It’s finally happened. What had until recently felt like a burden and a chore is becoming a fixation. All I want to do now is watch Fassbinder movies. I’m neglecting my duties, ignoring my family. I can’t believe it. The movies are still hard to watch and I can’t say I’m enjoying them exactly . . . but something has changed for me and I don’t think it’s just because of Whity (although I’m sure that’s a factor). I think it’s the sheer accretion of familiar elements, like when you’re learning a language. I’m starting to feel like I have some context now, like I’ve reached a kind of critical mass. I’m making connections. And I’m suddenly enjoying myself.
This would never have happened without the blog, because this kind of engagement takes time and effort to achieve, at least for me. I can honestly say that I have probably enjoyed only one of the six movies I’ve written about so far on first viewing (Katzelmacher). It’s only after I sit down to try and make sense of each film, which requires some false starts and a lot of staring at a more or less blank screen—something I would never have bothered with had I not publicly announced I was doing this in the first place (shame is a great motivator)—that I begin to get really interested, only then that distinct threads begin to appear and patterns start to emerge. After I’ve started writing I usually hit a wall and have to go back and watch at least the beginning of each movie again, maybe more. That’s when it really starts to come together. On second viewing I find I really like these movies. Is there such a thing as a meal that can only be enjoyed after it’s been digested? If there were, that would be the metaphor I’d choose to describe this. Or maybe it’s like travel—overwhelming and exhausting while you’re doing it, beautiful in retrospect.
Right, so Whity is noteworthy in several respects. It is Fassbinder’s first color film (and, boy, is it ever!). [CORRECTION: Actually, it was RWF’s first theatrically released feature film in color. All three of the movies made for German tv in 1970-71, for example, were in color.] It is his sixth feature film in two years (his tenth in that span of time if you count the TV movies he made during the same period). It marks the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. RWF obviously had more money to work with than usual here: the production values are considerably higher than in anything we’ve seen so far. Oh, and it’s a western. Seriously. Ten-gallon hats, horses, spurs, six-shooters, the whole bit.
Except of course it’s not, really. Reputedly shot on the same set as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Whity does a good job of looking like a western. But while Fassbinder may quote its conventions (including a couple of Leone-worthy close-up/long shot alternating sequences in the deserted town), the western is really just a pretext, a trojan horse for the director’s own preoccupations. If there’s any Hollywood genre this movie exemplifies thematically and emotionally, it’s the family melodrama. Which is to say, Whity owes more to Douglas Sirk than it does to John Ford.
Briefly: Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell) is the scion of a wealthy Texas family, the biggest and wealthiest rancher in the area. He has a big house, a pretty young wife, Katherine (not his first), played by Katrin Schaake, two grown, legitimate sons—Frank (Ulli Lommel), a sadistic fop, and Davy (Harry Baer), who is what earlier generations used to call “simple”—and one illegitimate son, Whity (Gunther Kaufmann). The son of the family cook, Whity is half-black, employed by Nicholson as a servant/slave.
The Nicholsons are what you call a dysfunctional family. Nobody trusts anybody else—except Whity, steadfast in his devotion to all. Nicholson hires a local Mexican to pretend he is a doctor and tell Katherine that her husband is dying. Delighted by this news, she seduces the doctor while Davy watches through a crack in the bedroom door. Katherine asks Whity to kill Frank so she will get his inheritance. Frank asks Whity to kill his father. Eventually, Ben asks Whity to kill all of them. But when they’re not trying to seduce him, both Frank and Katherine taunt and humiliate Whity. Only gentle Davy remains aloof from the cycle of violence. (I have to share one of my favorite lines in the first scene of the movie, in which Katherine laments the fact that Davy was not euthanized as a baby: “Dead, you’d be a sweet memory. Alive, you’re just a nuisance, a useless creature.” Sick!) From the outset it is clear that things are not going to go well for the Nicholson family.
Whity has a relationship with Hanna, the prostitute and singer at the local saloon, played by Hanna Schygulla, reprising the character she has played in every Fassbinder movie we’ve seen so far (the whore without prejudice, powerless but steadfast in her convictions, unwavering in her honesty, etc.). Because he is black, Whity cannot visit Hanna as a regular patron but must sneak through her window after she’s finished receiving customers. Early in the movie Whity goes to the saloon to watch her perform. She gives him a rose which prompts the local bigots, led by RWF himself in full gunslinger regalia, to beat the crap out of Whity and throw him into the street. The defining image of the film stems from this scene: Whity, unconscious, lying prone in the dirt, framed head-on at ground level like some mannerist painting of the dead Christ, clutching the rose that Hanna gave him.
