Esslin: Would you want to live in a world that has lost all morality? Where there’s only evil and depravity and corruption?
Lola: Gladly. My only problem is they never let me really join in.
RWF and the BRD
It’s tempting to overstate RWF’s role as postmodern chronicler of 20th-century West German history. After all, at some point or other he depicted nearly every major period of that history, from the Weimar Republic through the Third Reich all the way up to the Red Army Faction-dominated “German Autumn” of the late 1970s (assuming that still counts as history since it was happening in real time?). And yet, if you look at his entire body of work, only a handful of RWF’s films were actually set in the historical past; the vast majority took place in a more or less timeless present.
This should come as no surprise. If you accept the premise that one of RWF’s principal concerns was to depict how people behave in a society warped by a particular set of values—forged in a particular place and time, admittedly, shaped by actual events and responses to those events, sure—then it stands to reason that he would focus his attention on those values at work in society, rather than on that society’s history—at least not in the way such history is typically rendered.
This might explain why RWF made only one film actually set during the Third Reich (Lili Marleen)—the defining event of the 20th century in Germany, after all—but three in the Weimar era which led up to it (Despair, The Stationmaster’s Wife, and Berlin Alexanderplatz)—and why none of these films’ focus was actually on capital-H History at all. In Fassbinder, History takes place offscreen, while his characters are busy trying to get on with their lives, contending with their fellow citizens’ values and judgments. (One interesting exception might have been Rosa Luxemburg, but I doubt it. Anyway, RWF sadly died before production could even begin.)
This might also explain why RWF set the majority of his historical films during the postwar period under the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer—an era, much like the Eisenhower years in the U.S., famous for its absence of capital-H History. This is the period of the Wirdschaftswunder or “Economic Miracle,” when the Bundesrepublik (BRD) that Fassbinder’s generation would come of age in came into being and defined itself as a “social market economy.” It marks that fateful crossroads, after the catastrophe of the Third Reich, when a nation starting over from scratch made the collective decision to look forward rather than back, to pave over its tragic and criminal past, suppressing its own grief as well as its guilt in the process, rather than confront it.
The fifties also happens to be the period in which the cinematic conventions and genres from which RWF drew his greatest inspiration were rooted, and this, I think, is no coincidence. (The classic big-screen domestic melodrama in particular, epitomized in the work of Douglas Sirk, scarcely existed before or after the nineteen-fifties.) These were the movies RWF grew up on, after all, in a childhood largely—famously—spent at the movies, and it would be easy to explain away his lifelong fascination in these terms.
But of course it’s not that simple. The fact is, although RWF “tried on” many Hollywood genres during the course of his career, the one that fit him best was not even his first choice, and probably not a childhood favorite, either. If the domestic melodrama fit him better than the others, it’s because it had evolved in the U.S. precisely to depict the dark side of postwar prosperity and bourgeois morality from the vantage point of its victims (women, mostly) on a personal, psychical level. It stands to reason that RWF would be drawn to its narrative themes and stylistic techniques as a vehicle to explore the postwar West German malaise, too.
Better Living Through Color
While Lola is not, strictly speaking, a melodrama, it directly tackles the phenomenon of the Wirdschaftswunder, both thematically and stylistically, using conventions associated with the cinema of the period. (The fact that it’s not a proper RWF melodrama might even explain why it was greeted with some ambivalence when it was released, especially since it was bound to be compared to that quintessential Wirdschaftswunder masterpiece, The Marriage of Maria Braun.)
Lola is a bizarre sort of hybrid, combining stylistic elements of both melodrama and musical comedy (another American genre that reached its baroque zenith in the fifties) and it derives its highly exaggerated visual and narrative style from this strange mixture. Although both Lola and Maria Braun can be described using the same premise—Germany’s trajectory is reflected in the heroine’s dazzling ascent up the new economic ladder—the later film, being a comedy, does so broadly and directly. Whereas in Maria Braun, reconstruction takes place in the background and the prostitution is largely metaphorical, in Lola, these elements are presented literally: Lola’s main characters are a city building commissioner, a real estate developer, and a prostitute. (Can’t get much more literal than that.)
Stylistic elements are handled just as boldly. The costumes, of course, are fabulous as ever: of the period, but with a brilliant campy twist. The lighting is beyond expressive—or even expressionistic—beyond garish. It’s completely nuts! (Let me put it this way: it makes Berlin Alexanderplatz’s flashing neon lights seem restrained.) There are office scenes in Lola in which one character is lit blue, another pink, while the lamps emit cadmium yellow and the background is chartreuse, and there are shots where Barbara Sukowa’s hair is lit one color, her face another. (Just imagine what the brothel looks like.) And Xaver Schwarzenberger does things with eye lights—another classic Hollywood staple, usually reserved for leading ladies—that almost made me queasy.
Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich’s script (and, yes, they’re the same people who brought us The Marriage of Maria Braun) is crisp and clever, and the overall pace is uncharacteristically brisk. (Very Hollywood—made me think of Billy Wilder at times.) The scenes are cut surprisingly tight, punctuated by highly stylized dissolves, like a caricature of classic studio editing. Which, of course, they are, because that’s the point. Lola feels like a gorgeously dressed Technicolor confection . . . on hallucinogenics. It reflects the spirit of the era—exuberant, materialistic, hedonistic, technologically obsessed, enthralled with all things shiny and new—while making you uncomfortably aware of its artifice. It’s delightful and disturbing at the same time.
Marie-Luise, stagename Lola (Barbara Sukowa, in a role it turns out she was born to play—who knew?), is a singer and top earner in a high-end brothel in Coburg. Aside from her nightly performances onstage, she has only one client who keeps her on retainer, the irrepressible Herr Schukert (Mario Adorf). Having sired Lola’s illegitimate daughter, Marie, Schukert essentially owns Lola (a point he happily makes later in the film). As the biggest real estate developer in town, he also owns, for all intents and purposes, the cream of Coburg’s citizenry, including the mayor (Hark Bohm), police chief (Karl-Heinz von Hassel), and top banker (Ivan Desny), their wives, and even the brothel owner herself.
This arrangement, from which all happily profit, is threatened by the arrival of an upstanding new civil servant, Herr von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), appointed to run the planning department. At stake is the Lindenhof project, the biggest construction project in Coburg’s history, which will make everyone in Schukert’s cabal unprecedentedly rich, but which requires planning department approval.
Still, von Bohm immediately earns the respect and admiration of his peers. His marvelous spinster secretary, Fraulein Hettich (Helga Feddersen), falls in love with him at once. His housekeeper, Lola’s mother (Karin Baal), declares him a true gentleman, on a par with her late husband. Even the incorruptible Esslin (Matthias Fuchs), Lola’s strangely chaste boyfriend who works in the planning department by day and reads Bakunin, protests German rearmament, and moonlights as the drummer at the brothel by night, approves of him. This piques Lola’s interest.
Initially, von Bohm supports the Lindenhof project, thus earning the approval of the city’s “power elite.” When even Big Daddy Schukert starts singing von Bohm’s praises to Lola—all the while making it clear that a guy like von Bohm would never have anything to do with a woman like her—she hatches a campaign to win von Bohm’s favor.
Which, as primly- but fashionably-dressed Marie-Luise, she almost effortlessly achieves. A few economically crafted scenes later, von Bohm has bought a ring and Marie-Luise has accepted his hand in marriage. At the last minute, however, our heroine gets cold feet and fails to show up at the dinner party intended to introduce her to the power elite (Schukert and his cronies, in other words), presided over by her own unwitting mother (von Bohm invites his housekeeper to join him at table, much to the horror of the petty Power Elite Wives, led by Frau Schukert (Rosel Zech)).
Later, both Schukert and Esslin seek safe harbor with Lola and end up in a bidding war for her services. Esslin, of course, does not have the capital to compete against a captain of industry like Schukert, and quickly loses. Lola, miserable, throws them both out. Esslin decides to take his revenge on Schukert.
Meanwhile, von Bohm, dejected, throws himself into his work, preparing to approve the Lindenhof project. Esslin decides it’s time to open his boss’s eyes to the true nature of the cream of Coburg’s crop and takes him to the brothel—just in time for Lola’s nightly appearance. When Schukert proudly pronounces that the chanteuse is his own private whore, von Bohm, appalled, storms out. This unleashes a fury in Lola (and gives us an amazing performance by Sukowa) in the form of her signature song done as a kind of frenzied strip tease, culminating with her riding on Schukert’s shoulders, dress torn off, gloved arms waving over her wildly dishevelled coif, echoing that iconic late-fifties image of Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.
Von Bohm withdraws his support for the Lindenhof project and vows to destroy Schukert “and his whores.” He consults Esslin on the subject of Schukert’s methods and pores over past contracts looking for evidence of conspiracy. He goes to a local newspaper editor with the story of Coburg’s corrupt development practices but is met with incomprehension: “You promised me a scandal, but you brought me contracts.” Von Bohm is undeterred: if Schukert is playing according to the rules of the game, then the rules must be changed!
At first only Esslin knows the truth that drives von Bohm in his righteous campaign, but Schukert soon figures it out. When von Bohm scandalously, publicly joins the antiwar protesters (whom Esslin has abandoned, having accepted a job from Schukert, of all people) Schukert tells him: “Take her. Undress her. Throw her down on the bed. Do whatever you want to her. She’s a whore.” Von Bohm, dressed in his brand new sport suit, purchased originally to impress Marie-Luise, shows up at the brothel, bottle in hand, just in time for the floor show and announces his intention to do just that.
