Friday, December 19, 2014

PIONEERS IN INGOLSTADT

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer, Irm Hermann

Alma and Berta, two young women in the small town of Ingolstadt, are excited by the presence of handsome young soldiers, who have arrived to build a bridge. The soldiers become somewhat bored and restless, as they would rather be fighting a war than building a small bridge, and pursue affairs with the women of the town. The more practical Alma has sex with several of the men, some just out of sympathy, while other affairs are in exchange for payment. The more idealistic Berta falls in love with a handsome, but illusive soldier, Karl, and becomes agonized when Karl doesn’t return her feelings.

Based on a play by Marieluise Fleisser, a protégé of Brecht’s (he directed the original production), Pioneers in Ingolstadt was originally written in 1928, but adapted over the years and revised in 1968. It was one of the few films not based on material of Fassbinder’s own, though it contains his themes of people’s inherent selfishness and cruelty. In some ways, this is similar to Michael Haneke’s later The White Band, a film about immorality, cruelty, and corruption within a small town, which acts as a microcosm for humanity on the brink of fascism and war. Fassbinder’s made-for-TV film does not make quite the same powerful statement, but exists in a world constantly on the verge of Nazism.

Like The Niklashausen Journey, this film is made up of a blend of elements from different time periods – Nazism, nineteenth century villagers, Weimar, and contemporary Germany. Despite the film’s flaws, Fassbinder succeeds in building the sense that something horrible is about to happen and violence will explode on the screen at any moment. There is the sense that the soldiers would rather be fighting a war than building a bridge, though it’s a shame that none of their characters are really developed. Multiple soldiers revolve around the two primary female characters. Fassbinder regular (and his long-time partner) Irm Hermann appears as Alma, the protagonist who trades sex for money and cooly, confidently struts from man to man.

Berta – Fassbinder’s most frequent star, Hanna Schygulla – is her opposite in nearly every way and yearns for love. This is a continuing theme of many of the characters Schygulla played for Fassbinder throughout her career from her first film with him Love is Colder Than Death, to his made-for-TV film before this, Rio das Mortes. The general plot outline is that she loves a man and tries to achieve commitment, but he leaves her for a close bond (occasionally homosexual) with another man. Here, she is responsible for some early melodramatic elements, which would possess Fassbinder’s later work. Her character also seems obsessed with victimization and she becomes a willing martyr, sacrificing herself on some sort of romanticized ideal of love.

Berta’s would-be lover is a soldier named Karl, played by Fassbinder-regular Harry Baer. He is a similar character to various men found in Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague (also played by Baer), The American Soldier, Rio das Mortes, and more: an aloof man uncertain of his purpose in life and almost pathologically desired by a woman. He does not openly reject her, and perhaps cruelly encourages her feelings, but prefers the company of men.  This battle of the sexes includes class tension, but is ultimately more frustrating than Fassbinder’s other films from this period. Like Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, and even more so, Rio das Mortes, little actually occurs in Pioneers of Ingolstadt. The characters sleep walk through their love affairs, squabbles, and building the bridge. Fassbinder uses the bridge as a bit of black comedy, an ironic metaphor for alienation, a symbol of the gaps rather than connections between characters.

Frustratingly, Pioneers in Ingolstadt presents a number of interesting themes, but fails to fully develop any of them. The film is available on DVD, but is only recommended to seasoned Fassbinder fans. This is a minor work created between more interesting projects, such as Whity (1971), which marked the dramatic end of his relationship with Günther Kaufmann, who co-stars in Pioneers in Ingolstadt; and Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), which captures the stress and insanity of Whity’s set. Watch it if you’re interested in Fassbinder’s development, particularly in his use of Hollywood melodrama.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

RIO DAS MORTES

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Michael König, Günther Kaufmann

Hanna, a beautiful, but aimless young woman, wants to get married to her boyfriend Michael. Unfortunately, he reunites with a childhood friend, Günther, and the two begin obsessively planning a trip to Peru. They’re convinced that they will manage to find the legendary treasure of the Rio das Mortes (which they think is in Peru, but is really in Brazil); Michael just coincidentally happens to have a map. They scrimp, save, and sell belongings, much to Hanna’s chagrin, and finally manage to secure the funds they need. But will Hanna really let them go without her?

