Reflections on Fassbinder Season at the Star and Shadow April 09
Fear Eats the Soul; Fox and his Friends; Chinese Roulette; The Marriage of Maria Braun
Tickets for screenings priced at £4-00
Fassbinder and The Phantom Fuhrer
Germany has a long tradition of the myth of the sleeping Emperor. The archetypes are Charlemagne and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa whom tradition held did not die but rather sleeps beneath the Kyffhaeuser Mountain awaiting the Fatherland’s call in time of need.
To see a season of films by a director opens the viewer up to the substance of their ideas and the means they employ to express their concerns. Seeing three of the four Fassbinder (RF) films shown at the Star and Shadow shows how he starts from a situation that he shapes into a proposition, a theorem. The situation is Deutschland.
RF is not the only film maker whose work revolves about this cultural point. The Straubs (Not Reconciled for instance) also have a driving concern with Germany, but for RF the situation of Germany is the pivot on which his work is balanced and levered. The situation that RF sees is summed up in the opening and closing shots of the Marriage of Maria Braun (MMB) The opening shot of movie is of Adolf Hitler, the official touched up photo-portrait that hung in all the registry offices of Der Drittes Reich; the last shots of the movie comprise a series of photos of post war West German Chancellors, and the last photo we see is that of Helmut Schmidt. From Hitler to Schmidt. RF has lead us on a journey from Hitler to Schmidt. But is the journey and its meaning a little more complex than this?
RF is dealing with the psychic forces behind the collective amnesia of his country. This is a people who for ten years were complicit in mass murder, who supported a regime based on terror and genocide. People with blood on their hands. But suddenly after the war with a wave of an American wand they are transformed into good industrious folk, a bulwark of Western-American democracy. All is not just forgiven, it is forgotten. And of course not talked about. The political needs of the West dictated that as per the secret pact at Yalta, Germany be restored to full statehood in the Western sphere of influence, complete with the trappings of democracy to oppose the Eastern hegemony of the USSR. Germany never was allowed the chance to engage and confront its own past. It was sanitised and pushed back into the front line of the cold war kitted out as a key ally of the USA. Germany never had the time to reconcile with its history.
For Fassbinder the inherent tragedy consisted in precisely this: that with the imported capitalist ideology from the USA Germany was given the means to distance disengage and to untangle itself from its past. Germany was bought with a pair of nylon stockings as the USA with the Marshall plan provided the means and policies to transform Germany, at break neck speed, into a capitalist consumer society. At the drop of a hat, its industries, Siemens, BASF, Krupp and many others, which had used slave labour were revived and supported, and millions of apparatniks who had made the Nazi war society work, were reinstated with past wiped clean. Germany never had a chance to find its own way. It was handed back to those who had betrayed it to Hitler and Nazism to feed their greed for power; their appetites would be swelled and their greed would now be assuaged in the coin of the consumer. All forgiven all forgotten. A rotten amoral pact against which Fassbender opposed all of his work.
The more I look at Fassbinders films and the three I viewed were: Fox and his Friends, Chinese Roulette and the Marriage of Maria Braun the more they present themselves as allegories, moral fables with a political point.
Consider the MMB. Hanna Schygulla plays Maria, and struts through the film with a series of hairstyles and beautiful elegant costumes that command the frame. The rate at which Maria switches clothes is almost bewildering. Why? Because Maria Braun is in fact Eva Braun, Hitler’s loyal wife and mistress
The reasons for equating Maria with Eva are cogently present in the film.
The first obvious indicator is that both women share the same name: Braun. That RF should endow his protagonist with the eponymous name of Hitler’s mistress without intending to make this point, is hard to believe. Eva like Maria was married to her husband for only one day and both men are seen for the last time on the day of their wedding. In the opening sequence of MMB Maria’s marriage to Herman is interrupted by the shelling or bombing which destroys the registry office, which situation faithfully replicates the conditions of Eva’s marriage to Adolf characterised by the Russian shelling of the bunker. Eva, like Maria was a one man gal, and both women have a loyalty to their Fuhrer that overrides all other considerations, rational or irrational. Loyal to the grave as they say. They have total belief in their Man, the more so when he is not there for them, allowing them to project an idealised form of His being. Physically Hanna Schygulla who plays Maria certainly resembles Eva Braun whom contemporaries remarked for her huge wardrobe of stylish clothes and her stunning peroxide blond hair that Hitler adored.
