Wow. What a silly idea this was. I’m not even managing to watch one of these a month. How am I going to get through the entirety of Fassbinder’s feature film output by next September? I really did not think it through when I blithely announced my plans to do this in a single year. (Hell, Fassbinder made movies faster than I’m managing to watch them.) The problem is, I’m just not in the mood. Still depressed after my mother’s death, deep in what we optimistically call “mid-life” (I turn 50 in a few short months—Fassbinder was 37 when he died), taunted by diminishing hormones, at yet another career crossroads, worried about where to send my kid to middle school . . . What does Fassbinder have to say to me? I keep hoping that the sheer quantity of relentless despair he depicted will somehow cancel out my own, or something, and who knows? Maybe it will. (The writing and the pondering are surprisingly fulfilling, I admit.) But the fact is, I live in a completely different world.
Case in point: Why Does Herr R. Run Amok (1970)? A strange tale of alienation set in contemporary Munich, in which a quiet, awkward, bourgeois husband and father, Herr Raab (played by the actor, Kurt Raab), fails to live up to the expectations of his family/peers/social class, and eventually, violently snaps. But the bourgeois ennui that drives Herr Raab to, well, run amok, seems mild and a little quaint to me now. The death-in-life that RWF depicts—dull job, nagging wife, humiliating boss, opaque and distant child—doesn’t seem to match the anxieties that inform everyday life in the 21st century (surely it isn’t just me?). Herr R. toils as a draughtsman in an architectural firm, for example, a daily grind that just doesn’t look all that bad, frankly—more active and engaging by all appearances than managing databases and spreadsheets and whatever else typical white-collar workers do these days. (Beats the hell out of freelance copy editing, that’s for sure.) He uses tools to draw up blueprints for real buildings! He takes at least an hour for lunch and probably leaves work at 5 PM. His wife doesn’t have to work at all! His boss is a jerk, but what else is new? But how frightening: what exemplified soul-numbing alienation in 1970 looks kind of okay in 2011. (I wonder how many people would agree with me on this, however. After all, Herr R doesn’t have Facebook and Twitter and Youtube and online shopping—all those entertainments we can no longer imagine a day in the office without . . . but I digress . . .)
This is a deceptively simple film. Deceptively simple. Raab’s trajectory is linear and predictable. Thanks to the title, we know from the outset that things are not going to go well for him. The characters are, as we’ve come to expect, two-dimensional, cogs in the machinery of what appears to be a simple morality tale of bourgeois materialism and alienation. We meet in succession Herr R’s pretty and socially ambitious wife, his battle-axe of a mother, his vaguely unhappy son, his gossiping, competitive neighbors, his distant but not unkind colleagues, all of whom exert varying degrees of pressure. Nothing much happens—until of course it does.
This is also an oddly quiet film. There are no larger-than-life dramatic moments (until the end, that is), no big trigger events, no histrionics, not even any raised voices. Just the quiet accretion of indignities and irritants, and the growing realization that the unimaginative Raab is on a path leading nowhere and lacks the courage or the creativity to seek an alternative. It comes as no surprise when Herr R. finally snaps.
Which is surprising, if you think about it. Isn’t the element of surprise essential to a story like this? The shocking climax of the movie is all but foretold in the opening title—or on the marquee outside the theater. And if the end is a foregone conclusion, just a question of timing and details, why bother watching the movie at all? RWF does not build suspense of any kind in this film. The only tension comes from the awkward embarrassment in some of the scenes. The progression of events leading up to the climax feels disconnected and episodic, their sequence almost arbitrary. (I think you could literally recut the first two-thirds of the film in a completely different order and it would still work.) The scenes themselves feel loose, improvised; the dialogue is halting and inconclusive, full of awkward pauses, aimless fits and starts. There is very little editing, just fluid, mostly single-take camerawork. No music.
Unlike reality TV, which uses the same age-old bag of cinematic tricks to dress up non-performances by non-actors to make them feel emotionally authentic, RWF here takes a scripted narrative and drains it of artifice, polish and, most important, of emotional resonance. The film does not invite or induce empathy for its protagonist nor identification with any of its characters, most of whom do not even have names (the credits list a lot of Neighbors, Colleagues, and Friends; neither Herr nor Frau R’s first names are ever even mentioned). It is, quite literally, alienating—not in the sense that it depicts the dysphoria of individuals who feel alienated or out of touch in modern capitalist (etc.) society, but, I think, in the Brechtian sense of the term. (Remember? Remember, in that college humanities class, Bertholt Brecht and the Verfremdungseffekt ? [Yes, yes, I had to look it up.]) You don’t identify with Herr R. and his world, you critically judge them. Wasn’t that the whole point of Brecht’s Epic Theater? (I never quite understood how Lotte Lenya singing “Mack the Knife” achieved that, but again, I digress.) And that must be the point of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? It’s the only way I can make sense of this movie.
I guess I should mention that the film does offer the glimmer of a suggestion of the possibility of an alternative to the bourgeois straightjacket of the Raabs in the character of Hanna, played by Hanna Schygulla—a lot of the characters in this movie go by the names of the actors who play them—Frau Raab’s old school friend who comes to visit early in the film, before we really know who any of the characters even are. Unlike Frau Raab, Hanna does what she wants. Raab expresses disdain for her unconventional hairstyle (it’s short! and curly!); Raab declares that his wife, who must bow to the norms and expectations of polite society as befits the wife of a man of his milieu, could never even consider wearing such a hairdo. Raab is strangely hostile toward Hanna, whom he insinuates is some sort of libertine. She can do what she wants, he says. She does not have to worry about how she is perceived. Hanna makes only a fleeting appearance, however, and it’s hard to say whether or not she represents a meaningful alternative to the materialism of the Raabs. What is significant about her character, I think, is the fact that Raab sees her way of life (whatever that is—when Raab asks Hanna what she does she says she doesn’t know) as not merely unattainable but impossible and therefore irrelevant, worthy of scorn. His sense of his own and his wife’s obligations is absolute and unwavering, and Hanna, for her part, does not seem interested much of anything at all.
Anyway, the other characters—with the exception of the kindly secretary in the office, played by RWF’s mother (Lilo Pompeit)—are all small-minded and mean. The neighbors, whom Frau Raab tries to keep up with and impress, are particularly nasty, as is Herr R.’s mother. We’ve seen these people before, of course—they’re essentially the same petty, back-biting, xenophobic bourgeois who inhabited Katzelmacher. (And because this is Fassbinder, they’re mostly played by the same actors! I love that!) I think we’ll be seeing more of them in movies to come.