My husband and I saw Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven as part of a Fassbinder retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive in the 1990s. It was one of our favorite movies at the time, so of course I was curious to see how I’d feel about the movie now, in a different context and a different century. I’m happy to report that it’s still one of my favorites. In fact, it’s actually better than I remembered. (Dave agrees. He watched it with me again.) It’s just a marvelous film.
This is going to sound odd, considering the darkness of the subject matter, but there is a certain, well, a certain lightness to this film which I found, then and now, surprisingly refreshing. This probably has to do with the welcome absence of sexual/emotional/ masochistic angst that dominates so many RWF movies of the period (which can get really overwhelming if you watch too many of them in succession). It may also have to do with the overall tone of the film—by which I mean both the visual tone (mostly high-key lighting, super-saturated color, really nice art direction, fluid camera work), as well as the narrative tone, which is often satiric. True, as in nearly all RWF films, the protagonist is relentlessly exploited right to the end, but in this case she is not depicted as a victim, at least not in the way that Fox or Hans Epp or Effi Briest or Martha or Whity or even Emmi (and so on) were, and this, I think, makes all the difference. For me the simple dignity and strength and determination in Brigitte Mira’s portrayal of Emma Küsters shifts the balance.
And then there’s the two different endings included in later prints and on the DVD—one tragic but mediated, the other almost optimistic and sweet—offering two different solutions to the riddle of the film’s title. Delightful stuff, even if the film’s ultimate message is bleak.
Or maybe it’s just that Mother K is an overtly political film, which we haven’t really seen from RWF since The Niklashausen Journey?
The film is beautifully directed. Shot exclusively in interiors (mostly the Küsters’ apartment), the actors and camera are deftly and precisely choreographed—so much so that you don’t even notice it a lot of the time. The camera movement is subtle and effective, and the framings are complex and often symbolically charged. (Have I talked about how beautifully RWF uses doorways? It’s been noteworthy at least since The Merchant of Four Seasons, but I swear he takes it to a new level in this film.) The color palette is mostly subdued, which makes the occasional splashes of bright red (from Frau K’s cooking pots and tools, to Ingrid Caven’s lipstick, to the flowers that appear in many scenes) really pop. The costumes perfectly but subtly telegraph each character’s essential traits.
The opening credit sequence sets the tone: a series of stills, colored like postcards from the 1950s (which is probably what they are) depicting the sights of Frankfurt, poster city for West German reconstruction after WWII. The story opens in Frau Küsters’ (Brigitte Mira) modest working-class kitchen, as she and her son, Ernst (Armin Meier, looking not a little like James Dean), are assembling electrical plugs at the kitchen table, a cottage-industry assembly line. A newsflash interrupts the big band music on the radio: a worker at a nearby chemical factory has killed a manager and himself on the factory floor! Soon enough the doorbell rings: the visitor regrets to inform Frau Küsters that the killer was her husband, Hermann Küsters, who must have gotten wind of mass layoffs at the factory and just snapped, killing the boss’ son before taking his own life. Frau Küsters is in shock.
Next thing you know, the apartment is swarming with reporters. Because she is both courteous and naïve, and because she respects the simple truth that everyone has a job to do (even tabloid photographers), Frau Küsters agrees to let the most persistent of them, Niemayer (Gottfried John), return the next day to take photos. Which he does, all the while questioning Frau Küsters, Ernst, and his bitter, pregnant wife, Helene (tight-lipped, mean, and slightly hysterical as only Irm Hermann could play her), not so subtly goading them into admissions that will easily be twisted for sensationalist purposes. When Frau K informs Niemayer that she must pick up her daughter Corinna (Ingrid Caven) at the airport, the reporter eagerly offers to drive her.
If Ernst looks like James Dean, Corinna Coren (her kunstname or stage name) evokes Kim Novak in Vertigo. She arrives wearing a retro light gray suit over a turtleneck (Vertigo fans will remember that’s how Judy styles Madeleine’s trademark outfit in response to Scottie’s forced makeover); later, Corinna will replace the turtleneck with a sheer black scarf (another accessory worn by Kim Novak as Madeleine). And there’s more: Corinna wears this outfit to her father’s funeral, posing dramatically over the grave, flowers in hand, for the reporters’ cameras. Her gesture as she releases her bouquet into the grave mirrors Kim Novak’s at Fort Point when she releases hers into the bay; her posture, along with some suddenly eerie and melody-free organ music on the soundtrack, is also reminiscent of the graveyard scene at Mission Dolores when Madeleine visits Carlotta’s grave.
But why all these references to the 1950s, and why am I dwelling on them in such detail? I think they’re intentional and therefore important: they deliberately evoke the era of the German economic miracle (wirtschaftswunder) which, under Adenauer, established the bourgeois capitalist system that RWF and his generation decried, and which radical groups like the Red Army Faction sought to overthrow. (As I said, this is a political film.) If I were more politically minded myself I might suggest that Corinna and Ernst, who are themselves apolitical (cynically so in Corinna’s case), model themselves after icons of the 1950s precisely because they accept the ahistoricism promoted by consumer capitalist culture. (But why Kim Novak rather than, say, Marilyn Monroe? Maybe because Vertigo’s Madeleine is precisely an invented persona, as “Corinna Coren” is? Or am I taking this too far? Maybe RWF just loved Vertigo like I do?)
But anyway: Niemayer goes straight to work on Corinna who, unlike the rest of her family, knows exactly what is going on and is only too happy to oblige in exchange for the publicity it will give her fledgling career as a nightclub singer. Corinna knows an opportunity when she sees one, which is why she gives Niemayer the kind of answers she knows he is looking for—and why she starts sleeping with him. (“He has a lot of contacts,” she tells a disgusted Frau K.)
