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Related Reading: The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays and Notes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.


Katzelmacher, 1969
[Cock-Master]

Brem/Ungerer/Mattes/Moland/Schygulla/HirschmullerAustere, fragmented, and minimalist, Katzelmacher captures the inert lives of a group of aimless, financially struggling apartment dwellers on an anonymous residential city street. The film opens to an implicit shot of one of the residents, Erich (Hans Hirschmüller), parked alongside a grocery store, biding idle time in his car as his lover Marie (Hanna Schygulla) closes shop for the evening. It is an insightful glimpse of interminable silence and existential waiting that defines the lives of the residents as they attempt to escape from the inertia of their daily existence through anonymous sexual encounters, alcohol consumption, rumor mongering and, on occasion, lapses of domestic violence. Erich's friend (and occasional, enabling accomplice to his ill-conceived, money-making schemes), Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem), continues to rendezvous with his possessive and literally clinging lover, Helga (Lilith Ungerer), despite her increasingly desperate attempts to pressure him into commitment and marriage. In another household, a stern and independent woman, Elizabeth (Irm Hermann), struggles to salvage her failing relationship with her abusive, indolent lodger, Peter (Peter Moland) who treats her contemptuously, but refuses to vacate the apartment. A young, aspiring actress, Rosy (Elga Sorbas), resorts to prostitution in order to make ends meet, and even exacts payment from her devoted lover, Franz (Harry Baer), who accedes to her financial demands with the unrealized hope of eliciting an affirmation of mutual affection from her. A bored and sexually frustrated neighbor, Gunda (Doris Mattes), waiting for her absent lover to return, occupies her time by indulging in idle gossip with other tenants in front of the apartment building - a familiar neighborhood routine that is disrupted when a reticent, inscrutable immigrant worker named Yorgos (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) becomes a lodger in Elizabeth's apartment.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder creates a spare, atypically muted, and relevant portrait of alienation, ennui, and xenophobia in Katzelmacher. The film was adapted from the first play written by Fassbinder - a companion feature to Jean-Marie Straub's reductive, ten minute stage adaptation of Ferdinand Bruckner's three-act play, Sickness of Youth (1926) for the underground Action Theater, a theater ensemble later re-organized as the Anti-Theater under Fassbinder's oversight. Profoundly influenced by the radicalism of Bertolt Brecht's epic theater, a creative ideology to deconstruct traditional stage convention and redefine dramatic arts as a medium for social change, Fassbinder distills the narrative into a disjunctive assembly of deliberately formalized, episodic long takes, primarily in medium shot, that retains observational distance and critical objectivity: the constant seating re-arrangement at a local bar as the neighbors play a card game; Rosy's dissociated musical performance; the incongruous introduction of piano accompaniment as people promenade down the street; the repeated incidents of unprovoked violence. By presenting the pervasive and insidious nature of estrangement and dispossession, Katzelmacher serves as a brutal and compelling reflection of socially tolerated inhumanity and marginalization.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Der Handler der vier Jahreszeiten, 1972
[The Merchant of Four Seasons]

Hirschmuller/Hermann Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) betrays few traces of his eroding morale as he lyrically announces his daily merchandise into the open air. He is an unassuming fruit vendor, diligently making his rounds through the residential streets, accompanied by his highly critical wife, Irmgard (Irm Hermann). After chastising him for hand delivering an order to an ex-lover (Ingrid Caven), Hans escapes her incessant complaints by abandoning his cart and going into a nearby bar. Soon, the sad ritual of his empty existence emerges: arguing with his wife, drinking excessively, lamenting lost personal and professional opportunities. One evening, an inebriated Hans returns home and becomes physically abusive, causing Irmgard to flee to his mother's house with their daughter (Andrea Schober). His mother (Gusti Kreissl) is a stern, unaffectionate woman who has never concealed her disappointment in Hans, and his recent violence only furthers her disdain. Only Hans' younger sister, Anna (Hanna Schygulla), attempts to expose the family's cruelty towards the equally wounded Hans, but to no avail. While attempting to convince Irmgard into returning home, Hans suffers a debilitating heart attack. Unable to perform the physical labor associated with his work, he employs Anzell (Karl Scheydt), a trustworthy man with whom, unknown to Hans, Irmgard had a brief affair during his hospitalization. Fearing exposure of her indiscretion, she manipulates Anzell into overpricing the produce, knowing that Hans will discover his deception. While dining with a friend (R.W. Fassbinder), Hans finds Harry (Klaus Lowitsch), a close friend who once saved his life in the Foreign Legion, waiting on tables, and immediately offers him a job. But as Harry's professionalism and dedication bring Hans' business venture into profitability and success, they also render Hans obsolete in his own life, leading him further into isolation and despair.

