As mentioned in a previous post, it turns out that three of RWF’s movies made for German TV in 1970-71 are now available on DVD, thanks to the Fassbinder Foundation. So back to 1970 we go—so much for chronological order and linear momentum. But this might actually be a good thing, even if it’s not how I set out to do it. Given the circular nature of Fassbinder’s own trajectory—he obsessively returned to the same themes and motifs in a slightly different, more developed form even after appearing to have exhausted them—the spiral might just be the perfect path to follow. In any case, I’m glad I watched these. Each, though minor in the context of RWF’s larger body of work, embodies some major thematic preoccupation that informs the later “big” movies. And each has helped me to make a little more sense of those preoccupations. Sometimes it’s the smaller, seemingly insignificant pieces of a puzzle that, when placed, enable you to see the larger pattern more clearly.
The first of these, The Niklashausen Journey (1970), is the most unusual and, though tedious and pretty dated in its political rhetoric (and not all that much fun to watch), intellectually the most interesting. This is an agit-prop historical allegory—not an ounce of melodrama anywhere in sight!—that owes more to Godard and RWF’s own work in avant-garde theatre than it does to Douglas Sirk. In adapting the true story of Hans Böhm, a 15th-century mystic who incited thousands to revolt against the established feudal order after claiming to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, RWF situates revolutionary political activity in the context of desire. This for me was interesting in itself and a relief from the Gunther Kaufmann Love Triangle that has dominated so many of these early films (see below).
The film opens with the Black Monk (RWF himself, in dirty jeans and black leather jacket) quizzing his fellow cadre members about the theory and practice of revolution (“Q: Who needs the revolution? A: The people. Q: Who makes the revolution? A: The people. Q: Who prepares the ground for it? A: The party.” Etc., etc.). In the next scene we see Böhm (played by Michael König, blond and beatific like some 1970’s rock and roll god), a shepherd and drummer, preaching to the assembled faithful about his revelation from the Virgin Mary who told him to spread her message about the sins of landownership and clerical power and the exploitation of the powerless. Here, the Black Monk realizes, is the perfect mouthpiece for the revolutionary cause: handsome, charismatic, people listen to him. The message is not enough to incite the people to revolt, in other words; the people must desire the messenger in order to act. (Fast forward to 2008—think Steve Schmidt and Sarah Palin—and you get a perverse sense of how prescient Fassbinder was.) And so their campaign begins. When a devout and wealthy (and increasingly hysterical) follower (Margit Carstenson) insists that Böhm move in with her, the Black Monk encourages him to do so—as long as he and his friends can come with him, of course.
But the people are still not quite “getting it.” The Black Monk realizes that the people need a more literal vision of the Virgin Mary’s message (in other words, a miracle) to move them to action, so he grooms his comrade, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), to appear in the guise of the Virgin when Böhm speaks. This seems to work, for a while. Inevitably, however, the powers that be, in the form of the local bishop (played in glorious high-camp Caligulesque by Kurt Raab, who inhabits a rococo palace surrounded by nubile young men à la Caravaggio, anticipating Derek Jarman by more than a decade), muster their forces against him and Böhm is burned alive at the stake in an automobile junkyard as a mezzo soprano sings the Kyrie Elieson and Gunther Kaufmann shoots the MP-uniformed guards from a VW bus (did I mention Derek Jarman?). Revolutionary fighting continues, led by Kaufman, who seems to represent the praxis-minded guerilla in contrast to the Black Monk’s more strategic and intellectual bent. The film ends with the original cadre, led by the Black Monk, taking the long view (I think). I’m not actually sure where this movie stands on the subject of violent political action, but that ambiguity is precisely what makes it interesting to me. People, the film suggests, cannot be educated or persuaded to free themselves, only seduced. For the revolutionaries, this inevitably leads to cynical manipulation (there’s a great scene in which Johanna practices her lines as the Virgin Mary, working out how best to appeal to the masses: “I should look up here”; “This line needs more humility,” etc.), or self-aggrandizing delusion (Böhm really believes he is some sort of messiah appointed by God), or violent nihilism (Kaufmann’s scorched-earth approach).In any case, I think this movie will be a useful reference when I get to RWF’s later political films like Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven and The Third Generation.
