Monday, August 17, 2009

THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (1971) - TOERIFIC EPISODE # 8

Had I not known otherwise (or already read the DVD box), my post-viewing stab at the English translation of the title to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Handler der vier Jahreszeiten would have been "The Ugly Duckling"... sans that fable's happy ending. Although Fassbinder went with something much more subtle in the way of The Merchant of Four Seasons, I think Das Hassliche Entlein could have served as a fine backup.

Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) is the pour misshapen fowl in this tale of a lower-middle class German street vendor who vies to instill pride in the eyes of his bourgeois family (Hans' middle class dreams clash with the ideals of his family line) and be a properly providing husband and father back home. But the slow reveal is that Hans' heart (literally and figuratively) can't bear the overtime that such a task demands.

Part of Hans' frustration - as an already greying adult - relates to his pent-up issue of being unable to let go of the need to garner his mother's approval. In her being the primary source of Hans' feelings of inadequacy and failure, Fassbinder introduces us to Mother Epp before any other character enters a single frame, and then lets her deliver perhaps the film's most damaging epithet: "Once a no-good, always a no-good". That brutal blast is delivered after Hans arrives at his mother house, full of pride after having finished a stint in the foreign legion (because Hans played the role of outsider in his childhood home, he now constantly seeks acceptance from anonymous groups: the military, the police force, a table of drunks).

Including two shorts, The Merchant of Four Seasons was the fifteenth film of Fassbinder's brief, but unbelievably prolific, career. Although I've only seen roughly half of the fourteen films that preceded it, The Merchant of Four Seasons feels like something of a flagpost in Fassbinder's oeuvre, setting aside some of the earlier theatre-based, experimental, and dark humor techniques and elements for a more settled-in, sympathetic character drama that quickly became a popular trademark of Fassbinder's as his career evolved. That's not to say that the aforementioned elements were absent from the twenty-nine (or so) films that followed. Not at all. In fact, there is a line of dry humor that runs alongside the dry melodramatic tone which permeates The Merchant of Four Seasons. Check out the moment when Hans' brother-in-law Kurt (Kurt Raab) pets the head of Hans' wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) while she seeks consoling and protection from her violent husband.

The melodrama in Merchant comes out predominantly in two forms: the marriage between Irmgard & Hans, and Fassbinder's Christ allusions towards Hans. In both cases, the melodrama is delivered in scenes or sequences of ultra-dry passion, made all the dryer because Merchant contains no score whatsoever. The only music in the film comes via a recording of strummed guitar that Hans repeatedly plays on his miniature turntable.

Concerning the marriage of Irmgard & Hans, Irmgard stands as the pair's emotional rock. Though she strays from Hans sexually (as Hans does from her), it is clear that Irmgard's chief concern is in keeping her family intact and above the lines of poverty. Although Irmgard can exhibit moments of vulnerability - as when she struggles with her attractiveness after a customer hits on Hans - Fassbinder makes sure to portray her as the singular force who fights for Hans, even if her devotion is sometimes compromised by a bit of regret or sadness. One night, on a walk back home from the bar after being berated and assaulted by Hans, Irmgard is framed in front of a storefront window that's displaying a mannequin in a wedding dress. Such still life symbolism might incite eye-rolling were it crafted by lesser hands, but Fassbinder's playfully loaded image reinvents the sentiments of the 1950s films he fell in love with, where social issues and homespun emotions were dealt with in colorful and operatic fashions.

But in the case of Hans as Christ allusion (I've noticed that this seems to come up in quite a few TOERIFC films/discussions) I think Fassbinder overdoes it a bit. Visually, the symbolism is put forth in a clever and humorous manner - after Hans suffers his first heart attack in front of his family, Fassbinder shoots Hans on the floor, arms out in a t-shape like Christ on the cross while Mother Epp and Hans' sister Heide kneel beside him like "the two Mary's" - but ultimately this kind of imagery drowns itself in overabundance. I count at least three times when Hans is captured in frame with a cross and/or painting of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus that both hang in his room. And although I do believe that Fassbinder's parallels between Hans and Christ serve a purpose - Hans finally decides to sacrifice himself for his family (seeing his friend Harry as a better father and husband for Renate and Irmgard) in the way Jesus does for his followers - they are laid on a bit thick, and, for me, weren't convincing enough in their audacity.

