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.
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!”
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.
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.