Beware of a Holy Whore
Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte
1971 — 103 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Comedy / Drama
Essential Fassbinder. This autobiographical satire is one of the most probing and hilarious films about filmmaking, and a pivotal work in Fassbinder's career.
Don't let the tongue-in-cheek title, which refers to cinema, deter you. Beware of a Holy Whore is not only one of the most insightful and hilarious films about filmmaking, it is also a landmark in Fassbinder's career, looking back to his brilliantly abstract early films and ahead to his unique melodramas. And it is a probing, multi-layered view of human experience of frustration, brutality, and especially love seen through the unlikely but fascinating metaphor of a stranded movie crew. Shortly before his death Fassbinder made a list of "The Top 10 of My Own Films," and he considered this his best picture.
Beware of a Holy Whore is a knowing satire part screwball comedy, part existential pseudo-documentary about the experiences of a primarily German film crew and cast stuck in a seaside hotel in Spain, waiting for money to come through to finish shooting. But that is only one of their problems. The star, Eddie Constantine (playing himself), thinks his part is too brutal especially since he is having an affair with the lead actress, Hanna (Hanna Schygulla); the director hasn't shown up yet; and it seems that everyone is sleeping or at least trying to sleep with everyone else, regardless of gender. When the tyrannical director Jeff (Lou Castel) finally swoops down in a helicopter, he immediately makes life a living hell for his producer Manfred (Karl Scheydt) who's in love with him, his harried production manager Sascha (Fassbinder), his fling Babs (Maragrethe von Trotta) who happens to be Sascha's girlfriend, his ballistic ex named Irm (Magdalena Montezuma) who has convinced herself that she would "bear his children," and especially his off-again, on-again boyfriend Ricky (Marquard Bohm). Not to mention everybody else. Yet we also see Jeff's passion for filmmaking, such as the spellbinding scene in which he tells the cinematographer Mike (Gianni Di Luigi) exactly what he wants in a complicated shot and why. As the pressure and unpaid bills mounts, the cast and crew's petty bickerings escalate into shouting matches, a staggering number of Cuba Libres are downed (followed by smashing the glasses), and everyone tries to devise ingenious, albeit desperate, ploys to make it through this crazy production... which may or may not ever wrap.
Not only is this Fassbinder's most achingly funny comedy, it is also one of the most probing, wickedly satirical, yet celebratory films about filmmaking. Although some people will disagree, for me it ranks with such classics of this rarefied genre as Godard's Contempt and Fellini's 8 1/2 (both 1963), and it seems even more illuminating, and entertaining, than Truffaut's wonderful Day for Night (1973). Fassbinder's film is based on his traumatic recent experiences on location in Spain making the bizarre, but fascinating, Whity, which I call his 'sauerkraut' (as opposed to 'spaghetti') Western. But there is much more of interest in this "holy whore," beginning with its many autobiographical layers. Fassbinder not only appears in a crucial supporting role, as the harried production manager Sascha (dressed in a pure white suit but with a black shirt, which playfully suggests the dichotomy of the film's title), he also parodies himself wickedly through the central character of the megalomaniacal director, Jeff (who sports Fassbinder's trademark black leather jacket, but has the features of a blond-haired Nordic model quite different from the distinctive looks of his prototype).
Fassbinder was an extraordinary artist, but he was also a great showman on both sides of the camera. People who come to this film hoping for a peek into Fassbinder's tumultuous private life will not be disappointed; but the film offers much more than self-satire, as we will see. Although most of his films were compassionate studies of outcasts and loners, Fassbinder cultivated a controversial, even notorious, public persona. As a filmmaker, he was often accused even by friends and lovers of being demanding and almost impossible to work with; yet most faithfully continued with him on film after film. He was also proudly and defiantly gay, an artist, a leftist, and an intellectual (of the non-pedantic sort) in a society which rarely prized those qualities; and he did not hide the fact that he enjoyed living on the edge, and that included alcohol, drugs, and some tempestuous affairs all of which was lapped up by the tabloid press. But as titillating as those aspects of his life may be to some, Fassbinder emerges, through his works, as a fantasticallly complex individual. All of those qualities can see in Beware of a Holy Whore, whose tongue-in-cheek title both threatens and teases us into Fassbinder's world.