Fassbinder’s third made-for-TV film after Das Kaffeehaus and The Niklashausen Journey is one of his lesser known efforts and probably for a good reason. This somewhat sloppy work has almost no character development whatsoever and feels even more improvised than Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? It’s no wonder that one of his films from this period would seem a little slapdash: he directed 12 feature-length films in less than three years. His fellow New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff is credited with the story, which could have been an interesting tale of two young men on a preposterous search for treasure – while Fassbinder was filming this, another colleague, Werner Herzog, was off shooting Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about another search for treasure in Peru.

Unfortunately Michael König (The Niklashausen Journey) and Günther Kaufmann (Gods of the Plague), whose characters share their names, are almost unforgivably dull. They have the same close male bonding and implied homosexual desire that marks Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher (briefly in the form of a male character and his john), Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, and The Niklashausen Journey. But their characters – and important plot points -- are simply undeveloped. The treasure map, for example, is barely mentioned and it’s certainly not given any dramatic emphasis. Michael simply mentions that he has one and it will lead them on their search for wealth and far-off dreams.

Fassbinder’s regular star Hanna Schygulla carries the film in her role as Hanna. Her near-homicidal jealousy is not really explained in this film, outside of frustration that Michael would rather run away to Peru than marry her, but seems to be a culmination of her roles in Fassbinder’s previous films. She is abandoned in Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The Niklashausen Journey, while in Katzelmacher she feels a romantic longing for an impossible love. Her sense of need, longing, and abandonment builds on her roles in these earlier films and feels like a rehearsal for later entries, such as The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen.

Schygulla’s repressed sexuality nearly explodes at several moments, namely in the film’s best scene. She and Fassbinder share a dance – with Fassbinder wearing his traditional black leather jacket – while Schygulla is clad in a lingerie-like red dress that bunches up her waist as they dance to Elvis. It has little to do with the rest of the plot, but it is the most captivating scene in the film. Her uninhibited dancing perhaps speaks to a sense of unfulfilled sexual longing; indeed Michael and Günther are sitting at a table, deep in conversation about their trip, and are ignoring her.

She is also the locus for the film’s larger discussion of marriage. Rio das Mortes opens with Hanna talking on the phone to her mother, who is nagging her with questions about when Hanna and Michael will be married. After this, she meets up with a friend who is excited to be getting a divorce. In another early scene, she attends the meeting of a Marxist group she’s joined (another common theme in these early Fassbinder films). With her sexy black lingerie, glamorous fox stole, and carefully applied makeup, she is sorely out of place at the radical feminist group (called USSA – a combination of USA, USSR, and the SS) who claim that women’s behavior leads directly to their own repression. Later, Michael and Günther stop at a gas station (the owner is played by a bumbling Kurt Raab) who discusses travel and vacation destinations through the lens of his wife and their experience as a married couple.

Michael and Günther are also involved in this interplay about marriage, as they move in together and combine finances to go on a trip that is framed as a honeymoon by Michael’s mother, who says she’s been saving some money for his marriage. Though many things are left unresolved, they get to go on their trip because they find a woman who will simply give them the money. This search for wealth is also expressed in every single of Fassbinder’s earlier films, though it generally results in discord, disappointment, arrest, or death. Here, Michael and Günther are simply able to board the plan while Hanna watches them from a distance, heartbroken and ready to shoot.

I can’t help but wonder if the confusion of Peru and Brazil (the actual location of the Rio das Mortes, the River of Death) was intentional, or is just another example of the inherent sloppiness of Rio das Mortes. The film feels rushed and unfocused and I can’t really recommend it. But fans of Fassbinder and Schygulla will at least want to check it out for the excellent dance sequence. If you’re interested, you can find it on DVD from the wonderful Raro Video as a two-disc release with The Niklashausen Journey.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

THE NIKLASHAUSEN JOURNEY aka NIKLASHAUSER FAHRT

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Fengler, 1970
Starring: Michael König, Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab

Hans Boehm, a musician and shepherd in medieval, feudal Germany, visits the village of Niklashausen and claims to have received a visitation from the Virgin Mary. He begins preaching a message of revolution, where the church and state will be overturned for peace and equality and property rights will be banished. His small band of followers grows and he receives support from around the country side. When his message becomes successful, his followers are killed and he is crucified and burned at the stake.