Stylistically, I see The Merchant of Four Seasons as a film of Fassbinder's where his worthy ideas and emotions exceeded the visual representation of them. Fassbinder's oft-used - and in my mind, the superior cinematographer to the other oft-used Dietrich Lohmann, who shot Merchant - DP Michael Ballhaus wasn't on board here, and I think it shows. Compare the way Lohmann shoots interiors in Merchant to the way Ballhaus does, just one year later, in Fassbinder's masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. True, the stories aren't the same, and The Bitter Tears... carries a much more lavish tone, but in revisiting Merchant two or three times in the last week, I couldn't escape a feeling of flatness covering the otherwise provocative set-pieces.

Still, The Merchant of Four Seasons is a film that will forever be dear to me for the way it introduced Fassbinder's heart, his way of always expressing - as critic Geoff Andrew so perfectly describes it - "unsentimental sympathies" to characters of all stripes and walks of life. His was a type of filmmaking that put people above issues, and that's why I love him so much.

140 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Hello Fox, Ed, Marilyn, Jason, et al. I wanted to say something here at my hotel PC before visiting the chocolate factory here in Hershey, Pennysylvania with my family, as like you guys I am a very big Fassbinder fan. Imost assuredly agree with Fox's excellent lead-in here that THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS is one of the director's most emotional films, and was informed by a singular purpose in a year when the prolific Fassbinder devoted his full focus (1970). The result is a film of extraordinary (if quiet) emotional power and one of his greatest films, (for me only eclipsed by BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ and IN THE YEAR OF 13 MOONS and equalled by MARIA BRAUN and perhaps ALI). It contains of the greatest of allFassbinder performances by Hans Hirschmuller as Hans Ep, and as opposed to the tedious and squallid ending that another director may have ascribed to the climax, thisone is unforgettable. The 'meaning of life' is no meagre subject,and Fasssbinder broaches this with astounding might, a fact that wasn't lost on Wim Wenders, who himself considers this Fassbinder's piece de resistance. Nothing profound here, just wanted to add my two cents.

Ed Howard said...

Great writeup, Fox, and this was a great choice. You're right that Merchant of Four Seasons was a pivotal film for Fassbinder, since it was made after a 1970 Munich retrospective of the films of Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder's introduction to the director who would drastically influence the rest of his career. Thus, this film is an evolutionary step from the Brechtian theatricality of his earlier work, introducing a more lurid, melodramatic sensibility that would be further honed in subsequent pictures. It's a bit raw, and a bit more straightforward than Fassbinder's best melodramas, but it's still a fantastic film.

What's especially interesting about this film is that it blends melodrama and naturalism. The day-by-day observation of Hans and Irmgard's routines and domestic life is realistic, but the emotions underlying everything -- and frequently bubbling over in violent ways -- are outsized. Fassbinder also has a tendency to make emotion physical; as you say, Hans' heart literally can't take everything that he's been forced to bear. It's similar to the end of Fear Eats the Soul, in which the accumulated tension of racism and ostracism finally proves too much for Ali and literally makes him ill.

Sam Juliano said...

Of course, Geoff Andrews makesan excellent point there when he brings up "unsentimental sympathies."

I guess we can consider Fassbinder the "Mozart" of the cinema,as considering his relatively short life-span, he was prolific to an astounding level, way more than those who live twice as long or more.

Fox said...

Hi Sam-

Thanks for the kind words and thoughts.

The ending is something I was thinking about last night. I didn't really didn't know how to react to it at first, but then I thought a quick fade to black was perhaps what the film needed to finish on.

I think what throws me a bit is the total lack of emotion on Irmgard, Renate, and Harry's faces. While it's understandable that they would be stunned after a funeral of a suicide, and while most of the acting can be described as stilted throughout, it still felt a bit bizarre to me.

Sam Juliano said...

Thus, this film is an evolutionary step from the Brechtian theatricality of his earlier work, introducing a more lurid, melodramatic sensibility that would be further honed in subsequent pictures."

That really is a fantastic point there Ed.

Marilyn said...

I, too, thought of Sirk while watching this film - a self-consciously melodramatic tone, for example, when Hans and Harry run into each other and laugh heartily for way too long a time. Fassibinder still seems to want to explore emotion in an experimental way, but his compassion for Hans overcomes his sometimes awkward formal experiments. I became very, very invested in Hans emotionally, perhaps in the same way Irmgard turns on a dime after his heart attack to stay with him.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks Fox. That lack of emotion on the faces is admittedly bizaree, if typical Fassbinder.

I am loathe to leave this discussion now, but when I look on it later today, I bet it will really be enthralling. Have a great day.

Greg said...

Fox, you made an excellent choice. I don't view this film or character as Fassbinder making a Christ allegory although I know it can be argued but then any suffering character in the history of film could be argued to be a Christ figure. I just think that Fassbinder enjoyed the imagery of Hans speaking to his "diciples" without intending too much deep meaning. I think, like Sirk, Fassbinder wanted to give us surface imagery we could identify but keep the true meaning concealed. I believe that is why the entire affair is spoken in lifeless tones, to make it more difficult to decipher unless one is indeed peering underneath.

