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FASSBINDER'S FOUR DAUGHTERS
GERMANY IN FILM
"People here have an inner life and an outer life, and the two have nothing to do with each other. " ─Lola in Lola
by Harlan Kennedy
Rainer Werner Fassbinder: whiz-kid and delinquent. Frenetic industry; envenomed bayings at all consensus-wisdom spokesmen, from pressmen to politicians; clothes that ranged from paratrooper chic to S-M leathery machismo; a love-hate relationship of unyielding demonism with his own country and its recent history.
During Fassbinder's life, many a bewildered filmgoer scratched his head and wondered: How could a director who minted such gilt-edged movie-images flesh forth in himself such hostility of mien and manner?
One answer is that, in the way he lived his life, Fassbinder was happy to rail against society's camouflages – while in his movies, like any gifted artist, he let himself fall in love with the rotten as well as the upright. Art gives the devil advocacy as strong as the saint's, and dandles its special charms more vigorously. Moral pamphlets teach you to stay behind the front-line of the Good while recognizing the Bad from afar. Art teaches you to cross the war-zone: to know and empathize with the bad, and for a brief span to share its skin and soul.
The four major movies Fassbinder made about wartime and postwar Germany – chapter-headings in a roman fleuve of national history and interconnected with images and character-links – pieced together his vision of the world he lived in: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss. It was a world that first went spectacularly wrong while humanity righteously hissed and hit back; and then, after defeat, changed course to go more subtly wrong, while mankind applauded its "miracles."
The films are the cornerstones of a country's bildungsroman, and a charting of Fassbinder's own emotional genealogy and iconography. They are also the best collective testimony Fassbinder left behind of his brilliance as a movie Expressionist. In this final quartet we can see his ability to paint the outer tones of his films to match the inner tones, and to let different works dovetail into each other dramatically and thematically.
§The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), shot in bled and pasty color, is a film about cultural and spiritual anemia: a leeched-out society, vampirized by greed and hypocrisy, masquerading as a postwar social miracle.
§Lili Marleen (1980), set in the Nazi heyday itself, is a whirlwind of polychrome kitsch and Ophulsian baroque: a culture on overkill rapidly moving toward self-destruction.
§Lola (1981) plunked down in the full flush of mid-Fifties expansionism, war-traumas long scabbed over, is given the grainy fluorescence and lollipop colors of cheaply garish German sex films of the time. Its jejune color-palette essayed ersatz, innocence just as the old soft-porn movies were guised as Naturist purity or sex-education documentaries.
§Veronika Voss (1982), also set in the Fifties, Fassbinder's visual journey winds full circle to the soul's anemia. Only this time color is gone altogether, in a monochrome explosion of pain and dementia set in a land where sanity and happiness are long-lost causes.
Fassbinder put a woman at the center of each of these films, and made her the force-field of the action. She isn't saint or devil. Nor is she a male chauvinist's tabula rasa, to be passively imprinted by a patriarchal society. Rather, she is a spirit of chameleon versatility; or a moral pentathlete capable of leaping hurdles, covering distances and executing gymnastic turns more nimbly and speedily than men. Fassbinder's male characters are solider, stolider. They're sculpted firm in their fanaticism, or their honesty, or their stupidity, or their cunning. In Fassbinder's women there is no psychic predetermination. So the contours and convolutions and genetic thrashings of a Germany being endlessly reborn are reflected in the tints and textures of his heroines' chameleon skin. Indeed they can change their own camouflage at will to persuade the ruling male order to see the world as they wish it to be seen.
Fassbinder's aim isn't to perpetuate sexual stereotypes (woman as power-behind-the-throne, the Jezebel manipulator) or to hew new ones of his own. His women, rather, are subtly hyperbolized, bisexualized, by being a homosexual filmmaker's creation. At their most extreme, they are strutters in drag: Lola's nightclub acts, bawling Dietrich kitsch; Maria Braun careering up her ladder, out-Crawfording Crawford. Elsewhere they are supple androgyny conjurors, blending ornately yielding sensuality with a steely realism and survival instinct.