Fassbinder co-wrote and co-directed this made-for-TV film with Michael Fengler, one of his producers and also his partner on Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? This is certainly one of Fassbinder’s most avant-garde works: a medieval period piece full of anachronisms, probably to stimulate Brecht’s alienation affect. Hans Boehm was an actual shepherd in the fifteenth century and much of Fassbinder’s loose story is faithful to Boehm’s actual biography. He did allegedly have a vision where the Virgin Mary inspired a message of social equality, which he preached around the countryside. Boehm nearly instigated a peasant revolt, but was arrested, tried for heresy, and was executed.

Fassbinder attacked the left as often as the right and The Niklashausen Journey is a good example of him getting jabs in with both groups. This is really a satire of political idealism and belief in the concept that only three people are enough to begin a revolution. Fassbinder folded in elements of revolt in contemporary, divided Germany and even the Russian Revolution. The film examines the nature of revolution and seems to state that it is the same across cultures and time periods: it ends in violence regardless of which side triumphs. The relationship between performance art, cinema, and revolution is complicated here by the necessary relationship between art and commerce – or revolution and commerce.

Boehm cannot accomplish his goals of peace and cleansing without financial support, which he gets from Countess Margarethe (a wonderful performance from Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen), a greedy, sex-hungry woman who taunts her paralyzed, sick husband and desires Boehm. A character known as the Black Monk -- Fassbinder himself rebelliously flaunting an anachronistic leather jacket and sunglasses -- also craves luxury while spouting textbook socialist rhetoric. So despite Boehm’s innocence and ignorance of the Countess’s sexual motives, he is convinced by his more knowing friends to enter into an agreement with her.

The use of politics and anachronistic elements within a period piece seem to be influenced by Godard (a standard influence for Fassbinder’s early films) and by Pasolini’s superior The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). While Fassbinder’s presence as the leather-clad Black Monk was particularly effective, Michael König’s Boehm is dressed like a hippie, often doesn’t bother to wear a shirt, and has a sort of feminine appeal with his passivity and long, blonde hair. This somewhat androgynous character is the film’s least fascinating. He is outdone by Fassbinder, the always amazing Kurt Raab (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?) as a gay bishop, living in the lap of luxury and surrounded by beautiful, half-naked men, and my Carstensen as the lustful Countess.

While this has some brilliant moments – such as a scene where three women covered in blood give a Greek tragedy-style choral call for vengeance while standing in a dump yard – the scenes tend to be repetitive and are often overly long. If you can get past the dull parts (I was particularly frustrated by the drumming in the beginning of the film), this is probably Fassbinder’s most beautiful early film, with many surprisingly pastoral sets and a lush color palette. Despite the apparent departure from stark black-and-white crime dramas like Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, this is a continuation of Fassbinder’s developing themes, particularly the disturbing exchange of love/affection and money haunted much of his career. This is also an important glimpse into Fassbinder’s life in the theater, one that will fascinate his fans.

The Niklashausen Journey is available on DVD thanks to the ever wonderful Raro Video, who released a two-disc set with Rio das mortes. This ambitious and politically confrontational work comes highly recommended, though it has its challenging moments. It’s uneven, but is ultimately satisfying and I’m not sure why it is relatively ignored within Fassbinder’s catalog. And besides, can you imagine turning on the television in the ‘70s and finding this on the screen?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THE AMERICAN SOLDIER aka DER AMERIKANISCHE SOLDAT

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970
Starring: Karl Scheydt, Elga Sorbas, Jan George

"W as in war, A as in Alamo, L as in Lenin, S as in science fiction, C as in crime, and H as in Hell."

