People are interesting to me when they’re losing. When they’ve lost, they stop being interesting to me.
—Grete (Elisabeth Volkmann) in Veronika Voss
As I’ve said many times now, one of the things I love most about Fassbinder is the way he was able to weave incredibly personal preoccupations—whether from his own life, from literature or cinema, or from history—into a fabric that had significance for a surprisingly wide audience, often in unexpected ways. As we’ve seen time and again, his best films require genuine effort on the part of the viewer: morally complex, they defy easy or superficial readings. Quite often, they even challenge us to accommodate apparently contradictory interpretations which lead us to a deeper, if more uncomfortable, awareness of the complexities of human society and the so-called mysteries of human behavior.
Veronika Voss, however, is that rare exception. I’ve watched it twice now (three times if you count the first time, years ago), when once really would have been enough. It’s that straightforward: a second viewing, plus supplementary reading from my usual sources, yielded no hidden subtext, no deeper meanings, no complications. Even after watching all the extras on the Criterion DVD, I’ve gained no new insight. I guess I just don’t get Veronika Voss. Or rather, I’m pretty sure I do get it, and too easily. What I don’t get, frankly, is the point.
But if I don’t quite see the point, I do see the beauty. Veronika Voss is an absolutely stunning film, beautifully crafted in every respect. To describe Xaver Schwarzenberger’s black-and-white cinematography as “luminous,” for example, or the camerawork as “brilliantly restrained,” the lighting as “dazzling,” or Peer Raben’s score as “pitch perfect,” does not come close to doing the film’s aesthetics justice. (Even the credits are perfect—but then, RWF’s usually were.) As though Fassbinder were finally able to give form and voice to a lifetime’s passion for the movies, now that he had all the right tools at his disposal and had really “mastered this craft.”
If Lola was all about the fifties as Technicolor decade, Veronika Voss captures the aesthetic of the forties, which is to say, the film noir era. It brilliantly evokes the eponymous heroine’s heyday as a movie star, using elements and techniques that nicely mimic the Ufa studio aesthetic (Ufa is short for Universum Film AG, Germany’s major studio throughout the Weimar and war years). RWF even used East German film stock to get that vintage black and white which we had already lost in the West. (Okay, so I did learn something from the Criterion extras after all.)
The set, designed by Rolf Zehetbauer (he did the marvelous Despair set, most notably), is a brilliant, dazzling white, overlit like some kind of hallucinatory clinic—like oblivion, like death. (Thomas Elsaesser has cleverly decribed Veronika Voss as a film blanc rather than a film noir.) The effect is quite startling. The occasional blacks—Veronika’s rhinestone-embellished dress, or Gunther Kaufmann, dressed as the ubiquitous American GI, singing “Sixteen Tons” in a too-white dining room—only serve to heighten the impression of terrifying whiteness. This effect, of course, also reflects our heroine’s mental state, as we’ll soon see.
I could go on and on. The costumes! The make-up! The halos and starbursts from the lights! The country music on the radio! The wipes and iris-outs that terminate key scenes! Technically, Veronika Voss marks RWF’s pinnacle as a craftsman—which is all the more impressive when you consider that the entire movie was made, start to finish, in four months’ time. (Shot in November and December of 1981, it screened at the Berlinale in February 1982.) It is certainly the closest he would ever come to making a Hollywood studio–caliber film, with all the sense of glamour and magic—and, yes, a certain degree of conventionality—that implies. If you didn’t already know Veronika Voss was an RWF film you might not even recognize it as such.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe achieving recognition for this level of technical mastery was enough, in 1982, when real mainstream success was finally within RWF’s grasp. And in this respect, at least, he was right. Veronika Voss won the Golden Bear award at the Berlinale, under the approving gaze of Joan Fontaine and Jimmy Stewart, only months before RWF died. (Of course the Berlin jury probably gave him the award to recognize “lifetime achievement,” i.e., to compensate for their failure to recognize The Marriage of Maria Braun, a hypothesis which Juliane Lorenz corroborates. Kind of like giving the Best Director Academy Award to Martin Scorsese for The Departed, when everyone knows he should have gotten it for Raging Bull.)