Using relative distance and exaggerated perspective, Rainer Werner Fassbinder conveys the gradual demoralization of the human soul in
The Merchant of Four Seasons. The opening scene shows Hans reciting the price of pears from an empty back alley, to the receptive ear of his ex-lover - the love of his life - who looks downward to him from her upper floor window to place an order. Hans is a short, stocky man, whose physical stature becomes even more pronounced against his tall, thin wife, prompting comments from his patrons. An earlier indiscretion which cost him a career as a police officer involves a submissive woman, and parallels a subsequent flashback involving his captivity in the Foreign Legion. In a long, continuous panning sequence showing a successful Hans having dinner with his family, Hans seems lost in the family's tirade over his past failures. In essence, everyone in Hans' life has always looked down upon him, and like his illness, he has never fully recovered. The Merchant of Four Seasons is a subtle, unsentimental, yet deeply moving portrait of the crushing of the spirit - the tragic failure, not of a man, but of his cruel, alienating environment.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Angst Essen Seele Auf, 1974
[Ali: Fear Eats the Soul]

ben SalemA middle-aged cleaning woman named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) takes refuge from the storm and walks into a local German bar, straight into the territorial gaze of its predominantly Arabic patrons. It is one of the few places in town where foreigners are openly welcomed, where the owner populates the jukebox with Arabic music and occasionally prepares couscous. In here, the tables are turned, and Emmi is the stranger. The owner goads her former lover, a handsome, young Moroccan mistakenly called Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) to dance with Emmi, and soon, they are kindred spirits, brought together by a mutual sense of profound loneliness. But if society were cruel to them as individuals, it grows more cruel and acerbic when they are together. The neighbors gossip incessantly about Emmi's "lodger", prompting the landlord to inquire about their living arrangements. A local grocer mocks Ali's speech and refuses to serve him until he can speak better German. Emmi's revelation of her new love to her family is initially met with derision, then contempt, resulting in the destruction of her television set. After a coworker encounters Ali in Emmi's apartment, Emmi is shunned by her cleaning team.

In his tragically abbreviated, self-destructive, yet remarkably prolific career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder often explored the lives of people who defy conformity and social convention. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder uses space and framing to reflect society's isolation of the atypical, interracial couple: the long, confined shot of the dance floor as Ali and Emmi dance to a gypsy tune; the cramped kitchen of Emmi's apartment; the framed shot through the doorway of an exclusive restaurant (ironically renowned for Hitler's patronage); the empty surrounding tables of an outdoor bistro, exaggerated by the distance of the staff from the sole patrons. Resisting formulaic melodrama in favor of social commentary, Fassbinder shows that even as the scrutinized couple learn to cope with unwanted public attention, societal pressures continue to "eat the souls" of Ali and Emmi, creating a fissure within their fragile relationship. Can such a union of lost souls survive? Hollywood seemingly manages to find a way. But in the real world of chosen ignorance and needless cruelty, the answer is never as simple.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Mutter Kusters Fahrt zum Himmel, 1975
[Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven]

