I’ve always said the others made me into the leader, whereas they say I was looking for followers. So I’ve simply tried to create a comedy about myself as seen from outside, a comedy about what I would be if I were like that and what I perhaps am, but don’t believe I am.
—RWF, on Beware of a Holy Whore (quoted in Ronald Hayman, Fassbinder: Film Maker, p. 49.)
It’s widely accepted—axiomatic, even—that RWF’s films fall into a few easily identified, chronologically determined categories: the underground gangster film, the melodrama (whether Brecht- or Sirk-inflected), the political satire, the historical drama. Occasionally, however, RWF released a film that did not appear to fall into any of these categories, perhaps demonstrating the folly of such a schematic and reductive understanding of such a large body of work. Where does World on a Wire fit in, for example? Or Beware of a Holy Whore? And what about Satan’s Brew, strangest of all? Are these movies just outliers, or are they part of a larger pattern not necessarily discernible to the 1976 viewer (or the blogger trying to think like one)?
The answer, I think, is both. World on a Wire certainly feels like an outlier (that’s probably why I liked it so much), but you can still find themes and threads that link it to RWF’s other work (fragmented identity under capitalism, the smoke and mirrors of cultural production that looks like reality but isn’t, the convergence of corporate and bourgeois ideologies, etc.). Beware of a Holy Whore and Satan’s Brew, on the other hand, stand out primarily because they are both “comedies” (without actually being funny) that lampoon the director himself as well as the media and institutions in and through which he was working at the time. On further reflection I think they might deserve a “category” unto themselves, even if after scrutiny they too exhibit themes that overlap with the rest of his work. (More on this after the synopsis—which, I’m warning you now, is quite long. The only way I can see to talk about Satan’s Brew is to describe it in detail.)
But before I begin . . . will it spoil everything if I mention up front just how much I hated this movie? I really did not like it at all. The pace is frenetic, the actors are manic and shrill, the sexuality is grotesque, and the jokes are ugly and cruel and unfunny. It’s deliberately distasteful and irritating and obnoxious—imagine the Three Stooges directed by Alfred Jarry, or a pornographic Punch and Judy show. I found it so annoying that I actually considered just turning it off halfway through and issuing a “sorry, but life is too short” apology for this post. But a vow is a vow, so I decided to soldier on. I’m actually glad I did, even if I can’t actually recommend the film. As I’m sure I have demonstrated already, you can appreciate a Fassbinder film without actually enjoying it.
The movie opens as Walter Kranz (Kurt Raab), “poet of the revolution,” desperately tries to cajole his publisher into giving him another advance on a book he hasn’t begun to write. Failing this he visits a kinky aristocrat named Irmgart von Witzleben (Katharina Buchhammer) who gets off on giving Kranz money for . . . something. Sex? The honor of being a patron? Humiliation? It’s hard to tell. Writhing on the floor in her back-of-the-Fredericks-of-Hollywood-catalog underwear while writing Walter a check, she begs him to shoot her, which he does, inexplicably. Then it’s off to another lover’s place. Lise (Ingrid Caven) lives with her husband, Rolf (Marquard Bohm), who encourages her to sleep with Walter because they have an open marriage, or something, and he’s busy tinkering or inventing, or something. Lise doesn’t feel like servicing Walter, however (he owes them money already) and whines at a really gratingly high pitch until Walter leaves.
Walter returns to his own apartment where his bitter, beleaguered wife, Luise (Helen Vita), barks and yells and harangues him for failing to bring home the bacon and refusing to sleep with her while his mentally ill brother, Ernst (Volker Spengler), demonstrates his obsession with flies. (He wants to fuck them. Really, that’s what he says.) Walter gives Ernst the gun he used to shoot von Witzleben and asks him to hide it for him. Unable to write any new poetry, he decides that he will interview a prostitute and publish a book about it instead. (This is decades before Oprah et al. helped make the lurid confessional a mainstay of the publishing industry, by the way: how prescient RWF was!). He hires Lana von Meyerbeer (Y Sa Lo), who happily tells him grotesque and titilating tales of childhood abuse and horror (at her customary rate), and services him (at her customary rate) when he loses interest.
After Ernst reads him a few lines from a book, Walter, suddenly touched by the muse, begins reciting a new poem. It turns out, however, that the poem in question was actually written by the late-19th–early-20th century German mystical poet, Stefan George. When this is pointed out to him, Walter decides that he must be Stefan George (how else to explain it?) in a new incarnation. Meanwhile a peculiar police detective, Lauf (Ulli Lommel), begins sniffing around, suspecting Walter of the murder of von Witzleben.
Walter orders a belle époque suit with flowing cravat and begins wearing a Stefan George–style mane of a wig, with bizarre expressionist make-up. He hires a group of young male actors to attend soirées in which he recites his poetry. (George was famous for sharing his obscure but lyrical work with only a select group of young male acolytes whom he encouraged to remain celibate.) When Walter’s wife explains that he cannot be Stefan George because the latter was a homosexual, Walter heads for the public toilets in the subway and picks up a prostitute (Armin Meier) whom he dresses up as an Olympian god to recite George’s work.
