Despair (1978)

In many ways this is the movie that started it all for me. San Francisco, 1978. I really do still remember it! A short ride on the streetcar to Civic Center, then a long wait for the 19-Polk bus to the Lumiere on California Street. I was 16, going to the movies alone. I had no idea what to expect; I’d never read Nabokov, only knew about Tom Stoppard from my theater friends, and had barely heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But as a kid hell-bent on catching up on alternative high culture (if that’s not an oxymoron—it didn’t feel like one at the time) I knew the movie was going to be important. I knew it was going to be cool. How could it not be with all those reputations?

And it was! It’s hard now to describe the effect Despair had on me then. In addition to sparking a lifelong love of Dirk Bogarde (undiminished to this day) this movie, more than any other at the time, changed my sense of what movies could be, and actually planted the seed in my tiny head that film might actually be worth studying. (Less than two years later I would change my major at Cal from Art History to Film Studies.) The visual style, the camera work, the symbolism, the biting, sardonic humor, the head-trippy premise, the self-reflexivity . . . I had never seen anything quite like it.

Despair was unprecedented for RWF in many ways, too. It was the first time he had been hired “merely” as a director; for once he did not actually write the script, which was written in a language he did not even speak, by a playwright more famous than he was. It featured a bona fide marquee-caliber movie star with whom he also did not share a common language. The 6 million DM budget was nearly four times the budget for The Stationmaster’s Wife, by far the most expensive project he had worked on to date. (Chinese Roulette was made for 1,000,000 DM, while the average RWF movie prior to that cost about half that.) Despair, in other words, marks Fassbinder’s arrival in the big leagues, where the rules and the stakes are different. And it shows. This is a sumptuous film, rich and slightly decadent (like one of its protagonist’s chocolate creams?), despite what its creator may have had to say about it (more on this later).

The story goes that RWF had wanted to make Despair for some time but discovered when he set out that Stoppard had gotten there first. Hence the collaboration of these two unlikely talents, if indeed that’s what it was. (RWF said they “wrote the screenplay together;” Peter Marthesheimer, the producer, says Stoppard wrote the first draft on his own, which RWF edited, i.e., cut down, only in the actual production process. Given RWF’s lack of English fluency, I am inclined to believe Marthesheimer on this one.) If I seem to belabor the point, it’s because the script is one of the things that distinguishes Despair from RWF’s other films, which are noteworthy (among a good many other things) for their frequent depiction of the limitations of language as an effective means of communication. (Stoppard’s verbal pyrotechnics, on the other hand—mirroring Nabokov’s—are highly effective indeed.)

Which is not to overstate the novelty of Despair within RWF’s oeuvre. In many ways, it fits logically in terms of major themes, visual styling, music (Peer Raben, still, thank goodness), and historic setting. In so many ways Nabokov’s story of a Weimar-era candy manufacturer’s descent into madness and murder, written in Berlin in 1932, feels like a pretty natural fit.

Briefly: Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) is a wealthy Berlin chocolatier who lives with his simple and breathtakingly buxom, platinum-blonde wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferréol), and their raven-haired young maid, Elsie (Y Sa Lo), in a chic art deco flat. Lydia’s cousin, Ardalion (a marvelous red-headed Volker Spengler), with whom she has a flagrantly incestuous (yet strangely innocent) relationship, is a painter, a self-styled bohemian living out of his studio. The year is 1930. Germany is staggering under postwar reparations payments, Wall Street has crashed, and the industrialist Alfred Hugenberg has thrown his weight behind Adolf Hitler, thereby clearing the latter’s path to the German chancellorship. Against this backdrop, Hermann Hermann appears to be willfully losing his mind.

It begins with an episode of “dissociation,” in which Hermann watches himself making love to his wife from across the apartment in a literal splitting of his own psyche. After a trip to the movies with Lydia and Ardalion—the silent film culminates in a showdown between a policeman, Sergeant Brown, and his identical evil-twin brother, Silverman (“there’s always a line down the middle,” complains Ardalion, even though “you can’t see it”)—Hermann meets Orlovius (Bernhard Wicki) whom he presumes to be a psychoanalyst (a real Viennese quack! he’ll know all about dissociation!), but who turns out to be a life insurance salesman. Next comes a chance encounter in a sort of fairground hall of mirrors with a man Hermann perceives as his spitting image—they are “as alike as two drops of blood” he exclaims—and Hermann’s plan is hatched: he will switch identities with his double, an itinerant fairground worker named Felix (Klaus Löwitsch), murder him, and Lydia will collect the insurance money from the policy Hermann will take out with Orlovius before meeting her man [sorry, I couldn’t resist] in Switzerland to start their new life.

