The 1997 Fassbinder festival at UCLA was the first time I really noticed the difference between OK and really good prints of movies. This started a chain of thought that, a dozen years later, led me to sit in the same theater for a film restoration seminar as part of a graduate degree program in moving image archiving.
Friday, February 7, 1997. The first evening of the Fassbinder retrospective, and I’m not there.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
Saturday. Passing through Hollywood, beneath the Tropicana lit in acid lavender and pink, listening to the Kyrie Elision of Mozart’s Mass to calm my nerves in the Hollywood-Ventura-405 traffic.
This was the most stupendous print of a movie I’ve seen. The clarity and brilliance were such that I had difficulty concentrating. I thought of all those bandaged-together any-which-way prints from New Yorker Films that I watched for years, so flecked and muddy and yellow and out of focus they looked like they were projected through maple syrup. But this was like—I can’t even think of an artistic equivalent. It was like L.A. after a rain, after the schmutz in the air is washed away.
Ineffable Klimt/Schiele period Margit Carstensen abuses and exploits her employee, lies to her mother, welshes on a debt—all before even getting out of bed. Her bejeweled harem getup and inverted pyramid of frizzy hair like Dr. Frank N. Furter. And she speaks in Sprechstimme: “I … had … such … terrible … (beat) dreams. … Marlene, my … head … is … (beat, beat) so … (beat, beat, beat) heavy.”
The camera glides from one side of Petra’s bed to the other—as if it were the momentous expanse of a landscape in a Western.
Recruits in Ingolstadt.
Hermann and Schygulla sit at night on a bench, singing a song about Heinrich’s ghost-bride coming to him. In this, and all the subsequent scenes in the park, there is exaggerated sound of passing cars. “Life goes on.” Like Hermann’s typing in the background of Petra.
Harry Baer and Günther Kaufmann in a scene of indescribable beauty, walk together—clicking heels!—on a bridge, while the rooftops of the quaint city pass behind them. The autumnal orange-red light bathes them. Then another scene of two walkers, even more beautiful, in which Hermann chases Klaus Löwitsch, pestering him about money. It is along a river, under the trees on the bank. It is twilight. The two are lit by blindingly bright light. “It is no indignity to want to eat.”
A plank collapses under Löwitsch. He calls the men to attention. Another heart-stopping image: the camera tracks the faces of the men on the bridge. Not omitting the spaces in between their heads. We see the tops of the trees on the other bank. They are yellow, brilliantly back-lit with brilliant sunlight. Out of focus.
Baer screws Hanna Schygulla in the park. Her response: “Is that all?”
“Can’t you pretend to like it like all the others?”
Baer literally runs away, leaving Schygulla in the dirt, sobbing.
Off-putting and strange. As if “after” the libretto of a trite operetta about billeted soldiers’ romantic dalliances in a picturesque old town. Indeed, the elements of a Jane Austin novel—except the soldiers are cretins and the ladies are slutty servants.
The American Soldier
Hermann and Karl Scheydt driving at night. He pushes her out of car and leaves her in the gravel. She’s wearing the same orchidious dress she wears in Ingolstadt.
Margarethe von Trotta sits on the bed and soliloquizes while Scheydt and Elga Sorbas fondle each other. “Happiness is never any fun.”
C.f. Petra’s “There is something in us that makes us need each other. But we haven’t figured out how to tolerate living together.”
A walk along a weed-choked gravel path near water. Glimpse of plot of trees—an island, a sandbar? Munich? The kinds of locations—ordinary, completely nothing.
The Nicklashausen Journey
Fassbinder, Schygulla and a guy in musketeer getup recite a catechism:
“For whom is the revolution needed?”
“Who will make the revolution?”
“Who will lead the people?”
“Can 3 or 4 individuals make a party?”
“They can pave the way for one.”
And so on. Schygulla in her fancy gown. Fassbinder in his too-tight leather jacket. Stationary camera. Pacing, pacing, pacing.
Everywhere in his movies people pace. People walk. People walk and talk. And sometimes the camera paces too, in one direction, or back and forth.
To keep the people united, they fake visitations. Schygulla being coached by Fassbinder on how to play the Virgin Mary. She stumbles over lines he keeps changing. Takes a swig of beer. “No, it should sound more … dignified.” Ends with Kaufmann reading about the Chicago Black Panther raid.
König recites part of the beginning of Capital about the labor theory of value in a tremendous strip mine. Carstensen kneeling before him like a donor. But he’s shouted down by the voice of “supply and demand determine value.”
Schygulla tells Fassbinder of her doubts. That it hasn’t worked. That they should go. They’re walking along the same seaside gravel path as in American Soldier. (The audience laughs.)
Saturday the 15th. I intended to arrive at the Goethe Institute during the 2 p.m. lunch break, but didn’t make it until a little after 3:00—”The film has already begun. Go down this hallway, the first door on your right is to the back of the screening room.”
Low, stuffy room. My eyes adjust, and I see there are about 3 dozen people who have arranged themselves on uncomfortable stacking chairs in a clump in front of the pull-down screen. The print is muddy, dust-flecked and the sound booms without clarity. I can barely read the blurry subtitles above the heads. I have come in on episode three, which consists entirely of Günter Lamprecht’s drunken soliloquies or dialogues with Bauman or other idiots. Within minutes I wish I was outside. I stick it through. And then into a few minutes of the next episode. But then I leave and see it’s 4:15. It was warm outside.
Of course conditions were awful, but that’s not all there is to it. I remember not being able to watch it even on TV—where the image and sound certainly were better.
Why do I have such a problem with this?
- Period piece. Whenever RWF gets “historical” I brace myself. Why? So much of his work is period pieces. But I associate them with conventionality, with conventional acting, with restraint and omission.
- Straight drama. I can go to Merchant & Ivory if I didn’t want anything more than a dutiful film “adaptation” of a novel. Perhaps this submissiveness can be seen as a maturation out of a need for gimmicks like deliberate anachronisms, alienation effects, anti-naturalistic acting, images or sound. But these tight close ups of ugly faces.
- Verboseness. God knows RWF movies are yackfests, but, for example, this whole hour could have been cut down to two scenes—his drunken encounter with Schygulla, and the card game with Bauman where they talk about Job. Why wasn’t it? Excessive reverence for Döblin’s words. RWF was such a fan he lost his sense? I could imagine some insane Proust fan pursuing the same line. “If we don’t have scene X then scene Y won’t make sense, … and so on.
Some pathos, after all, in the story of stupid Fränze, who leaves her husband for a man who doesn’t want her. And then Franz helps him kick her out.
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?
Saturday the 22nd. The very furnishings and clothes seem likely to vomit on us—The little table lamp with four little red bishop’s caps above each bulb. The sectional sofa with blue and white china pattern. The narrow glasses of Amadeus’s teacher.
The air of winter, being cooped up, noise and petty discomfort. Little feints and wheedling.
One scene—the evening with the new record—offered a speck of warmth. But that, ultimately, just seemed like Mrs. Raab “doing her job.” Everything otherwise … is hideousness and falseness.
The Merchant of Four Seasons
Another beautiful print—clear and bright as one of Ruff’s giant portraits.
The plastic kitchen tablecloth with pictures of apple slices.
Lurid red drapes with cartoon skiers in white. Through the open door glimpses of a hallway incandescent with brilliant yellow op art wallpaper.
The lacy sleeves. The boxy tight shirts. The dowdy hair.
I’m confronted with the most painfully sordid moments of my own life.
Gods of the Plague
Sunday. All day at UCLA—brutal. Four messages from the folks when I got home.
The bar, Carla Aulaulu selling information and porn out of her wicker handbag, the same cop, the same noiry underworld milieu as American Soldier. But leavened with more worth. The long, long static shots. The long, long silences. The lush, radiant blank and white images. The somber chamber music.
The supermarket interior at night—again RWF putting the most unlikely material to use. The banners and banalities. The deadly, celestially brilliant white glow.
The pacing detective. The scene were we see the detective leaning against the wall, but the camera imitates his counterpart, swaying back and forth. Pacing.
Lives of the Performers + Band of Outsiders + The American Soldier.
How to convey the difference between this and, for example, Herr R.? There the image was gruesome, livid. The noisiness of the conversation, the ambient sounds. The situations were completely unexceptional, completely conventional.
Here was darkness and shadow. Silence, stillness. The situations, the relations obscure, strange.
Is it a difference between caricature and affection? But certainly there is some sympathy for Herr R. He is not simply ridiculous. He’s certainly presented as tragic—fated, doomed. It is not a joke at all.
Two worlds. Bourgeois proprieties are presented as mechanisms for the destruction of anyone with enough motherwit to be aware of what’s happening. The underworld, the world outside bourgeois propriety is also a place of death—but at least it offers the possibility to sit and think.
Rio das Mortes
The repertory company effect. It distorts your approach to new characters, because first you scan them to see if they’re a regular. You jump to conclusions, snort with amusement, based on experiences with him or her in other movies. Kurt Raab always jumps out at you—Is he playing a retard, pervert, snob, slob?
And not just people! Objects too: Herr R.’s sectional sofa makes a return appearance in the apartment of Kaufmann’s mom. After a little speech she hands him the check and at once he turns to his hippie lunkhead pal “OK! Let’s go!”
Schygulla driven to distraction by her hippie lunkhead boyfriend.
The role of books in RWF. She’s studying for an exam. Memorizing texts about teaching children. For the boyfriend the books are nothing but an excuse for being disagreeable. Memorization. But then, on the other hand, she recites a little collage poem about Lana Turner and Frank O’Hara, which he grooves on. (And then leaves)
The scene of selling his car. The crunchy snow of the city. The billboards. This ordinariness.
Trying to get capital. Setting up a proper business functions here, as elsewhere in RWF, the primary sin. Capital, employees, profit—and authority.
And then the absurdity of the ending. Schygulla is left behind, as the guys go off on their adventure.
Unbearable and joyless. The awfulness of youth.
A Hollywood shocker. Carstensen is driven mad by her husband’s control of every aspect of her life. Finally, he wheels her in a stupor, in a wheelchair, back home.
RWF goes to Rome. What do you see? El Hedi ben Salem pulling down his pants. Joachim Hansen despising the hippies on the Spanish Steps. The German Embassy. The scene where Carstensen and Hansen pass, circle each other, the camera circling them both.
Raab at the Embassy—typing. Another typing scene. Booming clatter in the baroque hall.
Hansen as some kind of monster-movie creature from hell. Poisoning her cat Rudel—”I named him Rudel because he’s black.” Whatever that means.
Amusing to see Marthe at work. In the 18th century reading room, smoking, clattering along in her platform mules.
How many cigarettes have I watched being smoked during this festival?
How many platform shoes have clattered past me?
Fear Of Fear
Carstensen as young mom going schizophrenic. A well-meaning lump of a husband—again studying for a test. Hellish in-laws in the same building.
Monday. Groggy and still … crushed by yesterday’s movies. Of all things. Folks phoned this morning before I was up, and phoned work twice before I arrived. RC yelled at me “Call your mother!”
Fox and His Friends.
Thursday the 27th. I was writhing in agony the whole time. I took off my glasses. I closed my eyes. It was too much.
Peter Chatel: “The idea that proletarians are only interested in eating, drinking and fucking is just an idea to keep them down.”
Fassbinder “Yeah, but what else is there?”
The appalling meals with Chatel’s parents. “Your fork is right there … The sugar tongs are beside the bowl. … My handkerchief? …”
And then his Momma’s tittle about
“You didn’t miss anything at the concert. Just some noise. These modern composers!”
“They played ‘The Firebird’?”
“Yes, ‘The Firebird’”
“Herr Bieberkopf, do you like Stravinsky?”
“Fox doesn’t like any modern concert music.”
“What did you say?”
“But Steher’s ‘Lear’ is coming to town.”
“I already got three seats.”
The stuff of comedy—the rube out of his element. But here there is an additional element: sadism? the air of completely unambiguous enjoyment of a sense of superiority as something just and proper? It is not amusing at all. I cringe. This culture stuff is so brutal, fiendish.
Chatel: “First, I don’t like sleeping with drunks. Second, I have to get up early tomorrow. Third, we can’t have sex every night. And you insulted my parents.”
In a way, completely conventional. No arty compositions. Another in a long line of lunkheads, but this time, what matters isn’t the people he hurts, but the hurt and humiliation all the others inflict on him.
All I Want Is For You to Love Me
Another lunkhead, but sweet.
Vitus Zeplichal’s enormous brown eyes. Asymmetrical—like Hermann’s.
Armin Meier as the cute foreman.
Flashbacks. Are these the first I’ve seen in a RWF movie?
“Other people manage it.”
“But how? How do they do it?”
“They don’t show their anxiety.”
Saturday, March 1. The overpowering beauty of the black and white images, the deliberate pace, the sounds of traffic, the air of grown-up neighborhood kids still hanging out together. A kind of co-ed I Vitelloni. The character’s lined up sitting on a white pipe handrail, like birds on a wire, accompanied by sounds of birdsong and traffic.
Foursquare framing. The obscure game of musical chairs. The cards.
But on the other hand, it is a vision of brutality and corruption, hopelessness. We see one of the girls turn tricks. Also one of the guys. Another girl is a shrew to her husband and a cheat to her tenant. The guys are bullies and bums. The girls lie and gossip and delude themselves.
Various couples walk arm in arm down an alley—between tall apartment buildings and garages that might as well be in Venice, CA or San Francisco or anywhere.
At the interval Tim talked about Fassbinder: “Isn’t he just the cutest little thing? I just love him to death! Cute … as … a … but- … ton!”
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
The bartendress’s sparkly black top with pink and turquoise bands bulging out at her boobs.
The closest thing to a happy couple, a happy end. “That doesn’t matter. When we’re together, we must be nice with each other.”
Sunday. What to make of the retrospective so far?
Hitherto I had no idea of his work as a whole. I didn’t really realize that there was anything to know. I only acknowledged part of his oeuvre: the Brechtian, epic, anti-naturalistic, politicized Petra or Third Generation. The later Hollywood things I didn’t think about. There is much more to him than that. And much of it is not necessarily to my taste. But my extreme admiration for that one part of his work compels consideration of the rest.
- Decor. Has exoticism replaced art? I frequently find myself preoccupied with the clothes, the shoes, the hairdos, the furniture, the pictures on the wall—to the exclusion of everything else happening. With say John Waters this is no problem, because these things are so extreme you’re sure they’re meant as provocations. But here, I don’t know what to think at all. Is the tackiness a deliberate tackiness—or is it just what German bohemians of the early Seventies had around them? Was it bizarre and exaggerated then and there as it seems here and now?
- Music. As meaningful as the visuals are, the sounds are even more so. You could broadcast them over the radio with almost no loss of effect. The whoosh of traffic, birdsong, typing and the ever-present clanking of platforms or boots against hard floors—they evoke a whole world of troubled silence, unwelcome intrusion, arrested reverie.
- Darkness. “Dunkel” and “schwer” over all. From my inadequate prior exposure, I concluded that RWF’s dominant mood was one of intelligent, acid wit. On the contrary, he indulges in that form of superiority very infrequently.
- Key words: Aber, Angelegenheit, Angst, Conaic, Geh Heim!, Geld, Genau, Komisch, Lasse mich!, Lieb, Prima, Quatsch!, Trotsdem (But, (my) business, fear, congiac, Go home!, money, even so, funny, Leave me alone!, love, swell, rubbish, nevertheless …)
This would be a test, I thought to myself, because this is the movie I had seen most recently. And the print was not especially beautiful, and I had work errands on my mind, so I left after ten minutes. And returned about an hour later, at the moment they were leaving Kessin for Berlin.
The same piano piece as in Katzelmacher—What is it? Chopin?
Tracking shot of Schygulla in profile walking against a featureless white wall. It goes on long enough to read a novella before she reaches the window. Ten steps. And, in a way, it has happened—with the excerpts from the original text recited in voice-over.
Schygulla’s monologue after the meeting with her daughter—she exclaims that she hates her husband and child—it’s affecting, overwhelming, shocking.
Another clever juxtaposition. I assumed it was some youthful agit-prop about some local, topical issue. But it’s another costume drama, another tormented, foolish woman of the German 19th century.
It’s a mess. It certainly seems to be little more than a crudely videotaped stage performance. The dated avant-gardism: a few hideous ornate pieces of furniture scattered across a wide white space. Then profound darkness. Elliptical, stylized speech. Immobile shrieking. The wringing the last bit of rave out of your speech shrieked into the void. Rectilinear poses. All this stuff remains part of the company’s bag of tricks, house style.
RWF is no flatterer of rebels. He doesn’t provide us with any reason to sympathize with Carstensen (or anyone else, ever).
What made this seem so empty compared to what RWF accomplished elsewhere has a lot to do with the stage picture. It makes clear how great was RWF’s still in avoiding the look not only of the stage (naive or supersophisticated) but that of the conventional movie. His apartment interiors, workplaces, street scenes—however contrived and manipulated—have a distinctive character. It would be exaggerated to say they’re all real locations—but that’s the effect.
Even the same joke, the one that doesn’t make any sense in English, about the murdered wife’s eyes popping out, that we hear in Herr R. and Ali also.
Thursday. As if someone dared him to do a farce—The Goonies, Monty Python, Porcile. Slapstick, absurdity, all shouting, mayhem, crazy people.
“He spit egg all over my face!”
“It’s all he had in his mouth.”
Carstensen’s performance is devastating—the complete opposite of the coolly chic ladies she usually plays. A mole-marked, owl-eyed gawky boob. Her head full of a lonely person’s ideals. Regard, comfort, transport, health, peace. And of course the reality is the complete opposite: bustle, distraction, squalor, pettiness, aches and pains, …. And humiliation. And she is so degraded that she makes the best of it, and welcomes it fervently.
An update of Hansum’s Hunger as farce. The impotent, blocked revolutionary poet lies, blackmails, prostitutes himself, steals to get housekeeping pennies.
Helen Vita’s sonic boom: “Geld! Geld! Geld! …” Quack!
Opens with a valentine, a keepsake moment—Carstensen in a suit sits framed in the window in one room, a little girl sits framed in another window in another room. The phonograph blaring Tannhauser (I guess). Carstensen lights a cigarette, brushes a bit of blush on. The music swells. The wide collars of her blouse lay over the gray pinstripe lapels of her jacket. The music is intoxicating, overwhelming. She is thoughtful. The little girl is framed perfectly. Outside the generous windows is luscious green foliage swaying in the breeze. The record comes to an end. She goes to the record playing in the girl’s room, and turning it off, asks “Schön?” And the girl pulls out of nowhere crutches and we notice her leg is in a brace as she starts to hobble forward. The wretched decade of the Seventies is preserved and overcome. The fable of the movie has begun.