Though Fassbinder's four movies were not turned out in historical chronology – the Nazi-set Lili Marleen (1933-45) follows the mostly postwar Maria Braun – the dramatic and chromatic parabola of the quartet is deliberate and flawless. It moves from anemia to multicolor and back again; and from the schematic, decade-spanning pilgrim's progress of the first heroine, through the more curtailed meteor-arc of Lili Marleen and the small-town writhings of Lola, to the ultimate, shock-eyed stasis of Veronika Voss.
In the trajectory from an evolutionary narrative mode to one of virtual petrification, form in Fassbinder's quartet exactly mirrors content. As Germany advanced into the Fifties, he suggests, the nation began to paint-or-whitewash-itself into a corner. Movement and moral choice become ever more difficult, hedged round by hardening postwar hypocrisies, by cover-ups firmly lidded, and by spurious, rigid poses of fake integrity. What begins as an athletic moral duplicity (in Maria Braun) becomes a posture of cynical moral automatism (in Lola) and finally a paralyzing and total schizophrenia of mind and soul: Veronika Voss' brain is her own padded cell, where ALL THE WORLD'S A SOUND-STAGE is writ large in neon no-exit signs.
To begin with, under Fassbinder's guidance, his heroines are there partly as Norns of Nemesis: to give a patriarchal world enough rope to hang itself. Maria Braun is a Mata Hari, who proves that the means justify the end. She twines a man-managed society around her own will, executing its dream and guiding it to its own ruin. Her end: to win back her jailed husband and his love, and to bankroll their future life together. Her means: to advance herself through bedrooms and buros to a rosy-rich career as an industrialist's moll and partner. The consequence: a foredoomed moral schizophrenia, of honorable ideals attained by corrupt actions, which ultimately hurls her and Germany back into the Gas Age with a wrap-up explosion that makes matchsticks of her dream home.
Fassbinder's Germany in Maria Braun is wholly landscaped by war trauma. The movie's compositions are un-centered, ungainly, full of empty space, like the rooms and the society. It's as if the signposts taken down in war as an anti-invasion precaution have never been replaced, and Maria rustles sphinx-like through the land, pointing out the way for the victims of her attention. She teaches her way to love to the black American serviceman whom she bats her eyelids at, beds, then brains with a bottle when her Enoch Arden of a husband returns. And she imparts the way to wealth to the Franco-German businessman (Ivan Desny), whom she turns into a human building-block for the German economic miracle.
Hanna Schygulla, a point-nosed sprite with cheeks like roses and a simper that kills, makes Maria Braun and Lili Marleen two of a kind. Though Maria is more destiny's mistress and Lili destiny's handmaid, both are roasted in the fire of the German war years. And, like salamanders, they survive, at least until the token last-reel comeuppance – Maria in her holocaust, Lili in her rejection by both Nazi fame and her lover's love.
Maria Braun gives us a heroine who plays at being everyone's instrument, for pleasure or profit, and actually makes them her instruments-manufactures the compost of greed and envy on which the land will reflower. In Lili Marleen, though, the heroine is the virgin sheet – and the corrupt land writes on it.
The Germany of Lili Marleen is no land of ashes and bomb-cracked walls, but an awesome structure of perfect, blazing symmetry. The colors burst from the screen, assaulting the viewer's retinas – Third Reich reds, imperial golds, gleaming silvers, and azure blues – and Schygulla-Lili submits to their passion like a blank wall before an ever-changing stroboscope. Lili is a natural riser living in a world where the buoyancy is all provided for her. She need only float up with it.