Ed Howard said...

I think what throws me a bit is the total lack of emotion on Irmgard, Renate, and Harry's faces. While it's understandable that they would be stunned after a funeral of a suicide, and while most of the acting can be described as stilted throughout, it still felt a bit bizarre to me.

I think that ending is meant to be unsettling and bizarre; Fassbinder excels at creating really uncomfortable dissonances like that. The point is that as much as these people may have cared about Hans while he was still alive, now that he's gone practicality has to take precedence. So they settle on a new practical arrangement to ensure they're all able to continue living, but the best these characters can ever do is just get by: they either survive or they don't. Hans chose not to survive, not to do his best anymore, and in his absence he leaves his family to settle for a life without him.

Fox said...

The day-by-day observation of Hans and Irmgard's routines and domestic life is realistic, but the emotions underlying everything -- and frequently bubbling over in violent ways -- are outsized....

Ed-

It's like when both Hans and Irmgard share "how things are" with both a customer and a bartender. It's shot and carried out in such a simple, dry manner, but what's going - as when Hans almost gets hit by a car - is much bigger than they can see.

bill r. said...

I'm getting slammed at work today, but one thing I wanted to bring up while there's a lull here, are the performances. Hirschmuller is pretty great, but almost everyone else seems to be directed to perform in a sort of Bressonian style where they're told to indicate an emotion, or to simply say the words, without "living" them. This seems at cross-purposes with the style of melodrama, and I would assume deliberately so, but I must say it worked for me. With Bresson, I struggle to make my way into his films, but Fassbinder manages to use this "signifier" style of performance to his benefit. Everything is stripped down: we're almost told, straight out, "The emotion here is sadness" or "Now they're happy", but none of the showmanship of traditional acting, especially melodramatic acting, is left behind, as though it were unnecessary. Which it is, here.

Fox said...

I, too, thought of Sirk while watching this film - a self-consciously melodramatic tone, for example, when Hans and Harry run into each other and laugh heartily for way too long a time. Fassibinder still seems to want to explore emotion in an experimental way, but his compassion for Hans overcomes his sometimes awkward formal experiments....

Marilyn-

I'm glad you brought up this scene because it was one that made me laugh, maybe, for the wrong reasons. I took it as Fassbinder being playful within the film as he does other times throughout - such as when Hans' family embrace each other dramatically as he arrives at his sisters' place after beating Irmgard.

But I love the way you see it as his compassion for Hans overcoming his experimental ways. And maybe the fact that Fassbinder is sitting there at the table with Hans in that scene (the only scene he's in if I recall) is something to go along with that thought.

Greg said...

I believe that is why the entire affair is spoken in lifeless tones, to make it more difficult to decipher unless one is indeed peering underneath.

When I wrote that I was talking about the style of acting. I think maybe that was missed because of how I phrased it. Fassbinder is indeed putting the performances at odds with the style of storytelling so that what meaning exists must be derived intellectually and not emotionally.

Marilyn said...

Bill - Melodramatic is not melodrama. Melodrama creates emotion through situations, not character. This is a true melodrama, even down to the child being little more than a walk-on.

bill r. said...

I'm not criticizing the film, Marilyn. I liked it a lot. My point is simply that the bigness of the performances don't match the melodrama, and I was simply speculating on why I found it effective, when similar acting styles haven't worked for me elsewhere.

Ed Howard said...

What's weird about the performances is that they're both stripped-down/flat, and also stylized and exaggerated at times. Fox mentions the scene when Hans goes to his family's house to try to bring Irmgard back, and his family all poses dramatically, huddled together, their eyes wide. They look like characters in a silent horror film, flinching before the monster as he enters the room, and their reaction to him is ridiculous and hilarious. They can't possibly believe that Hans is really that dangerous, even if he did beat his wife in a moment of pathetic drunkenness. Their melodramatic reaction to him is a reflection of their utter hatred for him -- they view him as a monster, as dangerous, when in fact he's simply pathetic.

Fox said...

I believe that is why the entire affair is spoken in lifeless tones, to make it more difficult to decipher unless one is indeed peering underneath....

Greg-

Another great argument, because although I watched Merchant many times in the past week, I still feel that there is a lot that is unanswered about the films subjects. For instance, we don't really know why that woman is the love of Hans' life. We just know because he - and Irmgard - says she is, but we're never host to any true passion between the two.

