DVD TUESDAY: FASSBINDER’S DESPAIR (1978)

June 7, 2011

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Today Olive Films releases two lesser known Rainer Werner Fassbinder films to DVD in strong transfers: I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) and Despair (1978). The first is a bare-bones TV movie, the second a big budget international co-production starring Dirk Bogarde. According to Thomas Elsaesser,  Despair cost 6 million deutsche marks, when his previous works averaged 4-500,000. Despair was his bid to become a major European auteur, and to work on a larger palette. For this he received pushback from his growing cult (see Philip Lopate’s essay “A Date With Fassbinder and Despair” for a personal take on it), and it has generally drifted into disrepute, hence its unavailability on home video.

Seen on its own, the film is a mordantly funny black comedy that imperceptibly tips into tragedy. As Despair marks a major change in Fassbinder’s directorial identity, it’s appropriate he chose to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name. It concerns Hermann (Bogarde), a Russian emigre chocolate factory owner in 1929-1930 Berlin, who suffers from dissociative episodes and then fatefully encounters Felix (Klaus Lowitsch), whom he considers to be his doppelganger. Eager for a new life, he plans to kill Felix and take on the role of a poorer, but freer man. It’s a delicate tonal shift handled with care by Fassbinder and DP Michael Ballhaus’ lush house-of-mirrors cinematography, which starts with broad caricature (kitschy frosted glass of endlessly doubling images) and ends with visual rhymes that recontextualize the earlier laughs (a drip into broken porcelain calls back to the opening shot of a tacky cocktail mixing). Their ever-intricate tracking shots are supplemented here by zooms, both puncturing and retreating from these dynamic spaces, shifting from clarity to opacity. Reportedly one of Fassbinder’s favorites, it is overdue for re-evaluation.

Adapted into a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, the theme of unstable identity is elaborated by giving Hermann a history of shifting allegiances: “I was a black shirt fighting the Reds in the White Army. After the revolution I got out as a Caucasian fighting the Brown Shirts in the Red Army. Now I am just a yellow belly in a brown hat”. He says this while armies of little chocolate men roll by on a conveyor belt in the foreground. With Nazism slowly on the rise, Hermann has the creeping fear he’ll just go along to get along again, a monstrous accommodation that introduces one of the many seams in his psyche. No longer certain that there is a core to his being, Hermann depends on class-based masks to get through the day. Bogarde is done up in the height of haute-bourgeoisie. He is a businessman with a blonde wife, swank apartment, and impeccably arranged coiffure. His suits are pressed and his eyebrows dutifully cocked in response to an appropriate innuendo. Mostly he slags his wife Lydia (Andrea Ferreol) for lacking his worldly smarts. This despite his refusal to acknowledge her affair with cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler), a sloppy painter and slobby human.  He tells Lydia that “Wall Street collapsed”, and she responds, “were people killed?”. Later, he speaks of a “merger” and she mis-hears, “murder?”. Money is equated with violence, and once Hermann’s business collapses, his psyche goes down with it.

His breakdown is first visualized during a sex scene, when Hermann has his first dissociative episode. Still fully clothed in tasteful smoking robe, he tries to mount Lydia’s Rubenesque figure, but fails to feel physically present. Instead, he sees his split-self sitting across the room, watching his impotent pawing with calm resolve. He had told Lydia that “intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality”, but it’s clear his bravado is an impotent show for his little middle class apartment theater. His space is a brightly-lit, garish labyrinth, illustrated with art-deco ladies cavorting in frosted glass . This rhymes with the dour fishbowl darkness of his other glassed-in space, at the office of his chocolate factory. Situated in the far right-hand corner of the office’s frame, he can see all his exhausted minions as they type away to do his bidding. At home he’s an actor, at work a director.

Needing desperately to escape these spaces and his unmoored mind, he finds a solution in another glassy plain, in a fairground mirror maze (the headlining image). There he sees a confused Felix searching for a way out, and Hermann gives him one, believing him to be his doppelganger. Hermann’s idea was hatched in the cinema, where he had watched a gangster melodrama in which a cop switched places with his criminal brother, ending in both of their deaths. Ignoring the ending, he latches on to an identity switch as his only path to salvation. Their relationship is practical, and Hermann offers Felix cash to switch identities, but their time together is also intensely homoerotic – Hermann trying on one more identity before moving on. In their scenes together Fassbinder and Ballhaus shoot them in very low light, and in the scene of the “switch”, Hermann tenderly gives Felix a manicure and pedicure before sending him on his way, and giving him a bullet in the back. In creating Felix as a new man, he re-asserts his dissipated sensual powers, lost with Lydia, and celebrates it by shooting Felix dead.

Ecstatic at his new found freedom, he fails to realize his dead doppelganger is half a hallucination. Felix existed, but had no visual resemblance to Hermann, who simply created a twin in his mind’s movie theater. Morose and broken in a hotel room, a loose faucet drips rhythmically into a shard of broken porcelain, recalling his middle-class cocktail heroics in the opening shot, when a drop fell into a halved egg. He doesn’t put up a fight when arrested, this gaunt fabulist now believing himself a movie star.