In Lili Marleen, and in all the movies except for Maria Braun, the heroine is a "performer." Human reflector, she mirrors and throws back the dreams of her society. She binds up in the same psyche the corruption and innocence of the prostitute – for in Fassbinder's world, innocence is the planting-ground for prostitutions. In Lili Marleen's early scenes, Hanna Schygulla is constantly shot next to greenery or plants: a spray of palm behind her head in a doorway, a tracery of grass or moss seen through the skylight of her first nightclub. But nature's innocence recedes as political parasitism takes over, converting her to a war-machine. She is steely in silver, garish in gold, metallic, armatured.
A parallel chromatic thrust is visible in the use of red in the movie. It seeps into Lili's sweater to match the Swastika flag at the frontier, when she meets her Jewish lover (Giancarlo Giannini). It ever-more-loudly incarnadines her lips. It leaps onto the stage as red roses for applause while Fassbinder intercuts bodies flying in war explosions. At the end of the movie the color seeps away again – as Lili's role in Nazi history fissures, just a few fragments of time before Nazism itself.
Maria Braun and Lili Marleen allow a glimpse of movement and hope and, in the traditional sense, character development. Lili Marleen gives us the false and harlot hope of Nazism, Maria Braun the real but frail hope of a postwar moral miracle.
With the narrative mobility of these films goes a visual style that is fluid and quasi-reportorial, at least for Fassbinder. Especially in Maria Braun, he adopts an almost neo-realist aesthetic: he lets the actions lead the camera. It's at the service of his players' impulses and movements; it doesn't fix or "compose" them within the frame. Even the poised, empurpled glories of Lili Marleen do not prohibit fluent camera movement, as lush tracking-shots purr in the heroine's wake along the gold or marble corridors of Imperialism.
As hope dwindles, and the postwar moral clay hardens around Germany's feet, the style of the last two movies takes on a brilliant and tragic rigidity. Frozen tableaux create a land of despair, binding-contract hypocrisy, the dismal fettered romance of nostalgia. Schizophrenia is the soul's fixation locked into a reality from which it cannot escape by real movement, only by recourse to mental delusion. Fassbinder finds its cinematic correlative in a style that plunders from the lost baroque of old cinema – Douglas Sirk in Lola, Michael Curtiz in Veronika Voss – yet reworks that beauty and makes it howl with a present pain.
Lola, the third of the German quartet, seems to me the best of the four movies and Fassbinder's masterpiece. It's as concrete and built-to-last as an Ibsen play (with the writers of Maria Braun, Pea Frohlich and Peter Martesheimer, delivering a more organic, closer-knit screenplay this time), and it's directed by Fassbinder like a firework display of the soul.
Barbara Sukowa is Lola, a sultry, husky-voiced, small-town chanteuse with white-wedding aspirations. Fassbinder's vision of a sundered Germany – so suckled on hypocrisy that it's become a habit and even a kind of innocence – trills with chromatic intensity. It's as if the mind's workings have burst out onto the screen and the "mild" Expressionism of Lili Marleen has now taken on a strobe-lit fury.
Color filters rake the characters. They pick out nightclub Lola in mauves and pinks and raspberry-ripple reds. They bathe her off-duty lovelorn alter ego in rinsing lemons and virginal whites. They halo and blue-keylight her beloved, the honest building commissioner Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who brings a daft, Ibsenite uprightness to the nest of municipal corruption.
Lola is certainly the most sourly funny of Fassbinder's four films about Germany. The dialogue is a constant kick-around of sexual cynicism. "We go to bed early here," says the snooty wife of the corrupt building contractor Schuckert (who owns the nightclub-brothel and monopolizes Lola's favors). "That's so we don't get home late," chuckles Schuckert. And the few un-cynical townspeople in the movie are frozen into characters as stark, weird, and vivid as Jonsonian humors: Von Bohm's spinsterly secretary, gaunt in bird-wing hats and buck teeth; Rosel Zech (soon to be Fassbinder's Veronika Voss) as Frau Schuckert.
But the true novelty of the movie is the way the complex plots and supple heroines of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen have been strung into a surreal moment glacé, where everything is explosively compacted. The film is like a figurative action-painting. Splashes of color chronicle the drama.