Ricky, a Vietnam vet with an American solider father and a German mother, returns to Munich after the war. He is convinced to take a job as a hit man; he’s hired by three disgruntled policemen under pressure to close out a few undesirable cases. Between killings, he has several liaisons with women, visits his icy mother and disturbed brother, and reunites with his beloved friend Franz. But the German underworld proves to be a place of violence and betrayal where no one, not even Ricky, is safe.

Based on a one-act play that Fassbinder wrote and directed, The American Soldier is an altered version adapted for the screen. It is also supposedly based on Irving Lerner’s 1958 film noir, Murder by Contract. A man takes a job as a contract killer when he needs money, but his two contacts eventually betray him. The American Soldier was initially supposed to be a vehicle for Fassbinder’s then-boyfriend Günther Kaufmann (Gods of the Plague), but as their relationship began to self-destruct, he reimagined the production. Some biographical elements remain – Kaufmann had an American G.I. father and a German mother, though Karl Scheydt. Though he was new to the Anti-Theater group and this was his first film, he would go on to appear in later films like The Niklashausen Journey and Merchant of the Four Seasons.

Many other members of his regular troupe appeared, including director Marguerethe von Trotta as a maid, Ulli Lommel as a gypsy, Igrid Caven as a nightclub singer, Irm Hermann as a whore, and Kurt Raab as Ricky’s brother. The American Soldier is certainly one of Fassbinder’s most violent, abrasive films. The cast of characters – whores, dirty cops, gamblers, gypsies, and more – are straight off the pages of a pulp novel. This is also more overtly misogynistic than his earlier films. Women are at best ignored, at worst murdered. In one particularly grating scene, Ricky throws a prostitute out of his car (presumably because she talks too much) and shoots her with blanks, laughing at her fear and humiliation.

This film makes up a loose trilogy with Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague. All three are influenced by American film noir and the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. Each has a slow build and some sluggish moments within the script, but explosive social criticism. The trilogy also all includes the character Franz Walsch. Played by Fassbinder in Love is Colder Than Death and The American Friend (and Harry Bauer in Gods of the Plague), Walsch is a minor criminal, a wannabe outlaw and anti-hero. He is perhaps at his most charming here as Ricky’s childhood friend and muscle. Their close-knit relationship is the only example of genuine affection or tenderness within the film.

The other relationships are violent, brief, or exploitative. Ricky is like a blend of La Samouraï’s Jef Costello and Kiss Me Deadly’s Mike Hammer. He treats other characters much like Spillane: though he does have some morals, he manipulates women and is quick to explode with violence towards the citizens of the underworld. Two of the film’s most fascinating scenes address this issue of relationships. In the first, which blends humor and melancholy, a hotel maid (von Trotta) interrupts a sex scene between Ricky and a temporary girlfriend to tell a story about two doomed lovers – this is essentially the plot of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). In the second scene, Ricky visits his very strange family, which includes his cold, aloof mother and needy, autistic-seeming brother.

The film’s moving theme song, “So Much Tenderness,” was written by Fassbinder and his regular composer Peer Raben. Fittingly, Günter Kaufmann performed the vocals. It is both poppy and haunting and works perfectly with the film’s themes, as well as its incredibly transgressive conclusion. The film ends with a four-minute, slow-motion death scene that must be seen to be believed: Ricky’s brother rolls around with Ricky’s body as he dies, in a blending of sexual agony and grief.

The American Soldier will certainly be an acquired taste, but it is one of Fassbinder’s most haunting early works. It comes recommended and should be particularly enjoyable for anyone who has a love of film noir. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains most of his other early films, including Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.

Monday, December 15, 2014

WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK? aka WARUM LÄUFT HERR R.?

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, 1970
Starring: Kurt Raab, Lilith Ungerer

Herr R., a draftsman, lives an orderly life. His lovely wife wishes he would get a promotion, in order to buy her more things, and his boss hopes he will advance. His young son struggles somewhat in school because of a speech impediment, but Herr R. helps him with homework. His parents come for a mostly pleasant visit, though his mother criticizes his wife for being vain and irresponsible. He and his wife go out with friends and he drinks a little too much. Herr R.’s life is mundane and dull, but soon he violently forces his way out of the routine.