But what starts out looking like a more or less predictable tale of racism and injustice takes a strange turn. Nicholson whips Whity mercilessly at the slightest infraction. But increasingly it looks like Whity isn’t just subservient because he is forced to be: he seems to genuinely believe that it is right and just, that he deserves it, and there are times it almost seems like he relishes his punishment. To a disgusted Hanna, he professes love for his tormentors and a desire to please them that goes beyond ordinary servitude (The unfortunate Davy seems to mirror this subservience in his relations with Whity, which the latter rejects with tenderness and love, exactly as Hanna later rejects Whity’s own self deprecation.). However you choose to define it—masochism or internalized racism—this seems to be a central preoccupation for Fassbinder.
Now, I realize the meek, self-hating servant/outsider is nothing new in film and literature, but in Fassbinder this character seems to embody a unique and contradictory tension. From Katzelmacher to Whity the Fassbinder underdog is actually strong, powerful, attractive; it’s as though he accepts the mantle of powerlessness because . . . I’m not actually sure why. Because he wants to be loved? Because society requires it of him? At the same time he stands tall in spite of the constant humiliation he endures, which to me seems paradoxical. Gunther Kaufmann in particular has a raw physical power and a sort of animal grace that just doesn’t jibe with his subservient role. When he says “Thank you, Massa,” after Nicholson whips him, Whity seems neither cowed nor resentful, not even weakened. (This thread is going to take some time to finesse. I’m not even sure if I’m making any sense at this point.)
Anyway, things between the various family members deteriorate, inevitably, and culminate in bloodshed. Hanna urges Whity to run away with her and convinces him at last that he is a human being, not an animal, not a slave. The movie ends with Whity and Hanna alone in the desert, equals at last, with nowhere to go, slowly dancing together as they never could in public, their dignity restored but their fate apparently sealed.
Of course this summary doesn’t come close to describing the formal strangeness of this film. The sets may be right out of Sergio Leone, but that’s as far as it goes. Even the costumes seem more suggestive of the period than authentic, as though they were presented in quotation marks. (Frank and Davy wear matching green velvet dinner jackets; Whity’s uniform is screaming tomato red and practically bursting at the seams, it’s so tight.) If anything, the stylistic roots of this movie seem to be in German Expressionism, not Hollywood. The color is gorgeous: bold, oversaturated, and lurid. The acting style is artificial, the pace unnaturally slowed down, the gestures hieratic, almost Kabuki-like. And the make-up! The make-up is positively grotesque, enhanced by the highly theatrical lighting. The Nicholsons are so white they’re practically green (Davy is actually green in a couple of scenes). And I would swear Marpessa, the cook (Whity’s mother), is in blackface. The effect is bizarre and unsettling.
Peer Raben’s soundtrack nods to the western and its conventions, but quickly transcends it. (But that’s not the right word, transcends. The music sort of smashes those conventions, but gradually, by introducing tiny cracks you don’t necessarily notice at first, but which turn into bigger fissures that eventually cause the entire edifice to collapse. That’s closer to what I’m trying to say here.) Hanna’s songs, for example, would sound far more appropriate on a Weimar stage than in a Hollywood western, and the incidental music has a modernist edge; self-conscious, it is the opposite of transparent. Moreover, the musical cues often feel slightly inappropriate (why is there music here?), unmotivated by the narrative, at least in the ways that mainstream cinematic convention has defined the rules; the score calls attention to itself and occasionally seems to undermine the smooth unfolding of the drama. (This has actually been the case in several of the movies already discussed—Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier, most notably. Not sure why I’ve waited until now to mention it.) Of course, this is nothing new—Godard had been fooling around with music for years, foregrounding the artifice we don’t even notice when film music is done done “right”—but it’s different here. The score evokes the genre it seems to be subverting so well that it sneaks up on you; something is not quite right, but it’s hard to tell if it’s intentionally so or just awkward. It’s confusing and uncomfortable. You don’t know what to think.
Which of course makes you think. Surely that’s the point.