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.


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