Wednesday, January 28, 2015

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN aka DIE EHE DER MARIA BRAUN

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny

Maria and Hermann Braun are married as bombs are falling on Berlin. They have barely any time together before he must return to the front. Though she is devoted to Hermann, Maria is told he has been killed and merely tries to find a way to survive in postwar Germany. She works as a hostess in a club for American soldiers and begins an affair with one of them, while also learning English. Hermann comes home to find she and the soldier undressing and they get into a fight. Maria accidentally kills the man, trying to break it up, but Hermann takes responsibility and goes to prison. Meanwhile, still trying to survive, Maria begins working for a wealthy industrialist who soon falls in love with her.

One of Fassbinder’s most difficult and expensive productions beset by going over budget (allegedly due to the director’s costly cocaine habit that kept him working all hours of the day and night) and legal trouble with his long-time producer who oversold shares of the film, The Marriage of Maria was also his most popular film to date. It struck a balance between art house style, accessibility, and popular themes that led to international appeal and much sought acclaim from German audiences and critics. Thanks to its success, he went on to make three more triumphs: Berlin Alexanderplatz and the two other films of his BRD (Bundresrepublik Deutschland or the Federal Republic of Germany) trilogy, Lola and Veronika Voss.

In addition to the fact that they are all set in the immediate postwar period, this trilogy has a number of things in common. Each film follows the decay and destruction of a successful woman. Maria Braun and Lola, a version of Lola Lola from The Blue Angel, are incredibly similar: they are both hardworking women building towards a better future and financial independence, and they are not ashamed to use their sexuality as a resource or a weapon. Both women essentially sell fantasies and illusions, in particular the illusion of love. Both flirt with prostitution. While Lola is a cabaret singer and dancer who occasionally entertains wealthy gentlemen, Maria trades sex for things of increasing value: cigarettes, stockings, a secretarial job, a respected position in the company, expensive clothing, and a large house.

Where Lola and Maria differ is that while Lola deludes others, Maria deludes only herself. The nature of romantic fantasy leads to tragedy as Maria persists in her self-delusion. She is obsessed with Hermann, despite barely knowing him, and holds him as an ideal for a true, pure love. On the other hand, she treats Oswald cruelly and makes it clear that she is using him for money, social advancement, sex, and even entertainment… but never love. Fassbinder frequently examined themes of emotional cruelty and what could be described as a sort of insidious, personal fascism at work in daily society. As she becomes more successful, Maria certainly exhibits this. She treats Oswald, the office secretaries, the accountant, and even some of their clients abysmally, like a stereotype of the professional “dragon lady,” a corporate femme fatale that will go to any ends to achieve financial and personal success. Because of this, she is something of an anti-heroine, a figure that is flawed, if not outright tragic, but also sympathetic.

SPOILER ALERT: Maria is unable to ultimately succeed not because she is doomed or evil, but because of the inherently corrupt nature of society. Hermann, the love of her life, accepted a deal from Oswald where he essentially sold Maria – he agreed that he would leave the country until Oswald’s death, at which point Hermann and Maria would become the sole heirs of Oswald’s considerable estate. When Maria discovers this news, she kills them both, blowing up her beautiful house by leaving the gas on and lighting a cigarette. Even before she learns this news, Hermann’s homecoming is awkward and anxiety inducing. He wants to kiss her – or consummate their marriage – but she insists that he eat or bathe, that she change her clothes first, seemingly desperate to avoid a moment of real intimacy. In the film, their deaths are ambiguous, but in the original script, she intentionally drove them both off of a cliff.

This original ending is taken almost directly from Otto Preminger’s film noir Angel Face (1953), though Fassbinder’s original inspiration was Mildred Pierce (1945), another film about a woman who learns to survive and becomes successful in the postwar years. She is also separated from her husband, but her betrayal comes from her money-hungry daughter. Mildred Pierce is obsessed with her daughter’s advancement and effectively turns the child into a spoiled femme fatale, a selfish being with no regard for consequences for human life. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, a film that begins and ends with explosions, the axis rotates around Hermann and Maria’s obsession with him. This enigmatic figure symbolizes her hopes and dreams for a better, brighter future, but when he is shown to echo her greed and ambition, it destroys everything.