Desperate for cash, Walter had earlier telephoned an ardent epistolary admirer, Andrée (played by Margit Carstensen, unrecognizable in bottle-thick round glasses and a quintessentially frumpy short gray wig), and invites her to come and stay with him. Convinced that she is Walter’s soulmate in the tradition of ecstatic 19th-century hysterics, Andrée immediately assumes the role of devoted slave; the more Walter mistreats her the more she claims to worship him. Her degradation includes being banished to the cellar where she is raped by Ernst, being sent down to the river in a light summer dress to streetwalk until nightfall in the dead of winter (she comes back with hypothermia), and, of course, giving Walter all her money. Ha ha.
When the Stefan George gig inevitably falls apart, Kranz visits his parents (played by Brigitte Mira and Hannes Kaetner, the night-watchman with whom Mother Küsters goes home to eat Himmel und Erde at the end of Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven—this might be the only joke in the film that made me chuckle) and talks them into giving him their funeral savings. Margit Carstensen follows him and expresses her disgust—not because Walter has just extorted an elderly couple, his own parents no less, but because he is not of the noble birth he claimed to be. The horror!
Next, Walter blackmails the prostitute Lana von Meyerbeer who, he discovers, has a husband working out of the country. After Lana retaliates by enlisting a couple of thugs to beat Walter up, Andrée realizes that Walter is weak “like her” and not the übermensch she believed him to be. Before leaving him forever she gives Walter, bloodied and lying in the street, a couple of good strong kicks and jauntily stomps on his hand for good measure.
Must I go on? It all gets predictably, farcically worse. Walter, no longer blocked, begins feverishly writing again and delivers a book to his delighted publisher. On his triumphant return home he learns that Luise, who had been showing signs of illness apparent only to Ernst, has died in hospital. Walter feigns abject grief to the disgust of the doctor (Adrian Hoven), orderlies, and the last of his devoted Stefan George–period acolytes (Vitus Zeplichal), all of whom are appalled that he would display such a petty bourgeois emotion as grief. Lucky for them he was just kidding! Ha ha! He returns home to find that Rolf has run off with Andrée to open a stationary shop in the country, so Lise moves in with Walter and Ernst, immediately assuming the characteristics of the hausfrau Luise, barking domestic orders and complaints. The police detective, Lauf, shows up with Irmgart von Witzleben, who isn’t dead after all, and everyone has a good laugh. Order restored, the three roll around on the carpet while Lise bustles and clucks in the kitchen.
Ach, so. As with Beware of a Holy Whore, Satan’s Brew feels like an elaborate inside joke (although I don’t think RWF cared whether the audience was in on the joke or not), a personal rant against the business of culture in Germany, the delusions of the consumers of art, the pretensions of the artist and, I think, the expectations and criticism of the cultural and political left. It’s angry and its personal. I can’t help but think that, like Beware of a Holy Whore before it, Satan’s Brew was a kind of necessary outlet for an artist who had been averaging four feature-length films a year for five years (!) and needed to vent. I also think the same old subjects were getting a little overripe. 1976 looks to me like the year when certain of RWF’s obsessions finally came to a head and got the better of him: first with the self-pitying exhibitionism of I Only Want You to Love Me, then in the self-mockery of Satan’s Brew. (Both strike me as products of an unhealthy self-obsession). But it tells you something about RWF’s status in 1976. Unlike Beware of a Holy Whore, which depicts a director, cast, and crew on the set of a feature film shoot, RWF’s stand-in in Satan’s Brew is a poet, the loftiest of all figures in the classical Western tradition. Fassbinder’s woes are no longer merely those of a film director, in other words; they are those of the Artist.
RWF of course has an axe to grind, which is not surprising: as a beneficiary of government arts funding for years, he must have found himself in a uniquely uncomfortable bind. Mocking the hand that fed him necessitated that he mock himself for prostituting himself in the first place and working within a system he must have found morally if not artistically compromising. But as I’ve already suggested, there’s more to it than funding. By 1976, RWF was a major figure in the German cultural landscape, considered by many to be the voice of a generation. So he caricatures himself here not merely as a whore, but as a mouthpiece, a false prophet, a leader of sheep: the official poet of the revolution.
But even that’s not the joke. The inside joke here is not an allegory about the politics of culture or the business of art. On a very simple level RWF is depicting himself the way he actually behaved: as a charismatic leader at the center of an utterly dependent circle of devoted followers whom he manipulated emotionally, sexually, financially and creatively. One example should do more than suffice: according to Ronald Hayman, RWF actually made Irm Hermann and Ursula Strätz turn tricks while the two were living with him during the Antitheater days so he could spend his time writing without having to earn a living.
Which brings me back to the quote at the opening of this post, which could just as easily apply to Satan’s Brew. It’s as though RWF could only confront his own deeply motivated sociopathic behavior when it was refracted through images, which is to say “seen from outside.” And maybe this is where Satan’s Brew and Beware of a Holy Whore fit in. They demonstrate the only method by which Fassbinder could confront (let alone make sense of) himself: reflected in images, displaced through cinema. So maybe, maybe all those references to images reflected in mirrors in all those movies, maybe they’re not just metaphors for the relationship between image and reality, the illusory nature of film, the fragmented self under bourgeois capitalism, and so on. Maybe they’re a metaphor for the only way Fassbinder himself could confront reality.