« All Features

Early Fassbinder Hits Criterion: A Look at ‘Love Is Colder Than Death,’ ‘Beware of a Holy Whore’ & More

Written by on August 27, 2013 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder — just saying his name feels towering in itself, so the German director’s astronomical oeuvre feels equally fitting. The frenetic auteur made over 40 films in the span of just barely over a decade (including the 13-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, and not counting the stage and radio plays also developed), that Criterion’s latest Eclipse set, “Early Fassbinder,” feels like only the tip of the iceberg. But beginning with his debut feature and ending with his last film — before shifting toward an interest in Hollywood melodrama (five of the ten features made between 1969 and 1970) — “Early Fassbinder” feels like the key to unlocking the director’s major influences.

Here we see the teachings of Brecht and Munich’s Antiteater group, the echoes of the French New Wave, the love of American gangster pictures, and more. While not as accessible as major works like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Michael Koresky argues in the liner notes that the films are “political and personal, confrontational and moving… bringing to light uncomfortable truths about his country’s legacy and postwar complacency.” In honor of this set, Danny King and I have provided capsules to compel you to seek out the works of the legendary director that are included in this essential box set.

Love Is Colder Than Death (1969)

The disjointed title might signal Godard, but the playful vision aims toward nihilism in Fassbinder’s rip on Band of Outsiders. A sparse prison-like opening could be its own vision of a Beckett play, while a series of flat shots in blank rooms suggest a Kafka parable. But Bruno’s (Ulli Lommell) attempts to convince Franz (Fassbinder) to “join the syndicate” are unconvincing, leading him to track him down to Munich and begin something of a ménage-a-trios with his girlfriend and occasional walker of the night, Joanna (Hanna Schygulla). Bruno’s trench coat, Franz’s leather jacket, and Johanna’s blonde hair feel like the cheap knock-offs of Bogart, Brando, and Monroe, respectively, while their adventures are similarly derivative: sunglasses are stolen, ammunition is acquired, murders are carried out, but without any excitement from either them or the camera, even as a soundtrack blasts punk rock.

The long takes lead nowhere, and the most tedious of actions, like disposing of a body, are drawn out to agonizing length. Franz notes a possible tail to their car and perhaps the chase that could follow. “Is that it?” he laments when they reach their destination without incident. It certainly is, as pessimism takes over, and the only thing left to do is fall in line with the rest of bourgeois society, zombie-crawling through a supermarket as high-pitched squeals dominate the soundtrack. The point is pointlessness itself; the relationship between the three forever strained as they move through the motions. The end of the narrative might be the inevitable tragedy, but was the adventure even worth it? The camera stays in place as the car glides away, the moaning of strings on the soundtrack note the only certainty of the future is perhaps despair. – Peter L.

Katzelmacher (1969)

A quotation from Yaak Karsunke to start: “It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” A curious epigraph for a film predicated on static inaction. The opening places a man sitting in a stagnant car while passing-by traffic scoots through the frame, disrupting our access. But what follows from Fassbinder’s second feature (shot in a mere nine days) are the youths in naked emptiness without intrusion. The director’s long-take, stationary-camera aesthetic anticipates the rigor of Haneke, while a cruel, early sex scene with robotic gestures and workmanlike movement — he undresses, she arranges the pillows — could be a template for the Greek New Wave. For almost half the runtime, these anonymous, callous Munich dwellers (names hardly relevant) pass time with beer, cigarettes, gossip, and meaningless card games, all reflected in the chairs, railings, and tablecloths — a strict, geometrical mise-en-scene.

On the verge of running out of discussion topics, Fassbinder himself arrives in an uncredited performance as a foreigner, “a Greek from Greece” as one character describes him, looking to share the guest room of a local (Irm Hermann). Idle afternoon chatter shifts subjects, now centering on Fassbinder’s Jorgos, their remarks unfounded, unreasonable, and often nasty — a merciless depiction of xenophobia. Peppered throughout Katzelmacher (a word with many translations, but here used as a derogatory term for a foreigner) are musical interludes scored to Schubert during the film’s only tracking shots that follow two people down a sidewalk. But these moments are no reprieve: Fassbinder’s characters are still rotten, criticizing others and spreading rumors, never turning the microscope inward. – Danny K.

See more on the next page >>

« 1 2»


See More: , ,


blog comments powered by Disqus


News More

Trailers More



Features More
Twitter icon_twitter Follow