The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977)

I’ve never understood why distributors feel the need to change the titles of foreign movies instead of properly translating them. Okay, I do understand why—they want to appeal to a broader, i.e., American audience—but I really think it’s annoying. In most cases it’s clear they’re just dumbing down (or sexing up) titles they don’t think an American audience will “get.” For example, some focus group or other must have decided that American audiences would find The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain too long and too French, and probably just too, well, fabulous, so we got Amélie instead: short and sweet but with the whimsical edges sanded off. I understand why they did this, but it still bugs me.

What I really don’t understand is why anyone would change a film’s title in a way that actually obscures the focus of the story. Such is the case with Bolwieser, released in the U.S. as The Stationmaster’s Wife. Why did they do this? Did they fear our notorious inability to figure out how to pronounce “ie” versus “ei, or “w” versus “v”? (It’s Bol-vee-zuhr, by the way.) Is a name like Bolwieser just too “weird”—or too close to Bullwinkle—for even the “serious” American filmgoer? Maybe. But if that’s the case, they could have called the American version The Stationmaster, which would have preserved the title’s meaning: it is the story of Bolwieser, after all, who is the station master at Werburg. But they didn’t, and I think the reason they didn’t is important and sadly predictable. I think the distributors were not interested in selling American audiences a movie “about” Bolwieser, station master of Werburg. They wanted to sell us a movie “about” adultery, and to sell a movie about adultery you have to focus on the adulteress. That’s who audiences want to watch committing adultery and that’s also who audiences want to blame for it.

The problem here is that The Stationmaster’s Wife is not really about the station master’s wife, and to assume that it is misses the point. In fact, I would argue that the film isn’t even “about” adultery, exactly, although the station master’s wife certainly does commit her share of it. This, I realize, is going to take some explaining, but I think it’s important. And while I don’t mean to suggest that The Stationmaster’s Wife does not tell the story of a husband so masochistically smitten with his unfaithful wife that it destroys him, I do think that focusing on the wife makes it easy to ignore deeper, more complex levels of meaning in the film. Bear with me on this.

The story is set in 1930s Werburg, a very small town in the Northern Rhineland (I think). The story opens as Xaver Bolwieser (Kurt Raab in his best—and last—performance for RWF) and his new wife Hanni (Elisabeth Trissenaar) unsuccessfully consummate their union on their wedding night. Although it is immediately clear from the very first scene that Bolwieser loves his wife with an ardor she does not share, the two seem happy enough. Or rather, Bolwieser, a simple man of simple needs, is deliriously happy—he devours both his wife’s body and the meals she prepares for him with the same greedy pleasure—while Hanni seems merely to tolerate her new life. Only when she convinces her Xaverl to invest in the Torbräu, a local restaurant fallen on hard times, to be taken over by “an old school chum” of hers—the mustachioed local butcher, Franz Merkl (Bernhard Helfrich)—do we see Frau Bolwieser express actual joy. Eager to impress his wealthy father-in-law with his investing prowess, Bolwieser agrees.

The restaurant is a success, but soon the whole town is snickering at the station master, who doesn’t even suspect what everyone else knows: Hanni and Merkl are having an affair. Eventually the locals openly mock Bolwieser, forcing him to confront his wife. Of course she does what all committed adulterers do: she explodes in righteous indignation, blaming the victim for not trusting her. Bolwieser for his part desperately begs forgiveness and drowns any further suspicions in alcohol. As the rumors about Hanni and Merkl increase, however, the situation becomes impossible to ignore. Merkl and Hanni go on the attack (last refuge of the accomplished cheater) and sue the townspeople for defamation. Bolwieser, desperate to believe he is not a cuckold and willing to do anything to make the suffering caused by his own suspicions go away, eagerly agrees to the plan.

Merkl’s case in court hinges on Bolwieser’s testimony, lent extra weight by the latter’s status as a trusted civil servant. When Bolwieser testifies that he knows nothing of any late-night assignations between his wife and Merkl and that he has never, ever, under any circumstances doubted his wife’s faithfulness for a single second of their marriage, Merkl’s case is won and the townspeople are forced to pay him restitution. Unfortunately, this testimony does not agree with Hanni’s story to which Bolwieser agreed to testify when confronted with several townspeople’s reports that they spotted Hanni on her way to Merkl’s, late one night while Bolwieser was on duty. This will come back to bite him in a big way.

Spoiler Alert
Hanni eventually tires of Merkl and takes up with her unctuous hairdresser (the wonderfully creepy Udo Kier). Merkl “regretfully” tells the stationmaster that his wife is cheating on him—as a concerned friend, of course—hastening Bolwieser’s descent into total misery. When Hanni refuses to go back to Merkl, the spurned lover vows to destroy her. Merkl returns to court and sets the record straight. Because Bolwieser is a civil servant (“a pillar of the community”) his previous testimony is declared perjury and he is sentenced to four years imprisonment. The film ends when Bolwieser, in prison, must sign the paperwork for a divorce initiated by his wife. His lawyer’s cruel laughter echoes in the background as he returns to his cell. (Even his own attorney delights in Bolwieser’s humiliation.)