By creating this uniquely satirical picture, Fassbinder reveals more about the fraught filmmaking process not to mention himself, and even modern life than any documentary could. Here he has the freedom to play with levels of abstraction, not to mention degrees of passion, which would be impossible in a typically guarded behind-the-scenes "featurette." And although some people might think it arrogantly premature for a 25-year-old filmmaker to make so reflexive a film, it comes off much better than, say, the young Spielberg's ill-conceived comedy 1941 (which extensively quoted and parodied the only three or four theatrical features he had then made). Fassbinder had already created ten unique films, as well as over a dozen theatrical productions, of which at least half are truly prodigious achievements. He rethinks images and themes from many of those pictures, from the obvious connection to his previous film, Whity (the immediate inspiration for this film), to Jeff's fleeting pipe dream shared with Babs of running away to Peru (a direct reference to Rio das Mortes, and an indirect one to the poignant desert island monologue which Franz Walsch shares with his male and female partners in Gods of the Plague), to several motifs drawn from the fascinating trilogy of revisionist films noir: Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier. Aside from several minimalist compositions shared between this film and the trilogy, Karl Scheydt, who here plays the producer Manfred, is dressed exactly the same as his lead role in The American Soldier, down to the trenchcoat and hat (and which we here get to see in color). [In the frame to the right, note the film noir-like lighting and shadows, which connect with his trilogy]
Much more than a sly restrospective, this film marks the major transitional point in Fassbinder's filmography. His earlier works using techniques which he developed in his theatre pieces reveal a more external perspective and display emotional detachment, as expressed through deliberate rhythms, a shallow visual field, and people grouping themselves into painterly tableaux; while the later films partly inspired by Douglas Sirk's cinematic melodramas are more subjective in their embracing of overt emotion, as exemplified by greater variations in pacing, use of a deeper visual space, saturated color, and more traditionally "realistic" staging. This film has elements of both, although the former still predominate. The final quarter of Beware of a Holy Whore shows Fassbinder's increasing mastery of narrative form, in his ingenious and evocative use of ellision, with scenes sometimes radically compressed or even dropped; although those "missing" scenes are as clear as the ones we see, since Fassbinder has drawn us so completely into his world that we fill in the gaps with our own imaginations. By contrast, Fassbinder's next film, The Merchant of Four Seasons which marked his international breakthrough with both critics and audiences moves towards his later style. Let me add that I believe that the best of Fassbinder's early films are as accomplished and superb, in their own way, as the finest of his later works; and if you look at Fassbinder's own list of his 10 best films, you will see that he drew it equally from all periods of his career. As he once said, he "wanted to build a house with my films;" the early films lay the solid, and often inspired, foundation.
Beware of a Holy Whore also shows Fassbinder's evolving use of music to counterpoint, rather than simply to amplify as in most movies, the emotions of a scene. He deploys a fabulously eclectic soundtrack which extends from the plaintive original score by his regular collaborator, the great Peer Raben, to a wide range of popular songs Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne", "So Long, Marianne", "Master Song", "Sisters of Mercy"), Ray Charles ("Let's Go Get Stoned"), Elvis Presley ("Santa Lucia") and Spooky Tooth ("I've Got Enough Heartaches," "Hangman Hang My Shell on a Tree"), to a haunting Donizetti aria.
Fassbinder's use of music connects with his precise use of rhythm, both within scenes and in the overall flow of the film. He edited virtually all of his films (often under the pseudonym of his small-time gangster character "Franz Walsch" or without taking credit) which gave him exceptional control of pacing. One of his favorite techniques as we can see throughout this film was to slow a scene, especially one with passionate but unspoken emotion, to a painfully slow crawl, forcing us to pull away from the non-action even as we engage on a deeper level with the characters.