Mira/MeierMother Kusters Goes to Heaven opens to an portentous shot of a mechanized, tedious activity, as Emma Kusters (Brigitte Mira) and her son Ernst (Armin Meier) assemble small electrical appliances in silence at the kitchen table: snapping the mechanism to the case, tightening the sunken screws, packing the completed assemblies into a cardboard box. It is this sense of quiet despair and dehumanization that will one day lead Emma's husband, Hermann Kusters, to a senseless act of murder and suicide at a chemical factory plant. The newspapers are quick to capitalize on the story, and the Kusters tragedy is soon turned into the eye-catching headline, "The Factory Murderer". Mother Kusters implores her estranged, emotionally distant daughter, a mediocre singer named Corinna Corinne (Ingrid Caven), to return home in order to grieve with her remaining family. But soon, it is clear that only Mother Kusters feels the weight of her incomprehensible loss. Ashamed of her father-in-law's actions, Helen (Irm Hermann) convinces her husband Ernst to continue with their plans to go away on holiday in Finland under the pretense of concern for their unborn child's health. Corinna Corinne immediately develops a relationship with an opportunistic photographer (Gottfried John) and uses the publicity of her father's notoriety as a means of increasing attendance at her singing engagement at a Frankfurt nightclub. Abandoned by her self-consumed family, Mother Kusters is welcomed into the home of the socially prominent and well connected Thaelmanns (Karlheinz Bohm and Margit Carstensen), who promise to uphold her cause and print a sympathetic story of her husband's struggle, and, in the process, subtly begin to use her vulnerability and idealism to recruit her into the Communist party.

Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven is a scathing, emotionally complex, and socially relevant portrait of urban alienation, exploitation, and sensationalist journalism. Rainer Werner Fassbinder illustrates the claustrophobic atmosphere of scrutiny as a reflection of the intrusive nature of the public's insatiable appetite for the entertainment value of human tragedy: the confined spaces of the Kusters' apartment, the omnipresence of reporters and photographers; the framed shots of the Thaelmann's apartment. Through Mother Kusters' selfless persistence to understand the reason behind her husband's inexplicable act of violence, and her idealistic effort to present a positive side to Hermann's tragically misunderstood life, Fassbinder creates a caustic indictment of the inherent media manipulation and political opportunism that consequently result from public scrutiny. Inevitably, this consuming public fascination becomes a self-destructive obsession that propagates its own compelling and inescapable tragedy.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, 1978
[In a Year of 13 Moons]

Spengler/ScheydtIn a Year of 13 Moons opens to a curious image of an enigmatic figure - made exaggeratedly imposing by the isolated shot of the lumbering, awkward gait of ill-fitting industrial boots - unassuredly cruising a near empty tree-lined Frankfurt plaza at daybreak before catching the attention of a male prostitute who indiscreetly follows the prospective client into an adjacent park clearing, initiates aggressive intimate contact and, upon discovering that his solicitor is, in fact, not a man but a woman dressed in masculine attire, summons his fellow co-workers to participate in her violent assault until she breaks free from the pack and runs away into the obscuring trees. The fragmented introductory sequence, alternately presented in distanced long shots and equally indistinguishable extreme close-ups, provides a remarkably incisive characterization of the victim, Elvira (Volker Spengler) who, having recently experienced a painful breakup with her live-in lover Christoph (Karl Scheydt), decided one day to don men's clothing in a feeble attempt to outwardly conceal the embarrassing situation of a lonely woman procuring anonymous sex in the early hours of the morning. It is a scenario that proves all too familiar to Elvira - a desperate soul constantly metamorphosing into the guise of another in an interminable search for love - having earlier led a seemingly mundane existence as a man named Erwin Weishaupt trapped in a passionless, yet convenient marriage to a teacher, Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar) and who, after an off-handed remark by the ambitious and seductive upstart, a Holocaust surviver from Bergen-Belsen named Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), impulsively decided to leave his job at the slaughterhouse and travel to Casablanca for a backroom transsexual operation in the illusory hopes of winning Saitz's aloof affection. With Saitz now a wealthy and politically connected industrialist, Irene confronts Elvira on the publication of a potentially chagrining magazine interview in which a candid Elvira recounts the sordid details of her unrequited relationship with the successful entrepreneur and urges her to meet with Saitz in order to offer a personal apology for the sake of their daughter Marie-Ann (Eva Mattes). Publicly humiliated, abandoned by her lover, and estranged from family, Elvira is pushed to the breaking point when she is forced to seek out and confront the elusive object of her bittersweet desire and tormenting past.

