Whity (1971)

23 05 2020

In a career of consistent evolution and steady experimentation, it would be difficult and unwise to pinpoint any particular film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a particular outlier. Personally, my recent revisits have suggested to me that any bifurcation of his career is short-sighted and threatens to erase a singular and unique vision (and politics) embedded throughout Fassbinder’s career. And yet, Whity, made in 1971, does qualify as that outlier film if we must participate in such an exercise. After all, this is his sole flirtation with the western but more importantly, the distortion of that genre’s skeleton is viewed through some of the most virtuosic camera movements in his career. The peculiar stylistic choices in Whity reflect the formal austerity of Fassbinder’s earliest dramatic experimentation, but they are rendered with a color palette that is uniquely stunning. In a career filled with precise compositions and beautiful visuals, Whity is a singular achievement.

Whity is the bastard mulatto son and in-house slave of the Nicholas family, prestigious plantation owners in the American South. The family consists of patriarch Ben and his two sons, Frank and Davy. They are joined by his new and much younger wife, Katherine. Whity’s partner in servitude is his mother, a blackface “Mammy” who cooks the food for the perpetually unimpressed whiteface Nicholas family. While his mother’s psyche seems long gone, broken down by her servitude to the family, Whity instead takes some pride. He willfully steps in as the literal whipping boy when patriarch Ben snaps at Frank for his inadequate masculinity.  The family’s shared sexual frustration is deepened by his presence, which sharpens their mutual hatred that inevitably turns them against each other.

Premiering nearly a full two years after Katzelmacher, Whity initially bears a strong stylistic difference from Fassbinder’s first masterpiece. Structurally, though, it plays like something of a revisit. Like the residents of the apartment complex in the earlier film, the Nicholas family here is bounded by their hatred. The prejudices against the Greek immigrant is replayed and replaced by the prejudices against Whity, a black man in the American South. The power structure in this film stands on a firmer historical ground, which allows Fassbinder to take a slightly different route. The shared hatred eventually tears both units apart, but the Nicholas family’s rupture is punctuated by a sexual frustration present in their inability to integrate their interracial desire that bubbles to the surface through Whity.

Just like in Katzelmacher, the one subject who resists the group-hate is portrayed by Fassbinder’s muse Hanna Schygulla, and in both films, she becomes the love interest of our titular outsiders. Here, she plays Hanna, a composite cabaret singer informed in equal parts by Marlene Dietrich and the musical collaboration of Brecht and Weill. Ported from those contexts, such a character wouldn’t fit too comfortably in the fabric of a Hollywood Western. Whity, however, plays like a nightmare collected from half remembered cinematic experiences which makes any incongruent elements fit snugly, while also suggesting the exceptional density of the text. Comparing Whity to filmmakers as divergent as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Raoul Walsh suggests something of a mess, but the grab bag of inspiration is organized as a cohesive experiment that results in something that can only be Fassbinder.

Having said all that, Whity feels more like a particularly successful experiment rather than a fully completed masterwork. There’s maybe too many ideas going on here, and perhaps not enough time to elaborate on them. It’s telling that Fassbinder chose the western as his launching point, as it is perhaps the Hollywood genre that is most deeply informed by and embedded with the power structure of race. Of course, its presence is often a subtextual specter in such films or treated with an overdetermined and one-dimensional progressiveness during the revisionist stage. Here, it is informed by the interracial desire that is hinted throughout Fassbinder’s oeuvre and reflects the filmmaker’s personal struggle with the matter. This likely came from his own feelings towards Günther Kaufmann, who plays the titular Whity here. Resisting the two routes described above, Fassbinder grounds the film with an understanding of the complexity at hand and suggests any definitive statement as a fool’s errand. A side effect of his rapid-fire pace at the time, Whity lacks the brilliant, unfiltered reproduction of how individuals run amok as products of society’s power balance.