Beware of a Holy Whore also contains some of the most beautiful, subtle and complex visual design and camera movement of any of his films up to that point. The art direction was by Kurt Raab and the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (for the past twenty years he has shot almost all of Scorsese's pictures), whom Fassbinder once called two of his "essential collaborators" (here are their full credits with him). The film sports a warm palette of yellow, pink, and pale blue, and the hotel, although a bit rundown, is in a gorgeous seaside location (which might bring to mind the connection with water in so many other films about filmmaking, including Contempt (Capri), 8 1/2 (the spa), Day for Night (the French Riviera), and perhaps Minnelli's 1962 picture, Two Weeks in Another Town). But those inviting elements are in striking contrast to the intensely claustrophobic feel achieved by Fassbinder and Ballhaus through carefully-framed compositions, a few well-chosen zooms (which are simultaneously involving and distancing), and sporadic camera movement. To further emphasize that quality, Fassbinder makes extensive use of the lobby, which comes to feel almost like a prison yard with its bar-like columns. During one of the most breathtaking shots in the film, the camera does a 360 degree pan around that sprawling, yet empty and confining, lobby like an image out of Edward Hopper exposing the passed-out or zonked-out cast and crew aimlessly killing time. The shot is both liberating, in its gracefully circular movement, and constricting, as it hermetically seals the characters in a space reminiscent of the one in Sartre's hellish play, No Exit. (It also looks ahead to Fassbinder and Ballhaus's extraordinarily resonant use of camera movement in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.)
That visual sense of trapped-ness intensifies the almost incestuous nature of this overly tight-knit group, who are hundreds of miles from home, frustrated in a myriad of ways, and all stewing together in what feels like a giant pressure cooker. But in addition to all of the angst, Fassbinder also mines a rich, sometimes sardonic, vein of humor. With the exception of his wicked farce Satan's Brew (which is his other great self-satire), this is his most hilarious picture.
The comedy runs the gamut from playful to horrific, often with a nod to earlier films. For instance, when Jeff makes his long-awaited, and grand, entrance by helicopter, Fassbinder reminds us of Hitler's arrival by air in Triumph of the Will, but with more than a dash of La Dolce Vita. Examples of the film's most trenchant laughs bring to mind such pitch black comedies about filmmaking as Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950), even as they look ahead to Altman's The Player (1992). But this film is pure Fassbinder.
He draws the humor from many other sources. In the lobby, the huge painting of the two cocks fighting is a constant reminder of the characters' and our own belligerent, and sometimes bestial not to mention flighty, natures. In addition to the wittily vast range of background music, in the pivotal role of Ricky Fassbinder cast Marquard Bohm, who bears a strong resemblance to that Rolling Stone extraordinaire, Mick Jagger (whose off-stage exploits were then even more sensationalistic than Fassbinder's). Although I'm not sure how many in-jokes whiz over my head, it seems likely that Fassbinder always strapped for financing (and whose killing pace of production, with three or four features each year, was necessary to keep the government subsidies coming in) took special delight in making the film within this film cost DEM "500,000", since that was less than half of Beware of a Holy Whore's actual budget. But most of the laughs come from our realization that although these are all crazy movie people, they bear an uncomfortably close similarity to us "civilians." Sometimes the humor is subtle, as when we see Linda the interpreter in a liplock with a guy for hours (Fassbinder keeps them in the background of several shots, so that you feel their presence rather than focus on it); other times it is broad, as with the running gag of almost everyone drinking gallons of Cuba Libres, then smashing their glasses helter skelter. Fassbinder also manages to inject a shrewd bit of social commentary: The abusively-treated, silent Spanish waiter silently sweeps up the crew's dangerous mess, yet he has more dignity than any of them.
