Gods of the Plague (1970)

After a shamefully long hiatus—during which time I have come to realize the folly of this endeavor at this particular time in my life (thanks, Dave!)—I’m back at it. Acutely aware of how much my world and worldview have changed since I last spent time watching R.W. Fassbinder movies, and how distant my present concerns seem from those of his films. But perhaps that’s what will ultimately make this strange exercise actually interesting? I can only hope. (More on this later.)

Ach so. Today I watched Gods of the Plague (1970), a sort-of-sequel (more of a mirror image, really) to Love is Colder Than Death (LCTD), and a truly odd and very confusing film. Very confusing! Once again, Hanna Schygulla plays Johanna, the character she played in LCTD,  no longer a prostitute but a cabaret singer.  (As far as I can tell, hers is the only character to appear in both films, so I’m not sure whether this actually qualifies as a sequel at all. But no matter.) The movie opens with Johanna’s boyfriend, Franz, getting out of prison in a stunning sequence: great use of off-screen dialog, beautiful close-up tracking shot on Franz in profile as he walks away from the prison, and then a really marvelous scene in which he ends up dancing with a sullen waitress in a coffeehouse where he is waiting for a phone call. Black and white, low budget, sheer bravado. (Does anyone even do this anymore?)

But this is not the same Franz you may recall from Love Is Colder Than Death, the boyfriend/pimp played by RWF himself. Who is this new Franz (played by Harry Baer)? I actually thought he was Bruno from LCTD, whom Johanna had slept with and then betrayed after he and the original Franz robbed a bank. The actors look enough alike and are both objects of desire (and unusually handsome for RWF movies, I have to say). Besides, who else would Johanna be waiting for? But it turns out that Bruno was shot and killed in LCTD (I had to look that up—actually couldn’t remember!)

So, anyway, Franz Walsch (that’s this movie’s Franz) meets up with Johanna, who has been waiting for him and is still completely smitten. She’s a puppydog with her Franz but, interestingly, she holds all the power. Franz shows up at the nightclub where she sings (the club is called “Lola Montez,” no doubt a winking reference to the movie in which Dietrich plays a historic man-eater) but the doorman won’t let him in; after her show is over she takes him to her car, gets in the driver’s seat, but then offers to let him drive, as befits his status as her man; outside the restaurant later she hastily slips a wad of money in his coat pocket before they enter so he can pay for the meal. She goes out of her way to bolster him and belittle herself in an effort to reinstate that old gender/power dynamic which must have informed their relationship before. (Which is the same dynamic we saw in the earlier film, when she was number-one prostitute to Franz’s pimp.)  Surely this is significant.

But (or maybe, so) Franz ditches Johanna the first chance he gets and ends up with Margarethe (played by Margarethe von Trotta), an increasingly submissive and abject partner, whose bedroom is inexplicably papered in a giant billboard-size photo of herself. (She’s a model? Must I invoke that chestnut of golden-age feminist film theory, scopophilic fetishization, here?). Margarethe almost exactly traces Johanna’s trajectory in LCTD: she gives Franz all her money, begs him not to go through with the robbery he’s planning, offers to prostitute herself for him. Not only that: almost exactly as in the earlier film, Margarethe has to share her Franz with another more hardened criminal, Gunther (Gunther Kaufmann), who by all appearances is Franz’s true love. It’s a strange, sad, kind of creepy triangle.

But we all know whose fury hath no match in hell, and so it comes as no surprise when Johanna betrays Franz to the sleazy and persistent police inspector with whom she begins an affair. Needless to say, it all ends very badly. Franz, Gunther, and the manager of the supermarket they rob are shot and killed. Gunther makes it out of the store and back to Carla, a young woman who sells porn out of a wicker suitcase (seriously!) who had betrayed the pair’s robbery plans to Johanna, and kills her before he dies himself. His last words, in English: “Life is precious, even now.” The movie ends with the women—Johanna, Margarethe, and Franz’s mother—at Franz’s burial, weeping.

This is only the third movie I’ve watched as part of this project and already I am blown away by how consistent the themes and motifs seem to be across all of them. Hanna Schygulla plays essentially the same character in all three: hopeless romantic doomed to unhappy love. RWF plays 1) Jorgos, a maligned gastarbeiter in Katzelmacher, and 2) an alienated gangster who falls in love with another criminal sent to kill him but with whom he becomes enmeshed in a tragic love triangle (LCTD). Here, the new Franz loves Gunther, who is black and so an outsider, like Jorgos; Franz loves him even though Gunther murdered Franz’s own brother, again within the framework of a love triangle of which the woman is both the most sympathetic and the least loved.

It’s surprising to see the extent to which these films predict other later RWF motifs: the  dangerous-and-hulking-innocence and brute magnetism of Gunther made me think immediately of the American GI in The Marriage of Maria Braun, and to a lesser extent, Ali. At one point in Gods of the Plague, Franz gives his name to a hotel clerk as “Franz Biberkopf”—which is the name of the protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which RFW didn’t make for another decade.

All three films are claustrophobic and joyless—this one in particular. It is also very dark (literally). There is very little dialog and nobody smiles; any laughter is mirthless. The characters are flat and opaque, affectless except in moments of crisis, when they explode. The sense of alienation is overwhelming. The women are cynical, full of hopeless narcissistic longing, at times hysterical; the men are cruel, distant, and aloof, occasionally erupting in violence. Sex is mechanical and detached (Carla’s pornography, for example, shows only disembodied organs, splayed and engorged, going through the motions, detached from what we might call humanity). There are a few very brief moments of lightness and joy—as when Gunther, Franz, and Margarethe drive to the country (although even that episode is bizarre and ambiguous and ends in a kind of violence)—but they are fleeting and without consequence. This is the world Rainer Werner Fassbinder shows us. My god, it’s depressing.

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3 Responses to Gods of the Plague (1970)

  1. Robin O'Quinn says:

    You know what I find SO fascinating in your account of this man’s “art”, (and that has wildly morphed over my own life!) is that almost criminal fascination with darkness, sadness, and folly. More precisely the willingness to fixate on these themes to the exclusion of all else. Who’s life is really all about angst? How does a film maker who engages in such a visual reality fail to be moved by the beauty of the world they project? Did Fassbinder stay like this his whole life?

    • I hear you, Robin, and I agree. It’s especially interesting since he was in his twenties when he made these movies. But I think in general RFW WAS moved by the beauty of the world –esp. in his art– but he was moved not to joy but to despair. I think this must have to do with the postwar German experience, which was based on collective denial at the bottom of which was true moral horror, combined with the fact of his outsider status as a gay man, on top of the moral confusion everybody seems to have felt in the seventies (not to get too film-historianish about it, but it’s no coincidence that this is the period that saw the resurrection of film noir as a genre, for example). It would have been so interesting to see how his work would have evolved had he lived long enough, e.g., into middle and old age. You know, just thinking about all this has got me interested in sticking with this insane project. Thanks!

  2. beverly says:

    Sounds like great melodrama. Certainly a great essay about it. You make me want to see it just to glimpse the depths of melancholy, and find that I’m not alone.

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