Will The Real Veronika Voss Please Stand Up?
The third in what has come to be known as The BRD Trilogy (though labeled BRD 2, God only knows why), Veronika Voss is set in Munich in 1955. It is the story of a once-adored, now mostly forgotten German movie star (Rosel Zech), desperate to make a comeback, who wildly latches onto an innocent journalist, Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), the way the drowning grasp indiscriminately for life support only to drag their rescuer down with them. Aging and alone, forgotten by all but an elderly few, we know it’s just a matter of time before she goes completely under. Especially since, as we quickly learn, Veronika Voss is a morphine addict, beholden to her sinister neurologist, Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who feeds her addiction at a price sufficiently inflated to ensure her patient’s eventual ruin. The doctor, in cahoots with the functionary in the department of health responsible for monitoring opiate prescriptions (Erik Schumann), trades services and substances for the future inheritance of her patients’ estates. When they die, the doctors get everything.
Veronika Voss was actually based on the true-life story of Sybille Schmitz, one of Germany’s more celebrated actresses of the 1930s (she played supporting roles in Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl and Dreyer’s Vampyr, for example). Unlike certain other well-known Weimar-era actors, however, Schmitz stayed in Germany under the Nazis and continued to work, if less frequently than in her prime, and in fewer leading roles. After the war, her career rapidly declined. Broken and alcoholic and addicted to morphine, she committed suicide in 1955 in the home of her neurologist, with whom she had been living. (Consider that your spoiler.)
Various excuses for Schmitz’s decline have been offered over the years. The prevailing one seems to be that directors were “discouraged” from casting her in leading roles during the war due to her dark and smouldering, vaguely “semitic” appearance, which did not conform to the Führer’s ideal of Aryan womanhood (as exemplified by, say, Leni Riefenstahl). She herself is said to have claimed that she was blacklisted during the war because she rejected Goebbels’ amorous advances. (Never mind that in 1945 she was thirty-six years old, well over the industry-standard sell-by date for leading ladies, and anyway already reputed to be unstable.)
In RWF’s telling, however, a colleague of Robert’s, Grete (Elisabeth Volkmann), explains that Veronika Voss was actually a favorite of Goebbels and only changed her story, claiming to have been blacklisted by him, after the war. As if to support this, RWF cast the very blonde, sharp-featured Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss, thereby foreclosing any possibility that the leading lady’s decline could be attributed to antisemitism. These choices were no doubt intended to make the audience’s relationship to the heroine all the more ambivalent and to increase the conflict we feel in identifying or empathizing with her. In this regard, RWF was right to make them.
Veronika Voss and Lili Marleen
Although officially one-third of the BRD Trilogy, Veronika Voss bears little resemblance to its brethren. Neither Lola nor Maria Braun—strong, independent, resourceful protagonists—would ever allow their vanity to get the better of them, for example, let alone tolerate the sheer dependence which is the defining characteristic of drug addiction. At the same time, Veronika Voss doesn’t seem to have anything very coherent to say about the Bundesrepublik in the 1950s—except perhaps that women like Veronika Voss had no place in it. In this regard, Veronika Voss as a character is actually more like so many of RWF’s classic victims (Martha, Effi Briest, Margot [Fear of Fear], Fox, Hans Epp [The Merchant of Four Seasons]) . . .
The RWF film to which Veronika Voss best invites comparison is in fact Lili Marleen, also based on the story of a real-life artist popular during the Nazi era. Both Sybille Schmitz and Lalle Andersen (the singer on whom Willi in Lili Marleen was based) were hugely popular in their heyday, achieving something like iconic status during their peak. Both achieved—or sustained—fame under the Nazis. Both later claimed to have run afoul of Goebbels (although neither demonstrated reservations about working under him when times were good). Both saw their fame dwindle after the war.