I think that MMB is an account of what would have happened to Eva Braun had she survived the Berlin bunker. Maria Braun is a projected future of Eva. Thus conceived the film can be understood as a savage satire on the idea of a Germany that continues to wait for the return of its Fuhrer even when conditions had so changed as to make the prospect of his return a farce. The country remains psychically married to Adolf. MMB filmically is expressed in a naturalistic theatrical form, this form in fact conceals a simple and stylised allegory. In a country characterised by its forgetting Maria/Eva can flourish in a system where an evil ideology has been simply replaced and supplanted by a greed driven capitalistic reward system. The essential congruity of the two superseding systems allows Maria/Eva as everywoman (supported by everyman) to remain true to the Fuhrer – as projection of aspiration. The commitment of Western Germany all through the economic miracle stays true to their architect of hate.
RF in the films that I saw presented at the Star and Shadow is in essence a film maker who works through allegory and the satire that the allegorical form allows.
Chinese Roulette is most obviously an allegorical conceit in which a ‘respectable’ upper middle class couple called the ‘Chirsts’ give birth to a crippled girl child ‘Angela’ who terrorises them. Both the Christs are having affairs and the film’s principle location is an isolated chateau where all the players the Christs their child her carer and their lovers are transposed, under the controlling scrutiny of a dominating concierge/owner and her son. Germany conceived as a psychic prison where there are only questions no one dares pose and questions no one can answer.
A film that works through stylised playing and camera work that nurtures the ideas of intrusive observation alienation and the passage of time.
Fox and His Friends (FHF) like MMB presents in form as a naturalistically composed film but also is an allegory of corruption. Set against the backdrop of the homosexual world Fox is both seduced and traduced by the ethos of materialism which has come to replace fascism as the controlling psychic conforming agent. The principle RF satirises is that in his contemporary Germany the ability to think for oneself is replaced by the automatic adoption of a state of mind that conforms to the current controlling social ethos. In Das Drittes Reich conformity to belief in the Fatherland, the Fuhrer Principle, the Ayrian Racial Superiority was the mechanically adopted mind set and belief system of all who wanted to progress themselves. In FHF it is the dictates of consumerist capitalism that controls the world Fox wishes to be a part of and to which he surrenders himself and which of course eventually destroys him. That FHF is located in the gay world is an expedient that enables RF to make the point of inclusivity, but is not central to the theorem of spiritual corruption.
RF is of course a marvellously fluent filmmaker. His signature cinematic devices involve the use of conceals and reveals, mirrors reflections and tracking shots that are artfully adapted to the allegorical form of these films. The tracks allow different perspectives of the same scene, a deepening of focus and the forces at work, as in the final circular track in CR incorporating movement refraction and reflection. For a film maker working with a double time perspective, mirrors are a central motif. The power of the mirror to suggest time transposed and time distorted, represented by shifts between virtual and actual image. The nature of reflection and refraction to dislocate and shift what we see into a zone ambiguity so that we are uncertain as to how we are seeing and what we are looking at. The power of the mirror to ask what is it that we see and by extension for us to ask of other subjects, what is it they see when they look in the mirror: projection phantom or person? The achievement of RF is that at his best he takes these elemental inputs of cinematography and incorporates them into the fabric of his movies in a unification of content and visual style.
The problem I think RF fails to overcome is the limitations of the allegorical form. Allegory is a unitary figure both in film and literature, a figure that is not easily diversified. In allegory characters tend to be ciphers of the motif. and their role is to do as they are morally bid, not to develop lives of their own. And allegory does not allow rival claims to be made upon her expressive form. Hence there are no subplots or diversions from the unravelling of allegory’s theorem. The three films discussed here all at certain stages ran out of ‘steam’. The allegorical material is exhausted. At which point the films should end, but each of the films had to continue to fill out their logical narrative conclusions. Chinese Roulette has made its point before they play the actual game which exists primarily to caste the question to the swine: “ Which of the top officials in the Third Reich would you have been?” FHF becomes highly repetitive without the corresponding inventiveness of a Voltaire to sustain it. MMB runs out of ideas in the relationship between capitalist Oswald and Maria./Eva.
However Fassbinder in his unswerving moral message and his sublime capacity to create the shots and the scenarios to fulfil this vision is one of the key filmmakers of the twentieth century.