As I’ve said many times now, one of Fassbinder’s great strengths as an artist was his ability to translate incredibly specific, personal, and often idiosyncratic experiences and emotions into terms that a much wider audience could relate to. You don’t need to know anything about RWF’s own history and personal obsessions, for example, to enjoy his movies (not even Fox and His Friends). You don’t need to know that, for Fassbinder, prostitution was a moral act, for example, or that the young Rainer equated his mother’s coldness and distance with bourgeois decorum, which is why he rejected the latter so vociferously, or that the illiterate Armin Meier, product of a Nazi eugenics program, was RWF’s lover for several years before killing himself, to understand the problems depicted in his films. They work on many levels, which is of course why they work. It’s interesting to connect the dots between RWF’s life and art, but it’s not necessary.
That at least has been the case so far. I Only Want You to Love Me is, for me, the exception. This one, made for television, is so personal, so bitter, and frankly, so overdetermined, that it really only makes sense if you look at it in relation to the director’s own biography. Which is odd, since I Only Want You to Love Me was based on a true story, published in a book by Christiane Erhardt and Klaus Antes. And all the more surprising since the use of literary source material as a platform for staging the director’s own vision and obsessions (Martha, Effi Briest, Mother Küsters, etc.) had long been standard practice. And yet here that staging just feels heavy-handed and forced.
The film tells the story of Peter Trepper (Vitus Zeplichal), a serious and gentle young man oppressed by his bourgeois café-owning parents, especially his mother, whose love he desperately craves yet cannot win. When the movie opens, Peter is building his parents a beautiful new house in the Bavarian Forest—by himself and with his own hands, no less—all the while working nights in their café. His parents show neither gratitude nor appreciation; his mother’s only response when Peter shows up for work after a long day on the construction site, for example, is anger that his fingernails are dirty. After he marries the quiet Erika (Elke Aberle), Peter decides to move to the city where he can start a new life.
Peter finds a job as a construction worker, laying foundations for skyscrapers (symbol alert: on the backs of labor are the monuments to capital erected), and sets up house in a sad company-owned apartment. Soon after, Erika announces that she is pregnant. It is clear that Peter’s wages will not be enough to sustain the family—especially given his penchant for buying Erika presents he can’t afford, a holdover from his fruitless childhood efforts to buy his cold and distant mother’s love with gifts.
Peter continues in the irrational and unwavering pursuit of the trappings of bourgeois affluence even after the baby is born, refusing to let Erika go back to work to earn money they desperately need, buying her gifts she does not. When the purchase of a brand-new bedroom set (on the installment plan, natürlich) threatens to bankrupt them, he tries to work as much overtime as possible. Overworked, exhausted, and on the verge of collapse, Peter is eventually required to take time off to rest, unpaid. This prompts his emotional (and fiscal) unraveling, which culminates in the murder of a café-owner—who looks remarkably like his own café-owning father—when he finally snaps.
All the major Fassbinder themes and motifs of the period are in play here: the crushing weight of bourgeois materialism and mores, the oppression of the working classes under consumer capitalism, the masochism of love and, towering above them all, the Bad Mother, whom the unloved son desperately and pathetically tries to please with gifts, acts of devotion, and his own subservience. I have no problem with any of this, of course—it’s all the stuff of Fassbinder, familiar and even comforting in a funny way after so many movies. So why do I have so little patience for this particular one? Is this film really any less plausible or engaging than, say, The Merchant of Four Seasons or Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven? Technically, no. And yet, for me, it just does not work.
That said, there are some great moments in I Only Want You to Love Me. Ballhaus’ cinematography is beautifully restrained, occasionally breathtaking. (The scenes in the subway are really amazing.) Kurt Raab’s art direction is pitch perfect as ever, if not all that different from what we’ve seen in so many RWF movies already: the Trepper family dining room, for example, is nearly identical to Eugen’s parents’ dining room in Fox and His Friends, site of some of Franz’s most crushing humiliation. (In Fassbinder, the dinner table is the battlefield where class warfare is waged.) The color palette, especially in Munich, is industrial drab, whether at the construction site, in the subway, or in Peter and Erika’s sad little apartment—a dull canvas against which the flowers Peter repeatedly buys for his wife, and had earlier presented to his mother, jump off the screen. It’s a really stunning effect, simple but beautiful.
The central image of the movie is a flashback when little Peter, no more than eight years old and still in lederhosen, has brought his mother a beautiful bouquet and is shamed as a neighbor angrily reports that those flowers were stolen from her garden. The wordless spanking that ensues—with a wooden coat hanger that eventually breaks under his mütti’s fury—is sadistic and bizarre, out of all proportion to the alleged crime. (Erni Mangold plays Frau Trepper with chilling cruelty, the mother of all Fassbinder’s Bad Mothers.)
