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.


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