The American Soldier arrived from Netflix around Christmas and sat by the TV, unwatched, for nearly four months. So admittedly the stakes—or my expectations—were a little higher than usual by the time I finally watched it. What a disappointment, in any case: at a mere hour and 20 minutes I found I could barely get through it.
Slow, stylized, and grim, The American Soldier is a movie we’ve seen twice already: it’s Gods of the Plague and Love Is Colder Than Death by another name. Contrary to my initial assumption re: those earlier movies, there is no continuity between these films and there was probably never any intended; I am now convinced they are all just different versions of the same movie. Fassbinder is working through something here, obsessively exploring the same story—theme and variations—until he gets it right. But why? What is it about this tale that compelled him to tell it three times and in three ways in only two years? The review that’s up on IMDB suggests (rightly, I think) that the ultimate realization of this obsession was to come nine years later with Berlin Alexanderplatz. I have only seen the first two episodes of that epic series, so I can’t really hazard much of a guess as to what ambition that project realized exactly. At this point all I can say to summarize what I’ll call the Franz Walsch series, which may or may not hold true for Berlin Alexanderplatz, is this: each depicts the hopeless trajectory of an amoral and omnisexual underworld antihero who is ultimately punished/killed by an even more corrupt and amoral legal system (or representatives thereof). This corruption—not to mention the moral turpitude of the characters themselves—seems somehow endemic to German society, although that is never made explicit. Is this too simplistic an interpretation? Probably. Let’s hope the next 20 or so films will help me to develop and/or clarify it.
Anyway, this movie’s (anti)hero is Ricky (Karl Scheydt), the eponymous American soldier recently returned to Germany from Vietnam, now an assassin. (Never mind that there is no indication of what makes Ricky “American.” Not that it matters. Vietnam is just a device, shorthand for moral ambivalence and degradation, etc.). Back in Munich, Ricky gets instructions as to whom he is to kill, by phone, from a corrupt detective called simply Jan (Jan George, from GotP).
We watch as Ricky coldly kills first a prostitute (Irm Herrman, a Fassbinder regular), a homosexual gypsy who tries to seduce him, and eventually Magdalena Fuller (the local pornography saleswoman from GotP), whom he had earlier used for information. When Ricky calls the hotel concierge (Peer Raben, RFW’s closest and most important collaborator) to get him a woman, Jan sends his own devoted girlfriend, Rosa von Praunheim (the nom de guerre of a German gay rights activist and filmmaker, as it happens). Like any good Fassbinder heroine, Rosa falls in love with the man she’s been sent to prostitute herself with. When Jan learns that she plans to leave him to run off with Ricky, he designates her as Ricky’s next victim, with whom he dutifully dispatches.
In the film’s final climactic scene Ricky is ambushed by the cops at the train station, only to be saved by Franz until, at the last moment, Ricky’s mother and brother, sent there by the cunning Jan, show up. Ricky turns as his mother calls his name, which gives the cop just enough time to regain control of his gun and shoot Ricky. The film ends with a surprisingly moving shot of Ricky’s brother (Kurt Raab, with a perm), who hurls himself on Ricky’s dead body in an inconsolable embrace. While I cannot even begin to make sense of the overtly homoerotic and doglike devotion the former shows toward the latter here and in an earlier scene when Ricky visits his mother, it’s a strangely moving image.
So. Many recurring characters, actors, motifs. The cop played by Jan George is the same actor who played the cop who killed Franz Walsch and seduced his girlfriend Johanna in GotP. Can we assume he is the same character since he appears in both movies? Of course not. Most of these recurring characters are displaced, by which I mean they are played by different actors, even when the original actor appears in the newer film, or are unique to the film in question, even if their name was used in other films. So, for example, Ricky’s best friend is named Franz Walsch, but is obviously not the same Franz Walsch from the previous film and is this time played by RWF himself (who actually did play Franz in LCTD, though I don’t think his last name was Walsch?). Magdalena Fuller reappears as the woman who sells porn from a wicker suitcase, though not played by Ingrid Caven, who instead appears briefly as Ricky’s ex-girlfriend, a chanteuse at the Lola Montez (where Hanna Schygulla as Johanna in GotP was the singer). Margarethe von Trotta once again plays a woman who falls hopelessly and tragically in love with our antihero, this time as the hotel maid. Hanna Schygulla is nowhere to be seen.
Speaking of recurring motifs: in one particularly strange scene, the maid (von Trotta) bursts into Ricky’s room as he and Rosa are about to make love. Instead of leaving, she sits on the bed, staring into space, and tells the story of Emmy and Ali, almost exactly as it unfolds in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. (In the maid’s version of the story Emmy is murdered, possibly by Ali. Other than that, the story is exactly the same). I cannot for the life of me figure out the significance of this story in this context, beyond the fact that it clearly illustrates RWF’s preoccupation with a handful of what must have been for him archetypal stories which he was to explore throughout his short career.
There’s a really interesting interview with Ingrid Caven (which I’m sure I’ll talk more about), RWF’s wife (yes, really!), in which she mentions that she introduced the director to Freud. This interests me: I really do think there is something Freudian (or is it Jungian?) about the way these movies use symbols and recurring motifs, for example, not to mention the condensation and displacement of elements Freud described as characteristic of dream logic. (There’s also the recurring relationship between each movie’s protagonist and his mother, to whom each makes a kind of pilgrimage—as well as the frequent casting of RWF’s own mother, the avenging cop as superego, and so on . . .) Ordinarily I try to avoid these kinds of overtly academic readings—god knows I did enough of that in college—but I think they just might be apposite here. Another piece in the puzzle? With Fassbinder, increasingly, I am convinced it really is a puzzle.