Considered Fassbinder’s fifth film, there has been some speculation that his involvement was minimal. He supposedly co-directed Warum läuft Herr R.? with Michael Fengler, who acted as a producer on some of Fassbinder’s work (such as Gods of the Plague and The Marriage of Maria Braun) and also co-directed The Niklashausen Journey with Fassbinder. Fengler has claimed repeatedly that Fassbinder was barely on set and that he probably should not have received a directing credit. Fassbinder’s star, actress Hanna Schygulla, also said in an interview that this film should be considered Fengler’s work. Regardless of which man was responsible for what, it’s not difficult to view this as a Fassbinder work.

There are many similarities with some of his later films and the theme – bourgeois repression – was certainly one of his favorites. There are similar anti-bourgeois notes in Fear of Fear (1975) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975). Fear of Fear, a film similar to Herr R, but from a wife’s perspective, is about a woman who begins to go mad after the birth of her second child. Both films contain a repressive mother-in-law, doctors carelessly and unsympathetically diagnosing away problems, and Raab appears as the woman’s tormented neighbor. He is the only character to understand her misery, but she runs from him in fear. As in Herr R, he hangs himself.

Fassbinder apparently referred to Herr R as “the most disgusting film I ever made,” but much of the violence and horror is on a psychic level. Herr R’s violent acts – SPOILER ALERT – at the conclusion, where he beats his son, his wife, and her friend to death with a candlestick and then hangs himself is a production of nihilistic exhaustion, rather than rage. The horror of an ordered life, divided up into meetings and appointments, is expressed with some black humor, but this is undoubtedly one of Fassbinder’s bleakest films. Herr R.’s life is so dull, so tedious, that his acting out in any way – and his death – is a much-needed moment of relief. Somehow, even Herr R’s coworkers seemed relieved when his body is found, hanging by his own tie, in the office bathroom.

Kurt Raab, one of Fassbinder’s regular actors (and set designers) is not quite as sublime as in Fear of Fear, but he gives a wonderful, understated performance. There is something sad and lost about Raab’s slightly pudgy face and big blue eyes, which Fassbinder exploited for a number of films. His Herr R – named after Raab himself – is ordinary, kind, and sympathetic, and yet there is also something pathetic and even repulsive about him. He carries the film and steals it away from any of the other performers, including Fassbinder regulars and members of his Anti-Theater cast: Lilith Ungerer (Katzelmacher) as Frau R, Fassbinder’s mother, Lilo Pempeit, Harry Baer, Hanna Schygulla, Ingrid Caven, Irm Hermann, and Peer Raben.

It is worth noting that, in a few ways, this does not feel like a Fassbinder production. It varies widely from his first four feature films – Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, and the made-for-TV movie Das Kaffeehaus. Much of the dialogue is improvised, hinting that this is perhaps a collaborative group work in the style of the Anti-Theater plays. Fassbinder genuinely frowned on improvisation and took control of most of his productions. Herr R is also less stylized than Fassbinder’s other films with shakier, more uncertain camera work.

Whether this is Fassbinder’s film or Michael Fengler’s, it undoubtedly fits within the larger framework of Fassbinder’s career. It requires patience, as many of the early scenes are agonizingly slow in their detailed portrayal of the minutiae of Herr R’s life. Overall, Herr R is rewarding and is certainly one of the must-see works from early in Fassbinder’s career. Fortunately, you can find it on DVD, though without many frills. Fans of Kurt Raab and suburban/bourgeois hysteria films will be delighted by this bleak, tightly controlled work that benefits from multiple viewings.