Order is restored. Marie-Luise/Lola and von Bohm are married; the Lindenhof project is approved, the ground ceremoniously broken by the distinguished Herr von Bohm himself; Schukert, who has purchased the brothel, presents the deed as a gift to Lola who will hold it in trust until Marie’s twenty-first birthday, when she will become the official proprietor. Hooray!
Everyone Has Their Reasons
Lola, as you may know or have surmised, was inspired by the 1930 Josef von Sternberg classic, The Blue Angel, starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings. Whereas the original depicts the inexorable and inevitable downfall of a pompous and upstanding professor who falls for a man-eating nightclub chanteuse called Lola Lola, RWF turns the equation on its head. Our hero’s downfall comes not from a love that crosses social boundaries and taboos but from the unsustainability of ideals in a world where everything, even love—especially love!—can be bought and sold. Which makes Lola’s ending seem all the more cynical. Order is restored not when the male protagonist is punished for his naïvité but when he is rewarded for abandoning his principles, when the film’s only idealists (Esslin and von Bohm) accept “the rules of the game” and give up their respective ideals.
In the last scene of the film, little Marie climbs up into the hayloft Lola had previously used to offer herself to von Bohm and asks her new daddy if he is happy. Yes, he replies, staring off into the countryside. I am happy. (Lola, by the way, is off servicing Schukert—in her wedding veil, no less, which she gleefully tells him costs extra.) It’s an utterly perverse moment, of course, but it has to be said: every one of our principal characters—not just Lola—is better off than they were before.
Was RWF really that cynical?
MARIE (after the wedding ceremony, running into Esslin’s arms): Are we going to talk philosophy again?
ESSLIN: Only if you give me a kiss first.
MARIE: First you have to buy me pink lemonade.
VON BOHM (laughing): She knows the rules of the game.
And yet. In countless films (too many to name)—not to mention in his own life—RWF consistently maintained that love really is best conducted like a business in which everybody profits. He repeatedly reminded us of the extent to which desire informs even the loftiest aspirations, of the disfiguring power of sexual repression, of the fact that “everyone has their reasons” for doing what they do and that those reasons are rarely intellectually or even altruistically motivated. In The Niklashausen Journey, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (in which Esslin’s Matthias Fuchs played the terrorist, Knab, btw!), and especially The Third Generation, revolutionary idealism is just desire cloaked in righteous garb. As dishonest, in its way, as the punishing morality and hypocrisy of the institutions the revolutionaries seek to overthrow.
For RWF, then, maybe business—of which prostitution is perhaps the purest example—is not the problem. (Cinema, let’s not forget, is a capitalist art form, too.) Maybe the problem with capitalism is the fact that a handful of privileged and powerful men who hide safely within and behind existing institutions have rigged the game to ensure that only they and their cronies profit. Thus Schukert, who rose to prominence from a proletarian background, is not even a villain in Lola. With his magnanimous good cheer and his voracious appetite, he’s actually a strangely likeable character.
Schukert knows exactly who he is and what he wants and he makes no bones about it. He does not espouse the hypocritical morality of his peers, nor does he pretend to care about politics or ideology. Leaving church one Sunday, he confounds his cohort by making a contribution to Esslin’s antiwar protesters. (“I make a contribution here, I give something there. A man of free enterprise should have fingers in many pies.”) This makes him more honest than the rest of the Coburg elite (including his wife), who eagerly profit from his schemes but disdain his egalitarianism.
But wait. Have I just fallen into a trap, lost in RWF’s diabolically constructed hall of mirrors? Isn’t what I’ve just described precisely the message of so many classic Hollywood films, namely that paternal capitalism is part of the natural order of things and that it’s only a few greedy individuals who ruin it for everyone else? Have I mistaken RWF’s mastery of cinematic codes for acquiescence to the dominant ideology they traditionally promoted, ignoring the Brecht-like extent to which he exaggerated narrative and stylistic elements so that you can’t help but notice the ways your emotional responses are normally manipulated? Or have I just forgotten how much RWF liked his comedies truly black?
Maybe. Probably. What I love about this strange little movie—what I love about all his movies—is the variety of readings RWF demands of you, some of them downright contradictory, once you scratch below their often deceptively simple surface. Like all his great satirical films (Mother Küsters, The Third Generation, even Satan’s Brew*), Lola is a morality tale that refuses to moralize, a comedy whose message is that the joke is on us, which somehow remains thoroughly entertaining, even as it makes us squirm. Lola may not be a great film, but on its own terms, in its own way, it’s kind of perfect.
* Although I stand by my original assessment, I do now see the beauty of Satan’s Brew, by the way, even if I still don’t particularly like it.