I’ve been picturing some kind of Venn diagram to categorize Fassbinder movies. The Merchant of Four Seasons, for example, would fall within at least two circles (probably more than that, but two’s a good place to start): stories of Men Driven to Despair by Bourgeois Society and stories in which Male Friendship Trumps Heterosexual Relationships. But then so would most of the movies I’ve talked about so far. (Other obvious RWF categories spring to mind: Masochistic Relationships is a good one, and so is Chauvinism and Prejudice, etc.) I like this idea a lot and may experiment with the idea soon. It appeals to my relentless desire to classify and my compulsive need to generalize from the particular. There is also something inherently funny to me about Venn diagrams, which might help ease the weight of all this wrenching drama—I’ve still got several dozen of these damn things to watch, after all. And anyway, Fassbinder’s work really does lend itself to this. The guy really did make a handful of movies over and over and over.
Of course this kind of classification is also pretty reductive: in cramming these movies into neatly labelled boxes, we ignore the particulars that make each film that unique film, for the sake of broad, often abstract, ideas. Who cares, for example, that The Merchant of Four Seasons mirrors Why Does Herr R Run Amok? in terms of central theme (a soul stifled and crushed by bourgeois society), character elements (a judgmental mother figure, most notably), and final outcome (suicide)? What makes TMoFS interesting is not so much what it shares with the earlier film but how it differs from and moves beyond it. Because the later film really is so much richer, more complex, and more sophisticated, both thematically and technically. In fact, I think it marks RWF’s arrival as a mature filmmaker.
Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller) is a pathetic wretch of a man. Despised by his haute bourgeoise mother, he joins first the Foreign Legion, then the police force—from which he is fired for receiving sexual favors from a suspect, presumably a prostitute—and finally settles as a green grocer, hawking pears (or plums or tomatoes) from a barrow in the streets of Munich. He has a wife, Irmgard (played magnificently by Irm Hermann, against her usual type); a somewhat neglected daughter, Renate; a sister, Heidi, who holds him in the same contempt as their mother does; and another sister, Anna, who does not (played by Hanna Schygulla, also refreshingly cast against type). Heidi’s husband (Kurt Raab) is a prim and successful newspaper editor who stands as a counterpoint to Hans, a constant reminder of the latter’s failure. Ingrid Caven plays the love of Hans’ life who rejected him as a suitor because of his lowly trade; she hovers about the neighborhood like a slightly creepy spectre, another reminder of Hans’ failure. Not surprisingly, Hans tries to escape his miserable existence through alcohol. Eventually he succeeds.
Despite the simplicity of the above description, this movie is morally complex and maddeningly ambiguous. Hans is a victim of sorts, but his wallowing and drunken cruelty toward his wife are really distasteful. He neglects his duties to drown his sorrows at the local bar, then humiliates his wife when she comes looking for him. When he finally stumbles home, blind drunk, she criticizes him, so he beats her in front of their child.
Irmgard, for her part, is certainly a victim, but not a terribly attractive or sympathetic one. (Irm Hermann comes across as a sort of vaguely malevolent porcelain doll). While Hans is in the hospital following a heart attack, Irmgard brings a stranger (Karl Scheydt) home for some recreational sex, only to be interrupted by her unfortunate daughter. Later, through sheer coincidence, Hans will hire that same man, Anzell, to work the barrow for him (doctor’s orders: no strenuous work and no drinking after the heart attack). In an effort to avoid exposure as an adultress, Irmgard tricks Anzell into stealing from Hans so that he will be caught and fired.
Enter Harry, Hans’ old Foreign Legion buddy (Klaus Löwitsch, in what would surely have been Gunther Kaufman’s role had this film been made earlier). Through sheer happenstance the two reunite just as Hans is looking for an employee to replace Anzell. Harry cheerfully accepts and moves into the Epp household, where he proves to be far more capable than Hans. While the loyal Harry manages the business, provides chaste companionship (!) for Irmgard, and helps Renate with her homework, Hans sinks into a deeper and deeper depression, which culminates in a final ceremonial series of whiskey shots, each perversely dedicated to someone in his life. (The climactic flashback to Hans’ time as a legionnaire in North Africa features El Hedi Ben Salem—Ali in Fear Eats the Soul)—and a whip. Enough said?)
As with the tragedy of Herr R, the problem here isn’t simply oppression. Hans shows absolutely no initiative and no capacity to envision a different kind of life for himself. Just as he was unable to say no that fateful night in the police station that cost him his career, he is dully passive, his only outlets alcohol and wife-directed violence—the province of powerless men the world over. He is really the victim of his own self-hatred and lack of imagination. (Here any Marxists in the audience might wish to point out that this is precisely how “bourgeois ideology” works: men internalize it and then blame themselves when they don’t live up to its impossible standards. Or something like that?)
Ach, so. Aside from some familiar faces in new roles (Hermann, Schygulla, Löwitsch, and Raab all play wonderfully different characters from their last RWF movies) what’s new here? The script, for one thing, marks a pretty big shift towards a more complex (and in some ways more conventional) narrative structure compared to the more minimalist and theatrical style of the earlier films. Here, for example, RWF uses flashbacks, which add a new depth. The camera, too, feels freer and more confident than in the earlier movies; the cinematography is more sophisticated and also more naturalistic than in any of RWF’s previous color films (Whity, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, etc.), and there’s literally more depth to the images. The interiors are as suffocating as ever (I swear, every RWF movie uses the same kitchen), but the exterior cinematography, while still stylized, feels both more open and more integral to the narrative, more immanent, which is to say, the cinematography “colors” the film and underscores the thematic and emotional content in ways that seem new. Hans, for example, spends his days negotiating within cement and stone courtyards, surrounded on all sides by drab lace-curtained apartment windows (what’s the opposite of a panopticon?), that open one onto another (the courtyards, not the windows). These are shot as a series of planes and interconnected cubes, like some kind of quotidian labyrinth in which the fruit merchant is trapped, the geometry of prison.
So: instead of the monotone flatness of the early films, spatial and temporal depth. To me, this is a real sign of Fassbinder’s growing confidence as a film director. More certain now of his abilities, he deploys a wider range of cinematic tools to his own ends. No more hiding behind avant-garde minimalism. This is the Fassbinder we talk about when we talk about Fassbinder.