Friday, December 12, 2014

DAS KAFFEEHAUS

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, Hanna Schygulla

Also known as, The Coffeehouse, this 1970 made-for-TV film is a theatrical adaptation of Das Kaffeehaus, based on a work by eighteenth-century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni (the original is titled La bottega del caffè). This film is similar in many ways to Fassbinder’s second feature-length movie, Katzelmacher: a group of bored and frustrated friends and acquaintances gather to discuss their love lives and their feelings… but mostly their financial woes. Various affairs occur, as well as the suggestion of sadomasochism, and minor betrayals. As in Katzelmacher, their bourgeois woes, inherent repression, and boredom turns their social activities into a prison and a source of horror or violence. In this case, a one-room structure they can’t or don’t escape from.

Goldini’s characters work well with Fassbinder’s usual themes of bourgeois financial anxiety and emotional cruelty. The original play follows Ridolfo, a servant turned businessman, his former client’s spoiled son with a gambling addiction, and the son’s neglected wife. What began as a three-act comedy of manners, confused identity, and romantic drama is more in line with the avant-garde theatrical techniques used in Fassbinder’s first few films, where his characters are remote, unemotional, and somewhat otherworldly. Though some of the characters are completely absent from the stage during certain scenes, there are many instances where they remain frozen in the background as part of the set, like ghosts or somnambulists.

Fassbinder apparently only loosely based his production on Goldini’s play (which I have not read). Goldini’s original was set in a casino and neighboring hotel, while Fassbinder moves the action – or lack thereof – to a much more bourgeois environment: the titular coffeehouse. His set is a single stage with a white background, white carpet, and a couple of plain chairs. In this sense it is very similar to the simplicity of Love is Colder Than Death. In both, style is stripped bare with little more flare than the actors striking poses or remaining still for much the play’s duration. The takes, perhaps understandably, are very long and this is much more like a filmed play than his other theatrical made-for-TV movies, such as the later Bremen Freedom (1973) or Nora Helmer (1974). Unless I missed something, the camera didn’t seem to cut at all during the film’s running time.

The regular Antiteater (Antitheater in English) players and stock characters Fassbinder would use for many of his films appear here, including Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab, Harry Baer, and Fassbinder’s then-lover, Günter Kaufmann. This is one early work where Fassbinder himself is conspicuously absent. I can’t really say much about the performances, as they are intentionally dialogue-heavy, flat, and full of Brecht’s A-effect. This is the sort of thing spoofed in American animated sitcoms like Family Guy or The Simpsons, with dramatic, yet simple costumes and unexplained, dramatic screams at the ends of acts. Certainly an acquired taste.

The original play Das Kaffeehaus is relatively unknown to English-speaking audiences, which may make it seem like a fairly random selection for Fassbinder to adapt, but it has something of a history within German theater and television. There were productions throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the first television version was made just a few years prior in 1964. Fassbinder, of course, made it his own. He kept the loose period costumes, but used many of his Antiteater techniques. There is certainly less comedy and a heightened sense of melancholy or despair. Fassbinder and his group performed this before filming the television production and, despite the jarring avant-garde elements, it feels well-rehearsed.

For rabid Fassbinder fans, this is fascinating because it’s essentially your only chance to see the Munich Antiteater group on film as they were on stage. It provides an important link between his cinematic creations and the group work that inspired and shaped them. It is probably unnecessary for everyone else, though it is also relatively difficult to get ahold of. There is no DVD release and though it’s on Youtube right now, it lacks subtitles. (Thankfully I speak enough German to get by.)

GODS OF THE PLAGUE aka GÖTTER DER PEST

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970
Starring: Harry Bauer, Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta, Günther Kaufmann

Picking up loosely where Love is Colder Than Death left off, a criminal named Franz is released from prison. He immediately meets up with his girlfriend Joanna, a singer at a cabaret. She becomes frustrated when he ignores her to meet up with his brother, who is soon killed. Franz begins a new relationship with a woman named Margarethe, which soon turns into a threesome with Franz’s friend called the Gorilla, an underworld figure who was hired to kill Franz’s brother. Franz and the Gorilla begin planning a heist, so the threesome can live in comfort, much to Margarethe and Joanna’s dismay.