As for "disciples", I still couldn't break away from the Christ thing and think about "apostles" when he was at the bar, as it was his last supper. And, you're right, that kind of allegory is easy to attach to any suffering character, I just personally could escape the symbols in the film. Maybe it's because I'm a lapsed Catholic.

Marilyn said...

But he is monstrous in the way he treats his wife. I think we are prepared to hate him, too, given his drinking and cursing about falling for his wife's feminine wiles. The impression would have stayed if he hadn't upbraided himself for not realizing getting a blow job in his office would get him fired. He was overcome with desire, and that spelled his doom, as it has his whole life.

Fox said...

I think that ending is meant to be unsettling and bizarre; Fassbinder excels at creating really uncomfortable dissonances like that. The point is that as much as these people may have cared about Hans while he was still alive, now that he's gone practicality has to take precedence. So they settle on a new practical arrangement to ensure they're all able to continue living, but the best these characters can ever do is just get by: they either survive or they don't. Hans chose not to survive, not to do his best anymore, and in his absence he leaves his family to settle for a life without him....

I think that's true, but was I wrong in picking up on some "vibes" between Irmgard and Harry? There is the introduction when they glance at each other, and the way they sit at the table together as a family in Hans absence, and the way Irmgard questions Hans about why Harry is staying with them when she's putting on her face mask (I got the impression she felt she might cheat with him like she did with the previous guy... but that's me projecting a bit, maybe).

Of course, this is a hard film to really grasp onto "vibes".

Greg said...

Why is the other woman the love of his life? Any ideas? Fassbinder provides no clues as to anything in this film, which I found fascinating.

bill r. said...

Fox - It's a very strange movie. That point about not seeing any passion, but being told the woman is the love of Hans's life, highlights my point about being told what the emotions are supposed to be more often than we're shown them. At the end, Irmgard is sad. How do we know that? Because Fassbinder painted fake tears all over her face.

And yet it all works, or it did for me, anyway. The ending was a bit ragged, and I wonder if that had anything to do with the mind-boggling pace at which Fassbinder worked. Also, how did Hans get the bartender to serve him so many shots at once? That guy's looking at a lawsuit.

Ed Howard said...

But he is monstrous in the way he treats his wife. I think we are prepared to hate him, too, given his drinking and cursing about falling for his wife's feminine wiles.

You're right, of course, Marilyn. Fassbinder doesn't ever excuse his protagonist's contemptible behavior -- Hans life is a mess partly through external pressures, but partly also because he's weak and makes poor decisions and is sometimes a pretty rotten guy. But he's more pathetic than monstrous. Throughout his life, he's never been able to get what he really wanted: his mother denied him his desires, the love of his life rejected him, his career fell apart after his moment of weakness with a prostitute. He's always settling for his second or third choices, even with Irmgard, who isn't the love of his life by any means, but to the extent that he blames her for this, it's despicable. The beating scene is truly horrifying, especially when the daughter jumps in to help her mother, and Fassbinder doesn't flinch away from showing Hans at his ugliest moment.

Even so, the family's reaction just strikes me as absurd: Hans is pathetic and weak and sometimes stupid, but his family flinches away from him as though he's pure evil.

Marilyn said...

I think when Hans meets Harry, the wheels start to turn at how he can provide for Irmgard and Renate. He deliberately sets it up so Harry, his trusted friend, will be his hand-picked successor. Irmgard and Harry perhaps realize this is the set-up and don't know what to make of it. It's really not so different from all the women's films where the dying wife and/or mother finds a replacement. Lifetime is filled with them.

Ed Howard said...

I think that's true, but was I wrong in picking up on some "vibes" between Irmgard and Harry?

I picked that up too. I read the introduction scene as Irmgard appraising Harry as a handsome guy -- I don't think it goes beyond that, but she looks at him and silently thinks, "huh, he's good-looking," and then Hans sees the way she's looking at him and seems to understand that, as usual, he comes up short by comparison. I don't get the sense that Irmgard is thinking about cheating or anything like that, just that there's some tension in the situation, and that Harry's presence contributes to Hans' increasing feelings of inferiority and irrelevance. He starts to realize that he's really not necessary. Fassbinder is very good at inscribing A LOT into simple glances like this.

Fox said...

Bill-

I defintely felt a Bressonian vibe too, but then - as odd as this sounds - I think there was a little bit too much emotion on the faces of some of the actors for it to be totally like Bresson. I think Anna in particular breaks out of that mold, and I think the perfomance by Hanna Schygulla is one of the film's strongest.