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This was my write-up of I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) when the Film Comment Selects series screened it earlier this year:

This little-seen Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV movie is an occasionally entrancing exercise in style. The narrative is a failed allegory about a kid who can never please his parents, and so he displaces this insecurity in his marriage by constantly buying his wife presents, running up their credit and driving them into poverty. It’s poised between absurdism and realism but never settles into a coherent tone. He builds a house for his parents, and they forget about it two weeks later, a blackly comic sequence. But then the rest of the film is a starkly realist portrait of a working class family sliding into the poorhouse. It’s held together by Fassbinder’s dynamic compositions, lots of angled mirrors, smoked glass and foreground/background interaction, but in the end it feels like a test case for his future triumphs  [Update: Like Despair two years later!].

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER’S WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)

April 20, 2010

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A heady piece of sci-fi from German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the long-forgotten World On A Wire (1973) resurfaced at the Museum of Modern Art last week for a short run. Produced for the German national television channel, NDR, it was adapted from the novel SIMULACRON 3, by the American Daniel F. Galouye (which was also the basis for The Thirteenth Floor (1999)). Restored in a shimmering print by The Fassbinder Foundation, it’s a visually kaleidoscopic oddity peppered with the director’s uniquely deadpan sense of humor.

The Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology has initiated the Simulacron project, who are building up an artificial universe on their computers, endowing consciousness to individual “identity units”, programmed by the researchers. It is intended to be used as a predictive device, running simulations about shifts in the economy and society. But when technical director Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch) starts noticing fissures in his own reality, he begins to wonder if he is not an “identity unit” for yet another world above his own.  Or, as Fassbinder himself put it, quoted on the Foundation’s site:

“There is a very beautiful story named World on a Wire. It talks about a world where you can create projections of people with a computer. And this brings about the question to what degree we are all merely projections, because according to this thought model, the projections are equal to reality. Maybe another, larger body has created us as a thought model? We are looking at an old philosophical model that produces a certain horror. With this movie I have attempted to work as perfectly and orderly as possible, using all available technical means.”

A two-part, 205 minute opus, it has plenty of lag in its stop-start narrative – but Kurt Raab’s set design and Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography makes every shot worth examining like a jeweler. As you can see in the stills, it’s a fantasia of gleaming plastics and endless refractions. Ballhaus has a penchant for placing objects in the extreme foreground with some surreal action in the far background. This shot, seen in the top photo (and to the right), establishes the world as unbalanced and strange. The normal sense of scale is thrown off, confused.

Ballhaus also places mirror-like objects in every possible composition, bisecting the frame into worlds of illusion and reality. Early on, the original technical director, Professor Vollmer, harangues a state official by shoving a hand mirror in his face and asking him what is inside. Vollmer’s mental breakdown is the tremor which sets Stiller’s world on edge.

Fassbinder frames Stiller’s investigation as a kind of existential film noir. Lowitsch is a squat fireplug of an actor, very brute and athletic for a high profile scientist. Fassbinder loves playing with and honoring genre, and Stiller’s insolent personality and blunt humor recalls both Bogart and the American animals of Sam Fuller. Vollmer’s mysterious daughter Eva (Mascha Robben) takes on the role of femme fatale, with nods to Marlene Dietrich. In a nightclub sequence early on, a Dietrich impersonator lip-synchs to “Boys in the Back Room” before re-enacting the finale to Dishonored (checking her lipstick on a saber before falling to the firing squad). Robben’s veils and breathly line readings are other oblique references to the Berlin-born star.

There’s an air of burlesque to the whole enterprise, with Fassbinder’s usual array of intense grotesques, highlighted by the scrunched mien of Gottfried John as the only “identity unit” aware of his origins. There are also cameos from Ingrid Caven as a stylish newspaper girl, recently deceased director Werner Schroeter as a callow lad at a bar, and Eddie Constantine (Alphaville), as a flummoxed gent who picks up a hitchhiking Stiller. These bits of self-reflexive japery, along with some surreal comic sequences, give the film a wild, lurching tone. At its core it’s still hard sci-fi, tackling questions of alternate worlds and the ultimate meaning of consciousness, but it’s done in the rambunctious, conglomerate style of Fassbinder – who tosses in everything he loves. His favorite friends, colleagues, genres and faces congeal into a carnivalesque vision of computerized mania.

It anticipates the alternate-world philosophical noodlings of The Matrix by 25 years, and, as J. Hoberman notes in his review, is an avatar of Avatar, as Stiller is able to enter Simulacron by putting on the helmet seen a few paragraphs above. The film’s run at MoMA ended yesterday, and it’s currently only available on a German DVD without English subtitles, but the Foundation’s website says they are “presently negotiating with our partner Criterion in the USA.” So hopefully within a year or two this forgotten curiosity will have an extended, idiosyncratic life of its own in the United States.