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.