SpenglerFilmed in the aftermath of Fassbinder's estranged lover, Armin Meier's suicide (who is believed to have intentionally overdosed on sleeping pills on the filmmaker's birthday, but whose body was not discovered until a week later), In a Year of 13 Moons is a distilled, brutal, unrelenting, deeply personal, and emotionally honest exposition into the human existential quest for love, acceptance, spiritual passion, and inclusion. The film's recurring theme of impersonation and shedding of one's skin - depicted literally through the indelibly (and infamously unsettling) graphic assembly line sequence of cows being systematically bludgeoned, exsanguinated, flayed, and butchered at a slaughterhouse as Elvira recites a passage from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - is also illustrated in the protagonist's paradoxical attempts at gender re-identification, both as a woman (for Saitz and subsequently, Christoph) and as a man (for his family), in Elvira's ill-fated solicitation of a hustler, in Saintz's grotesque mimicry of Jerry Lewis' spasmodic performance in the Martin and Lewis film, You're Never Too Young, and is also alluded in Elvira's childhood when young Erwin, cast off by his biological mother into an orphanage with no prospects for adoption, seemingly sheds his obedient demeanor and becomes a troublesome delinquent. Fassbinder's familiar imagery of framing characters through rectangular passageways (particularly vestibules and doorways) that underscore their isolation is further magnified in the idiosyncratically hermetic image of Elvira traversing the corridor of a near vacant office building in search of Saintz that reinforces her profound, inescapable isolation, even in a place where inhabitants similarly seek escape from their misery through acts of self-destruction and voyeurism. It is this image of the "outsider among outsiders" - a theme similarly explored in Fassbinder's earlier film Fox and His Friends - that invariably underpins the desperate, inarticulable tragedy of the film: the systematic disembodiment of humanity and suppression of personal identity in the desolate reality of primal survival, pleasure seeking, material gain, and unthinking conformity.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1979
[The Marriage of Maria Braun]

SchygullaMaria Braun's wedding day was anything but ordinary: a whirlwind two-week courtship, followed by a hurried marriage ceremony at the justice of the peace amid heavy Allied bombing during the final phase of World War II. Despite their union of "half a day and a whole night", their marriage is not a transient consequence of war. Hermann Braun (Klaus Lowitsch) is the true love of Maria's (Hanna Schygulla) life. She patrols the train station wearing a sign with a picture of Hermann in hopes of obtaining information, accompanied by her sister, Betti (Elisabeth Trissenaar), who is also waiting for news on her own husband, Willi (Gottfried John). Not content with passively waiting for Hermann's return, she takes a job at an underground bar for American soldiers in order to make ends meet. One day, her brother-in-law, Willi, returns home, alone, with news of Hermann's death. Distraught, she returns to the bar and asks a shy, kind hearted soldier named Bill (George Byrd) to dance with her. Soon, Bill is hopelessly in love with her: providing for her, teaching her English, and proposing marriage. One day, Hermann unexpectedly turns up at the door during the lovers' rendezvous. A momentary struggle results in Bill's accidental death, and Hermann protects Maria by accepting responsibility. Vowing to create a good home life for Hermann when he is eventually paroled, Maria accepts an offer from a textile industrialist, Oswald (Ivan Desny), as an English translator and personal assistant. But Maria is an extremely resourceful and calculating woman. Preying on Oswald's loneliness and attraction to her, Maria initiates an affair with him, increasing her influence within the company. Can Maria's marriage survive under her prolonged separation from Hermann, or collapse under the weight of her increasing materialism and quest for power?

Rainer Werner Fassbinder creates a darkly comic and scathing portrait of Germany's revitalization program in The Marriage of Maria Braun. A cultural shift has occurred in the aftermath of the war, and government mandates cannot repair the damage to the human soul. There is a pervasive sense of desperation in the German people: a man stealing planks from a rotting fence, women from good homes selling themselves, an overworked doctor feeding a chemical addiction. Even Maria's corporate success is a consequence of a figurative act of prostitution. Episodically, despite her increasing wealth, Maria prefers to return to a demolished, abandoned building surrounded by faint sounds of reconstruction, emphasizing the country's incomplete recovery from the war. Hermann's indefinite prison term seems to vary with the prevailing political tide, reflecting the government's own uncertainty over its agenda. In essence, The Marriage of Maria Braun is not about an enduring love, but rather, the idea that true love has no place in an exploitative and emotionally detached world of materialism and economic struggle.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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