Chinese Roulette (1976)

I recently announced I had wrapped up 1976. Not true! I forgot about Chinese Roulette! Apologies to anyone actually following this thing who might have rejoiced at another year’s worth of Fassbinder out of the way, but we’ve got one more to go. Does this qualify as a Freudian slip? In any case, I don’t think I’m the only person fixated on Fassbinder to have overlooked Chinese Roulette. It’s an odd one.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed it. After I Only Want You to Love Me and Satan’s Brew, it felt like a reward. It’s a fabulous if confounding exercise in genre and style after the solipsism of the previous two films. Don’t worry, though: it’s still personal and highly idiosyncratic. But I really appreciated its cool formalism and the sense you get that the director was back in control after a brief time in the wilderness with his demons. Maybe RWF really did get something out of his system in 1976?

The most expensive of his movies to date and his first international coproduction (French-German), I think Chinese Roulette marks the entry into a new, more accessible phase of RWF’s career (“accessible” being a relative term, of course). In addition to a small cast of regulars, it features Anna Karina and Macha Méril, two more or less iconic French actresses noteworthy for their work with Godard (to whom Karina was of course married in the 1960s). It also seems to me to mark a return to a more accessible genre—although I’m not entirely sure what that genre actually is. It’s a certain type of European thriller I associate with the 1970s: stylized and formal, with an emphasis on fashion, adultery, mind games, and labyrinthine plots that twist and turn and confuse. Or maybe it’s not so much a genre as a style of movie making. A style built around, well, style. A very specific style set in a specific place and time.

First, there’s the sartorial style: hair, make-up, fashion. Everything is—here comes that word again—stylish. Margit Carstensen with her make-up and her hair helmet and her pinstripes, Ulli Lommel with his black turtleneck and white wide-lapelled suit, Volker Spengler with platinum blond hair and combat-evocative fatigues, the red red lipstick (even Brigitte Mira sports it!), the mascara—so much mascara!—not to mention the elegant country manor, the sleek BMWs, the acrylic furniture . . . it’s a sort of compendium of late 70s European style, like a fever dream you’d set to Roxy Music. There’s even a brief scene that uses Kraftwerk (which I won’t even attempt to describe. Let’s just say it’s a dance number.)

There’s the art direction, at the center of which is the setting, an enormous manor house on a large country estate which actually belonged to Michael Ballhaus (somebody was making money!). The house is stately and grand but minimally furnished. At the center of everything are three acrylic cabinets or armoires or fixtures, which hold 1) the bar, to which the principals keep returning 2) the stereo, and 3) the chess set and the gun (a movie such as this requires both, natürlich). Completely transparent, they facilitate some truly breathtaking camera work, both reflecting and doubling the characters’ images without need of actual mirrors (though there are plenty of those, too) and enabling the camera to see the actors at all times, even when tracking behind one of these fixtures. It’s an amazing effect.

The whole thing is intricately choreographed to an extent we haven’t yet seen. The camera movement is complex, and the compositions are stylized and dramatic and completely over the top, often consisting of two or more characters in 3/4-profile and frontal arrangements, and emphasizing flat planes and deep focus: it’s downright balletic. (Peer Raben said he deliberately composed the score as a ballet, in fact.) This sort of choreography between actors and camera was not new in RWF’s work, of course, but it is more dramatic, more flamboyant, and more audacious here than in any of his previous films. The climax features a swirling 360-degree track that very closely echoes that same movement in Martha (right down to Margit Carstensen, at the center of both), and which makes the earlier move look like the dry run which in hindsight it surely was. Completely nuts, it’s worth sitting through the entire movie for. (Interestingly, Ballhaus later described this movie as “unwatchable.” Was he ashamed of all that pyrotechnic excess? I can see how he might be.)