I think you pretty much nail the difference between the two when you describe how Fassbinder makes sure to not "leave anything behind" with his way of directing the actors. I think this is why the melodrama in Merchant feels so dry to me (and I don't mean that in a negative sense, just that it's not a dripping as Sirk or Minnelli).

Ed Howard said...

Why is the other woman the love of his life? Any ideas?

I don't think we really need to know, honestly. I think all Fassbinder wants us to know is that, as usual, Hans was denied his true desires: just as he was denied his choice of career, he couldn't have the love of his life and had to settle for another woman about whom he has less strong feelings. The "love of his life" never even gets a name, because she's a symbol, really, a plot device: she's a symbol of everything that Hans has been denied, of the life he imagined for himself and hasn't been able to get.

bill r. said...

Fassbinder makes the happy laughter from Hans and Harry when they meet at the restaurant go on for an uncomfortably long time, and I suppose the plats that Harry let drop just indicates that this friendly meeting is going to end in disaster.

I don't think Hans necessarily planned for Harry to take his place, but he did seem to turn over his duties as a parent pretty quickly, though not without sadness. I think Ed's right that he realized he wasn't necessary. It was no good yearning for something else anymore, because he was never going to get it.

kassy said...

This was an interesting film and I'm not sure I've fully reacted to it yet. As Bill mentioned, I also appreciated the underplayed delivery of the actors in contrast to the melodrama of the story; I think it made the melodrama easier to take. Also the contrast of the underplayed delivery with the exaggerated physical movements (the heart attack, and the family hugging in fear of Hans) works well too.

When the film ended, I felt a little mad at Hans, I kept wondering why the growing success of his fruit business made him sadder instead of happy. Maybe it was because he was so used to being told he was worthless and feeling worthless that he wasn't able to compute success as a good thing. Fox's interpretation that he sacrificed himself for the good of his family is very interesting, I'm going to ponder that one.

bill r. said...

I don't think we really need to know, honestly...

Right, we don't. I think Fassbinder is hacking all but the essentials away from melodrama.

Fox said...

The ending was a bit ragged, and I wonder if that had anything to do with the mind-boggling pace at which Fassbinder worked....

Bill-

I thought about that too... are some of these oddities artistic decisions, or is Fassbinder just up against the clock and he left stuff out. I think it's something to consider for sure.

I will say that as much as I love this film, I don't think it's Fassbinder firing on all cylinders. He still seems to be in "learning" mode at times, and I think that can be attributed to his fast working ways.

I really thought his use of zooms felt awkward and sloppy in this film.

Fox said...

When I wrote that I was talking about the style of acting. I think maybe that was missed because of how I phrased it. Fassbinder is indeed putting the performances at odds with the style of storytelling so that what meaning exists must be derived intellectually and not emotionally....

Greg-

As an actor yourself, what do you think about this style of acting? Is it difficult in it's stiltedness? I'm wondering because on the surface it looks like it would be easy, but I'm guessing it's probably deceptively not.

Ed Howard said...

I will say that as much as I love this film, I don't think it's Fassbinder firing on all cylinders. He still seems to be in "learning" mode at times, and I think that can be attributed to his fast working ways.

I would agree with this. I know there are those who hold this film up as the pinnacle of Fassbinder's career, but I view it as more of a transitional work between the early theatrical works and the later stylized melodramas. It's a fine film in its own right, but I'd place it somewhere in the middle of the pack out of the Fassbinder I've seen. His work in this mode would become increasingly polished and rigorous in films like Martha and Chinese Roulette just a few years later. There's still a lot of the stylistic roughness of the early films in this one, and I think Fassbinder's melodramatic impulses are better served by his more stylized later aesthetic.

Fox said...

Melodrama creates emotion through situations, not character....

Indeed, I thought the highest moment of melodrama in this film is when Hans has his heart attack... right after singing a song.

That moment kind of feels like an early climax to me, in fact. I think at that point Hans may realize he is done, and that he is wrong for Irmgard.

But, Marilyn, what do you mean by "melodramatic is not melodrama"? Do you mean over-top-performances doesn't necessarily mean melodrama? I'm not challenging you, just trying to place out exactly what you meant.

Marilyn said...

The acting style put me in mind of a lot of Scandinavian comedies I've seen - deadpan, cartoonish. I think this might have been a comedy had Fassbinder not invested so much personal emotion into the plight of his characters. Does anyone ever really get what they want? Irmgard is second choice. Renate loses a father she loves. Mrs. Epp is disappointed in Hans. Ansil is tricked out of a lucrative job AND doesn't get to sleep with Irmgard again. Even Harry seems trapped. Only that interviewee who only wanted a temporary job seemed to have the freedom they all craved.