Rio das Mortes (1971) retreads painfully familiar territory. Once again Hanna Schygulla plays Hanna, cruelly abandoned by Michael, the man she loves (Michael König, still looking like a rock god), for Gunther (Gunther Kaufmann, natürlich) in what shall henceforth be referred to as the Gunther Kaufman Love Triangle (Revolving Male Character X + Gunther Kaufmann + Hanna Schygulla = ∆). But whereas the Hanna/Johanna of the earlier movies seemed like a naïve and ultimately innocent victim of her own deep romanticism, this Hanna is not particularly sympathetic. Henpecked by her mother, her sole ambition in life seems to be to get Michael to marry her. She is a paragon of bourgeois values, even if she doesn’t realize it. (She spends a lot of time on her make-up and poses like Dietrich in her Weimar underwear while talking to her mother on the phone.) Small wonder Michael is bored.
For his part, Michael is a naïve and sullen man-child, with limited prospects (he and Harry Baer lay tile for a living). When his old school chum, Gunther, comes back into his life by accident, the two rekindle a boyish plan to escape their humdrum lives for Peru to search for ancient Mayan treasure. The remainder of the movie consists of their efforts to raise the money for the trip and Hanna’s sporadic attempts to stop them.
This is an uncomfortable movie. While on some level it favors Michael and Gunther—they are vital and vibrant, and exude a palpable energy and enthusuiasm—there are no sympathetic characters. Hanna and her friend, Katrin (Katrin Schaake), are undeniably shallow and vain, but the men for their part are no less immature and foolish. Hanna may be needy, but Michael’s treatment of her borders on cruel. (As in pretty much all the movies we’ve seen so far, Gunther comes off as the most healthy and well adjusted. The most natural, anyway.)
So. After several movies centered around this same dynamic, it’s impossible not to wonder: what does Hanna mean to Fassbinder? Why this need to punish her in film after film after film? (OK, it wasn’t only Schygulla; he did this to von Trotta too, but not nearly as regularly; Schygulla clearly was the preferred victim.) What is it about this archetype that deserves continual punishment?
The answer, I think, is structural. And political. It’s not Hanna’s characteristics as such that she’s punished for—not her intelligence, not her physical beauty, not even her actions as a character—it’s what she embodies and represents as part of a larger dynamic. She is a woman in bourgeois society, which in Fassbinder’s universe makes her intrinsically one-dimensional and passive (or passive-aggressive), suffocating and needy, demanding commitment and security and adoration. Maybe that’s why things always turn out the same for Hanna, whichever Hanna/Johanna we’re talking about, in whichever love triangle, in whichever movie. Hanna can never compete with Gunther, because of what Hanna is. Gunther will always prevail because of what he is (which is everything Hanna is not and can never be): masculine, strong, independent, uncomplicated, honest, whatever the opposite of narcissistic is, completely himself. It isn’t fair—my heart goes out to poor Hanna—but this, it seems, is a natural law of the Fassbinder universe. And nature, as we know, is cruel.
There is a scene in Rio das Mortes in which Hanna and Katrin are rehearsing some sort of avant-garde play about women and child-rearing (interestingly, and purely as an aside, the choreography of the scene mirrors the opening scene of Niklashausen; Fassbinder likes to have his actors pace in circles while reciting stylized and/or didactic dialog). One of the actresses intones directly to the camera: “The repression of women can best be recognized in women’s own behavior.” This, of course, is what Hanna illustrates. (It’s what pretty much all the movies I’ve watched so far illustrate.) She submits to the rules of bourgeois morality as enforced by her mother and can only hold on to Michael through whining or subterfuge. When that fails, she decides to shoot him. The film ends in a close-up of Hanna in her James M. Cain–style hat (with veil), abandoned at the airport, having failed to kill Michael, looking directly at the camera, applying bright red lipstick. Thus out of frustration and repression the femme fatale is born.
The most successful of the 1970-71 TV movie cycle, Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971), covers similar ground, but more effectively fuses elements of melodrama and social commentary (for lack of a better term) and anticipates RWF’s later work. (The cinematography and production values alone put this film in a different league entirely from the previous films.) In this story, Hanna plays another romantic innocent named Berta—at last, she gets a new name!—in the town of Ingolstadt, where what appears to be a sort of army corps of engineers (called pioneers) is stationed to build a bridge. Berta, like her peers, is unhappily employed in domestic service and, like them, looks to the pioneers for excitement and salvation from her unhappy existence. She meets one of them, Karl (Harry Baer), and falls abjectly in love with him, despite his warnings that he will never reciprocate her love, and despite the fact that her employer’s son, Fabian, moons over her night and day, encouraged by his father (Berta is essentially the family’s property and so fair game, he reasons), though unable to make any headway with her.
Unlike the other girls, Berta’s best friend, Alma (Irm Hermann), knows the score and holds no romantic illusions about the pioneers and what they can offer her. She seduces them effectively and efficiently, right out from under the other girls’ noses, and has no qualms about taking money from the men in exchange for her services. The other girls hate her, of course, and blame her for “ruining it” for the rest of them.
Berta meanwhile holds out for Karl and rejects Fabian, despite his efforts to bully her into a relationship. Fabian tries to sabotage the bridge where Karl is working. Instead, the pompous and dimwitted company sergeant, Willy (Klaus Löwitsch), with whom Fabian has struck up a friendship based on their respective positions of power over (and isolation from) the other men, falls through the booby-trapped bridge railing and punishes the company mercilessly. Things come to a head when some drunken pioneers, led by Max (Gunther Kaufmann), brutally beat up Fabian (“When there’s no war you have to make one”) in an excruciating scene that lasts far longer than you expect it to. Meanwhile Alma, disillusioned, realizes that her days as a seductress are numbered and vows to give it up when she finds Fabian, bloodied, in the street. The next morning, Karl and Max and a few others drown the Sergeant in the river. The film ends with Alma, on one side of the park cheerfully initiating Fabian into the mysteries of physical love (“Where there’s security you can do without love,” she muses philosophically), while nearby Berta finally gives herself to Karl, only to be callously abandoned by him immediately afterward.
BERTA (still lying on her back, staring dully into space): Was that all?
KARL: Why? What more do you want?
BERTA: I just think we’ve forgotten something important. We forgot love.
KARL: Love’s not necessary.
BERTA: That’s terrible for me.
KARL: Pretend it was okay at least like the others.
BERTA: I can’t live like that.
KARL: Or would you rather I lied to you?
BERTA: Yes. Lie to me. That’ll make it easier for me.
KARL: OK, I’ll lie to you.
At first blush this looks like a classic men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus scenario: women desperately seek love where men want only sex; women use their bodies to try to ensnare men (whom they sometimes manage to “capture” when they get pregnant). And to some extent that is what these movies depict. Moreover, they glorify the kind of male camaraderie that Gunther Kaufmann typifies—both Pioneers and Rio dos Mortes, curiously, evoke military service as a sort of male bonding paradise—while depicting female relationships as shallow, competitive, and dishonest. But I don’t think it’s actually that simple. Pioneers, like all the other films under discussion, is really about power. And while it may be that power often aligns itself along gender lines, it doesn’t have to.
Men, of course, also subjugate other men. Usually their power derives from property ownership (Fabian’s father), sometimes from an office or uniform (Willy), sometimes from the ability to dominate others through violence (the various gangsters and thugs from Love Is Colder Than Death onward). The most powerful men exercise all these kinds of power, while the weak take it where they can get it. And of course, even if they can’t exercise power over other men, they can still dominate women.
MAX: Women are pushovers . . . The uniform attracts them. And the experience. God knows what they think we can do for them.
KARL: If it happens quickly, so much the better, better than slowly.
MAX: That’s the only thing you have as a soldier: the women. Otherwise we’d be the dumb ones and the civilians the smart-asses. We’re still the dumb ones but we make up for it, with the women.
KARL: I’m going to the pub. You’re never alone there.
MAX: I’m going to the park. There are always some around, looking for contact and ready to open their legs when a soldier wants it.
Not all men in Fassbinder exert power, of course. According to his father, Fabian is “not a proper man” because he doesn’t even know how to overpower Berta. And Jorgos (Katzelmacher), Herr R, and Whity are all powerless men, held in contempt by the rest of society.
Not all Fassbinder women are subjugated by men, either. Ironically, prostitution seems to be one possible way for women to escape the dominant power dynamic. In Whity, for example, Hanna the prostitute is a free agent who ultimately shows Whity the path to his own liberation. And even Alma, though hated by the other women in Ingolstadt, holds her own. When Willy refuses to pay her the agreed-upon rate for her services (she explains that this is her right as a woman), he jeeringly calls her a “fine lady,” to which she proudly retorts that there is no shame in needing to eat. Alma never loses her sense of her own dignity. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she is the only female character in Pioneers who ends the movie happy, actually compensated for her suffering and exploitation.