Again, though, I must emphasize the strengths of the film. This was Fassbinder’s first collaboration with Michael Ballhaus and the harsh austerity measures inform some of the sharpest colors achieved in their respective careers. The blackface/whiteface distortions present throughout points to the discourse on race, but it suggests a formal dedication that privileges individual compositions over the context of space. It formally recalls the similar dedication of Ozu and his red teapot or Antonioni and his repainted trees in Red Desert, but it is balanced by a perversity that resembles Paul Morrissey’s high-camp horror experiments that came two years later. As I mentioned earlier, such divergent influences suggest either a messy experience or a writer all too eager to namedrop, but in Fassbinder’s hands it makes perfect sense. Despite all the names scattered throughout this review, the truth is that only Fassbinder could make a film like Whity.

Schatten der Engel / Shadow of Angels (1976)

18 05 2020

In 1975, on a flight back from New York, Rainer Werner Fassbinder started a script that would eventually become Der Miill, die Stadt und der Tod (The Garbage, the City and Death). Intended for the stage, the script itself was greeted with such intense controversy that any attempts to dramatize the script were met with intense obstacles. The diagnosis of the text as anti-semitic was largely informed by a public dismissal at the hands of (fairly conservative) Nazi historian Joachim Fest. Those of us who champion Fassbinder’s work can’t be surprised by such a gross misreading. If anything, one wonders why other works weren’t greeted with such vocal opposition. His nearly stubborn refusal to indulge in the kind of identification common in narrative filmmaking informs Daniel Schmid’s interpretation of one of his most precise yet downtrodden texts. As it is, the ugliness depicted within is actually a pointed critique, rather than an endorsement.

Lily Brest is a streetwalker on Frankfurt’s West End. The once cosmopolitan district is now exceptionally seedy. She does not fare as well as her sex worker pals, and she often returns to her lover and pimp, Raoul, with no earning. This frustrates Raoul, who often requires that Lily’s earnings are punctuated with a graphic description of her labor. She spends one evening with an unnamed and wealthy land speculator, bluntly given the nickname The Rich Jew amongst the district’s less sympathetic individuals. The man pays Lily handsomely to listen to him speak.

Even a limited description like the one I’ve offered above points to the crucial misreading that engulfed Fassbinder’s script in controversy. Klaus Löwitsch’s character is never offered a name but is instead continuously referred to as The Rich Jew. It’s easy to build a critique with this, without even coming to terms with the immense complexities and contradictions within the text. In refusing to produce a positive representation, Fassbinder has passively bought into the logic that undergirded the Holocaust itself. This is a dishonest interpretation to me as his consistent ambivalence to morals more accurately depicts a world in where these prejudices live and thrive. It’s a reality that is unremarkable, which is perhaps why a film like Shadows of Angels can feel unrelenting in its darkness.

There is, however, humor to be found here. It’s the sort of humor Fassbinder specialized in, one that was able to exist within and yet apart from the tragedies his characters are often tasked with enduring. The tone is peculiar, but never mocking. Towards the film’s end, Lily’s onetime streetwalking compatriots reject her because of her apathetic tolerance of men. A tracking shot follows Lily as she walks the overcast streets of Frankfurt’s West End. As she continues to walk, the other sex workers (which include Irm Hermann) form a chorus, and the repetition of their presence marks a spatial disharmony unlike any in cinema. Much of what is humorous and profound in Shadows of Angels feels like a direct hit, an unfiltered interpretation of the source text mouthed by laconic bodies caught up in a trance at times, and a tango at others.

Händler der vier Jahreszeiten / The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972)

13 05 2020

Throughout my latest revisit of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I’ve, perhaps stubbornly, tried to resist the traditional narrative of his career. I’m speaking of the way that many approach his work before and after his nearly spiritual epiphany from encountering the work of Douglas Sirk. Discursively, some even reduce the films made before The Merchant of Four Seasons as “Pre-Sirk.” My personal resistance in playing into this is that I often think his earliest work gets shortchanged, subconsciously reduced to “experimental art films” compared to the later works tinged with melodrama. There’s no denying it, though, there is a palpable shift made here, but I find it important to emphasize that this does actually build on his early Anti-Theater. The stylistic pivot is still bound to his concerns and the personal philosophy that underpins his best work.

Fruit vender Hans Epp boisterously announces his product to an empty and quiet promenade. Soon, he is flanked on the street by his critical wife Irmgard and an unnamed former lover. The latter requests that he delivers his product directly to her apartment, much to Irmgard’s frustration. Seeking to avoid her scorn, he retreats to the local bar where his drunken rants find an audience in bar patrons intrigued more by the opportunity for rounds paid by Hans. His alcoholism fuels a violent instinct, which he acts out on Irmgard. She retreats to his mother, who shares her disappointment. Irmgard intends to separate from Hans, but her plans are interrupted by his heart attack.