Greg said...

Greg-

As an actor yourself, what do you think about this style of acting? Is it difficult in it's stiltedness? I'm wondering because on the surface it looks like it would be easy, but I'm guessing it's probably deceptively not
.

No, it's pretty easy but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing or doesn't work.

I think this film is a fascinating deconstruction of melodrama but one that did feel rushed. I agree it's a transitional work for Fassbinder more than a seminal piece.

bill r. said...

Melodrama creates emotion through situations, not character...

And let's be honest: pretty much ALL drama does this. A character's emotion at any given time, in whatever film of whatever genre, is going to hinge on what situation, or point in the story, he or she finds themselves.

Marilyn said...

But, Marilyn, what do you mean by "melodramatic is not melodrama"? Do you mean over-top-performances doesn't necessarily mean melodrama?

Exactly! There is a huge misunderstanding about the elements of melodrama and how they are derived. Melodrama is disparaged because people think it means melodramatic acting. It doesn't. If anything, it's more like what this film offers - a template of emotions. It is the opposite of The Method, and I wouldn't be surprised if the ascendency of Brando and his ilk started this dismissal of melodrama.

Ed Howard said...

When the film ended, I felt a little mad at Hans, I kept wondering why the growing success of his fruit business made him sadder instead of happy.

It's because Hans was simply tired of not getting what he really wanted, was tired of a life in which a decent fruit business with a woman he sort of cared about was all he was ever going to get. His family might act as though he'd finally made it, during that joyless dinner scene, but Hans doesn't feel any better about himself just because he's projecting the facade of a successful businessman. He still feels like a guy who's failed in life, who isn't really needed by anyone -- it's not lost on him that his business starts to thrive right when he becomes less and less involved in it due to his physical condition.

Fox said...

When the film ended, I felt a little mad at Hans, I kept wondering why the growing success of his fruit business made him sadder instead of happy...

Hi Kassy-

Thanks for stopping by!

My thought is that somewhere between Hans' heart attack and when he gets himself back on his feet, he has decided that he is going to kill himself. I think he takes pleasure in knowing that the business will flourish without him - and especially with Harry - and that his wife and daughter will be taken care of. He treats them awfully, but I think it's clear that he loves them.

Then, as Hans feels Harry is indeed the right fit for Irmgard and Renate - after he sees Harry spending time with Renate over homework, etc. - I think he begins his descent into going through with his suicide and we see him slowly slip away and deal with the grief of his decision.

Ed Howard said...

The acting style put me in mind of a lot of Scandinavian comedies I've seen - deadpan, cartoonish.

That's a good point: in Fassbinder, as in, say, the modern films of Roy Andersson (I have a feeling that's especially who you have in mind), there's a thin line between tragedy and comedy. Andersson's films seem very much influenced by Fassbinder's, incidentally, especially the more stylized tableaux in Fassbinder's work. Sometimes I think Andersson's last few films have been directly inspired by the outlandish epilogue to Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Marilyn said...

I think you're right, Ed. I'm working on a review of "Kitchen Stories," a Swedish/Norwegian coproduction that, while not this deliberately stilted, has these kinds of amusing tableaus.

Fox said...

But he is monstrous in the way he treats his wife. I think we are prepared to hate him, too, given his drinking and cursing about falling for his wife's feminine wiles....

Marilyn-

I agree he is monstrous, for sure, but I still think Fassbinder plays that family huddling scene for a bit of humor because we also know that Hans is a bit of a soft-belly and push over. He tries to be a big man by yelling at his wife in front of his buddies, but we know he's pretty weak.

Also, when he slaps the woman who was giving him a blow job, I like the way Fassbinder shoots the action, because we clearly see how much shorter than the woman Hans is and how she's barely affected by the slap. Not that that wipes away the violent actions of Hans at all, but I think it shows how Hans is someone who has to leap and take cheap swipes at people to give himself a false sense of power.

But then, what I really liked about that moment, is the way Hans feels kind of ashamed instantly. Maybe "ashamed" isn't the right word, but he doesn't appear authoritatve. He sits down kind of sullen while the woman is still standing, maybe as if a bee stung her and not a man.

Marilyn said...

Fox - I'm really interested as to why you chose this film.

Pat said...

Fox -

First of all, great review and great choice.

I've skimmed the comments so far, and I have to admit, I'm a little unsure of what I can add. My knoweledge of Fassbinder is not very extensive, and I have not experience of Bresson. Watching this film the first time, I wasn't sure how I felt about it, and had to do some background reading to understand the significance of it's being the first film Fassbinder made after experiencing the Sirk retrospective.