But that’s about as far as the similarities go. Although Veronika Voss is technically the more accomplished film, it seems to lack the moral and philosophical tension that is the hallmark of RWF, and which elevates Lili Marleen from the wartime weepie it might at first glance appear to be to a more profound meditation on the power of art, which can transcend circumstances and the talent of the individual artist, and acquire a more profound meaning for audiences.
In Lili Marleen, there is a fundamental conflict between the audience’s sense of morality and their knowledge of history, on the one hand, and the heroine’s personal ambition and instinct for survival, on the other, which ensures near-constant tension. Whereas in Veronika Voss, any such conflict has already been resolved, well before the movie has even begun. The real story of Veronika Voss, the one we might actually find moving, or thought-provoking, or at least morally ambiguous—how she conducted herself under the Nazi regime for example, or what compromises or sacrifices she had to make to keep working, how and why her marriage ended in 1945, how she came to succumb to drug addiction, not to mention what sort of actress she was, what sort of art she made—that story has taken place well before the opening credits roll. What’s left to the viewer is merely epilogue.
Everything we know about Veronika Voss is hearsay. We take it on faith that she was a magnetic actress whose work enthralled or incited or consoled audiences under the Third Reich without seeing any evidence of it; we accept the news that she benefited from or even actively supported the Goebbels propaganda machine without question because we have no basis for questioning anything we are told about her. The film’s few flashbacks don’t tell us anything we don’t already know, either: Veronika Voss is a delusional narcissist, in love with the mystery and glamour of movie stardom. That’s it. What’s more, the single film clip from her earlier career, with which RWF opens Veronika Voss, seems intended merely to foreshadow the actress’s own death (and permit RWF a Hitchcock-style cameo). It doesn’t tell us anything about Voss as an artist or a human being. Having missed the entirety of her upward trajectory and stardom, all that’s left for us as viewers is to bear witness to her final descent. This is just not very interesting.
From Homage to Cliché
Of course, the movie to which Veronika Voss owes the greatest debt is Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic. (Funny that I should have been reminded of Billy Wilder when writing about Lola.) The principals and the premise are basically the same: an aging and delusionally vain former movie star from a previous era (Gloria Swanson) desperately latches onto an innocent younger man, in this case a screenwriter (William Holden), in an effort to engineer her comeback. The outcome ultimately is the same, too. (She fails, if slightly less spectacularly or definitively than Veronika Voss).
I think this is a huge problem for Veronika Voss: the very fact of Sunset Boulevard makes it feel like a cliché. Whether RWF or Peter Märthesheimer or Rosel Zech intended it (and my guess is they did not), I don’t think audiences could fail to read Veronika Voss as a reimagined Swanson (albeit with a twist). With Sunset Boulevard, Wilder effectively defined not just a category—which Veronika Voss clearly falls into—but a paradigm and a vocabulary, too. (Nobody was “ready for their close-up” before Gloria Swanson made it a common household phrase, after all.) Did the figure of the vain and delusional aging movie star locked up in her crumbling mansion, living on nostalgia and longing for her former glory, even exist in the collective consciousness before Sunset Boulevard?
But it’s not just that Wilder got there first. What thrilled audiences, and still gets them today, no doubt, is the fact that Gloria Swanson was played by Gloria Swanson, an actual screen legend of the silent era. Who, I might add, had an actual body of work audiences could reference (whether or not they’d actually seen any of her films, if that makes any sense). Which put Rosel Zech in a doubly-compromised position: not only did she have to suffer comparison to a real and legendary star of the silver screen, she had to create her character without the benefit of a backstory. All her “work” had to be done in her character’s abject present.