All of that smashing points to some of the film's darker recesses. Yes, the shattered glasses joke is very funny, especially in its repetitiveness; it even works as a form of dramatic/comic punctuation throughout the entire picture. But it also indicates the range of frustrations which the characters feel. Although two of the women crew members, early on, remark that "This place is crawling with gays," sexuality and human interaction takes on almost every conceivable form in this picture, as almost everyone tries to hook up with someone who does not want them.
A classic example of what makes Fassbinder unique in his complex merging of humor, violence, and pathos is the scene in which Irm (with Magdalena Montezuma not only taking the type of role always played by Irm Hermann in Fassbinder's other films, but even taking her name) accosts Jeff. Although he recently had a fling with her, and is now again back with Ricky, she has convinced herself that their relationship was serious; as she cries out, "He wanted me to bear his children." At first this is very funny, because we know what a cad Jeff is, and Irm wears her lack of self-awareness, along with her heart, on her sleeve (and perhaps we have even been in a lovelorn situation like this ourselves). But after she calls Jeff a "swine" which of course is what he deserves we are shocked when he slaps her repeatedly. No argument, no reply, just CRACK! You will likely hear several people in the audience laugh (or perhaps even part of yourself, if you watch the film alone) as they do in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones, confronted by a hulking villain displaying his graceful but lethal sword-wielding skills, takes out his pistol and just shoots the guy (which always gets a huge chuckle for this unexpected, and liberating, twist). But there is also shock, perhaps even horror, at this brutality. The tangled nature of our response is exactly what Fassbinder wants both here and in his other films in his desire for us to confront the complexity both of the situation onscreen and of our own emotions. Of course, that is a lot of thematic weight for this moment to bear, yet it does; although while watching the film, for the first time, we probably intuit this density of emotions and ideas rather than verbalize them.
Fassbinder goes still further, and gives Irm (with her curly hair and red dress she ironically resembles plucky Little Orphan Annie as much as Irm Hermann) one of the most poignant albeit self-pitying moments in the film when later he holds on her in a motorboat, moving ever farther away from the hotel she is one of the few characters who ever gets out while under he plays Maria Callas (I believe) singing a haunting, gorgeous Donizetti aria. (It is worth nothing that there are some other significant "slaps" later on one of which is directed at Jeff; although I do not want to give them away here, I encourage you to consider their impact pun intended on the characters and themes.)
Although for some viewers this film is primarily a comedy, it is, more precisely, a multi-layered comedy about violence. When one of the on-set photographers asks Jeff what type of movie he is shooting, he replies, "It's a film about brutality. What else would one make a film about?" Of course, its title is a dead giveaway: Patria O Muerte, literally, "Motherland or Death" (that arch reference to nationalism would have special meaning for Fassbinder, who was fully aware of his country's recent past). And it comes as no surprise when Jeff tells Deiters and Korbinian, "If I can't smash something, I might as well be dead." As in so many of his films, Fassbinder locates the sources of violence in a tangled web of areas, from the socioeconomic to the personal. In a cuddly scene between the two leads in the film within the film, both playing "themselves," Hanna Schygulla insightfully tells Eddie Constantine, regarding Jeff, that "Society has made him dead somehow. He can't react from within anymore." (In a playful touch, Fassbinder has him respond, "Don't talk so much," as he continues putting the moves on her.) Jeff shows his own political slant when he explains his take on Constantine's signature character, detective Lemmy Caution. (Constantine played the role in eleven movies, from 1953 till 1991; the most famous of which is also the most atypical: Godard's revisionst 1965 science fiction (!) film, Alphaville, a Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution.) As Jeff says, "Lemmy Caution was always such a gentleman, so noble. What I want to show here is the guy at the height of power. Brutal, cold-blooded, capitalistic, rational, cold as ice. I don't want to show a grain of sympthy for people who act in the name of some fascist government."