One thing that struck me about Hans was that, even when surrounded by family or friends, he seems so alone. When he has his heart attack, Irmgard and his mother rush to his side, but no one does anything to actually help the poor guy till Hanna Scygulla finally gets up and phones an ambulance. There's something similarly chilling about the way his wife and friends just sit by and watch him drink himself to death.

Ultimately, it was a film that moved me very much without using any of the usual stylistic coventions (musical score,etc.) to evoke emotion. And I notice, as Marilyn pointed out,that the "walk-on" performance of the daugther is very like the perfunctory way that children are often depicted in "women's" films, such as Sirk's.

Fox said...

I think when Hans meets Harry, the wheels start to turn at how he can provide for Irmgard and Renate...

I don't think Hans necessarily planned for Harry to take his place...

I agree with Marilyn there, but I take that a step further and think that the wheels start turning for Hans when he has his heart attack.

When he's interviewing the candidates for the job, it's like he's screening them as father's too. Luckily, he didn't settle on any of the ones we saw - as well as Ansil - because they didn't seem like quality guys. Harry, on the other hand, I instantly fell for... which I think was Fassbinder's intention. The actor portrays hims as such a gentle character.

And Bill, I like you thoughts on the plate dropping being a hint at Harry's future, although the sap in me hopes that he and Irmgard are happy together.

Ed Howard said...

Earlier I mentioned the subtle meanings in the glances exchanged between Harry, Hans and Irmgard in the scene where Harry meets Irmgard. I want to bring up another scene where Fassbinder handles glances and ambiguous looks brilliantly: the one where Ansill's thievery is exposed and he realizes that Irmgard set him up. He looks at her, and she stares back blankly, and Hans sees them looking at one another; Fassbinder just crisply cuts between the three of them, focusing on their eyes in this tense situation with all these complicated emotions beneath the surface. What I love about this scene is that it's not at all clear just how much Hans actually understands about what's going on here. Does he grasp that his wife has maneuvered this into happening for some reason? Does he sense anything? Fassbinder simply lets the characters' exchange of glances say it all, and leaves it up to the audience to interpret what has just happened.

Ed Howard said...

When he has his heart attack, Irmgard and his mother rush to his side, but no one does anything to actually help the poor guy till Hanna Scygulla finally gets up and phones an ambulance.

Pat, that scene struck me too. Schygulla gives a performance that is very deliberately in a different register from most of the other actors in this film: she's much warmer and quieter than the rest of Hans' family. So while everyone else in that scene is melodramatically expressing their horror and concern, wailing and freaking out, she's the only one who actually does something to show her real concern. She simply glides through the scene, navigating the other family members kneeling in faux-grief, and places a calm phone call to help her brother. Fassbinder's point, I think, is that the quietest emotions, the ones not explicitly expressed, are the most genuine. In the same way, Hans expresses his love for his family not by anything he actually says or does, but by implicitly ensuring that they are provided for after his death.

Fox said...

Fox - I'm really interested as to why you chose this film....

Wow. That's something that I could answer in many - each of them individually long - ways.

But, a quick answer would be that it was, if not the first, then one of the first Fassbinder films I saw. I was immediately attracted to the way he treated his characters. He wasn't snarky or cynical, and even when he was dark, I felt that he still had a compassion for his creations.

I didn't pick up on the melodrama of Merchant the first time I saw it, because I didn't know the history of that genre, or even of Fassbinder's love for Sirk, or any of that. I was unemployed for a period of almost six months, and I literally consumed two to three movies a day. I just went to video stores and rented tons of stuff without really knowing about the directors and kind of went through a self-teaching period. It was tons of fun.

I also think that, perhaps, Fassbinder's films - especially Petra Von Kant - hit me when I was going through a transition in my life (unemployed and not yet married). That transition wasn't a specifically a good or bad one, but just one that kind of made me "grow up" a bit. I look back fondly on it, and so I look back fondly on Fassbinder - and Merchant - as well.

Greg said...

Everyone - I apologize for my absence but I'm busy with personal and unavoidable things today. I will be back in an hour or so. Sorry.

Marilyn said...

I can see where this film would have resonated with you at that time, Fox. Thanks.

I want to know what people thought about the treatment of sex in this film?

Fox said...

Hi Pat-

It sounds like you interpreted the film perfectly fine to me!

One quick think since you brough up the score. I said in my review that there wasn't one - and for the most part, there isn't - but last night when I was watching the film again, I noticed some slight music when Hans is walking through the park to go see his "true love" and then again when he is in that room with his true love (btw... it was a nice touch by Fassbinder, I think, to include no sheets on the bed of him and his lover/true love, b/c it wasn't necessarily a representation of something dingy, but of something bare and lacking). So, I guess there IS a score to the film in those places, but largely not. In fact, I wonder why Fassbinder even bothered with music in that small instance. I kind of wish he would have gone without it totally.