When the decent, priggish Von Bohm falls in love with off-duty Lola, not knowing her nightclub other-self, he's suddenly, subtly garlanded with green motifs – Fassbinder's benediction of nature. He wears a green-brown suit to work; he's framed against the play-strewn, green-glowing, glassed-off corridor that lines one side of his office; he's brought flowers by his gooey secretary. And when he discovers Lola's dread secret, the colors flee from him in the shell-shock of ensuing scenes, and his office is snagged into stark, fierce geometric tropes and abstractions.
The message of Lola is lucid and brutal. If you are not a member of the cabal of hypocrisy that is the ruling class in postwar Germany, you are a freak, an outsider, an endangered species, a holy fool. Romance is fake, cosmetic. (Even the radiant sunshine of the church where Lola and Von Bohm court is subtly edged with the mauve of the nightclub. ) Idealism is doomed and parodied even as it gives voice. (Von Bohm's rebuilding conferences are held in a room with bomb-pockmarked walls amid cigar-smoke that's like the debris-dust after a blitz.) And hope for the future is enshrined in the youngest character, Lola's illegitimate daughter (by Schuckert), whose name harks back to the first film of the quartet: Mariechen, or Little Maria.
Veronika Voss takes us on into the promised hinterland of madness that is the only possible next stop after Lola. It features a heroine, ex-Ufa film star, frozen into rigid postures of schizophrenia, kept almost sane by the dubious ministrations of a private drug clinic; a knight-errant newspaper reporter (Hilmar Thate), whose delving into scandal shows that the quest for truth in postwar Germany is rewarded with hostility and obfuscation; and a visual style that combines heyday Warner Bros. black-and-white with the topsy-turvy baroque of Citizen Kane.
Austrian actress Rosei Zech gives her albino beauty and ghostly elegance to the main role, making Veronika look like Delphine Seyrig trapped in a life-sentence Marienbad of narcotic nostalgia.
"Light and dark, those are the two secrets of cinema, did you know that?" she says to the reporter, and Fassbinder defines the society with the aesthetic. It's no longer merely the all-over wounded pallor of Maria Braun, bled of bright colors; now it's a riven, two-tone society of wild public acclaim and spotlights on the one hand, dark private agony on the other.
The reporter sells his story's fascination to his editor with the words: "It's a tale of famous film stars; in the limelight yesterday, in the dark today." The famous film stars are Germany herself: raking her psyche for past greatness, scarred by past tragedies (though skillful cosmetic surgery disguises them), and self-anaesthetised so long against real emotion that it's a challenge now even to fake it. Confronting her big emotional scene in a comeback movie, Veronika has to be squirted with humiliating glycerin.
In using four different heroines to personify four different Germanys, Fassbinder worked the age-old convention of the damsel-in-distress – from Biblical Ruth amid the alien corn to Lana Turner agonistes in Sirk's films – for infinitely pliant variations. Is she victim or villain? Manipulator or manipulated? And if she is a persecuted beauty in bondage, might it not be that no one really wants to free her, that they prefer their country bound, blindfold, gagged, infinitely compliant? See no evil, hear no evil, allow all evil.
Non-Teuton heads may puzzle over why West German filmmakers, from Kluge to Schlondorff, as well as Fassbinder, have had such a field-day bad-mouthing their own country. Perhaps the evil of Nazism sunk its roots so deep that distrust of authority has never been exorcised since. Today, a political frontier cuts Germany clean in half. The result is that political schizophrenia has become a way of life, and dialectical ponderings on different but adjacent ideologies a way of thought.
But if this culture-climate helped form Fassbinder, it's worth stressing that his talent as a filmmaker did not lie in his prowess as a political commentator of Germany today (or on the Forties or Fifties). It lay in his extrapolation of personal fears and furies, loves and losses, tragedies and trials, conflicts of value and vision, catalyzed by a national history unequaled in this century for gruesome vitality and switchback evolution.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEPT-OCT 1982 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved