. Lüders’ “betrayal” plunges him into despair when, really, on some level at least, Franz should have seen it coming. (Lüders’ is oppressed by the same system Franz is. Is it any surprise he’s so angry? He’s barely scraping by selling shoelaces, while Franz makes twenty marks engaging in an “immoral” act with a stranger.)

Beneath it all, of course, lurks Franz’s powerful, uncontrollable attraction to Reinhold, which he doesn’t understand or know what to do with. Worse, he doesn’t understand that a guy like Reinhold will never forgive a guy like Franz for loving him in the first place, that such a love is bound to be intolerable to him—all the more so since Reinhold, it turns out, has homosexual tendencies himself (which manifest themselves in prison in what is surely the most unexpected scene in all of Berlin Alexanderplatz). It’s not just that Franz Biberkopf is too innocent, too simple for this corrupt world: his willfull ignorance makes him blind—and that makes him dangerous both to himself and others.

Adam and Eve in Plato’s Cave
As I’ve mentioned already, I had a hard time making sense of the many biblical references in Berlin Alexanderplatz, especially since they seemed to shift from episode to episode, jumping from one “host” to another. It’s only after watching the Epilogue (twice) that I realized that this makes perfect sense, that this is the nature of symbols.

Just as Eva, the widow, and Mieze can each “represent” Eve at various times without contradiction, or the Serpent can be embodied by Lüders, Reinhold, or Eva, so the characters who inhabit Franz Biberkopf’s hallucination keep morphing into one another depending on their symbolic value, which is to say, depending on the value the narrative assigns them at that point. The fact that Döblin chose to rely so heavily on Jewish and Christian symbolism may have as much to do with the fact that these images had dominated and informed European cultural identity for centuries—which is to say, functioned as powerful archetypes even a Franz Biberkopf would recognize—than it does with the author’s relationship to religion. (Although, apparently, Döblin did convert from Judaism to Christianity, so there is probably plenty of baggage there too, now that I think about it.)

Religious symbols and allusions in Berlin Alexanderplatz, in any case, function in much the same way as the many other recurring references do—Döblin also repeatedly invokes Napoleonic wartime rhetoric, for example, and uses all manner of newspaper stories and advertising slogans, radio and popular music of the day, to create the tapestry of contemporary reality that makes Berlin Alexanderplatz so compelling. Analogies to James Joyce are inescapable, but for me the key to understanding the significance of many of these allusions lies in imagery RWF himself added, in a reference I only grasped in the Epilogue: the story of Plato’s cave.

In that opening scene in the cemetery, the many dead who talk to Franz are in the film played by characters we already know (this is a device RWF frequently used: putting unattributed snippets of text into the mouths of established characters, or collapsing multiple voices into one). One of the people who inform Franz that they are dead is Nachum (Peter Kollek), the Jew who had rescued Franz from the courtyard in Part I, when the latter sang his bellicose anthems like a madman, afraid the roofs would slide down on him. In this scene, Nachum describes his suicide by morphine injection rather than face a slow and painful death from disease (this is the death Sigmund Freud chose, btw, for whatever that’s worth): as he began his descent from this world, Nachum says he had music played on the gramophone—jazz, hits—and requested the Symposium be read aloud to him.

This got me thinking about Plato. And while I realize the Symposium is notable not for the parable of the cave (which anyway appears in the Republic), but for the discourse on love—useful when thinking about the loves of Franz Biberkopf and the forms they take (or should take, but don’t), nicht wahr?—this image of men chained in darkness, deriving all knowledge and meaning from images projected onto the wall of their cave, seemed the most effective way to think about all those references that sometimes seem to clutter up the narrative: these are the images through which the Franz Biberkopfs and the Miezes of this world would have been taught to perceive it. (Now, thinking back, that notoriously dark scene in the Jews’ flat back in Part I—in which Nachum tells Franz stories to help him understand the world—with only that strange orange-yellow light illuminating the windows from outside, behind the characters’ backs, evokes Plato’s cave quite nicely, doesn’t it?)

Later on in Franz’s dream, Dreske the communist stands at the podium of the Salvation Army and delivers a speech to a group of people who sit with their backs to him (i.e., facing the back wall, not the speaker), like cave-dwellers mesmerized by the imagery on the cave wall: Meck, the Greiners from Part IV, Max, the bar owner, the newspaper vendor from the U-bahn station (Herbert Steinmetz). These are the story’s petit bourgeois, the people who in a few more years will cast their votes for the National Socialists, whose imagery of volk and vaterland they will have internalized. In front of the podium, eating, oblivious to the speech, sits Franz Biberkopf, in full Nazi uniform.

