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.

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.

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.”

Die dritte Generation / The Third Generation (1979)

4 05 2020

There is a critical premium often placed on works of art that manage to “capture what life is like in the present.” The truth is, our present reality is often elusive. Literature and cinema that gets praised for this accomplishment often boils down our present conditions to a dramatically relevant narrative. Fiction that is intentionally and specifically bound to the time of its creation lacks the chaos and illusiveness. To me, The Third Generation is not only one of Fassbinder’s greatest achievements but is also a film that speaks to both its present (1979) and ours. It is this way because it is stubbornly non-specific. It is a film in flux. Its characters grasp at multiple identities but fail to grasp any. The narrative shifts incomprehensibly and wildly. This over-stimulation of information in The Third Generation is its greatest strength, though. It pounds us into submission, stumbling upon a sensation that is far too familiar.

“Terrorism was invented by capitalism to justify better defense measures for capitalism.” So begins The Third Generation as industrialist Peter Lutz looks out at a snowy West Germany from his high-rise office. Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, a film about politically apathetic youth, plays on a television and offers a temporary distraction for him. His secretary, Susanne Gast, remarks that the film is so sad. He retorts, “As long as the movie is sad, our lives can be happy.” Over the phone, Susanne sets a political plot into action by quoting Schopenhauer, “The world as will and representation.” This message gets relayed to the other members of the cell that includes her husband Edgar, schoolteacher Hilde, the organization’s leader, August, as well as a married couple in Petra and Hans. The group hunkers down in their hideout, an apartment inhabited by heroin addict Ilsa, who is later joined by a former lover, Franz.

The group, we discover, lacks a cohesive plan, not to mention a guiding political purpose. It would not be inaccurate to describe all of them as 30 something bourgeoise leftists. Unlike the characters in Bresson’s The Devil, Probably they are not lacking in urgency, but in ideology. This sounds absurd on paper, but Fassbinder made a career out of obfuscating details in his characters. Their lack of politics is not a cynical strike at a generation, but instead a clever depiction of its inconsistencies. There are no political good guys in The Third Generation because such a didactic approach would completely go against the grain of the overstimulated world that has been built. Some critics have correctly identified the film’s resemblance to Godard, but Fassbinder’s distance is directly opposed to Godard’s impassioned didacticism. Fassbinder has much to say here, but he never speaks in absolutes. An audience intent on finding the “point” here is already doomed to miss it, perhaps there isn’t one at all.

The many moral contradictions posed in the film is reflected in the film’s style. The terrorist cell’s apartment hideout acts as the perfect set for the camera’s choreography. It is often static and depicts drawn out hallways whose corridors layer the composition. Throughout the film, there is always more than one thing going on. Multiple conversations become intertangled in each other as the anodyne hum of a television or radio continues on unabated. The individuals in the terrorist cell are constantly stimulated. They interact with the media, with art, with each other, but their inability to detach from this steam has not made them energetic, but inert. They are disoriented by this landscape, and this disorientation is reflected in their inability to understand themselves.

A lot of what I’ve described about the film feels vague and imprecise, perhaps an inevitable side effect of analyzing a film that functions through characters with opaque motivations. This tends to be the case with Fassbinder, but he ramps this sensation up a notch in this film because it is specifically concerned with capturing the dizzyingly imprecise experience that is modern life. The overstimulation works for me, brilliantly, but it is easy to see someone overwhelmed and frustrated by a film that lacks not only a “plot” but any political conviction. The apathy does not obscure its ideology, but instead interrogates the idea that one ever be necessary to begin with. Fassbinder might be as numb as his subjects, which is why he observes, but provides no insight on where he’d place them morally. As disoriented and confused as the terrorists are, he is no better than them. And, of course, neither are we.

Effi Briest (1974)

2 05 2020

Theory is, at its core, a practice this requires citation. It would be exceedingly difficult in 2020 to write an essay without referencing a past work. It’s like thinking of a new number or color. It is necessary to quote. Among the many celebrated figures in the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin was especially remembered for his quoting. He equated his database of quotes to a collection, and he speaks of such a collection with a tacit understanding of its absurdity. Many would consider cinema’s equal to be Jean-Luc Godard. After all, his aesthetic is often shaped by the interjection of quotes. Although often lacking attribution, such quotations (be they intertitles or voiceover) work as cinematic footnotes to the image, rather than simply reinforcing or re-describing it. Fassbinder’s earliest films bear traces of Godard’s influence, but as his career progressed into the middle part of the seventies, Douglas Sirk took over as the guiding influence. The melodramatic conceit in Effi Briest reflects this shift but quoting informs the aesthetics. It is a film made entirely “in quotes” distanced from the source material. It is beautiful and compelling, but also maddening.

A teenage Effi Briest accepts a marriage proposal from the older and wealthier Baron Geert Von Instetten. Upon moving into his mansion in a secluded town she is immediately confronted with a sense of loneliness. The moments of social interaction she is treated to is anything but stimulating as the Baron’s social circle consists of individuals who find her primitive and uninteresting. She instead finds comfort in the companionship of Major Crampas, who is much closer to her in age than her husband. This infuriates the Baron who expects complete devotion from Effi and sees Crampas as little more than an opportunistic Lothario.

Much of what happens in Effi Briest can be described as “melodramatic.” The tension in the film itself is the fact that we don’t see much of the stuff that does happen. Fassbinder is (intentionally) at odds with “the text” of the film. The excitement that could come from such a narrative is stifled, artfully underlying the literal restriction placed on Effi herself. In a sense, she is given everything materially. She has the Baron’s wealth, access to his servants, and his unwieldy estate. Yet, she also lacks any personal mobility. Her predicament informs Fassbinder’s construction of the film. His compositions are exquisite, but he refuses to give us any of the juice in the narrative’s drama.

I should emphasize that I greatly admire what Fassbinder does here. Two of my favorite filmmakers ever, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu, did something extremely similar. At the risk of reducing the complexity of their work, I would also say that their films were also driven by characters. There is, of course, theoretical undercurrents in all of their work (if you want an elucidation on this, I’ve written considerably about both filmmakers on this website) but it situates itself differently than it does here. It pains me to say this and I know I undoubtedly sound like a rube in doing so, but Effi Briest is simply too stiff. When Fassbinder withholds the drama in say, Love is Colder than Death, it works. In that film, I am profoundly moved when he deprives us of the sensations one expects in a crime drama. When he attempts something similar with a period melodrama, though, it feels too much like the stuffy chamber piece that is the foundation for the abstraction.

As it stands, I find myself more fascinated by this particular experiment than anything else. I can even go back to the certain sequences and pinpoint their brilliance. Effi’s frustration with the Baron’s social circle gets expressed not in Fassbinder’s perfect compositions but in a brilliant and descriptive inter-title that follows: “An artifice inspired to calculate fear.” The stuffiness of upper crust society paradoxically describes the film’s own aesthetic aspirations. There are endless films that quote from a literary source, but there are very few that use a quote to actually inform the film’s actual syntax. Fassbinder’s absurd productivity suggests that he treated each film as a new experiment. Many of these experiments work for me, and I can’t even fault the ones that don’t. They offer something new and fascinating even as they fail to stimulate. Watching Effi Briest is a frustrating experience, yet it is entirely unique one as well. It reflects the genius of its filmmaker.