Shore Leave: Querelle (1982)

June 27, 2017


Rainer Werner Fassbinder passed away on the morning of June 10, 1982, three weeks into the editing of his final feature Querelle. The New York Times reported that, “a video-cassette machine that he had been using was still running at 5 A.M., Munich time, when Miss Lorenz [Julie Lorenz, his roommate and editor] discovered his body.” He died of an overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine – he had long been pushing his body to extremes while shooting some 45 features in 15 years. Querelle is not a summation or a final statement, as Fassbinder was constantly shifting, poking and exploring his stylistic palette. New paths emerged within every film, and Querelle is just another fork in the road before his heart gave out, but it is a feverishly beautiful one. Querelle is a free adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest, about a dope-dealing seaman involved in a murder while on shore leave, while grappling with his repressed and newly emerging homosexual desires. Frankly erotic and garishly artificial, shot on horizonless soundstages and bathed in orange and blue filtered light, it is both ridiculous and sublime.

Fassbinder said that Genet’s novel transforms a “third-class tale about a criminal” into an “astonishing mythology.” And so while Fassbinder follows the the general movement of Genet’s plot, the declamatory performance style and minimalist sets draw attention away from the story and towards the iconography. These are Tom of Finland sailors, perpetually oiled up and shirtless, buffing anything near at hand, while hilariously phallic towers thrust upward around the docs of the port town of Brest. The highlight of Rolf Zehetbaur’s set design though, is the bordello, a dense Art Nouveau space of mirrors/curtains/Greek pornographic paintings. Fassbinder collaborator Harry Baer described the sets as “an artistically presented dream-fabric-reality,” comparing it to Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930).  It is in this slick atmosphere that Querelle (Brad Davis) floats into town, a sailor on a boat led by Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), who harbors a secret crush for his employee. Querelle uses his job as a convenient way to smuggle dope to the local brothel, the Hotel Feria Bar, where he discovers his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) has been sleeping with the Feria’s owner Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Lysiane’s bartender husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann) doesn’t mind because he’s more interested in bedding young sailors. With each new patron of the bar he bets on a roll of the dice. If they lose he gets to have sex with them, if they win they can choose the prostitute of their choice.

After Querelle completes a drug sale, he cold-bloodedly murders his accomplice underneath a papier-mache moon. An investigation erupts and Querelle is a suspect, so he begins to deflect blame onto another criminal – Gil (also Hanno Pöschl, but sans moustache) – who killed a co-worker for accusing him of being gay. Querelle confusedly falls in love with Gil, who looks exactly like his brother Robert. Querelle claims, “I never loved a boy before. You’re the first one.” But Querelle is opaque, even to himself, and is only now allowing himself to indulge in his true lusts. His first homosexual experience was intentionally losing the dice game to Nono, who introduces him to the way in which sex can be used as a power game, and Querelle accepts it with masochistic pleasure. Querelle, whose whole life is some kind of con, quickly learns that seduction is its own tool, and learns how to play both sadist and masochist in order to advance his own interests. As Steven Shaviro notes in The Cinematic Body, “Fassbinder shows obvious contempt not only for…a ‘politically correct’ – which is to say, idealized and sanitized – depiction of sexuality. He refuses to provide ‘positive images’ of either straight or gay sex. On the contrary, he willfully aestheticizes the most troubling moments of his narrative, those when male sexuality is explicitly associated with power and domination, with violence, and with death.”


Querelle and Robert have a love-hate relationship that leans towards the latter, peaking during a spectacular fight sequence in which Fassbinder circles inside the bar in 360 degree pans as the two embark on their endless chase. With Gil, Querelle finds a Robert doppelganger, one he can love without reservation (the fact that he is a murderer, in Querelle’s eyes, only makes him more desirable). But when Querelle told Gil that he had never loved a boy before, that was another of his lies – he loves, and still loves, his brother. After convincing Gil to rob Lieutenant Seblon for escape money, Querelle forces him into a disguise. In a Vertigo-esque costume change, Gil dresses up as Robert, complete with fake moustache. This works on a double level, as it allows Querelle to seamlessly divert his emotions for Robert into Gil, as well as frame Robert for the robbery – for Gil looks more like Robert than himself. The Lieutenant will later identify Robert as the man who mugged him, leaving his fate unclear, as he is last seen drowning his sorrows with Lysiane, wishing that Querelle never existed.

It is an idea that would appeal to most of his friends, all of whom he betrays or backstabs to some extent or another. Only Lieutenant Seblon, who is unaware that Querelle ordered the heist of his suitcase, remains loyal to the end. Seblon records his thoughts on a tape recorder, a voice-over by other means, and fills it with thoughts and reflections on his overwhelming infatuation, one that is nearly debilitating in its intensity. In his presence his authority evaporates, becoming subject to Querelle’s ever-strengthening will to power.


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.


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!].


February 22, 2011

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In its 11th year, the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center, which runs February 18th – March 4th, is as staunchly idiosyncratic as ever. The slate is chosen by the venerable magazine’s contributors and editors, with an assist from the Asian genre aficionados at Subway Cinema, who are co-presenting three features. Pulling from brows both high and low, they open with the historical excavations of Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew and close with the horror kicks of James Wan’s Insidious and the  morbid comedy of John Landis’ Burke and Hare. In between lies an entire range of obscure festival titles (El Sicario), forgotten repertory gems (Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me, Peter Yates’ Robbery) and the latest philosophical doc from Werner Herzog, the 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog’s film is one of the few with U.S. theatrical distribution (from IFC Films), so for many of these titles this series is the only opportunity to see them on the big screen.

I’ve seen five films in the program so far, and Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew stands out. As Tony Rayns reported in CinemaScope, Jia was commissioned to make a film about Shanghai for that city’s World Expo in April 2010. As with his last documentary feature,  24 City (2008), Jia uses personal histories to explicate the wider story of his country, from the communist revolution through the introduction and explosion of capitalism. 24 City focused on the industrial city of Chengdu, in which the lifeblood of the town, Factory 420, was being torn down to build a gigantic condominium complex. In the midst of the documentary interviews he introduces a fictional story about the factory, starring Joan Chen.

I Wish I Knew deals with a wider canvas, examining the Shanghainese diaspora created by the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. Jia talks to survivors in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose entire lives were uprooted or destroyed, nationalists and communists both. Woven in between these interviews are wordless shots of actress Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent collaborator, strolling through the ruins of old Shanghai, as skyscrapers get erected all around her. This is an extension of the Joan Chen sequence in 24 City, but also of Jia’s entire corpus, extraordinary documents of living history in which China’s economic miracle inevitably buries and denies the history of the country. From Platform on, Jia has been trying to capture the last breaths of bulldozed and drowned neighborhoods and memories  before they disappear under steel and glass.

The people Jia interviews are natural storytellers. There is Yang Xiaofo, whose father, leader of the Chinese Civil Rights Alliance, was assassinated upon the order of Chiang Kai-Shek. Yang remembers the days when he and his dad would stroll down Nanjing Road and look for coffee shops. Jia then takes his camera and strolls down the modern-day strip, slowly weaving his way through a cafe, until  he settles upon Zhang Yuansun. Zhang informs us his father was a hugely popular Peking Opera performer, and owned a yacht.  But during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards declared him a reactionary, ending his career and forcing him to live in poverty. Then Zhang attends a senior dance, twirling to Dick Haymes’ “I Wish I Knew”.

There is an endless list of lost fathers. The most devastating is the story of Wang Peimin, whose dad was executed by firing squad by the KMT weeks before her birth. She has photos of him shortly before his death, handled by impossibly young-looking guards, and with a beatific look on his face, defiantly proud. And despite all of the impossible trials of their youth, all of the subjects share this  stubborn refusal to give up on life, and Jia honors their incredible perseverance. Zhao Tao wanders through the rubble-strewn streets of their past, now abandoned by the city, as the film itself tries to inscribe these spaces back into history. The film is currently without U.S. distribution, but there is a Region 3, English subtitled DVD available at outlets including YesAsia.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the hottest ticket, as seeing Werner Herzog’s mischievous mug in three dimensions is apparently too provocative to miss. I even spied David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in attendance, which hopefully means an extended blog post from them both looms in the future. But of course the main pull was seeing the 32,000 year old paintings that cover the interior of France’s Chauvet cave, which the government rarely opens to non-specialists. The spectacle of these ancient masterpieces can be overwhelming, especially the ingenious way in which they were adapted to the undulating surfaces of the walls. Many compositions were arranged in circular groups that lead the eye around the crevasses, imparting a sense of motion. This kinetic aspect appears in the figures themselves, as Herzog notes a bison drawn with eight legs, conveying an idea of speed, which he describes as “proto-cinema”, but which is more proto-Futurism, which is still pretty mind-blowing. The 3D image gives a wondrous sense of depth and curvaceousness inside the cave, but the large segments of interviews with scientists and researchers are a drag in the format. Herzog’s patented mystical madman commentary is pushing into self-parody, but in this case the footage alone is worth the price of admission.



The Silence (2010) is a heavy-handed but refreshingly downbeat police procedural from Germany, directed with precision by Baran Bo Odar. A little girl is murdered in the same spot as another child was 23 years earlier, and a jowly retired detective with his burnt-out former partner try to link the two cases. The characters are thinly drawn, but the actors are superbly worn-down, committing completely to the ornately doom-laden scenario.

Sodankyla Forever (2010): this is only part one of four segments from Peter von Bagh’s history of  the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, but it makes me want to watch the whole thing. Each section culls from the voluminous director interviews von Bagh has conducted over the years.This section focuses on a variety of directors’ experiences of war, with a lot of emphasis on Eastern Europe, with many pointed comments from Milos Forman, Jerzy Skolimowski and Ivan Passer, who all attended the same boarding school with Vaclav Havel. There was also a striking exchange between Krystof Zanussi and Dusan Makavajev as they discuss their refusal to attend a screening of Battleship Potemkin (those who celebrate it haven’t lived through its philosophy). Also, plenty of prime Sam Fuller.

I Only Want You to Love Me (1976): 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 in his marriage he constantly buys 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.


Unknown (2011): This is not a part of Film Comment Selects, but Jaume Collet-Serra’s sleekly beguiling thriller certainly belongs with that ragtag group. Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


April 20, 2010


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.