Beware a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heilige Nutte) R W Fassbinder (1971; FDR)

Beware a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heilige Nutte) R W Fassbinder (1971; FDR)

Beware a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heilige Nutte) R W Fassbinder (1971; FDR) Lou Castel, Hanna Schygulla, Eddie Constantine, R W Fassbinder.

viewed: BFI streaming 16 May 2021

An echo of Auschwitz

Fassbinder’s movie, ‘Beware a Holy Whore (BHW)’ was made in a year of frenzied film making. In 1971 five movies are credited to Fassbinder as writer/director, plus he had acting roles in four of them. And 1970 and 1972 were as busy as 1971. This is a director with something to say, but as in other films I’ve seen of his, his way of speaking is usually indirect. Contemporary film making is dominated by messaging movies, identity affirmation movies. They’re films targeted at audiences primed to hear particular messages or films designed to manipulate emotions in particular directions. Fassbinder doesn’t engage with this type of affirmationist intention.

Fassbinder’s films are grounded in that which is raw in human nature. Underneath the surface, whosoever you may be, whoever you are, whatever your sexuality, whatever your political/social beliefs, underneath are the raw drives of human nature. Bourgeois society, in particular German post war society, with its imperative need to cover up the monstrosities of the Fascist years, was a carefully manicured façade. An amnesiac society on autodrive contrived and designed if possible, to forget or at least cover up truth and replace it with a anodyne fantasial lie.  

Situation: Fassbinder often takes situations as the starting point for his scripts. Situations have a theatrical pedigree as places of beginnings where the writer can nurse the developmental vectors of ideas, giving the audience a route to follow into the scenario enabling the audience to start to think about things. In this Fassbinder carries within his scripts the dialectics of theatre of this time: Pinter, Durrenmatt, Sartre, Jellico . Create situations and let the psycho-social dynamic of the age play out. Allow the audience to assimilate the engine of the design and put their own readings on the material.

Fassbinder’s situation in ‘BHW’ is a film production, centred around the relations between the people involved in making a film on location in Spain. It is mostly set in the hotel where the caste and crew are holed up for the duration of the shoot. In many of Fassbinder’s films the presence of a Phantom Fuhrer seems integral to the manner in which he develops his scenarios. The old Diktator blew his brains out in the bunker of the Reich’s Chancellery. But for Fassbinder his spirit lives on in Germany, absorbing and permeating the social matrix. ‘BHW’ is divided in two parts: like the history of Germany from 1919 to 1945.   In the first section the film crew indulge in all manner of sybaritic indulgences, sensual, sexual, interpersonal, alcoholic. The film opens with a title card that reads: Pride comes before a Fall.   The motley crew are seen hanging around waiting for the director to turn up. They are aimless pursuing their own personal desire and need. The producer, Sasha (played by R W F) his ear screwed onto his phone tries to raise money for the enterprise. He keeps some sort of discipline but is mostly ineffectual. We are watching in analogy, a play out of the Weimar years, 1919 -1933.

But then the big Director Arrives.  Suddenly it’s 30th January 1933: Hitler becomes Reich’s Chancellor. The time of dissolution and sybaritic play is gone. Everything changes, the phantom Fuhrer is come and filming must commence. And at once his acts of violence, his vicious assaults on his wife to be rid of her, and his hysterical energy become the focus of the scenario.   His will is centre stage. The Pride of the Crew is ‘fallen’; they are beholden to the one man. Even if he is a maniac, bent on the destruction of the world. The crew and caste adapt to the ways of the director, becoming by the the way casually racist, regarding the Spanish as non German speaking Untermensch. And the strange morbid drive of the director unravels as he reveals conceptual outlines of his film: Murder – you have to understand what a murder really means as a physical act – it is a film against the brutality of the state, what else would you make films about? – the title of the film is ‘Patria and Death.’

At last we move into: ‘Real Film Making’.

Fassbinder ends ‘BHW’ with a referential quote from Thomas Mann: “I am weary to death of depicting human nature without partaking of human nature.”   In ‘BHW’ Fassbinder delivers human nature on picture and on sound. Mordantly underplaying the film are the Songs of Leonard Cohen. Mostly drawn from the eponymous 1968 album and seemingly edited randomly onto the sound track (if there was a sequential logic I didn’t get it), Cohen classics such as: Sisters of Mercy, So Long Marian, Suzanne, Master Song. It was probably important to Fassbinder that Cohen was a Jewish singer/songwriter. It’s an essential part of Fassbinder’s filmic counterpoising to use the Cohen tracks, with their intense lyrical humanism, to sardonically, ironically, offset the brutality of the represented Germanic Hitler culture. The tender side of human nature smashed up by brutality.  The German and Jew playing out an old story. Although the Cohen tracks are diegetic, often selected by the caste and crew from the hotel lounge juke box, no one ever looks like they are listening to the music. Perhaps that is also something of Fassbinder’s insight: in Germany and by extension fascist capitalism: they play the music but they don’t listen to it.

The effect of Fassbinder’s opposition of image and sound, German and Jew, in ‘BHW’ is disturbing even painful. I found it difficult to hold the two together. In the face of the action I wanted to disattend the powerful songs of Cohen with their assertion of the primacy of the human spirit. In confronting this strange combination (perhaps it is the key element of the ‘BHW’) I recalled the Sunday afternoon concerts of classical music given by the inmates of Birkenau death camp for the pleasure and delight of the SS Commandant and his wife.

The film works as an affect through the medium of the acting. Fassbinder could call on an ensemble of actors with whom he had both developed and worked over a period of years. ‘BHW’ is an ensemble piece where all the players understand their roles and are disciplined in a quasi Brechtian mode of representation. The part is always understood as subservient to the whole. The acting does not involve internalising emotions and relations, rather externalising them and representing them.  The object is not manipulation of audience rather to enable the audience to see relations.

And Beware a Holy Whore, as a title is I think Fassbinder’s admonition to the audience to look in askance at all that attracts by promising to satiate desire – including movies – a holy whore.

adrin neatrour

adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Star & Shadow

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