Franz Biberkopf, Meet Franz Walsch
I’ve written a lot about patterns in RWF’s work, those elements and motifs and thematic constellations so insistently recurrent I once threatened to diagram them. They’re all here: the powerless antihero protagonist who succumbs to his or her own victimhood; the masochism that calls itself love but may just be narcissism; the destructive and inhuman power of bourgeois societal institutions; the nostalgic longing for/cynical distrust of political movements; the conflicted, ambivalent bisexual love triangle; the extraordinary magnanimity and generosity with which even the lowliest of characters is depicted; even the slaughterhouse imagery . . .

Berlin Alexanderplatz, then, is the ultimate expression of lifelong preoccupations, issues RWF had been working out for as long as anyone had been paying attention. And I realize now that that’s no accident: Berlin Alexanderplatz is where many of those preoccupations actually originated, in the novel RWF first read as a teenager—when it provided “genuine, naked, concrete life support” for a confused and “almost murderous puberty”—and which he later maintained “helped determine the course of my life.” (The Anarchy of the Imagination, p 161, 163.) To the extent that RWF made “the same movie” over and over throughout his career, Berlin Alexanderplatz is that movie.

But it’s not just a culmination; I think Berlin Alexanderplatz is also a bridge that connects two different sets of preoccupations (and maybe two different types of film)—namely, those “lifelong preoccupations”—which I would characterize as personal and individualistic—with another set of concerns, equally powerful, that are, on the contrary, historical and cultural and specifically German. Berlin Alexanderplatz, in other words, is where the classic Fassbinder antihero is situated in history, at the intersection of the personal and the political, thereby adding an essential historical dimension to the critique of German society he’d been engaged in from the very beginning. (And, yes, I know, The Marriage of Maria Braun came first, but to my mind, that movie is a bit of an outlier. I don’t see Maria as a typical RWF protagonist, for one thing. But that’s a whole other argument.)

Of course, there were concrete limits to how much of the Nazi future RWF could incorporate into this saga; Döblin was prescient, but nobody could have foreseen, in 1929 when the novel was published, just how far things would go. Although the Nazi threat is present throughout the film, the Epilogue is the only installment in which RWF was able to really run with it. Which is too bad. I don’t think we can really appreciate this saga of one small-time criminal’s travails outside this historical context (even if Döblin couldn’t at the time). Which brings us back to that crucifix and that mushroom cloud, Glenn Miller (and, later, Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night”) on the soundtrack: Franz Biberkopf dies for mankind’s sins and is resurrected as a decent human being who will march in lock step with the rest of decent society—straight to war, which will ultimately usher in a new world order dominated economically, politically, and culturally by the USA.

Master of His Domain
There’s a wonderful documentary by Hans-Dieter Hartl included on the Criterion DVD boxed set. Shot on the set of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the film candidly captures RWF and his team at work and offers a rare glimpse of his working style. With minimal commentary, no talking heads, and no interviews, the film gives you a sense of the sheer complexity of the production—something you just don’t get watching Berlin Alexanderplatz itself (or I couldn’t, anyway). Some of the outdoor scenes, for example, required scores of extras and multiple vehicles, with insanely complex camera movement and tracking. Seeing what that actually looked like on set is just incredible.

Watching RWF choreograph the actors in this environment only confirms his extraordinary skill—honed in the theater, no doubt, where bodies must be managed in real time and space (as opposed to the editing room). He quickly rehearses actors and blocking while Schwarzenberger and his team run through the camera movement, and then, bang, roll camera. With no video feed to show what was actually being recorded, he would nonetheless manage to complete these incredibly complex shots often after only a single take. And I’m talking about long takes with multiple actors and movement so complicated—you need to see Schwarzenberger on that crazy circular track to get the full effect—it makes you dizzy. Who does this?

But RWF’s amazing capacity to visualize—and realize—ridiculously complex shots quickly and efficiently and to coordinate the actions of large numbers of cast and crew in intricate tableaux, impressive though these things surely are, are not what impressed me most. Watching him at work, what really jumps out at you is his calm, his complete self assurance. He doesn’t yell on set. He doesn’t even raise his voice. Instead of Action! he says Bitte; instead of Cut! he says Danke. (Maybe that’s just the convention in German cinema? Even so, it sounds so polite when he says it!) I’m sure he had his moments—no human could get through a project like this without melting down periodically—but you can tell, watching him coach Elisabeth Trissenaar, say, or explain for the third time that a car entered the frame too late, you can see he’s at the very height of his powers and he knows it. What really comes across is how happy he is, doing what he loves and doing it well, openly and honestly and on his own terms.

Which is precisely what he’d been urging us to do, in film after film, all along.

Posted in German Cinema, Melodrama, Queer Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment