Considering the life and work of West German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a barrage of associations and emotions come to mind. I can’t recall ever hearing about him discuss the Marquis de Sade or his relation to the eighteenth century libertine’s philosophies, but once you are entrenched in RWF’s ouvre, feelings of a sadeian and/or sadistic nature are right below the surface. As Samm Deighan wrote in this column a couple weeks ago, the 1974 made-for-TV film Martha is a harrowing and comic look at a haywire relationship fuelled by cruelty and emotional dependence. Martha’s plight is an exaggeration of exploitative and bourgeois power structure of love and marriage that so many of us have observed or experienced in real life. The basic contradiction of Sade’s work is what appears in Martha and many other Fassbinder pictures–the irrational intermingling of pleasure and pain.
In the documentary Role Play: Women on Fassbinder (1992, available on the Criterion release of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), numerous actresses who worked with RWF discuss the difficulties and captivation they experienced with the man. Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, and others paint a picture of an artist who was demanding and manipulative while also exuding an empathy and love that few can articulate. It is a bit difficult to understand how a revolving cast and crew of men and women were so dedicated to a filmmaker who asked so much of them. It is this kind of contradiction that one often finds with limerence and love. The immediacy and immensity of desire makes people act in ways that do not follow any logic or guidelines for self-preservation. This kind of desire combined with reckless hedonism are what caused the magic and masochism of the filmmaker’s work. It also sent him to an early grave at age 37.
The title of Fassbinder’s first feature film, Love is Colder than Death (1969), sums up the mood of his entire career, until his last work in 1982. What originally seems like the ideal of positivity and happiness becomes a source of sorrow and anger. Two mid-career films, Satan’s Brew and Chinese Roulette (both 1976) are good examples of works that explore these contradictions in physical and emotional ways.
Satan’s Brew is different than most of RWF’s work in that it specifically has a slapstick comedy bent to it. Dark humor is often found in the director’s films, but not to this level of irreverence. Opening and closing with quotes from Antonin Artaud, who is responsible for theories and productions falling under the Theater of Cruelty, Satan’s Brew also uses alienation techniques pioneered by another important twentieth century playwright, Bertolt Brecht. The laughs generated throughout the film aide the general effect of distancing the audience in a cinematic space that has no interest in depicting reality.
Satan’s Brew tells the story of Walter Kranz (Kurt Raab), a pathetic and unproductive writer who has a wobbly relationship with his wife Luise (Helen Vita) and brother Ernst (Volker Spengler). The rest of the ensemble is made up of sex workers and unstable women that go back and forth in exchanges of power and cruelty with Walter. In an early scene he dictates a woman named Irmgart (Katherina Buchhammer) to crawl around the room submissively, but instead of paying her, he shoots her, steals her money and exits. The violent actions are played out in a manner best described as artificial, possibly leaving some viewers to wonder why this film was even made. Ulli Lommel plays Lauf, a wacky detective constantly lurking in the background, investigating the murder. Ingrid Caven is Lisa, a prostitute who Walter pays in order to write her stories down so as to take monetary advantage of them. Perhaps the most memorable role is that of bespectacled Andrée (Margit Carstensen), a woman passively indulging in the supreme power she perceives Walter as having.
Almost all of the relationships revolve around economic status and its relation to sexuality, which is a pretty obvious thematic criticism of capitalism taken to the extreme. A turning point occurs when Walter has a breakthrough in his writing, although it turns out that he inexplicably plagiarized Stefan George the turn of the twentieth century poet. Walter’s embodiment of George belies the often superficial genius given to artists and writers, and how this plays into economic exploitation as well. At one point Walter steals some cash from a woman he accidentally bumps into. As he runs away, a bank employee says “It doesn‘t hurt as much when you realize the person who stole from you is a poet.” This kind of humor lampoons the permissiveness given to eccentric creative people who take advantage of this persona to influence others–essentially Fassbinder is revealing the emptiness of his own persona.
The sadeian aspects of Satan’s Brew are initially apparent in the scene where Walter takes advantage of and murders Irmgart, in which she begs him to shoot her as she kneels in front of him. It continues with actions like when our protagonist whips his fly-worshipping brother Ernst’s bare ass, an activity the latter enjoys, screaming out in pain and pleasure. The most drawn out and complex relationship that takes a page from the BDSM handbook is the one between Walter and Andrée. This isn’t a very of consensual and considerate relationship, however. At first it seems like he is trying to manipulate her to access her wealth, but when she does offer to give Walter all of her money, the conflict rises having to do with whether Andrée wants to truly do this as a submissive entity or a victim of manipulation. Only near the end of the film does she realize/accept that Walter is not a masculine figure exuding strength, but rather that she had been “deceived by a weakling.” After he gets the shit kicked out of him, his illusory power is displayed as a lack, making Andrée realize that they are on the same level of helplessness. “I am happy,” Walter says, as she walks away from him.
The conclusion of the film is arguably a cop out, or just a reassurance that cinema cannot ever be trusted. Ernst shoots Walter after overhearing that his brother is trying to frame him for the murder earlier on. The thought-to-be-deceased Irmgart turns out to still be alive, along with her fake-killer Walter. There were blanks in the guns this whole time and everyone lives happily ever after in their misery. Walter’s wife Luise, who’s grating voice is enough to drive anyone into a fury, had died at the hospital earlier but could return at any minute for all the audience knows.
Fassbinder’s following film Chinese Roulette traffics in a sadeian mood in a much more emotional way than Satan’s Brew; the characters make decisions and premeditate furious situations in ways that are similar to other films by the director, like Martha. Quite often these emotional states eventually manifest themselves in some kind of physical violence.
Margit Carstensen is back, this time as Ariane Christ, an upper-class bourgeois housewife of the sort we might find in one of Buñuel’s later films. She is having an affair with Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), a business partner of her husband Gerhard (Alexander Allerson), who is in turn having an affair with a French woman named Irene (Anna Karina). The two illicit couples arrive at the Christ country home one weekend, not realizing they had all been deceived by Ariane and Gerhard’s crippled teen daughter Angela (Angela Schober) who eventually arrives with her caretaker, the mute Traunitz (Macha Méril) and a trunk load of dolls. This story of couples–romantic and otherwise–is rounded out by the old country home caretaker Kast (Brigitte Mira) and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler). Thus, we have all the characters of Chinese Roulette in place for a story of anger and power.
The emotional reactions among all these characters are often unexpected and surprising. When Gerhard and Irene discover Ariane and Kolbe at the country house, at first there is a long silence, followed by laughter among all four, and then more uncomfortable silence. The fury that cinema usually depicts in the face of infidelity is still there somewhere in Chinese Roulette, but these folks are nuanced enough to operate in waves of anger and humor. This combination may be present in reality more often than some viewers might perceive.
Meanwhile, before Angela arrives at the gathering, Kaste refers to her in passing as a monster. A bit later Ariane says stubbornly, “I’m not letting myself be terrorized by that child.” In the early parts of Chinese Roulette the audience is meant to get a bad impression of these selfish and careless adults, as disabled children in cinema are usually portrayed as sympathetic characters. Yet by the middle and later scenes of the film it turns out that Angela is actually mean spirited to the point of being sadistic. Of course there are reasons behind her coldness, as both of her parents’ affairs began soon after her illness. Angela believes she is the cause of their secretive bad behavior, while at the same time having an indignation with Ariane and Gerhard for not raising her better. These are the sort of contradictions that exist in so many child-parent relationships, but are not often tackled on screen.
The climactic sequence of the film involves playing the game that it is named for. Chinese roulette involves two grouped teams–one asks questions, trying to figure out which person among them is the one the first group is thinking of. After some tenuous guessing over questions like “what is a proper death for this person?” The final question, asked by Ariane is, “What would this person have been in the third reich?” Angela replies that the person would be a camp commandant at Belsen. I will avoid giving away who is who in this situation, only saying that one person in the room shoots another. The film ends with another gun shot, as the camera looks on at the exterior of the building. The audience is left to guess who the second shot was for, and why. The game is an extension of the mean spirited nature basically held by all the characters in the film. It takes only a certain amount of rage to set things off.
Fassbinder’s work is unique in that his form is full of artifice, whether through a Brechtian process or a melodramatic one; yet he is able to get under viewers’ skin by filling this with content that is perhaps too realistic than most people in the audience would like. Average viewers usually want polarizing qualities that are easy to pick out like good/evil, black/white, happy/sad, but Fassbinder constantly left his characters and their actions in some gray area. This is something he shares with other great filmmakers like Pasolini, Wertmüller, and Almodóvar. RWF can be considered many things including a larger-than-life hedonist with a productive imagination on par with Sade. The kinds of scenarios found in Satan’s Brew and Chinese Roulette can be found in different incarnations throughout the filmmaker’s career, which is always due for some consideration.