And that is the problem. Frau Trepper is too cruel to be simply explained away by her bourgeois rectitude, and Herr Trepper too indifferent. Peter is too passive, too doglike in his devotion to his mother to be credible, even within the context of the film (which is to say, in Fassbinder’s world, where the laws that determine credibility are obviously different). Unlike Hans Epp, or Fox, or Emmi, or Petra von Kant, or Martha, or Margot, or even Whity, Peter is utterly one-dimensional in his victimhood, lacking any apparent internal conflict or complexity. His sole raison d’etre is to be victimized, both by capitalist society and by his mother (essentially the same thing). Which is just not that interesting. At least not in 1976 after you’ve seen so many variations on this scenario played out in so many RWF movies already.
It’s all just too much, as though Fassbinder, who has already shown us these characters (the bad mother, the innocent turned masochist by the desperate need to be loved) and these scenarios (individuals broken by capitalism and imprisoned by bourgeois morality and institutions, especially marriage) couldn’t help turning it up one more notch. As though he hadn’t quite gotten it out of his system.
Which all seems pretty Freudian to me. Like the fetishist or the masochist, consigned to repeat the same rituals over and over in an attempt to fill the void, or lack, or whatever it is that needs to be filled, left over from some ancient childhood trauma, Fassbinder, in film after film, has tried to make the deep suffering he blamed on his own mother go away by re-enacting and displacing it through his characters. But of course these ritualistic exorcisms never actually exorcize the demons or heal the wound, which is why you have to keep repeating the whole thing—wearing your wife’s high heels, tasting the whip, making movies that feature characters oppressed by bourgeois society whose desire to be loved makes masochists of them, whatever—over and over just to try and find a little peace. In film after film it’s as though Fassbinder had been scratching around an old, itchy wound without finding relief. With I Only Want You to Love Me he finally goes straight for the scab and just rips it off.
(There’s another Freudian element here, of course, which is Peter’s blatantly Oedipal murder of the café owner. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that RWF cast Erni Mangold, an actress far younger-looking and more haughtily attractive than any of his previous bad mothers, as Frau Trepper, or the far mousier Elke Aberle, who had been a child star in presumably wholesome family dramas in Germany in the 1960s, as his innocent young wife.)
More interesting to me from a psychoanalytical perspective is the appearance of the doppelgänger which, though not entirely new in RWF (think of the doublings and displacements of Franz Biberkopf and the director himself) seems more literal here. There is a moment when Peter first encounters the café owner whom he will later murder and he does a double take (pun not intended). I actually thought the man was Peter’s father, a resemblance which was certainly intentional. I’m not quite sure what to make of this beyond the Oedipal business, but I do think it is significant, especially in light of some of the movies I know are coming (most notably Despair , which is about an imagined doppelgänger). I should also mention here that in the interviews between Peter and the prison psychologist which are used as a framing device in the film, Vitus Zeplichal is clearly doing the director: his low voice, mumbled speech, even the way he holds a cigarette are pure Fassbinder. Another doppelgänger?
I Only Want You to Love Me features virtually no RWF regulars. Of all his vast stable, only Peer Raben and Ingrid Caven—arguably the collaborators with whom he had the closest ties both personally and professionally—have cameo roles as salespeople who facilitate Peter’s downfall (Raben sells him the bedroom set, while Caven sells Peter the weaving machine Erika never asked him for and which is the last straw that breaks the couple financially). Perhaps I’m just on a crazy roll here, but I can’t help but read a certain Freudian significance into this too. RWF famously referred to his actors as a “family,” many of whom lived communally with him in the early years. Is RWF suggesting that this family—Caven, to whom he was briefly married, and Raben, with whom he had a sexual and reputedly bullying relationship—were dangerous forces that wanted to suck him dry (financially, emotionally, artistically)? Did he need fresh unspoiled talent to facilitate the laying bare of his soul that this movie so clearly seems to represent, actors who did not already know him too intimately? Am I going too far in my obsessive reading of all this?
Maybe this is the problem with my methodology. I can’t help but wonder if I would have actually enjoyed I Only Want You to Love Me had I not already watched 19 of the 24 Fassbinder movies that preceded and informed it. Watching these films strictly in sequence, it is impossible not to read—and judge—them as part of a larger whole at the center of which is the director himself, whose inner demons, though fascinating when viewed obliquely, are awkward and a little disturbing when fully exposed.