So what does it all mean? On one level of course this is a classic RWF melodrama dressed up in period clothes, exploring many of the themes we’ve come to expect: the masochism of the lover who loves too much and the cruelty of the loved one who does not, the gusto with which humans exploit the emotions of other humans, the pettiness and vindictiveness of the bourgeoisie, the structural unsoundness of marriage as a foundation on which to build a life, and the inherent unfairness of that institution towards women. (What options besides infidelity did a woman have in 1930s Germany if she was bored or unhappy in her marriage?) And, really, that’s enough to make for a pretty interesting movie.

More than enough, if you take into account the amazing artistry on display in this one. I’ve already devoted quite a bit of space in recent posts to the choreographic skill with which RWF and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus manipulated and integrated actors, camera, and sets in increasingly elaborate ways. The Stationmaster’s Wife really elevates this technique to a new height, and in a manner that feels unprecedentedly coherent. Even in as recent a movie as Chinese Roulette the camera movement, assured and audacious as it certainly was, still seemed overly self conscious, not always clearly motivated, a little de trop. (That’s why I loved it; still, such excess can become tedious.) I suspect this explains why Ballhaus later described that film as “impossible” for him to watch. The Stationmaster’s Wife is different.

It’s not just the camera movement that’s so impressive—according to Ballhaus, he and RWF were “trying to write a subtext*”— it’s the intricacy with which each image is composed, subdivided into continually changing surfaces and textures and planes, reflections and refractions in frames within frames, across space and through time, as in a kaleidoscope. I know I say this a lot, but the effect really is breathtaking. And more than in any other RWF film I can think of so far, the style (lighting, color palette, set decoration) is downright painterly, invoking both expressionism and cubism, as well as the aesthetics of German expressionist cinema (the film is set in the 1930s, remember). Amazing blacks. Chiaroscuro. Images filtered through gauze or lace or greenery. Images bisected by french doors, reflected in mirrors, bevelled glass, coffee pots . . . the whole Fassbinder-Ballhaus-Raab bag of tricks taken to a stunning new level.

But as I mentioned at the outset of this post, there is another layer to this movie which I think the German title makes easier to grasp; you have to think about what it means to have this particular protagonist and hapless victim (Bolwieser, the station master) in this particular place and time (Germany in the 1930s) to see it. A mid-level government employee, Bolwieser takes his position seriously. (He spends a lot of time scolding his underlings for breaches of protocol; such gross violations, he indignantly reminds them, reflect on him.) Self-satisfied, officious, simple, Bolwieser’s sense of his own value as a human being is determined by three things: his position or office, of which his uniform is the signifier; his wife, whom he occasionally refers to as his property; and his ability to satisfy his appetites (whether at the dinner table, the public house, or in the bedroom).

Bolwieser is a good German: preoccupied with status and appearances, rules and protocol, and of course propriety. And isn’t it precisely the “good Germans”—the ones who followed the rules, respected authority, and did what was expected of them, pleased with themselves in their fine uniforms—who enabled the Nazis to come to power at this particular moment in history? Are Bolwieser’s stubborn blindness to his wife’s true nature, his capacity to cling to illusions that will eventually destroy him, his refusal to acknowledge what was going on right under his nose, so different from the way the majority of Germans responded to the rise of National Socialism?

And then of course there’s the railway itself, vehicle of Nazi atrocities, symbol of their power to herd people like sheep to their deaths. (Who was working the railways then? Talk about willful blindness!)  About two-thirds of the way through the film, Bolwieser’s second in command, Mangst (a bald and pasty Volker Spengler), shows up at the Torbräu in a Nazi uniform and you realize just how similar that uniform is to the railway official’s: same style hat, same high stiff collar with the same tabs, same silhouette: only the colors, insignias, belt and boots are different. (The overall impression is the same.) The transition from one to the other would appear to follow a certain inexorable logic. Wasn’t the appeal of Nazism, at least for many, that celebrated emphasis on rules and protocol, hierarchy and efficiency? (Was it Hitler or Mussolini who famously “made the trains run on time?”)

After his conviction but before his final sentencing, Bolwieser is let out of prison and returns home (by train, of course). Mangst is now the station master, framed in the same position on the platform in a composition previously reserved for Bolwieser. Compared to the too-white Mangst, stiff in his station master’s uniform, Bolweiser, stooped in his civilian overcoat and hat, looks dull and gray (and quite a bit like Peter Lorre in M, that sad, archetypal Weimar-era deviant, come to think of it). The decadence of Weimar swept away, the next generation of civil servant has arrived.

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* Quoted in Chaos as Usual: Conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ed. Juliane Lorenz (New York: Applause, 1997), p. 106.

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