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.


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8 10 2020
R.W. Fassbinder and Daniel Schmid: Shadow of Angels | Cinema Sojourns

[…] Schatten der Engel / Shadow of Angels (1976) […]

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