The movie opens with Ariane Christ (Margit Carstensen) perched atop a radiator in her Munich apartment, one leg stretched out straight in front of her, the other bent at the knee, listening to opera. (I wish I were better versed in that medium—I’m sure the choice of opera is significant.) It’s a strange and stylized posture, which will be echoed by other characters throughout the film (more on this later). Her daughter, Angela (Andrea Schober) leans against another window in the adjoining room, where the turntable is. Only when the doorbell rings do we discover that Angela is crippled, and requires the use of crutches. (This little surprise sets the tone for the plot twists to come.) Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson, the father in I Only Want You to Love Me) and his assistant, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel) arrive and the couple’s various travel plans for the afternoon are briefly discussed. Ariane will go to Milan and Gerhard to Oslo on business. Angela will stay in Munich with her mute nurse, Traunitz (Macha Méril).

When Gerhard drives to the airport, however, it is not to board a plane for Oslo but to pick up his Parisian mistress, Irène (Anna Karina), whom he will drive to his country estate for an illicit weekend. When they arrive they are greeted by the caretaker/housekeeper’s androgynous son, Gabriel Kast (Volker Spengler) and, after a romp in the countryside, his mother, who simply goes by the name of Kast (an icy Brigitte Mira, in hairsprayed ‘do and vamp-red lipstick). Gerhard leads Irène upstairs to the parlor where they find . . . his wife, Ariane, and his assistant, Kolbe, getting it on, right there on the living room floor. After an awkward moment of stunned silence, husband and wife burst out laughing. Looks like there will be more of them for dinner that night, observes Gerhard.

Gerhard goes downstairs to update Kast on the dinner arrangements and tells her, portentously, adopting a similar pose to Ariane’s in the opening scene (reclining on a table with one leg stretched out in front of him, the other bent at the knee), that “Ali ben Basset was murdered in Paris. We’re the last two left.” What does this mean? What is the nature of Gerhard’s relationship to Kast and their shared, presumably clandestine, history? Sounds ominous, in any event, even if Ali ben Basset is never mentioned again.

At dinner, Kolbe and Irène are a little uncomfortable, but the Christs don’t seem to notice or care. They laugh and tell stories and, after dinner, Gabriel joins them to read from his manuscript, which he hopes Herr Christ will pull some strings to help him publish. The manuscript, a bizarre quasi-Nietzschean discourse on god and man, man as god or “sun king,” and the godlike nature of the narrator, an androgyne, who reunites the primal division of man and woman back into one, is interrupted by the arrival of the child Angela and the mute Traunitz and a trunk full of creepy porcelain dolls, which infuriates both Kast, who seems to despise the child, and Ariane, who moves to strike Angela but is restrained by Gerhard. It is clear Angela knew of her parent’s respective adulteries and deliberately showed up to punish and humiliate them.

Everyone seems shaken by Angela and Traunitz’s arrival except Gabriel, with whom Angela appears to have an understanding. When Gabriel visits her room later, as instructed, Angela tells him that her parents’ affairs began when she fell ill (in the case of her father) and were told nothing more could be done to treat her condition (in her mother’s case). Both parents, she says, blame her “for their messed up lives.” It’s as simple as that. Everything has a simple explanation, she explains. Traunitz taught her that.

Angela haunts the mansion like a malevolent spirit, the tap-scrape-tap of her crutches and braced leg echoing down the long hallways and stairwells as she slowly makes her way from room to room, stirring up trouble. Menacing and manipulative, she appears the next morning in the doorway of each parent-lover’s room while they are in various states of post-coital undress to knowingly sneer at them. At breakfast she deliberately drops her crutch  and orders Kast to go and pick it up, an assertion of power not lost on the bitter Kast. After dinner on the second night, at which she insists on the attendance of Kast and Gabriel, Angela demands that the group play a game of “Chinese roulette,” a truth guessing game in which one team identifies someone from either group to be “it” and the other team must ask questions to figure out who “it” is. Each member of the team being questioned must answer each question, ensuring a multifaceted and potentially explosive portrait.