The Marriage of Maria Braun comes with a high recommendation and if you’ve never seen a Fassbinder film, this is a great place to start. Hanna Schygulla, one of his regular stars, gives the performance of her career, a nuanced portrayal of a complex woman trying to survive in a changing, postwar world, amidst the rubble of war. The only way to really see the film is in the Criterion box set of the BRD trilogy, which is a critical collection of three important films. Due to Fassbinder’s early death, he was never really able to fulfill his dream of a German Hollywood, but here he comes closest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS aka IN EINEM JAHR MIT 13 MONDEN

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978
Starring: Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven, Gottfried John

Elvira, a transsexual prostitute, is beaten when she tries to hire a male prostitute catering to men. Once known as Erwin, Elvira is also distraught over her lover Christoph. Though he is abusive physically and verbally, he’s leaving her because she’s gained weight and become sexually unappealing. Another prostitute, her friend Red Zora, looks over Eivira as she begins a search to find the people and places of her past — including the convent where she was raised as an orphan and the office of an unrequited love, Anton Saitz. He was Erwin’s friend and partner in crime and was responsible for Erwin’s transformation into Elvira.

Not only is this Fassbinder’s most personal film, but it is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, the culmination of all his themes: the trauma of German history, the search for identity, love, and family, and an individual masochistic sacrifice at the hands of a cruel loved one. Erwin/Elvira (played by Volker Spengler in one of the best performances in any Fassbinder film) is a figure that intersects all borders: male and female, past and present, wounded child and absent parents, erotic and repulsive, living and dead. Elvira is Fassbinder’s ultimate sacrificial figure, a being whose martyrdom takes on almost religious connotations. She has no true identity of her own, but merely reflects those around her. In a tableau imagining of Christ or a Catholic saint, these figures gather around her after her death (by suicide). 

This martyrdom was foreshadowed in Fassbinder’s earlier works: the martyrdom through masochism that was first suggested in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and further developed Martha, as well as the martyrdom of self-abnegation in The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fox and His Friends, and Despair. These are combined with the sacrificial victim characters of Berlin Alexanderplatz and I Only Want You to Love Me and brought to their ultimate conclusion in In a Year with 13 Moons. While Fassbinder treats many of his characters poorly, he manages a blend of tragedy and comedy, cruelty and tenderness that is unique to Elvira/Erwin. At the end of the film, she is either betrayed or rejected by every person in her life. The bleak tone of the film and its perhaps inevitable conclusion is somehow hopeful, as if Elvira has successfully managed atonement.

Elvira’s journey into the past to right some unspoken wrong and uncover her identity has a fairytale-like quality. She searches for Anton Saitz’s tower, a place that takes on a dark, surreal tone. Before Elvira meets with Saitz, she spends time with a man preparing to hang himself. They talk and share bread and wine before she quietly watches him die before going to meet with the love of her life. Also like fairytales and myths, there are three women in Elvira’s life: Sister Gudrun, the nun who helped raise young Erwin, Red Zora, the young prostitute who cares for her, and Irene, once Erwin’s wife and the mother of their child together. Sister Gudrun tells Elvira that she does not believe in God and society is the cause for all human evil. Interestingly, Elvira’s search for an absent mother parallels Fassbinder’s own; perhaps fittingly, his own mother (actress Lilo Pempeit) plays Gudrun.

Red Zora, played by Fassbinder’s most enigmatic actress and his one-time wife, Ingrid Caven, both nurtures and betrays Elvira. When Elvira is upset, Zora comforts her and tells her a story while she falls asleep — one about a brother and sister transformed by a witch into a mushroom and a snail. But later, she sleeps with Anton, a betrayal that drives Elvira to suicide. Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bolwieser) is Elvira’s wife. She is supportive and apparently understood the sex change, but old hurts prevent her from really accepting Elvira back into her life. Perhaps ironically, Erwin, the boy once abandoned by his mother, becomes Elvira, the woman who abandons her daughter.

This identity dilemma present in all of Fassbinder’s films is part of an increasing dialogue that developed throughout his work and led to themes of the double in Despair and Berlin Alexanderplatz. That also culminates in In a Year With 13 Moons, not only between Erwin and Elvira, but between Erwin/Elvira and Anton Saitz (Gottfried John, also the “double” character in Berlin Alexanderplatz). The first time Saitz is introduced wearing a skimpy tennis outfit and he forced Elvira and his goons — he’s a businessman cum gangster — reenact a scene from a Jerry Lewis musical. Saitz, as a symbol of post-war Germany, sits at the crossroads between the industrial factory, the slaughterhouse, and the concentration camp.. He is a survivor of Bergen Belsen — where he spent his childhood while Erwin was at the convent — but is also a violent gangster who has taken control of much of industrial Frankfort. At one point Fassbinder explains Saitz: S is for Saltz (salt), A is for Auschwitz, I is for Ich (I), T is for Tod (death), and Z is for Zeit (time).

This truly radical film comes with the highest possible recommendation and is thankfully available on DVD, though not in the edition it deserves. This groundbreaking portrayal of a transsexual in film remains controversial because Elvira had reassignment surgery out of love, rather than an innate sense of gender — but this problematic theme speaks to Fassbinder’s larger statements about love and identity. The film — on which he served as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, set designer, and editor — is a love letter to the suicide of his long-time boyfriend Armin Meier, with whom Elvira shares some biographical details. The squeamish should beware — Erwin/Elvira’s time in the slaughterhouse (which was also Meier’s profession) is as disturbingly graphic and tragically poetic as anything in Eyes Without a Face or The Bell from Hell. This incredibly rich, layered film is a triumph of German (and world) cinema.

Monday, January 26, 2015

DESPAIR

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, Klaus Löwitsch, Volker Spengler

Hermann Hermann, a successful Russian businessman and chocolate factory owner living in Germany, becomes increasingly paranoid during Nazi Party’s rise to power. He is convinced that he won’t be able to leave the country and, after seeing a film, decides to construct the perfect crime, where he will find a physical double and kill that man, so that he can escape to a blue collar life of freedom and anonymity in Switzerland. He finds a homeless man named Felix that he believes could be his twin — although Hermann is obviously mistaken — and sets about his plan while on a descent into madness.

Fassbinder’s only English-language film — and the only one with a truly international star — is an oddly neglected work. It boasts plenty of name-dropping power, including the appearance of lead Dirk Bogarde (from The Night Porter and one of Fassbinder’s favorite films, The Damned), as well as scriptwriter Tom Stoppard and source material from Nabokov. Despair also has one of Fassbinder’s largest budgets; his films typically cost around $500,000, but this was around $1 million. The sets certainly show it. Hermann celebrates bourgeois culture almost obsessively, and his elaborate home is like a museum to it. Filled with sculptures, glass, mirrors, refractions, and reflections, Despair is one of Fassbinder’s most extravagantly shot films and he and DP Michael Ballhaus transform the beautiful home into an ornate prison where comfort and claustrophobia go hand in hand.

While Despair examines the horror of the rise of Nazism, this black comedy is more about one of Fassbinder’s beloved themes: the fact that bourgeois society inherently leads to personal oppression almost as much as fascist governments. Hermann himself explains the lack of difference between black shirts, brown shirts, and white and red armies. There is also the collusion of the SA and the chocolate factory — their uniforms are the same color as the candy bars — and the relationship between business and power, money and violence. There is a telling scene where the word “merger” is confused with the “murder.” Hermann optimistically — and ignorantly, Fassbinder points out — thinks that he will find freedom by abandoning his wealthy lifestyle in favor of a simpler, blue collar model, but Despair shows that this is a lie and there is no escape from societal constraints.

Tellingly, Hermann also has false hope that life would be different if he was in a different place. He fondly if improbably reminisces about Russia, a place where he was forced to fight in several wars, and also idealizes Switzerland, where he is hoping to live out his days. While Despair may not be regarded as one of Fassbinder’s triumphs, his portrayal of Hermann’s self-deception is a precursors for later masterpieces like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lola, and Veronika Voss. Hermann’s determined self-deception includes determinedly ignoring his wife’s (A Zed and Two Noughts’  Andréa Ferréol) infidelity with her “cousin,” but also involves desperate attempts to escaping the self — he thinks Felix, his alleged double, looks like him — and ultimately self-annihilation.

Though there is some sex content in the film, including S&M-fueled scenes between Hermann and his wife, as well as his wife’s flimsy attempts to cover up her affair when Hermann finds she and her cousin nearly in flagrante delicto, the only truly erotic moments are when Hermann is psychologically — and physically — attempting to transform Felix into himself. He first sees his own double while having sex with this wife, and it is a source of equal anxiety and fascination. It is perhaps telling that he believes the more handsome Felix (Fassbinder regular Klaus Löwitsch) to be his double. There are certainly plenty of homoerotic moments, including scenes where he has Felix strip off his clothes and another where he gives him a haircut and manicure. Oddly, Felix seems to understand some of Hermann’s self-deception and goes along with it as long as Hermann tells him a semblance of the truth. Felix, like Hermann desire annihilation, but without any deceits or deceptions. He merely waits the moment that Hermann will kill him.

Available on Blu-ray, Despair might fall short of Fassbinder’s greatest films, but it is certainly a worthwhile effort and comes recommended. It is astounding to see how far he evolved as filmmaker from Love is Colder Than Death and Despair is a key example of that. This surreal black comedy will appeal to many different types of cinema fans and is worth watching for the solid performance from Dirk Bogarde — always a pleasure — and for what is perhaps Klaus Löwitsch’s best performance, surpassing even World on a Wire. And for those who have followed Fassbinder’s use of the Third Reich in his films, this is perhaps is most transparent, where he moves away from the fetishism and the kitsch and directly suggests that fascism and Nazism are only possible because everyday bourgeois life is already so cruel, violent, and alienating.

Friday, January 23, 2015

GERMANY IN AUTUMN aka DEUTSCHLAND IM HERBST

Alf Brustellin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Maximiliane Mainka, Beata Mainka-Jellinghaus, Peter Schubert, Berhard Sinkel, Hans Peter Cloos, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupe, Volker Schlöndorff, 1978
Starring: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Armin Meier, Hannelore Hoger, Horst Mahler

In 1977, members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) hijacked a plane and then kidnapped and murdered Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of Daimler-Benz, in order to try to force the release of three RAF leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Enslin, and Jean-Carl Raspe, who were being held in prison. When this action failed, Baader, Enslin, and Raspe died in prison; Baader and Raspe were shot and Enslin was hanged. While the state claimed these were suicides, it was widely believed that they were murdered. In response, eleven New German Cinema directors collaborated on this unique, important omnibus film, a blend of documentary and fictional narratives that meditate on the effectiveness of democracy and the place of terrorism.

Germany in Autumn is book-ended by a quote: "When cruelty, reaches a certain point, it is no longer important who initiated it, only that it ends,” attribited to “8 April 1945 Mrs Wilde, 5 children." The beginning and ending also include funerals. The film opens with the funeral of Schleyer, a solemn affair crowded with flags, flower arrangements, and aged, black-suited businessmen. The concluding funeral is its opposite in nearly every way: a mass of youthful adults, dressed in hippie-like clothing and leather jackets stream across a field for the nondescript, disgraced burials of Baader, Enslin, and Raspe. They are crowded by police and some protesting and mild violence eventually breaks out.

This is an unusual omnibus film in the sense that there are not concrete segments, but overlapping, interwoven pieces. The majority of these are documentary pieces – shots of the funerals, a glimpse of the Daimler-Benz factory working in a moment of silence, and an interview with imprisoned RAF found Horst Mahler – but three of the segments are fictional. There’s an odd, somewhat out of place short psychological thriller where a young woman lets an injured stranger in to her apartment, only to figure out that he is an escaped terrorist. Another section follows a couple who have their car searched at the border and are vaguely harassed by the border guards. There are also several fascinating scenes of Gabi Teichert, a history teacher, who wanders a wintry landscape while she questions Germany’s relationship with its past. (This character would return for director Alexander Kluge’s Die Patriotin in 1979.)

The two most important segments – which blur the line between fiction and reality – star two of Germany in Autumn’s directors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff. Schlöndorff plays himself as a director whose adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone – a theatrical performance filmed for teen television program – is criticized by a board of producers who think it appears to be too sympathetic to terrorism. The plot concerns two brothers on opposite sides of a war and the fate of the dead rebel brother, which includes a burial stripped of all official and religious rites – a parallel to the burial ceremonies for Baader, Enslin, and Raspe. Despite the director’s protests, they discuss that it will be far too suggestive to show to impressionable children and must be held for release at a future date.

But Fassbinder’s contribution to Germany in Autumn is perhaps the most important part of the film. At 26 minutes, it is a considerable chunk of a nearly two-hour film shared between 11 directors. Fassbinder equates his private anguish with the anguish of Germany and conflates personal and public pain. This segment may be his most brilliant, personal piece of filmmaking and it is certainly Fassbinder at his most vulnerable and exposed. The segment is centered on time spent in his apartment either with his boyfriend, handsome James Dean-lookalike Armin Meier, or arguing with his mother. Fassbinder is cruel to both; he gets into a physical brawl with Armin and kicks him out of the apartment, only to yell for him to return a moment later. Fassbinder is clearly rocked by the RAF situation and the deaths of Baader (who he briefly knew personally), Enslin, and Raspe.

There are shots of him, in his grief and confusion, going about his normal routine. He and Armin wake up late, walk around the apartment naked, and Armin cooks for him. He does drugs and later flushes them down the toilet, convinced the police are going to break in at any moment. He tries to start on a new film, but spends more time on the phone, trying to work out his frustrations in a dialogue. Like many of Fassbinder’s films, particularly his mid-period to late works, this is haunted by the Nazi past and the effects of National Socialism upon contemporary German democracy. He debates with his mother (Lilo Pempeit, who acted in several of his films), who lived through WWII. After a frustrating talk about the nature of democracy and terrorism, she admits that she would prefer the rule of an autocrat, though a kind and fair one.

The segment ends with a frustrated, angry Fassbinder acting out against Meier. He is cruel and hurtful – kicking out a homeless youth Meier has allowed to stay the night – but then breaks down weeping and bear-hugs Meier to the ground in a crushingly physical, almost violent attempt at intimacy, affection, and comfort. This little glimpse of what Meier dealt with on a day-to-day basis is likely a somewhat accurate portrayal of their life together. Fassbinder was known for his obsessive, yet abusive relationships and this marks one of the last times he would be captured on film. In 1978, Meier killed himself, allegedly due to his despair over his impossible relationship with Fassbinder.

The themes of Germany in Autumn and the impact of the RAF events obviously deeply impacted Fassbinder. He would go on to make the masterful, The Third Generation (1979), one of his lesser seen triumphs. Both that and Germany in Autumn come highly recommended. Fortunately, it is available on DVD and you don’t need to know anything about German history of the ‘70s to appreciate the film. Like so many of Fassbinder’s works, it remains oddly, uncomfortably topical, as these debates about the nature of democracy and role of terrorism remain frighteningly poignant.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

THE STATIONMASTER’S WIFE aka BOLWIESER

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
Starring: Elisabeth Trissenaar, Kurt Raab, Bernhard Helfrich, Volker Spengel, Udo Kier

Hanni and Xaver Bolwieser – a small-town train station manager – are newly married. Though Hanni’s affections don’t quite equal those of her obsessive, passionate husband, they seem happy. But soon Hanni begins to control her husband’s life, barring him from drinking and socializing late into the night. She also has eyes for Merkel, a local butcher, and begins an affair with him while also convinced Xaver that they should lend him money to open a restaurant and brewery. Gossip of their affair spreads its way through the town, though Xaver is determined not to believe the worst about his wife.

Based on a novel by Oskar Maria Graff, The Stationmaster’s Wife was originally known as Bolwieser, an over three hour-long, two-part TV film. The version I’m reviewing is the 112-minute theatrical cut released a few years later in 1983, which retains the central plot, but excised some of the subplots and lengthier scenes between Hanni and Xaver. The main distinction between the two versions is the title. While there may not seem like much of a difference between the titles Bolwieser and The Stationmaster’s Wife, the focus of the film is truly on Xaver Bolwieser’s descent into humiliation and despair.

In many ways, this Madame Bovary-like plot sticks with Fassbinder’s fascination of the mid-‘70s: infidelity. Every single one of his films from this period deals with marital and domestic frustrations – Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Nora Helmer, Martha, Fox and His Friends, Like a Bird on a Wire, Fear of Fear, I Only Want You to Love Me, Chinese Roulette, and Women in New York. Even the two films not directly concerned with a married couple, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven and Satan’s Brew, still concern the effects of marriage, sex, love, and family on the main character. But while Satan’s Brew and Chinese Roulette mark dramatic changes in Fassbinder’s career, Bolwieser is an elevated exploration of previous themes: emotional cruelty and the oppressiveness of social and domestic spaces.

By this point in Fassbinder’s career, Bolwieser is also the culmination of Fassbinder’s views on sex and love. Hanni and Bolwieser represent an individual struggling against sex and love, respectively. Hanni fits in with Fassbinder’s other repressed wives struggling for power, the protagonists of Nora Helmer, Effi Briest, Women in New York, Lola, Lili Marleen, and side characters in The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Fear of Fear, and others.While Hanni craves sex and equates it with personal freedom in some way, it is a destructive force in her life. Her affair with Merkel and the hairdresser nearly ruin her and seem to be an addiction that she craves but cannot escape from. Sex, for most of Fassbinder’s women, is ultimately violent. In many of his films, it includes physical violence: slapping, biting, pushing, pulling, and overall aggressive behavior that causes pain rather than pleasure. In Martha and Bolwieser, there are scenes that suggest a woman’s husband is raping her and though there are moments of tenderness, there is the sense that it will never be enough for Hanni. Because of this, she is both monstrous and sympathetic and Fassbinder draws parallels between her and the Bolwiesers’ pet bird: a beautiful, yet caged creature, filling the apartment with its unsettling cries signifying an endless need.

Love has a similar effect on Bolwieser. Kurt Raab, in what is perhaps his best performance for Fassbinder, plays one of the director’s most tragic characters. While many of Fassbinder’s other protagonists are complicit in their own exploitation and destruction, Bolwieser seems to desire self-eradication through masochism related to his insatiable appetites. He is both likable and unlikable. On one hand, his overwhelming appetites for sex, food, affection, alcohol, and Hanni seem interchangeable. On the other hand, Bolwieser’s determination to turn his head and remain blind from the truth is a pathetic trait, one that links him inevitably towards the German (or even European) complicity in the Nazi atrocities during WWII.

Like Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Bolwieser seems to exist in a fictional time and place, in an imaginary version of the years between WWI and WWII. This is yet another of Fassbinder films that examines the German society – albeit subtly – and its obsession with rules, rituals, and authority. Bolwieser’s transition from pompous bureaucrat to dejected prisoner and his replacement by an a member of the Nazi party continues his exploration of German history and its effect on contemporary life.

Bolwieser comes highly recommended. Though it falls just beneath his classics, it’s well worth seeing thanks to Raab’s powerful performance. The theatrical cut is available on DVD, though I would very much like to see the three-hour version sometime soon. Keep an eye out for the expert use of visuals. I would say that it’s one of his most beautiful films to date, but it’s hard to say that at this point, when so many of them qualify for that designation. Either way, Fassbinder and Ballhaus are able to transform mundane domestic spaces into places of wonder, tragedy, and confinement. It’s hard to believe that works of this power were made for television in the ‘70s and I would hope that contemporary TV directors and producers could learn from its example.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

WOMEN IN NEW YORK aka FRAUEN IN NEW YORK

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
Starring: Eva Mattes, Angela Schmid, Margit Carstensen, Barbara Sukowa

Mary is happily married to her husband Stephen and enjoys their life of opulence and comfort. Her friends are all frustrated with their husbands for a variety of reasons including boredom and infidelity, and they come to discover that Stephen is having an affair with a younger woman, Crystal. Though Mary prefers to remain ignorant, she eventually finds out. Her mother and friends encourage her to ignore the affair, but her heartbreak includes her to press for divorce, though she really wants to reunite with Stephen. Soon after, Crystal and Stephen are married, but Mary finds out something that could ruin Crystal…

Based on Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 play The Women, Women in New York is basically the 1970s version of contemporary TV shows like Gossip Girl as seen through the lens of the ‘30s. A group of wealthy women’s lives revolve around their husbands and boyfriends. Between afternoons spent in bed or in the bath, shopping, drinking alcohol, attending parties, and going to the hairdresser or manicurist, they gossip and backstab each other in lieu of independent lives of their own. Though I can understand how critics and audiences saw this as an attack on women, it is not really a condemnation of women, but a satire about bourgeois life, a la Effi Briest. The women are despairing, cruel, and useless creatures as a result of the evils of their repressive, claustrophobic environment. Like pet birds in gilded cages, they lead lives of extravagant comfort, but profound isolation.

Women in New York has the distinction of looking more like a play filmed for TV than a movie, such as Fassbinder’s earlier works like Das Kaffeehaus, Nora Helmer, and Bremen Freedom. As with all three of those, this shares the theme of women up against bourgeois oppression and, in many ways, it is much like Fear of Fear – about a housewife’s descent into madness – without the Valium or physical isolation. Mary is certainly alone, but she is also constantly surrounded by superficial women who claim to be her friends. They are either too caught up in their own domestic dramas, or too interested in the monstrous game of ruining the lives of others to be sympathetic or caring.

Though they are mentioned in every single conversation, there are no men in the film. This is solely a women’s world, including the principle cast of adult women, Mary’s strangely boyish daughter, and even the cast of extras, which includes the women’s staff – maids, cooks, hairdressers, governesses, and shop attendants. It is a hostile world where a woman’s sole value is place on her youth and beauty. Like some of Fassbinder’s other films from that period, including The Stationmaster’s Wife, Chinese Roulette, and to a certain extent, Satan’s Brew, this examines the effect of infidelity on a marriage. In Women in New York, issues of infidelity are further complicated because of the explicit financial benefit of a marriage. Many of Mary’s friends stay with their cheating husbands because they are willing to make this trade for increasingly wealthy husbands and comfortable lives. Mary, the outlier, is too heartbroken to live with this trade and effectively refuses to prostitute herself.

Curiously, Mary’s nemesis – the young and beautiful Crystal (played wonderfully by then newcomer Barbara Sukowa) – has begun a relationship with Mary’s husband Stephen purely because of his sizable bank account. After Stephen and Mary divorce, she continues a relationship with her lover, temporarily achieving what none of the other women are able to accomplish: passionate sexual love on one hand and wealth and social prominence on the other. Of course, this is ruined not by men, but why other women. The heretofore sensitive and sympathetic Mary becomes just like her backstabbing, vicious friends and immediately takes the opportunity to ruin Crystal’s life.

This soap opera-like cycle of women hating and ruining other women has both comic and melodramatic elements, but is primarily a social satire. It’s interesting that classic Hollywood director George Cukor first film a version in 1939, as his film Gaslight was an influence on Fassbinder’s Martha, another film about a woman dealing with the horrors of bourgeois married life. While Women in New York sheds the terror and hysterical excess of Martha, Fassbinder leaves a stylistic clue between scenes: close ups on various Edward Hopper paintings. Believed to be an influence on film noir, Hopper’s seemingly mundane paintings – such as Nighthawks, Automat, Rooms by the Sea, and Office at Night – are portraits of contemporary social isolation and usually feature a woman looking bereft and alone.

Women in New York is not easy to get ahold of, but hopefully it will see the light of day on region one DVD sometime soon. Though I would only recommend it for devoted Fassbinder fans, it is an oddly prescient, undated work that shows the disturbing cycle of women’s place in society as wives, mothers, sex objects, and social climbers, figures of hatred and jealousy, and ultimately victims of their own venomous ambition. They will go to any length to keep themselves – sisters, daughters, friends, and rivals – trapped in a social prison that views them as inherently subhuman.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

CHINESE ROULETTE aka CHINESISCHES ROULETTE

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ulli Lommel, Anna Karina, Macha Meril

Ariane and Gerhard, a wealthy married couple, are heading out on separate weekends. Though they both pretend to be traveling, they are actually meeting their long-time lovers. Their disabled daughter, Angela, plans it so that both couples – Gerhard and his French mistress Irene, and Ariane and her lover Kolbe, who is also Gerhard’s assistant – will wind up at the family’s country house. Though the adults initially overcome the awkwardness with laughter, Angela soon shows up to further complicate things and manipulate the tense environment. She forces her parents, their lovers, the angry housekeeper, her strange son, and Angela’s mute governess to partake in a game of Chinese Roulette, which is sure to end in violence.