Ernst and Helene go on vacation instead of attending Herr K’s funeral, then announce they are moving out. Corinna moves in with Niemayer. The latter’s article is published and, not surprisingly, it paints Hermann Küsters as a deranged alcoholic sociopath. Frau K is stunned. This is not the Hermann she was married to for 40 years. This is not the man she described to those reporters. Abandoned by her children and alone, Frau K vows to restore her husband’s good name.
Enter the Thälmanns (Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstenson, delightfully polar opposites of the couple they played in Martha), kind and solicitous—and wealthy— operatives in the German Communist party. (Lest he be perceived as a bourgeois capitalist, Herr T hastily explains that their beautiful house and its contents were inherited.) They patiently explain to Frau K that Hermann was not a murderer but a victim of the capitalist system, and that while the means he chose were wrong, his impulse out there on the factory floor that fateful day was noble and selfless. They promise to help her set the story straight and, indeed, the article that Thälmann publishes does defend Küsters. Too bad nobody but Communists will read it.
(Before I continue I need to mention the Thälmann’s costumes, which are just brilliant. Carstenson wears plainly expensive, beautifully-designed versions of what I can only describe as Stalin-era Soviet garb—flowing apron-like pinafores, shawls, floppy head coverings, her hair always pulled into a severe utilitarian yet elegant bun. And Thälmann’s full-length black leather coat is a classic of the spy genre. Isn’t it always the Russian who wears one?)
Alone, denied a pension by the factory where Hermann worked, Frau K has no one to turn to but the Thälmanns, who make it clear that she is always welcome in their opulent home, day or night. Assured that an action to restore her husband’s reputation is imminent, Frau K joins the Communist party. She gives a speech at a party meeting—her first ever—that is eloquent and powerful and suggests that she has found her voice and her strength in the solidarity promised by the party, even if she still doesn’t understand politics and is there primarily because she has nobody else to talk to and they are nice to her. (Brigitte Mira is really fantastic here.) But after the speech she is approached by a lurking anarchist, Horst Knab (Matthias Fuchs), who informs her that the Thälmanns are really just ineffectual armchair socialists who will never deliver on their promises. Unlike the Thälmanns, Knab is not constrained by the exigencies of party politics. He assures Frau K that what she needs and only he can provide is a “striking action” to make the world take notice. When the patronizing Thälmanns finally make it clear that they don’t have time to do anything more for Frau K, she turns to Knab, who proposes that they occupy the offices of Niemayer’s magazine and demand a retraction.
Spoiler Alert: The Two Endings
In the original version of the film, Knab and his cohort turn out to be armed and take the employees of the publisher’s office hostage “in the name of the lone revolutionary Hermann Küsters .” (Knab, who clearly has an ear for marketing, refers to himself as the Küsters Commando.) Their demands: the release of all political prisoners in the Federal Republic of Germany, or else the hostages will be shot. At this point RWF freezes frame on the stunned face of Frau Küsters , and narrates the rest of the story via superimposed titles. The requested getaway car arrives, the terrorists exit the building, bullets fly, and pretty much everyone is killed. Corinna, who was in the crowd, cradles her dead mother in her arms and allows herself to be photographed.
The story behind the alternate ending is a little murky. According to the DVD, it was written by RWF as part of the screenplay (which suggests to me that it was the “original” ending), but only used in the American version of the film. According to Ronald Hayman, the alternate ending was offered as a “sop to German leftists.” None of these explanations makes much sense to me, but no matter. In the American version the anarchists “occupy” the publisher’s offices only to find that nobody takes them seriously. The secretaries just ignore them where they sit on the floor. When it is time to go home, the receptionist (Lilo Pempeit) merely steps over them to get to the door, while the others walk right past (some even cheerfully say “good night”). Knab and the other anarchist angrily decide to go home. Frau K, having run out of options, decides to stay. Eventually, a kindly night watchman explains to her that if she won’t leave he can’t leave, so why doesn’t she come with him to discuss a plan to get the magazine to retract the story, and just return to the office in the morning? A widower, he invites her home for himmel und erde (“heaven and earth,” or mashed potatoes and apples). Frau K happily accepts.
Although radically different in terms of actual outcome, the two endings both lead to pretty much the same conclusion: political action is ineffective because the actors are subject to the same petty motivations as everybody else. While the first version depicts the anarchists as dangerously absurd, in the second they are just absurd. Politics, this version seems to suggest, is futile: the best any of us can hope to find is personal happiness and maybe a certain dignity.
Curious about RWF’s motivation for crafting these two endings, I found the following quote on the World Socialist Web Site, of all places. (The 2003 review is excellent, by the way.)
In an interview in 1977, Fassbinder spoke about the two versions of the film: “And really I prefer the so-called happy ending [the second ending]. I made it because many people told me that the first ending was too hard. So I tried a gentler ending which I prefer because it is actually tougher than the original. The first ending, with the text, is perhaps more intellectual—but the other affects people more emotionally.”
He suggested that the second ending was, in fact, more uncompromising, “When the woman has fought for something for so long—and even gets sympathy for it…but has to give up, because no one will support her.”
I agree with the director inasmuch as I prefer the second ending, too, but I am skeptical of his explanation. The second ending is only “tougher” and “more uncompromising” if you genuinely believe that political revolution can deliver on the promise of a solution to the problem of human injustice. There is nothing in the seventeen Fassbinder movies I’ve watched so far that convinces me he actually believed that.