The questions start out innocuously enough (“What sort of animal would this person be?”) but soon turn ugly (“What sort of death would befit this person?”). Having used up their eight permitted questions (two per team member), Ariane’s team is allowed one last question, open to anyone on her team. Gerhard suggests to Ariane that she use “their special question,” which she does. “What would this person have been under the Third Reich?” Yikes. You know this one isn’t going to end well. After Angela answers “commandant at Bergen-Belsen camp,” everyone guesses that Kast was “it.” But no, sneers Angela, “You all picked on in a cowardly way the most harmless person. It’s you, Mama!”Ariane, incensed, grabs Chekhov’s gun (introduced, of course, in an earlier scene, waiting for its cameo there in plain view) and shoots . . . Traunitz. Gerhard rushes to his wife and vows that Ariane is the only one he loves, as Kast and Gabriel carry Traunitz off to await an ambulance, and Irène and Kolbe, awkward bystanders to this family train wreck, slink away.

Several important secrets are revealed in this scene. Most important, we learn that the name of the Christ estate is “Traunitz Manor,” which of course suggests that Traunitz the governess is descended from the original overlords. Gabriel tells Angela that he knows she orchestrated the whole thing, expecting her mother to shoot her. Angela tells Gabriel she knows that he does not write his own material but steals it all.  Cut to an exterior shot of the house, as what appears to be a religious procession, very tiny in the distance and barely distinguishable in the dark, passes by and an opera in which the “until death do us part” portion of the Christian marriage vows are sung (translated into German via a subtitle—again, I regret my opera ignorance). Another gunshot is heard from within the house.

What does it all mean? The film is utterly, tantalizingly opaque, riddled with innuendo and clues and symbols, some of which are clearly significant while others could just as easily be MacGuffins, red herrings, or maybe just jokes. I had to watch the movie three times to make any sense out of it. Here, briefly, is what I think:

The religious imagery is inescapable—including an enormous life-sized crucifix on the manor grounds. Gerhard is (literally) Christ, Gabriel is a heralding angel, and Angela is an avenging angel. Following Gabriel’s bizarre reading (“And if Christ is God become man he nevertheless died as a man and not as God”) I think Gerhard is Christ the man, who turns the other cheek and dies for his wife’s sins, on the receiving end of that last gunshot. Oh, and that super-stylized pose I mentioned earlier, adopted by Ariane and Gerhard? I think it’s Adam (Man) in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, reclining with one leg straight and the other bent at the knee, touched by the hand of God.

Traunitz is the serpent in the garden (OK, I’m mixing up my biblical metaphors here, but what the hell. She planted the seed in Angela’s mind that her handicap is linked to her parents’ infidelities.) That’s why Ariane shoots Traunitz (in the neck, echoing other gestures in the film I haven’t been able to make sense of) instead of Angela. Traunitz and Kast, in any case, are opposed: Kast is the loyal servant of Ariane and Gerhard, Traunitz of Angela. Based on a few judiciously placed clues, I think the Traunitz family were Nazis and Kast was a communist, and that Gerhard, with Kast, may have come into possession of Traunitz Manor by collaborating with the Russians in 1945. (It’s complicated and it’s a stretch, but it’s the best I can do.)

I could go on and on, but unless you’ve seen the movie, it just wouldn’t be interesting. Here’s what I think is interesting, though: nasty as she is, Angela is the character RWF identifies with. Like the director, she blames her mother for her unhappiness while letting her father more or less off the hook. Both Angela and Fassbinder see themselves as victims and at the same time as godlike, manipulating the people around them like a bitter puppetmaster. And both use the game of Chinese roulette to coerce people into confessions and actions they would rather repress. During the shooting of Chinese Roulette, cast and crew lived together in the remote mansion, day and night, without leaving, just like the characters in the film. At night, for entertainment, they played RWF’s version of Chinese roulette. Margit Carstensen describes how, sensing an increasing discord between them, she felt driven to finally ask the director during one such game if he wanted to stop working with her. His answer? Yes. And that is how Margit Carstensen, until then the quintessential leading lady in a certain type of Fassbinder film, ceased to be one. As though, like Angela, the director had set the whole thing up as an elaborate trick to obtain a specific result.

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