Fassbinder shows the diverse uses to which politics can be put in the scene where David, the assistant director, tries to pick up a young man by showering him with socialist glosses on his underprivileged life (the same actor played the sassy gay kid in Gods of the Plague's roulette scene); David with a combination of sincerity, horniness, and unconscious patronization says, "people like you, who didn't get so many chances." That brief scene also reminds us as do so many elements throughout of the central importance of sex in this film, not to mention in all comedies. Sexuality, in its many forms, takes on great thematic weight and undeniable entertainment value in this picture, but same-sex, primarily male bisexual, experience receives the greatest attention. Ironically, the openly-gay Fassbinder plays almost the only exclusively heterosexual male; the others are more torn over the objects of their desires. And the tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship of Jeff and Ricky is the tortured heart of the film. Structurally, that is no mean feat, since this film unlike any of his earlier films has over a dozen major characters (it looks ahead to such superb ensemble films as Altman's 1975 opus, Nashville), and boasts one of Fassbinder's best casts.
Gay and bisexual experience in this picture is fully integrated into full canvas of human, if not always humane, sexuality. This is in contrast to that handful of films in which Fassbinder focused on same-sex relationships: the lesbian and bisexual women in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a transsexual in In a Year of 13 Moons, and the gay men in Fox and His Friends (in which he starred) and Querelle. Of course, many of his films include same-sex experience in the magins, whether it is actually crucial (as in Love is Colder Than Death, where the action arguably hinges on the unspoken desire of the two male leads, played by Fassbinder and Lommel) or more peripheral (for instance, in Chinese Roulette there is the sexually ambiguous philosopher cum handyman, Gabriel; and the silent governess, Traunitz, and even her machiavellian charge, Angela, are possibly lesbian or bisexual). In Beware of a Holy Whore, Fassbinder has the relative freedom of exploring same-sex relationships in the insular world of moviemaking; although on another level the characters and we all know that this is not how things are outside of these confines.
Even with the integration of bi and gay characters here, Fassbinder sees as much potential danger in same-sex relationships as in opposite-sex ones; call him an equal-time pessimist. The source of the problems are the same: Jockeying for power, a society which worships only the powerful, basic human needs for love and respect, the frustration of those needs, all topped off with a lack of self-awareness. Look at the tangled relationship of Ricky, Jeff, Sascha and his girlfriend Babs (this quartet is enough for illustrative purposes now, but it could easiliy be extended to include others). Fassbinder brings together both autobiographical and political elements in the droll scene in which Jeff asks Sascha to get an extra (Ingrid Caven, who was briefly married to Fassbinder) to sleep with Ricky to "loosen him up." But the temporarily principled Sascha says he can't "because the woman is married;" yet later, Jeff has a fling with Babs (which veers from idyllic to slap happy, and which devastates Sascha), but winds up in a more complicated than ever relationship with Ricky, who keeps talking about "going home to my wife." Power, needs, frustration, and utter hilarious but poigant cluelessness.
Fassbinder presents several character surprises, including the fact that the producer Manfred is gay. After Jeff tries, and fails, to make Ricky jealous by flirting with women, Manfred sees through Ricky's bravado (he tells people that he only sleeps with Jeff "for the money"). The producer tells Jeff, "I was with a guy like that for two years. Only later did I realize that he must have suffered like a stuck pig." Jeff shrugs, "What's that supposed to mean?" Unless we think that Manfred is the film's late-blooming source of wisdom, he later tells Jeff in a line which again connects the violence and sexuality themes that "Sometimes I could kill you. Sometimes I could tear the clothes off you." Some people never learn... even if they are cartoon characters....
That brings us to the bizarre monologue which opens the film; and whose depiction of a sexually-confused Goofy would send shivers down the spines of Disney executives. It is delivered in classic deadpan by the mysterious photographer Deiters (played by Fassbinder's openly-gay friend, avant-garde filmmaker Werner Schroeter). Since some people are understandably mystified by this surreal spiel, allow me suggest how it connects to the entire film. In the tale, Goofy (everyone's favorite cartoon dog, but here in drag), tries to teach kindergarten. But the little brats, freaked out by his "queer" cross-dressing (that the teacher is a dog passes without comment), beat him. He then meets Wee Willy, a gangster who is "the size of a 3-year-old," whom he mistakes for "a little girl." Goofy takes the diminutive crook home and stuffs him with food. Wee Willy behaves abusively but Goofy is so happy to have "a child to care for" that he blithely ignores being battered. Then the police break in and arrest Wee Willy, 'outing' him to Goofy as a mobster. But poor Goofy refuses to understand; he was so happy living in his fantasy of pseudo-parental love: The end. In the context detailed above, this cryptic monologue now reveals itself as a succinct emblem of the film's major themes of longing, violence and self-blindness; the tiny stature of Wee Willy (how apt for a diminished era) and the "bestial" nature of Goofy even add two droll twists.
In contrast to this absurdist cartoon vision of "male bonding," there is the superficially understated but profoundly intense relationship of Jeff and Ricky. Fassbinder employs a natural, matter-of-fact tone in the two men's scenes together, whether they are discussing logistics on set or lie naked together in bed. This would have been a revelation in 1971, when gay characters were still either invisible or stereotyped as hand-wringing closet cases or flaming grotesques (Kurt Raab's performance in this film, as the prissy Fred, is a brilliant satire on those stereotypes). But as with all of his films, we must read between the frames to understand the full nature of Jeff and Ricky's relationship. In the most dramatically abstract moments in the film Ricky when alone in his car, and Jeff in the final seconds of the film both utter exactly the same chilling line but in reference to the other man: "I guess I won't be content until I know he's been completely destroyed." This uncanny, yet thematically incisive, parallel indicates the extent to which human relationships can become so entangled that they corrode the person. And yet, Fassbinder does begin the line, for each of them, with the qualifier, "I guess..." that may be all the hope we have for the possibility not-unhappy ending.
Fassbinder focuses on these gay/bisexual characters, but the scope of his vision is universal. He understands the cruel power plays, and blindness, of people seemingly in love because he took part in those games himself, both with his lovers and with his actors and crew. Fassbinder admitted that he was capable of oppressing the people close to him, yet at the same time he showed enormous compassion in his life and work for both victims and victimisers; he understood that the same person could play both roles. Awareness of his own complex, tortured personality is the source of his art. His work existed simultaneously as an intensely personal catharsis and as a comprehensive vision, albeit dark and unsettling, of human experience. It is no coincidence that Fassbinder based some of his most profoundly disturbing characters such as Jeff here and the would-be poet Walter in Satan's Brew on himself. But he also realized that exploitation is a two-way street, and it is a telling comment on human nature, not to mention society, how easily Jeff and Walter find disciples; in fact, Satan's Brew is Fassbinder's most scathing indictment of the connections between the cult of personality, even when headed by an "artist," the self-absement of those who are so willingly led, and fascism. (How ironic that the arch-oppressor Jeff tells Eddie Constantine, as quoted above, that "I don't want to show a grain of sympthy for people who act in the name of some fascist government.")
Fassbinder's acute self-awareness also reflects the crucial theme of voyeurism in this film, and so many of his others, as well as in the experience of filmwatching itself. The key figure representing voyeurism is Korbinian (played by Ulli Lommel). Although married (we never see his wife), he pines over Jeff like a lovesick schoolboy, saying, "You can treat me however you like, because what you do as an artist has quality." But Jeff isn't biting; he just says, "Piss off." One of the most shocking scenes in the film comes during a lengthy conversation between Korbinian and Jeff, who has his back to him as he frantically types away, probably rewriting his screenplay. All this time, Korbinian leans against the door with his hand down his pants, quietly stroking himself. (This scene takes on even more complex overtones when you recall that in Fassbinder's first film, Love is Colder Than Death, Lommel played Bruno, with whom Franz Walsch (Fassbinder) was in love; and here Lommel is the one hot for Fassbinder, in his guise as Jeff.)
Throughout the film, the camera itself suggests voyeurism. It often seems to be peeking around corners or pillars; it gazes up or down stairs. When it pans or tracks to follow a character, it often seems that it has secreted itself away and is eavesdropping, even as it arrives in a spot which allows for a striking composition (often from a low or high angle). All of this gives the feeling of a peepshow, connecting both with the film's theme of voyeurism and, on another level, with the inherent voyeurism of watching this, or any, film. On yet another level, this is reveals Fassbinder's brilliant strategy which he used throughout his body of work, with various inflections of juxtaposing artificial images (such as the several tableaux which punctuate this film, most notably in the final scene) with very real emotions (such as Jeff's final dialogue in that scene). The resulting tension forces the voyeurism of traditional filmmaking to implode: We expect to identify with a character in a self-contained fictional world; but instead he reveals the artifice, while simultaneously giving full weight to the underlying emotion. Not only are the actors in this film engaged in self-conscious performance (as in his early films), but here we have actors playing actors, sometimes even themselves (Hanna and Eddie). Like his idol Godard, Fassbinder has troubled the distance beween the subjective world of the characters and the putatively objective lens of the camera, between how the characters see themselves, and each other, and how we see them. And so Fassbinder adds yet another layer to this immensely rich film, with electrifying results.
This aesthetic, and by implication political, strategy would not be so effective as many of Fassbinder's imitators have found out, to their chagrin if he were not able to inspire performances of such depth and power. Despite the placid surfaces of his early films, and to a large degree this picture too, he is digging into the sources of raw human need: Love, desire for power, longing, dependency, repressed wishes, unfulfilled dreams, and all manner of frustrations. With emotional meltdown possible at any moment, it is no wonder that Fassbinder gave this film the title that he did. The word "beware" immediately tells us that that this is a cautionary tale. And if the point needs any more driving home, the first thing Fassbinder shows us even before the title is this looming epigraph: "Pride goes before a fall." A cliché it may be, but Fassbinder not only brings it to dramatic life, he suggests the tortured psychology which causes it. At the other end of the film, Fassbinder includes this portentous epigraph from the great, and bisexual, author of Buddenbrooks and Death in Venice, Thomas Mann: "I tell you that I am often deadly tired of representing human kind without participating in humanity." Having seen the flim, we feel that Fassbinder directed this comment primarily at himself. With all of these warnings, not to mention the film's non-stop emotional chaos, is there any chance of hope in Fassbinder's vision? Maybe.
The film's vast array of humor from the subtlest of authorial winks to slapstick is, of course, a saving grace for many viewers. But this is a film which celebrates its subject, filmmaking, even as it mocks the foibles of the people who create it. One of the most spellbinding moments in the film is the scene in which Jeff tells his cinematographer Mike exactly what he wants in a complicated shot, and why. There is real fire in Jeff, and a natural poetry in his words, as writer/director Fassbinder turns cinema into language, even as the camera movement he uses counterpoints Jeff's vivid description of what he plans to film. Fassbinder makes us see, and feel, not only what it is he wants to achieve onscreen, but how he wants it to affect the audience. At other times, Jeff is less visionary, as when he tells Mike, "It's important that the light's brilliant, almost expressionistic. There can be hard crosses cast by the window on the bed. It introduces an artificial tension. It doesn't matter if it seems unnatural. Come up with something yourself." It is also noteworthy that Fassbinder goes out of his way to undercut the potential nobility of his art form by showing the pettiness of the crew and cast, and the generic nature of the one scene we see from Patria O Muerte. So we must "beware of a holy whore," as if "cinema" is the "holy" part, but "people" confused and lost and frustrated by their own and others' limitations introduce the "whorish" part. Perhaps we would be wise to "beware" both, since there is no easy holiness or even degradation.
What would be best is if art, not excluding filmmaking, could lead to self-realization. For some of the characters Sascha, Babs, Manfred, maybe even Irm we can hope that that is the case. And there is one character who already seems to have achieved not only great success in his profession but balance and dignity, even wisdom, in his life: Eddie Constantine. (We might be reminded of how in Contempt Godard used the great Fritz Lang, playing himself, in a similarly moral role.) Although the bit is funny when Eddie tells Coach that he can't kill a woman with a karate chop, it also quietly expresses his understanding of right from wrong, even when 'it's only a movie.' He also seems to know how to be part of a mutually satisfying, if brief, affair with Hanna. Perhaps Eddie also brings together what might have been Fassbinder's fear of aging. This is an anxiety which some of his women characters have; and in 1980 when some school children wrote him questions, including "How do you picture your old age?," Fassbinder prophetically replied, "I don't expect to experience it." The theme of aging also connects with the theme of time, which Fassbinder highlights in the closing moments of the film. In the final tableaux, with Jeff in the center, Sascha and David to the left, Hanna and Eddie to the right, Eddie the oldest, yet most emotionally together, character in the film offers a new insight into Jeff, saying, "He's rediscovered something that's been forgotten. Time." (shades of Proust and his 'search for lost time').
In striking contrast, the central character is intensely problematical; in fact, Jeff encapsulates the film's fundamental concerns and dilemmas. On the one hand, his love and understanding of filmmaking is clear, even in his petulance. He even seems to have come to some degree of self-understanding, as when he tells the long-suffering Sascha, "You know what the worst thing is? When one realizes how damn brougeois one is oneself." But that is not enough to free him from the twisted, self-destruction path we see him following throughout the film.
On an autobiographical level, although Fassbinder knew the dangers of fetishizing beauty (a theme he explores in several of his films), yet to play his alter ego he cast the strikingly handsome actor Lou Castel (who made a stunning screen debut in Marco Bellocchio's 1965 Fists In the Pocket). Fassbinder is reputed to have been self-conscious about being overweight, not to mention the fact that he does not "look German," at least not in terms of the Teutonic ideal of blond hair, blue eyes, and a muscular physique. Well, in Castel, he has ironically achieved his most shallow critics' view of, if not what he should be, at least what he should look like. It is also worth noting that with this particular casting choice, Fassbinder is returning in an intriguing way to his first film. He dedicated Love is Colder Than Death to three contemporary filmmakers, but also to two movie characters (misidentified) as "Cuncho" and "Linio." They appear in Quien sabe? (literally "Who knows?"; the U.S. title is A Bullet for the General), a 1967 spaghetti Western directed by Damiano Damiani (recall that it was Fassbinder's own Western, Whity, that inspired this film). Quien sabe? is about the gun-running bandit El Chuncho (the name refers to savage native tribes in South America's eastern Andes region; note the spelling) and the young "gringo," played by Castel, whom he affectionately nicknames El Niño (because of his boyish looks; this would be Fassbinder's "Linio") and takes under his wing, but who later reveals his hidden agenda before a shocking ending (which anticipates the climactic moments of some of Fassbinder's own films). We will never know the full resonance for Fassbinder of "Linio"/El Niño, or even Lou Castel (who is here working for him), but Quien sabe?'s basic scenario with its suggestion of unspoken longing, deception, betrayal and violence suggests the themes of several of Fassbinder's films, including this one.
Fassbinder ends his film on a subtle, visceral note. With the Donizetti aria we heard before under Irm's departure, he gives us a slow zoom into Jeff's face, who repeats the same chilling line which Ricky spoke, to himself, earlier: "I guess I won't be content until I know that he's been completely destroyed." There is the profoundly contradictory Jeff, with his iconically beautiful male face, and the corrosive rage from his dire lack of self-understanding. He is an artist in command of his medium... if not himself.
This film once asked Fassbinder with his awareness of the complex nature of experience, whether in cinema or life, with its constant pull between the spiritual and the profane if he can do better than Jeff.
The film now asks each of us the same question.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has released a transfer with outstanding image and sound. The DVD was created from a new telecine transfer made under the supervision of the Fasbinder Foundation and filmmakers Juliane Lorenz and Wim Wenders.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Includes both a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and the original mono soundtrack
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 24 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's incisive essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed July 31, 2003
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