Gods of the Plague is similar to Fassbinder’s early work, but it’s also a clear departure, a more stylized and mature expression of his early themes. Later in his life, Fassbinder would consider it to be his fifth best film. This can be considered the second film in a loose trilogy with Love is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier. All contain film noir elements are essentially Fassbinder’s interpretation of a combination of American and French crime films. The trilogy centers on a leather jacket-wearing character named Franz, who is played by Fassbinder himself in Love is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier. Harry Baer (Katzelmacher) takes on the role for Gods of the Plague and is excellent. His portrayal of Franz is different than Fassbinder’s; sexier and more assured, though almost somnambulistic. He allows the other characters to direct his actions and even, in one scene, to undress him as he remains motionless.

The nudity here is both erotic and casual. While Love is Colder Than Death has an undercurrent of homosexual desire and Franz and Bruno have a proxy relationship through Joanna, in this film there is openly a threesome between Franz, Margarethe, and the Gorilla. This was possibly influenced by the presence of Günther Kaufmann, who co-stars as the Gorilla. Fassbinder wooed Kaufmann and the two were in a tempestuous relationship for several years, despite the fact that Kaufmann was married with a family. Fassbinder bought him expensive gifts (including several pricy cars, which Kaufmann subsequently destroyed) and their relationship often reached dramatic heights until it imploded – on the set of Whity – a few years later.

Compared to the Franz-Joanna-Bruno relationship, this new interpretation has far more warmth and affection. This seems to be primarily due to Kaufmann’s portrayal of the Gorilla, with his frequent hugging and generous smiles. The Gorilla is almost unnaturally expressive, compared to the film’s other more reserved characters and Fassbinder previous characters in Love is Colder Than Death and Katzelmacher. This may be a good place to start for those new to Fassbinder, as the Gorilla and Margarethe are less abstract and closer to characters in a standard drama. New German Cinema director Margarethe von Trotta is wonderful here as the enigmatic, sensitive Margarethe.

The use of the same/similar characters throughout Fassbinder’s early films has a somewhat surreal effect. Hanna Schygulla returns as Joanna, though this time she isn’t a prostitute, but a cabaret singer (at a club called Lola Montez, a reference to the Ophuls film about a courtesan who rises through society to be the king’s mistress), though she plays out the same drama – her jealousy causes her to inform on Franz, this time leading to his death, rather than imprisonment. Franz and the Gorilla’s big heist is planned at friend’s supermarket – in Love is Colder Than Death, Joanna and Bruno stole a number of things from a similar (the same?) market. Fassbinder’s regular players -- Ingrid Caven, Kurt Raab, and Irm Hermann -- also appear in small roles that adds some humor to the film’s romantic, serious tone. Fassbinder himself can be seen briefly as a man buying porn magazines. (One of the film’s most amusing conceits is that the woman selling pornography is also selling information, but forces each customer to peruse her selection first.) Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder's mother, appears as Franz’s mother in one of the film’s most emotional scenes in an odd blending of fiction and reality.

Franz’s dream for the future oddly echoes Jorgos’s words about Greece is Katzelmacher – he wants to go to an island and drink wine, eat seafood, and bask in the sun. As with its more overt sexuality, Gods of the Plague is also more open about the characters’ middle-class financial anxiety. Advertising and artwork is more obviously important – Joanna sits next to a Marlene Dietrich poster, a giant poster of a model that looks exactly like Margarethe is plastered above her bed, and she spoils Franz by buying a poster of an emperor that he resembles. It is clear that all three images represent the corresponding character’s ideals. Joanna, for instance, wants to be worshipped and idolized; it is likely the fact that Franz ignores her that inspires her to betray him. Franz gets himself into trouble to begin with because though he seems cool, tough, and aloof, he wants to be wealthy and pampered.

Though it lacks much of the humor and whimsy of Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague is a more emotional film. It comes recommended and is an important evolution of Fassbinder’s key themes: bourgeois anxiety, cruelty in relationships, and a desperate longing for love. Find it in Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder from Criterion, which also contains most of his other early films, including Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, The American Soldier, and Beware of a Holy Whore. The whole set comes highly recommended, though it would have been nice for Criterion to throw in some extras.