Jean-Luc Godard once stated that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Fassbinder certainly played with this convention in Chinese Roulette, one of his lesser seen triumphs that runs the gamut from Gothic horror and psychological melodrama to country-house mystery. His first international production, this film is also somewhat unique in his catalog in that it focused on an ensemble, rather than a single, tormented protagonist. The film focuses almost equally on its eight characters, a blend of Fassbinder’s regular actors and new faces: Angela (Andrea Schober of Merchant of the Four Seasons), her parents Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and Gerhart (Alexander Allerson from My Name is Nobody and Battle of Britain), their lovers Irene (Godard’s muse and former wife Anna Karina) and Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), the housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira), her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), and Angela’s nurse (giallo actress Macha Meril).

Angela is one of Fassbinder’s more mysterious characters. She is sympathetic, but also seems to be the antagonist. She clearly blames her parents for her disability and wants to get revenge on them. She states that she fell ill 11 years ago – the same time that her father took Irene as his lover – but doesn’t explain the exact nature of her illness. Her revenge is primarily psychological and in the form of forcing her family together for an uncomfortable weekend, where her very appearance wears on her mother. Her coup de grace involves a game of Chinese roulette, where the members of one team ask another team questions. Their answers all refer to one unanimous, but secret person that the other team must figure out.

While the parents and their lovers are incredibly bourgeois, there is something otherworldly about Angela, perhaps because of her disability. She is not the only character that feels out of time and place. Gabriel, the housekeeper’s strange, adult son, is asexual and has a bizarrely Aryan appearance with white-blonde hair. He spouts Nietzschean philosophy, which he claims is his own writing, though Angela reveals at the end of the film that she knows it is plagiarized. Her mute governess also has this somewhat supernatural sense. These three figures seem to have emerged from out of Gothic literature: a disturbed girl on the verge of sexual maturity kept prisoner by her disability, her beautiful, obedient, and silent maid, and a sexually ambiguous servant who aims above his station and is capable of violence.

While Chinese Roulette is different from many of Fassbinder’s other films, it does contain some of his reused themes, namely emotional cruelty, family alienation, and a complicated relationship between a mother and her child. Angela’s father seems to love and indulge her, but her mother is inexplicably filled with hatred. She carries a gun in order to point it at Angela when frustration and rage overwhelm her. The implication is that she will inevitably resort to violence. And unlike Fassbinder’s earlier films – such as I Only Want You to Love Me, Martha, The Merchant of the Four Seasons, and others where a persecuted character is hated for no reason by their mother – the dislike is mutual. Angela blames and harassed her mother and is delighted at obvious signs of Ariane’s torment.

Shot in the country home/small castle owned by Fassbinder’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, the Gothic themes and sense of impending violence are further expressed by Chinese Roulette’s visuals. Characters are bisected, framed, and confined by shots of glass artifacts, windows and window frames, doorways, ornate mirrors, and strange display columns in the middle of rooms. The lush countryside becomes more menacing as it is contrasted by the dark forest that surrounds the estate, shots of Angela’s collection of old, creepy dolls being removed from the trunk of a car, and a scene that focuses on a rotting stag head. This was Fassbinder’s biggest budget to date and it is certainly one of his most beautiful films, perhaps only eclipsed by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Veronika Voss.

Chinese Roulette comes highly recommended. For whatever reason, it is not usually listed among Fassbinder’s masterpieces, but it certainly deserves a viewing or two and may appeal to those bored by Fassbinder’s films about working-class oppression. It is available on DVD, though I would love to see it on a mid-period Fassbinder Criterion box-set alongside Martha and Whity. Fans of restrained Gothic thrillers will also definitely want to check this out.