Despite being one of Fassbinder’s most beloved efforts, The Merchant of Four Seasons has many obstacles. The most telling is that the narrative is frontloaded with some of the ugliest behavior present in a career populated with plenty that the modern liberal viewer would diagnose as reprehensible. The apathetic hatred bubbling under Hans Hirschmüller’s character in Katzelmacher has aged into a pathetic and violent alcoholic here. It only takes 15 minutes before we witness him physically abusing Irm Hermann’s Irmgard. This is, perhaps, the most substantive role Fassbinder ever gave Hermann. She is often, especially in the films that immediately followed this one, a peripheral tragedy. In The Bitter Tears of Petra, she is demoted to serving backup as Margit Carstensen’s love interest when Hanna Schygulla is introduced. The volume of her roles in Fassbinder’s other films informs the way we interrupt the pathos hinted at in the film’s first twenty minutes. It’s an understanding that Fassbinder himself immediately challenges.

One of the densest sequences in The Merchant of Four Seasons occurs the morning after Hans abuses Irmgard. She retreats to his family and informs them all of his behavior. Despite being the genealogical outsider, there is little resistance in privileging her perspective. The rest of the family quickly endorses the depiction of Hans as the monster (and it should be clear that I’m not saying he isn’t a piece of shit, he absolutely is) and sympathizes with her intention to seek a divorce. The lone exception is Hans’ sister, Anna, played by Hanna Schygulla. Her perspective matches the one Fassbinder offered throughout his career. Inflicting a moral hierarchy (let alone a moral center) on characters is lazy and naïve. No one is innocent. Towards the film’s conclusion, one characters grows so frustrated with Anna’s resistance. “You just talk and talk and evade all the questions.” Such a sentiment stumbles upon describing the filmmaker’s own resistance in providing conventional identification.

All of this sounds great on a technical level, but it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t offer us anything nourishing. The distance, just as it does in Katzelmacher, provides something uniquely moving. Often these tactics do border on a punishingly miserable sentiment. There is very little “release” here but as such, it makes small, inconsequential moments profound. Hans hires Anzell, who was the target of Irmgard’s infidelity when Hans was in the hospital. She schemes for his termination to ease the risk of Hans’ discovering this tryst. This scheme is made possible by Hans spying of Anzell, which he uses to calculate the inventory. Hans tells Irmgard about this and the couple share an extremely rare moment of harmony. They erupt in laughter. On the surface, this is encouraging considering the violence that prefaced it. But Fassbinder punctuates the moment with the conditions for it. We can’t take too much pleasure from it or feel that reassured when we know Hans can be violent and that Irmgard’s pleasure is informed by a relief in hiding her infidelity. The active viewer of Fassbinder work has to challenge the superficial “happy” moments they’re offered and as such it rewires their understanding of cinema in general. Through his own melodramatic stew, Fassbinder makes us question what it is we enjoy through seeing the dramatization of other people’s lives.

La circostanza / The Circumstance (1973)

11 05 2020

It’s been many years since I first fell in love with Ermanno Olmi through his two early features, Il Posto and I fidanzati. Despite this, the rest of his work has escaped me. A copy of his debut Time Stood Still lingered on a hard drive that eventually crashed and when he got his big New York City retrospective at Lincoln Center last year, I couldn’t find the time. This seems indicative of his standing in the history of world cinema. He has many passionate disciples, but the arc of his career seems to fall through the cracks. He came into his own in the 1960s, and yet no description of his career is missing a reference to neorealism. I can see the connection in a film like Il Posto, but by 1973, the much-studied film movement had come and gone. It is wise to strip the filmmaker from the association, then. The Circumstance is tender, opaque, and disorienting. It’s about as far away from neorealism as possible.