Anna Karina’s enormous eyes darting back and forth. Her face gliding through the plexiglass bar, the glass birdcage.
RWF tries his hand at Bergman. At first I thought Renoir, the Buñuel—but this is Smiles of a Summer Night plus something else—Teorima.
Literature—the idiot son reciting Artaud or somebody. The daughter reciting Rimbaud—to a survey of the breathtakingly beautiful farmland at dawn, ending at a roadside crucifix.
The Third Generation
Saturday. I was cursing myself when I got in the car. My favorite movie in the world, one that’s not available on video and never, ever shown in the art houses, and one whose opening scene is especially fascinating to me—and I didn’t even schedule my time so that I would be there when it started. Then, at the Ventura, I hit traffic. We were crawling. I slid my watch up my arm—I didn’t even want to look at it. “It was meant to be.”
But then I arrived, bought my ticket at the booth, saw it was already a quarter to, ran in—and discovered the movie hadn’t started. Udo Krier was sitting at the desk answering questions. Udo said RWF was planning his next project when he died—a version of the novel Cocaine, with Brad Davis, in Brazil. And a version of Faust, “in which the actors would choose their own parts. Which means that everyone would choose to play Faust, of course.”
Some poor ninny asked
“Which version of the Faust story?”
To which UK huffed “The original, of course.”
“You mean … Goethe?”
Day. View of tower, church. Personal computer. Sony TV with black and white cables. A VCR. This was the first VCR I ever saw in my life. Image: two men follow path, one shoots the other, twice. “Ende” and “Der Tuefel, Mutmaßlich.” Schygulla’s legs.
Phone call: Babel. Except for a few moments (usually without any dialog) fairly loud newscaster-type recitations during all the scenes. Not translated because it would be impossible to keep up. The density. I have to own this. It’s impossible to follow it all.
“Arrest the cap! Arrest the ashtray! Arrest the book!” Literally chewing the cushion. The careful empiricist Zeplichal goes nuts. Later, he’s standing in the apartment building lobby. It is hideous beyond description, but the image of it, the clarity—a whole word is summoned up.
The terrorists in Carnival costumes for a kidnapping. Ladybug with boopy antennae. Fussing, bickering over the production of the ransom video—”The letters are too big!”
Two unhappy marriages, two lonely souls, two losers, a drug addict, a fanatic, a goofball playing double agent. What reasons do these people have for participating in revolutionary terrorism? What are we shown or told about? Nothing. We don’t even hear any of them articulate any views about political or economic issues at all, let alone radical ones. Quite the contrary, we hear petty-bourgeous sneering at drug use, soldiers, women.
Indeed what they have agreed to is unclear. Perhaps it is revolution as those things—having learned about it from TV—the result of too much watching of those TVs and VCRs they all have. And listening to those radio broadcasts that permeate the whole movie. Or perhaps it is just “thinness”—RWF didn’t feel it necessary or important to provide motive.
While the execution of the Lurz plot is not well done, that twist serves a purpose. Presenting the revolutionaries as being in the pay of big business as a blunt way of expressing what, in fact, their only accomplishment consists of—reinforcing, reinvigorating the technocratic, privateer state. But where did we get the idea that this was their target? Do we ever hear anything about their being against big business, capitalism, the state? Only poor Carstensen, who is so eager to blow up town hall.
So this is the greatest movie ever made? Or, to put it another way, my favorite movie?
So what remains? The spacious apartments of Berlin. The terrorists’ walls of books. Their big, soft beds.
Servitude, bitterness and death.
Mother Küstlers Goes to Heaven
Armin Meier, sloop-shouldered, vacant blue eyes, oppressed by Hermann, who’s talking about chemicals.
Ingrid Craven’s embrace at the airport—holding her mother so that her face is visible to the photographer.
Carstensen and Hansen’s bourgeois splendor—old upholstered chairs, ruby carpets and handsome dark wood with searing red acanthuses—not glass tables and ashtrays. And their announcement “We are Communists”
Not, as the program says, about how politicians and the media uses her, but about how the Left uses her, uses victims. It is an anti-Left movie! RWF’s audacity.
Sunday. The worst.
The Marriage of Maria Braun
The sound at the end. The soccer game—“Germany is champion of the world!” Then a busy signal, accompanying negative images of West Germany’s chancellors up to Schmidt. God, to think he never experienced Thatcher or Reagan! The charm in “period” and “local” details, like these everyday sounds.
“My man is dead.” The amusement of hearing Schygulla speak English. But think about the scene. She enters the club full of American officers. The shimmer of Glenn Miller in the air. The crowd parts. The music ceases. She walks up the Black, American officer and says “My man is dead. Would you like to dance with me?”
This is a killer. What despair, shame, laughter, joy does this evoke in Germans? For an ignorant American it was pretty affecting.
Muddy, ugly, and—except for the fine dizzying camera movement of the first train station scene—shockingly unimportant visuals. Descent into conventional film making.
Allegory? Like Playboy of the Western World—a character study that somehow seems to be about more than one rascal’s career. Machiavellianism in the service of Romanticism as the German character? God! Reunification! What would he done about that?
RWF’s seriousness. He never wastes the audience’s time with anything other than the most serious and important themes, handled in the most serious manner. No trifling with bogus ephemera or matters outside his (the group’s) immediate experience.
A Year of Thirteen Moons
Thursday. A hard night, tonight. The beautiful music at the beginning. Men on the Main. Visconti.
The long scene of Volker Spengler and Craven in the slaughterhouse. Images of the cows bleeding into a trough while we hear Spengler, in an excited, screechy falsetto, recite a scene from some tragedy (Goethe’s Tasso?) It’s unbearable—it dares you to look. After a minute, you think—”Oh, OK, Rainer. I got it. Cut.” But it goes on and on. You have to look away. You realize this speech is important. It is about someone being oppressed—a poet. About a poet’s dreams, and his need to have his dreams and to have them expressed. The camera shows other stages of the slaughterhouse process. We see Spengler and Craven walking among the workers and the carcasses.
Stories get told. Liselotte Eder—RWF’s mom—telling about Spengler’s abandonment and youth, lying to please, then the foiled adoption. Two bewitched children. The judge who forgot.
Schopenhauer. First from Soul Frieda. Then a volume of his in the Eder’s hands. Then from the man who hangs himself.
Caven—never better. Hopping in front of the nun. Awaking to Anton. She tells part of the joke we know so well by now. “I didn’t see you.”
“I’m so small. I haven’t eaten for days … and I’ve grown so small.”
The ridiculous freak. Not so much sympathy for a transsexual, as refusing the benefit of the usual heroines’ glamour. Another freak—like Küstlers or Ali’s wife. And this one’s speciality is being stupid. It was OK when he was younger—because he was cute. But he’s no longer cute. He’s dumpy and prematurely middle-aged.
I completely forgot how terrible this is. Or did it seem wonderful, years ago? Poor Delmar, if I dragged him to see it.
I don’t know what to think. It could be completely ironic, deliberately inert and preposterous as some sort of sour postmodern ridicule of the idea of representing the Reich. It could be RWF’s experiment at doing something completely different from anything he’d tried—and it is a botch from ignorance. It could be he had very little to do with the film as presented, either from negligence, delegated authority or interference.
The wretched cinematography. All of a sudden a mania for natural light. The result: mud. Ditto the sound. And the dialogue. I wasn’t the only one laughing—laughing!—at the howlers:
“She has a sensual mouth.”
The presence of Giancarlo Giannini—reinforcing the impression that it’s some Lina Wertmüller crap.
RWF is authoritative when presenting pre- or neo-fascism. But the specific historic form eludes him.
The point of this juxtaposition—to show him at his best and worst?
Saturday. Later. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear the thought of driving ‘cross town yet again, staying up ‘till 2:00. Veronika Voss and Lola are both on video, and I’ve seen them both before. Even so, I felt a little guilty, so I rented the tape of Voss. And I feel a little more guilty, having been reminded of how glorious it must look in a good print on a big screen. The grove of birches in the rain at night. The ride in the old fashioned tram, with the lights passing by the windows. Dr. Katz’s Nordic nightmare luminous white office. (With tinny U.S. pop music piped in.) The dream sequences at the end, with the actors standing out before the ineffable blackness. The air of Bergman comes through in the end, after earnest and pedestrian melodrama. And a bit of old RWF, in the moment when VV crawls on all fours to get to the chair where she gets her shot. Her tender words to Robert are seen from far, far away. The tenderness is seen coldly, as it is probably meant coldly.
Something that RWF by this time in his career had probably experienced several times—the incongruity of old “UFA” or whatever old “filmstar”s in the new Germany. Their glamour, their mystique …. We had had Sunset Boulevard, which, in Don Quixote fashion, treats the issue at first as farce, but gradually shades into tragedy. This movie should really be titled “Fraulin Doktor Marianne Katz”—it’s focus is on the reporter’s encounters with VV through the medium of the doctor, the doctor’s connection with the agency that’s supposed to monitor her, the corruption and coldness of the profiteers, and their ultimate triumph.
The “conclusion of the trilogy”? As in Braun, it’s about women. The men are observers.
One beautiful moment of dialogue:
Dr. Katz: “Danke. Ich danke dir. … You only did what had to be done. Anybody in your position would have done it. His girlfriend had an accident. She’s dead. … Are you afraid?”
Voss: “It must be strange to die. … Quatsch! Life is also strange. What? … No! What should I be afraid of? … I’m just a little dizzy.”
Sunday. I hardly had begun to think about what I was going to do to prevent today from being as dismal as yesterday, when I glanced at the schedule as saw the movies would begin at 2:00.
The beautiful image of the ugly building. You wonder—with the later movies—whether being the poet of these godforsaken places was something he really wanted to be.
Singing some ridiculous song in the hallway while Hermann makes him a sandwich—“How can things in Europe be so big, when, in Japan, they’re so small?”
The beach—a gray slate sky.
Silence. Only one exchange of dialogue.
Street. Filming the street.
The Little Chaos
The poster of the Modigliani goes up in flames.
“I’m going to the movies!”
Driving off in the Bug.
The idea of MOMA’s sponsorship. When was the last time a painting could be considered even “modern” if it included representations of lowlife petty criminals? The business of inventing a story, inventing a narrative upon which to string together the images and sounds. Choosing to imitate gangster movies—in the same way the 18th century “did” pastorals.
Love Is Colder Than Death
Several stunning long scenes. Bruno’s long drive in the night. Black on black straight-on view of the walls, fences, balustrades, gas stations.
Bruno staring into the camera at the shoemaker.
Bruno staring into the camera at the waitress, finally shooting.
Joanna, Franz and Bruno’s long walk down a gravel path under the power lines.
Joanna and Bruno shoplifting in the supermarket/discount store.
Ending “I called the police.”
The series organizer said “We’re lucky to have Matias Viegner here tonight ….” Who recited a list of characteristics of New Queer Cinema of which Querelle is the fons et origo: visual not narrative; reveling in the association of crime, degeneracy, disease; deliberately artificial, unreal, stagey; full of symbols; concerned with enclosed places; concerned with power; contrasted with cinema of depicting homosexuality as almost normal, calling for respect, sympathy.
Oh brother! No awareness of having seen a single one of RWF’s other movies. And then he walked out after 20 minutes.
The accent on the Genet’s highfalutin’ aspect? Literary diction pops up in Thirteen Moons, Nicholashausen, Third, …. It’s Genet’s glory and shame both at once. “A penny for your thought’s, Querelle” prompts an oration about Robert’s gaze in terms of voluptuousness and power such that the audience cracks up. Of course, as it cracks up over listening to Goethe declaimed in a slaughterhouse or Schopenhauer recited to a dumpy transsexual.
The undialectical—metaphysical—eroticism? It is hard not to explain everything in terms of the changed circumstances of production. The fact that RWF was no longer dependent on locations, the ensemble. He had new resources and he was experimenting with a variety of modes in order to find his way. If you hate all the later pictures, then it becomes a story of the punishment of hubris—the star out of vanity leaves the team that nurtured him, thereby cutting himself off from his material, his technique, his collaborators, his critics. Alone he flounders, declines into conventionality and personal eccentricity, and burns out.
On the other hand …. There is something new here that is not, for being different, therefore a failure. The silence, plastique and radiant light of the old movies has returned. But no dumpy “real” apartments and the sounds from the open window and squalid, desperate lives. Instead—liturgy. The face of Brad Davis was not to be seen as the face of such-and-such a guy with such-and-such sad, dark eyes in the middle of a certain street in Munich or Frankfurt on a certain day. He was to be seen as a mythical, fabulous, a dream. Perhaps for some this is tantamount to an admission of aesthetic failure—that RWF no longer had any taste for the poetry of the real, and had secluded himself in artifice, conventionality, illusion, mystification.
In Voss, Veronika is raving to the reporter about the American movie studios.
“United Artists—which means ‘union of artists.’ Which is the way it should be—artists banding together.”
“You mean like a trade union?”
“Oh! God no! … You know what they call them? Dream Factories. Think about it!”
In L.A., a total of 4376 minutes of movies, 72.93 hours. 18 screenings.
Of these I went to 13. $60 plus $60 parking. 72.9 Hours of Fassbinder on the Wall.
35 movies by him and 2 about him. Many cups of coffee, cookies from the outdoor vending machines. How many total hours of aimless time-wasting in the hideous, flourescent-lit hallways of Melnitz?
Later. Petra weeping. The despolation of Fox’s corpse.
Unhappiness. What is the figure of the sufferer in RWF? Why is he or she always present?
—Suffering is good material (griping, sympathetic, a good cry)
—Suffering is reality (temperament, worldview, philosophy)
What kind of suffering is it, exactly? Cruelty. Cruelty rather than the suffering prompted by accident, or even “conditions.” In RWF there are no “conditions,” no “forces,” there are only individuals interacting with others. The conditions and forces are appear only as rhetorical figures, tropes, code words used for communication—things of no substance or reality.
Selecting as his theme the varieties of suffering people inflict on each other.
These are the contents of the world. This is what it boils down to. The ignorant and poor preying upon the ignorant and poor. The rich preying on the rich and the poor. Scheming, futility, scheming, futility.
14 of the festival movies end with death. Murder, mostly, with a few heavily overdetermined suicides and wasting-away cases.
Is this RWF’s moral? People will be ground down to nothing unless they lash out. Snap—and lash out. The lashing out requires their snapping first. It is possible—through insanity that is natural or earned though suffering—to step outside your role as victim with the cycle of suffering.
His beautiful seriousness.
Which is not to say he doesn’t represent trifling. He represents trifling without trifling himself.
The exploited lover—the lover who lets himself be exploited, the lover who’s too dumb to know he’s being exploited, the exploiter and exploited who exchange roles, ….
Later. Average of 1 cigarette every 5 minutes of screen time = 875.2 cigarettes I’ve watched being smoked.
Average of 1 three-minute episode of no dialogue and no action (traffic sounds, bird song, smoking, sulking) every 30 minutes = 7.29 hours of inaction.
And the scenes of people not doing anything in particular, that continue long after the last puff of dialogue.
In his talk Dietrich Lohmann said “When we first started out we didn’t know what were doing. … Someone gave us this camera, a kind, that, in Germany we call a “Blimp.” … It was made for film studios in the Fifties. It’s enormous and very heavy and almost impossible to move. So that’s why we would simply set it up and let the action come and go in front of it. Later, critics made a big thing out of this minimalist aesthetic—but it wasn’t an aesthetic decision at all. It was just technical, … or economic.”
Average 5 minutes of makeup application per picture = 3.91 hours.
Later. Why movies? The most life-like? The lingua franca? The capacity for illusion of life?
Or, simply, the sound of the human voice and the image of the human body. Voices and other sounds, bodies and other things.
Not materialist, not arte povera, not satisfied with sensual appreciation of sounds and bodies and voices and things. These things exist within human relations. Within milieu. Tattered, improvised.
Nice comparison: in 1975 RWF did Fox, Küstlers and Fear of Fear and Straub/Huillet did Moses and Aron. The divergences implied in that—in process, approach. Plus the fact that they have this insufferable primness of being serious Marxist artists that makes them seem more unbearable, personally, than RWF at his loutish worst. Kluge, also. His pursuit of a path completely independent of those people on one hand and the commercial crap (Wenders) on the other.
The lure is not purity or simplification. The lure is not rejection of the conventional, false, unreal, compromised. The lure is the ever more seductive presentation of suffering. Because that is reality, that is honesty.
Cross reference Sirk’s Imitation of life. Digressionless tight plot in the form of a descent into hell. Heartless bitches and all-suffering martyrs. Grotesque faces. Squalid hallways. Light: glowing, sparkling, lustrous, shaded, brilliant. Compositions: silhouettes, balustrades, screens, doorways, details of flesh, wall, nails, hair. A figure throbbing with tears. Tawdry nightclubs. Turquoise rocking chairs with silver chalices. Disowning her mother for the first time, weeping, in the middle of the rain-soaked Christmas trees. Screaming tearful regrets at the casket. Ingrid Craven = Sandra Dee.
One scene entirely RWF—where Sarah Ann meets her (lunkhead) boyfriend in an alley. He screams “Is it true? Is your mother a nigger?” And starts slapping her around, beating her to the ground. We see her (in her immaculately pressed butterscotch outfit) collapsed in a puddle next to some garbage cans. She’s heaving with tears, she looks up. Next image: Annie giving lounging Lana a foot massage.
So why don’t I like Sirk as much as RWF? Or more? Why this exception to the idea that the older artist is the original, the one who has more to teach? Straight melodrama irritates me. I can’t really bear drama, seriousness at all. Comedy or formalist hijinks—or preferably both. So how can I tolerate the unrelentingly serious RWF? Exoticism. The language, the place, the reflections of U.S. back, the time. Sirk seems too much just another piece of everything I try to avoid.
Lana Turner to John Gavin:
“Who are you, anyway? You don’t look like a photographer.”
“Apparently the Army thought I did. Anyway, they made me one. Now, I’m trying to get pictures like this one in the Museum of Modern Art.”
“Oh! You’re aiming high!”