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

Written by on August 27, 2013 

Gods of the Plague (1969)

First image: a sign of Munich’s Stadelheim Prison; off-screen, a departing felon vows he’ll never return. Panning down, here is Franz (Harry Baer’s riff on Fassbinder’s same-named role in Love Is Colder Than Death) walking away – the leather trench coat, the moustache, the long sideburns. His opening line suggests reform, but the rest of the film is drift, drift, drift. He walks into a bar, turns on the jukebox, and dances with the waitress as the opening credits scroll across the screen. He reunites with Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), now a lover and a lounge singer; she lingers on his every gesture, while he keeps peeking towards the next scene. “Not so different from out here,” he remarks on the outside — the sentiment of someone with nothing to live for. He finds his brother, a painter, dead, his body strewn across a floor filled with old, crusty newspapers. The killer is the man known as the Gorilla (Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder’s real-life lover), a friend of Franz’s. The director downplays this, the murder barely registering on the men’s occasionally erotic relationship, the prelude to a new love triangle when they bring Margarethe von Trotta to the country, leaving Joanna in the dust, bitter and betrayed.

The new trio — whose interpersonal dynamic fluctuates imperceptibly between platonic, heterosexual, homosexual, and familial — make plans for a small-time robbery. Baer sleepwalks through the movie, his eyes blank and unmoving, always staring beyond the frame toward some existential abyss. The blinding sunlight of Katzelmacher is replaced with Fassbinder’s instinct for noir, encouraging ballets with shadow and light. At times, the sheer diversity of the director’s aesthetic — tracking shots, overhead shots, pans, zooms, an overwhelming helicopter shot over a rural road — could be an attempt to awaken his main character. But it’s a hopeless task: there’s nothing waiting for Franz, no tangible goal or destination; he can’t even be considered a doomed romantic, because there’s no detectable passion in his female relationships. When the character finally meets his fate on the floor of a supermarket, Fassbinder doesn’t even have the mercy to end the film. There’s always more blood around the corner. – Danny K.

The American Soldier (1970)

Before German dialogue is spoken, the opening shot might as well have been ripped from the best of American film noir: a sleazy blonde, gangsters playing poker, and a deep-focus, expressionistic room lit by a burning bulb in the center. Naked women cover the cards, striking one man’s fancy, but the game is all passing time before the score comes in. The center of this film is not an American, as described in the title, but a German (Karl Scheydt) on “business” from the country, also fresh from Vietnam. (“How was it?” “Loud.”) The crooked frames and brooding shadows feel reminiscent of Lang, Fuller, and Murnau, all name-checked as characters while Fassbinder recreates the films he loves. But the plot is more meandering and the kills more “foreign” — before the first hit, a long take as the victim ogles himself in the mirror.

Sexual tensions seem much higher than violent ones, especially a visit to a mom and brother whose passion goes beyond familial. The reasons for the murders go unremarked; like a good American, Ricky commits them because he is paid. “Nothing ever happens in Germany,” he remarks, but his killings set off the police chief, unaware that the gangsters behind it are his right- and left-hand men. “So much tenderness,” screams the rock soundtrack (written by Fassbinder and sung by Gunther Kaufmann), a recurring theme that haunts Ricky like the titular song of The Long Goodbye. By the end, the theme bellows out in a long take that seems to last for infinity, the film’s secret romance given its tragic moment in time. – Peter L.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1970)

Inspired by the troubled production of Fassbinder’s Whity (not included in the box set), the self-examining Beware of a Holy Whore offers an eruption of drunken arguments, misguided come-ons, and self-destruction, all in the name of artistic chaos. A film crew, stocked with Fassbinder regulars (Ulli Lommel, Hanna Schygulla, Margarethe von Trotta), kills time at a remote Spanish villa, knocking back drinks, conversing aimlessly, waiting for their budget-plagued director (Lou Castel) and star (Eddie Constantine, as himself) to arrive. The sharp, vibrant colors — velvet-red curtains, pink shirts, the potent green background of the opening credits — represent a vivacious shift from the director’s stark black-and-white work. The jukebox provides a tender juxtaposition to the film’s hostile moods, offering Ray Charles, Leonard Cohen, and Elvis Presley. Castel, playing the Fassbinder surrogate, offers a glimmer of his directorial vision in a mesmerizing tracking shot from cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, shooting one of his earliest features; his description of a planned murder scene — methodical, slow, and detailed — sounds like it comes from a true student of Hitchcock. But, off-set, Castel orders a fresh Cuba Libre with each passing minute, and the patient bartender even sweeps up the broken glass on the floor after Castel’s fit of sexual jealousy.

The meat of the film’s first half becomes clear: men and women walking across a room, confronting, arguing, beating. A 360-degree pan exposes the aftermath: empty chairs, a passed-out drunk, the entire emptiness of an evening composed for a single shot. In the morning, Fassbinder stages the crew’s commitment to the art with sweeping camera movements that present multiple planes of activity. But Castel can’t control himself. He descends further into an appalling psychological collapse, the stress of the shoot alienating himself from the people around him. His description of his own film: “It’s a film about brutality. What else would one make a movie about?” The final film before Fassbinder would transition into his Douglas Sirk-inspired melodramas, Beware of a Holy Whore remains an unrelenting document of what a movie set can look like when a wild, wicked-smart director believes only in brutality. – Danny K.

“Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder” is now available for purchase at the Criterion Collection.

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