Laura is a successful lawyer and the head of the family. She is precise and controlling, while her husband, not quite a pushover, is decidedly passive. She has three children, Beppe, Silvia, and Tommaso. Beppe has rejected the life of luxury that the family’s wealth has afforded the rest of them. He lives on the family farm with his pregnant wife, Anna. Silvia, on the other hand, seems to be mesmerized and frustrated by the trance of young love. Tommaso frustrates Laura because he prioritizes a bizarre interest in robots over his studies. Laura’s razor’s edge approach to life is interrupted when she witnesses a motorcycle accident and she grows increasingly attached to the handsome victim.

Olmi had already shown his intense elliptical slant in I fidanzati. In that film, the scale is smaller, and the focus is more precise. There, we have two lovers and we immediately understand the limited narrative detail: they are engaged but spatially separated. Because of this, Olmi’s artistry is less muddled. The narrative simplicity pairs perfectly with the aesthetic. Our attention doesn’t need to be given to “events” but instead to the fleeting, bittersweet tone that Olmi expertly crafts in an experience that feels like an extended montage. He’s just as elliptical in The Circumstance, but the issue here is that he’s juggling too many balls. Even though it is similarly plotless, there’s probably too much going on here.

For some, this will render the film slight as it often plays like a character study without any elucidation of the characters. To me, though, Olmi does stumble on the same bittersweet sensation of his earlier films. This is clearest in the sequences involving Silvia and her frustrating “summer of love” which is rendered with compassion, but also depleted of its youthful excitement. She seems apathetic to her would-be lover, and Olmi’s approach is similarly distanced. He brilliantly splices up the order of their romance, revisiting key moments with disorienting repetition. Silvia’s story bears a strong resemblance to an early Eric Rohmer film thrown into a blender with Antonioni’s similarly muted portraits of youth in Blow-up and Zabriskie Point. It’s easily the best part of the movie.

The other characters don’t fair quite as well. Family matriarch Laura’s key fascination with the handsome victim of the motorcycle accident has a fun conflict. Here, she sees purpose in her life. Perhaps the opportunity to scratch the maternal itch that she never had access to with her own children. But also, there’s an undeniable sexual tension in her devotion. With what we’re given, Olmi wisely decides to only hint at either of these routes. Eventually, the victim checks out of the hospital and Laura likely never sees him again. I have no issue with the ambivalence greeting both Laura and Silvia’s stories. In fact, I encourage it, but they’re flanked by the far less compelling exploits of the family’s male members. Tomasso’s presence, in particular, seems so weightless, he could just as easily float away.

The Circumstance is a showcase of Olmi’s mastery, but it lacks the focus of the earlier films. There’s something so specific and perfect about Domenico in Il Posto. That film offers just as few answers as The Circumstance, but its vagueness pivots to personal anxieties. There’s something unmistakably poignant in Domenico facing a future of benign office work. In I fidanzati, the scope expands ever so cautiously to two people. Lost in this film is a pointed critique of a bourgeoise family. As it is, we get a family facing that which can barely qualify as “turmoil.” Silvia’s elliptical romance could be the foundation for a wonderful film, but it only amounts to a small fraction of the film. The other family members are given priority. The slow march of time sweeps away their problems, and their status holds firm. The interruption in their lives is curious, but it is not particularly moving.

Katzelmacher (1969)

7 05 2020

When I was in grad school five years ago, one could easily earn quick brownie points with a professor by saying something like “the personal is political” or “love is a political act.” There’s nothing especially untrue about either of these statements, but the fact that they regurgitate tenants of second wave feminism should have led to more skepticism. I’ve thought about the popularity in such phrases since diving back into the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Someone could callously open an essay about the filmmaker with such a vague and overwrought maxim, but they would be doing a great disservice to the filmmaker. In Fassbinder’s world, politics do not serve as the foundation to a readable moral center. Instead, our political climate shapes and informs our own understanding of the world and our actions. This, to me, is a far more accurate depiction of reality. Such as sensation is hard to achieve, and it requires an extremely attentive viewer. Fassbinder achieves it in Katzelmacher.

Erich and Marie are lovers, but they seem bounded more by convenience than by enthusiasm. The couple lingers in the promenade of their apartment complex. They are joined by an equally inert cast of neighbors including the gossip prone Dunda, an even more apathetic non-couple in Helga and Paul, and Franz. Franz splits his time between the group and visiting Rosy, a sex worker with aspirations of celebrity. Franz may or may not be in love with Rosy, but he still has to pay for her affections. The group’s silence is punctuated by pints and cigarettes, and only ever interrupted to gossip about their neighbor Elizabeth who rents a room to Peter, her frustrated former lover. Greek immigrant Yorgos arrives with little to no command of the German language. He gives the group a new conversation piece.