Spoiler Alert
There is one problem with Hermann’s plan: his doppelgänger looks nothing like him. At first, the authorities are confounded by Hermann’s crime. Why would anyone exchange clothing and passports with a man he does not resemble and expect to get away with murder? Worse, Hermann forgot to remove Felix’s walking stick, clearly labelled with its owner’s identity; in a snap the authorities are able to track him down (he’s traveling with Felix’s passport) to Switzerland where—another overlooked detail—Hermann had already paid Ardalion to go, ostensibly to “dry out” but really just to get him out of the way. Ardalion spots Hermann on his balcony and summons the police, who arrive within minutes. As they take him into custody, guns drawn, Hermann explains that he is a film actor and they are making a movie; soon they will see him emerge from his room (“Don’t look at the camera”).

Nabokov’s novel is deliberately vague on the question of whether or not Felix actually looks like Hermann (anyway, as Felix points out, “a rich man never really looks like a poor man”). This makes sense: Hermann is an unreliable narrator, so of course he is not going to take us aside and winkingly tell us us “the truth.” How odd, then, that Stoppard is said to have wanted the same actor to play both characters—and how right RWF was to disregard this and cast two actors who bear so little resemblance to one another. Like the painting of a rose and a briar pipe with a crudely-drawn swastika on the back which Hermann swears is the painting of two oranges which Ardalion had earlier tried to sell him (same swastika on the back), Hermann projects exact correspondence where there is none. (Ironically, there is one instance where he appears to be correct in his recognition: the actor who plays the identical twin brothers in the silent film—the noble Sergeant Brown and the gangster Silverman—really is the same actor who plays the Hermann chocolate factory foreman: RWF cast Armin Meier, for the last time, in all three roles.)

Despair is heavily loaded; symbols and metaphors abound. The set, for example, is designed using the “fishbowl” model we’ve already seen in movies such as The Stationmaster’s Wife or even The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Hermann’s apartment consists of rooms separated not by opaque walls but by etched glass partitions and doors that enable a variety of changing views depending on the camera’s position and movement and the way doors and windows are opened or partially closed, while separating the characters from one another. (Hermann’s office is also built around a fishbowl, where his secretary, Frau Schmidt [Lilo Pempeit] sits at her typewriter; as the camera tracks around her we never lose sight of Hermann on the other side of the glass wall.) In other words, although they appear close enough to touch one another, Hermann is separated from the other characters by walls of glass—or in the case of his initial encounter with Felix at the carnival, a labyrinth made of glass. Not unlike a movie spectator faced with the image of an actor projected on a screen—so close and yet so impossibly far—or like an actor playing two different characters in a split screen, separated by an invisible line down the middle.

Then there’s the color. RWF’s awareness of the emotional power of color, traceable to Sirk, was nothing new, of course. Despair, however, is the first movie I can think of that foregrounds the symbolic value of color in quite this way. Hermann even defines himself and his history in terms of color:

When the war started I procured some papers that said I was a blackshirt fighting the reds in the white army. But after the revolution I got out as a Caucasian fighting the brownshirts in the red army. All I really am is just a yellow belly in a brown hat.

The trademark color of Hermann’s chocolate company is lilac, a color that positively engulfs him at work (the chocolate boxes, the delivery trucks, the factory walls, the workers’ uniforms, even their little hygienic shower caps), and sometimes even at home (Lydia and Ardalion both periodically wear lilac, as does Hermann’s mother in one of his conflicting descriptions of that protean figure). Lilac, of course is the color of effeminacy and effeteness, as is the yellow of Hermann’s driving gloves, which he refers to as such (“the yellow driving gloves,” not “the driving gloves”). Compare this with Lydia’s bright red lipstick and Ardalion’s red socks and red hair—an indicator, perhaps, of who experiences physical passion and who is merely a spectator? Times, however, are changing: Herr Müller (Peter Kern), Hermann’s second in command at the factory, will soon trade his lilac lab coat for a brown Nazi uniform (“how perfect,” mutters Hermann: “a chocolate-colored uniform!”)

The film’s central metaphor is dissociation, with its unavoidable parallels with the cinematic apparatus and the spectral nature of the projected film image (in which man watches himself as in a dream). Even before Hermann’s fateful visit to the cinema, which plants the idea of exploiting a look-alike to escape an undesirable fate, the parallel is drawn: as he sits in his living room chair watching his naked wife kiss his shiny, shiny boots of imaginary leather in the bedroom down the hall, the ambient light in the room (presumably, from a neon sign outside) flickers from light to dark to light, mimicking the flicker-effect of a movie projector. This effect will be echoed in different ways later in different scenes (e.g., the swinging light fixture when Hermann enlists Felix in his “plan,” or the flickering light that accompanies his fantasy of reunion with Lydia as Felix).

So. Doubles, mirrors, projections . . . Fassbinder to the nth degree, right? Up until now, he’d used reflective surfaces (mirrors, windows, shelving, that fabulous coffee pot in The Stationmaster’s Wife) to double his characters (among other things), but as highly suggestive stylistic elements rather than a central thematic one. In Despair, the effect is overtly self-reflexive, the cinema-metaphor unavoidable. This is probably one of the things that made me love the movie when I first saw it—I was big on self-reflexive anything back then—but it’s what bothers me a little about Despair now. It foregrounds and makes literal what had hitherto been brilliantly subtextual. It’s thrilling, and yet it all seems a little . . . pat.

There’s something else that’s been bothering me, although this is typical of the director and his sometimes stubbornly controversial postures. RWF adamantly maintained in writings and interviews that Despair was, first and foremost, the story of one man’s fight against the inevitable stultification that comes with middle age, and that the film’s subtitle in German, Eine Reise ins Licht  (A Journey into Light), was not ironic, but rather an accurate description of the protagonist’s conscious choice to explore madness rather than accept the drudgery of the status quo.

You could list a whole series of reasons for that [Hermann’s despair]: the political, economic, and social problems of those years; but the real or, at least, most important reason is his sudden insight that everything’s pointless and that nothing has meaning anymore. Why? Because old age is approaching, the age when a person just doesn’t expect anything new, when a person no longer gets satisfaction from looking for things, desiring things, coming up with ideas . . .*

This strikes me as either incredibly naïve—a conception of middle age that exists pretty much exclusively in the imagination of the young (and, to this middle-aged mind, misses the point: it’s precisely the fear of losing our minds that’s so terrifying about growing old, not the fear of getting bored or complacent)—or flat-out disingenuous. The fact is, the film is loaded with imagery and references that have far more to do with “the political, economic, and social problems of those years” than they do with any garden-variety midlife crisis. Hermann’s socioeconomic status in that particular place and time, his identity as an already displaced foreigner who may or may not be Jewish, the nature of the luxury good he manufactures and sells at a time when the world is on the brink of total crisis, even his choice of doppelgänger (itinerant, anti-capitalist; in a mirror right is left, after all), his wife’s infidelity . . . all these things shape Hermann’s particular “journey” at least as much as his age does.

Hermann is a successful Russian emigré on the eve of the Third Reich, with plenty to lose and a lot more to escape than just ennui, even if he doesn’t know it yet. On that fateful journey to Düsseldorf, where he first encounters Felix while on a mission to take over a rival but failing chocolate manufacturer (a “merger” which, in a classic Freudian slip, he refers to as a “murder”), Hermann imagines telling the factory owner (Alexander Allerson) that his mother “was a Rothschild.” Why would he even imagine telling a German industrialist, who a moment before had been extolling the virtues of “that man” (Hitler), that he was of Jewish descent, whether it’s true or not? The factory owner, who had seemed so eager to sell out, ends up telling Hermann to “keep your fucking shekels,” an overtly anti-semitic rejection if ever there was one. Gazing at the bizarre naked chocolate figurines that are the rival chocolatier’s signature confection piled up in a mound, the Auschwitz foreshadowing is inescapable. Later, sitting at an outdoor café, Hermann will watch as Nazi youth throw bricks through the window of a Jewish butcher’s shop and the startled proprietors scurry to clean up the broken glass. Surely this is more than just colorful backdrop?

RWF dedicated Despair to three artists: Antonin Artaud, Vincent van Gogh, and Unica Zürn. All three were artists whose life and work challenged contemporary norms and all three suffered from mental illness; at least one of them committed suicide (although some would say all of them did—but that’s another conversation entirely). Obviously RWF’s point is that Hermann’s “journey into light,” no matter how misguided, should be viewed in this context. Such a stance seems a little facile to me now—overstatement at the very least—but it is precisely the sort of dedication that would deeply impress a slightly precocious teenager in the late seventies looking for alternatives to the middle-class values of her parents. I can’t help but wonder if RWF, finally enjoying the approval and largesse of the international film industry, felt the need to confirm his anti-bourgeois credibility by spelling out this interpretation for us. How lucky for us all that the film transcends it.

*Quoted in The Anarchy of the Imagination (see Resources), p. 124.

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