This, I think, explains why Zech just doesn’t carry Veronika Voss, despite her obvious talent and perfect period face. At a disadvantage from the start, the script gives her nothing to work with—no actual body of work in the character’s past, no interesting conflict in the present, no depth, really, of any kind. (It’s interesting to note that Peter Märthesheimer considers Veronika Voss to be his most perfect script. While Syd Field might agree, I certainly don’t. Tells you something about the difference between art and craft, nicht wahr?) She has only two modes: delusional megalomania and abject addiction. It just isn’t enough. (And as everyone knows, there’s nobody less interesting than a drug addict.) Veronika Voss is a cliché.
Dream Factory vs. Economic Miracle
So if the subject of the film isn’t interesting, what’s left? Can it be that the faded movie star schtick was just a pretext, that Veronika Voss was really intended as a portrait of the catastrophic yet irresistable power of drug addiction? I certainly hope not. For one thing, RWF himself was using cocaine quite heavily at the time, which would make such a portrait either self-loathing or hypocritical, wouldn’t it? (He was also planning a film, Cocaine, which was not going to be, shall we say, judgmental.) In any case, RWF already said everything Veronika Voss seems to have to say about heroin addiction in The Third Generation, and more efficiently, more effectively and, in my opinion, more poignantly in a handful of brief, wordless scenes with Y Sa Lo. Rosel Zech’s histrionics seem like broad pantomime in comparison.
Maybe drugs were really just a metaphor. Drug-induced illusions as substitutes for cinematic ones, cinema as opiate of the masses, etc.? Seems like a pretty trite and simplistic metaphor to me, and one which I just can’t imagine RWF subscribing to. (Movies, after all, are what “saved” him. That said, without them, he probably would have sunk into total dissipation himself, so maybe there is something to this metaphor.) More interesting to me is the notion that drug addiction symbolically represents the last resort of—and the means of exploiting—the otherwise forgotten and weak in the newly reconstructed BRD.
There is some basis for this. In Veronika Voss, Dr. Katz has a kindly, unnamed elderly client (Rudolf Platte) who is also utterly dependent on the evil doctor’s ministrations. He and his wife (Johanna Hofer) own a high-end antique shop, the contents of which the old man has willed to Dr. Katz. When the fateful day finally arrives when the couple can no longer pay Dr. Katz for prescriptions, she cuts off his supply. Unable to live without morphine, the old man and his devoted wife take a fatal overdose of sleeping pills.
Here’s where it gets interesting: in a previous scene we learn that the old man bears a tattooed number on his forearm, from Treblinka. Detritus left over from the Third Reich, he is an unfortunate and uncomfortable reminder of sins best forgotten. There is no place for him in Germany’s brave new world—just as there is no place for Veronika Voss. In the postwar BRD, both Nazi victims and accessories are ignored or forgotten, swept under the carpet, as part of the collective amnesia that seems to have been a precondition of the Wirdschaftswunder.
Unfortunately, this thread is not sufficiently explored to have much of an impact; it is almost immediately eclipsed by another plotline involving Robert’s bewilderingly magnanimous girlfriend (Cornelia Froboess), who runs decisively afoul of Dr Katz in an effort to secure evidence of her illegal drug dealing. And anyway, Veronika Voss’s own one-dimensionality pretty thoroughly undermines the point. A victim of her own absurd vanity, any effort to align her with victims of the camps seems, frankly, obscene.
So. Was I expecting too much from this film, from RWF? Am I too close to the subject, too focused on what I know he was capable of? Probably. This may be one of the inevitable drawbacks of my project this late in the game: I’m thinking of all the movies that came before, comparing, measuring, judging, even as I write about this one.
Or maybe the problem is just one of context. After all, RWF had many other films on the back burner in 1981–82, some approved, others in cold storage until financial backing could one day be obtained—from Gerhard Zwerenz’s The Earth Is Uninhabitable Like the Moon to Pitigrilli’s Cocaine to Rosa Luxemburg, already in preproduction. If I were looking at it today in the context of all those other films that should have come after it but didn’t, Veronika Voss would probably seem like a strange and interesting little genre piece, one more example of RWF’s incredible range as an artist. Maybe the problem is simply that he died too soon.