I have always thought fondly of this early Fassbinder. My memory of it was basically “mean-spirited Ozu.” It is a domestic drama, character-driven, mostly static, and shot in the academy ratio. I’ll add that they both lived lives of debauchery and solitude towards the end of their careers and then end the comparison there because there is little to no evidence that Ozu’s work ever crossed Fassbinder’s purview. Instead, the likely inspiration is Straub-Huillet whose influence was perhaps a bit more pronounced in Fassbinder’s previous film and debut Love is Colder than Death. The evolution from that film to this one is fascinating. Both are ice cold, but he trims even more fat here.

Love is Colder than Death is, to me anyway, a better-looking film than Katzelmacher. It’s a very gut level reaction but I think the earlier film’s wider canvas works better with this grainy, black-and-white DNA. Fassbinder often presents “unbalanced” long shots in the first film. A shot will start with a character on the edge of the frame, as if they’re about to be squeezed out by the imposingly white backdrop. The 1.78:1 aspect ratio offers them some mobility, of which is often taken advantage. As much as people like to chop up Fassbinder’s career into section, I think such lovely compositions serve as the foundation for the much more complex and stunning sequences in works like The Third Generation and In a Year of 13 Moons, which would provide inspiration for Tsai Ming-Liang’s uniquely austere efforts. He had to walk before he could run, and Love is Colder than Death is the more technically compelling film.

The canvas shrinks in Katzelmacher and the characters have little to no mobility. Most sequences resemble static tableaus. When our group of characters meet up in the parking lot of their apartment complex, they are positioned side-to-side and look head-on at the camera, as if posing for a photograph. The work of Terrence Davies is an instructive comparison, but as his subjects are wont to sing or bicker, Fassbinder’s crew lingers in oppressively apathetic silence. For many, this is a demanding exercise. Disconnect a sequence from this film from the entire experience and it will seem preposterous, but Fassbinder is expertly building something here. The slow rhythm gives way to one of the film’s greatest moments: Yorgos’ arrival. Prior to his arrival, the group acceptance of conversational dead air is rivaled only by their thirst for alcohol. Conversational inquiries sometimes take as long as 30 seconds to receive their return volley and when they do it’s something remarkably vapid. Yet, when they first meet Yorgos, their patience crumbles instantly. Their questions sharpen to interrogation and Yorgos’ inability to respond is met with irritation instead of sympathetic patience. Fassbinder’s formal strategy pays off in offering a moment that is both ugly (as it hints at the underlying xenophobia that bubbles to the surface) and deeply humorous. Such sensations would clash much more awkwardly in the hands of anyone else, but their bizarre harmony here offer Fassbinder’s unique and special ability to depict the ever-contradictory nature of the world.

Unfortunately, such moments offer less attentive viewers the justification to label Fassbinder as mean-spirited. Hell, I had done so myself in the past. I can maybe accept describing him as a cynic, but anything more negative suggests the viewer has lost the plot entirely. While some marvel at Fassbinder’s most popular work Ali: Fears Eat the Soul for its uncharacteristic warmth, it suggests to me that they were never that attentive as viewers. I understand such a claim, but that film is not particularly different than the rest of the filmmaker’s world. To Fassbinder, we are grounded and informed by the conditions of our reality. As it is, he seldom presents us with someone without faults. But even those “moral faults” are part of our conditions. The apathetic tenants of Katzelmacher are not the architects of xenophobia, but they do exist in the world where it exists and this, they participate in it. They do so in varying degrees, but no one is ever innocent. Dunda spreads gossip about Yorgos, Marie falls in love with him, and the men in the group ambush him in violence. This “climatic” scene is followed by a private conversation between Elizabeth and Peter. She scolds him but she does not mouth a moralistic correction, but instead vocalizes the more realistic response: quiet tolerance of society’s most deeply ingrained prejudices. “You didn’t have to help him, but you could have just walked away.”