One thing that struck me about Hans was that, even when surrounded by family or friends, he seems so alone....

Definitely, especially when his daughter is two feet from him but he can do nothing but stare out the window.

And good point on the pretty much staged suicide that Irmgard, Harry, and friends stand by and watch. I chalk that up to more melodrama, but what I think really resonates in that scene is the way we see why Hans really respects Harry... which is another pretty melodramatic moment we are taken too in Morocco.

Marilyn said...

That scene in Morocco left me scratching my head. Is it supposed to show that Hans has again misjudged someone? Harry would not necessarily have been my choice as a replacement if I had known he had allowed me to be tortured when he could have put a bullet in the Arab's head earlier.

Fox said...

Why is the other woman the love of his life? Any ideas? Fassbinder provides no clues as to anything in this film, which I found fascinating....

Greg-

This kind of just dawned on my as I was replying to Pat, but I think now that Hans saw the nameless woman as his true love because it was the only time he was sexually turned on. Again, I'm projecting a bit there, but I think back to that awkward sex scene between Irmgard and Hans when we see their feet and legs touching. That seemed so, well, unsexy, and kind of mechanical. On the other hand, I'm left with the impression that Hans was fantastically aroused by the nameless woman. Perhaps he attached that feeling of immense physical pleasure to to love.

Also, the scene with the nameless woman and the roses... did it feel out of time to anyone else? It could have happened before he even met Irmgard. Did anyone else get that impression?

bill r. said...

And what about that Morocco scene? Much of it is untranslated, and what is translated shows that, yes, Hans has wanted to die for some time, but it also shows something about Harry. He chooses not to save Hans from torture, and when he saves him from being killed, he (or the other soldier? Can't remember) says "This is the earliest we could get here." Well, we know that's not true. So what is Fassbinder choosing to tell us about Harry? That he's secretly sadistic, and that Irmgard is really in for it now?

Sorry if I'm treading over old ground here, but work has made it difficult to keep up with everyone's comments.

Marilyn said...

This kind of just dawned on my as I was replying to Pat, but I think now that Hans saw the nameless woman as his true love because it was the only time he was sexually turned on. Again, I'm projecting a bit there, but I think back to that awkward sex scene between Irmgard and Hans when we see their feet and legs touching.

I think Hans was made to feel small by Irmgard laughing in remembrance of another time he tried to set the mood for love. She laughed at how funny he was; then when he turned his back to her, she had to coax him with the notion that the minute she saw him, she knew he wanted him. Even though he was so short. Not what I'd call a very inviting passage to passion.

Fox said...

That scene in Morocco left me scratching my head. Is it supposed to show that Hans has again misjudged someone? Harry would not necessarily have been my choice as a replacement if I had known he had allowed me to be tortured when he could have put a bullet in the Arab's head earlier....

Hmm... that's a fair point. I hadn't thought about it that way because I just took it as Harry rescuing Hans, but, you're right, Harry doesn't act until the Arab pulls his pistol. He lets him get tortured until that point.

But, Hans DOES say that Harry is swine (just less swine-y than the rest of us) so maybe that is Fassbinder's - and Hans' - way of showing us that while Harry is a decent man, he isn't as heroic a character as we initially think he's going to be.

OR, does Hans' even know that Harry was sitting there waiting until a pistol was pulled.

OR, is it Fassbinder not firing on all cylinders again.

That's a good scene to ponder on.

Marilyn said...

I took the flashback to be Harry's POV. I don't think Hans knew about Harry's lie, he just agreed that people "in general" are swines. That's the kind of barroom pronouncement you'd hear any day. In this way, I do see Hans in a Christlike (certainly tragic) way - the butt of everyone's aggression, the kid who gets picked on at school, the guy whose "friends" enjoy seeing him tortured. His acquiescence to death is something that should shame people, but it doesn't. His sister Anna is like a Greek chorus commenting on the mortal sins of those around her.

Fox said...

I want to bring up another scene where Fassbinder handles glances and ambiguous looks brilliantly: the one where Ansill's thievery is exposed and he realizes that Irmgard set him up. He looks at her, and she stares back blankly, and Hans sees them looking at one another<...
What I love about this scene is that it's not at all clear just how much Hans actually understands about what's going on here.
...

Totally agree with you there Ed. Fassbinder doesn't let us know if Hans is wise to Irmgard or not. It seems that he WOULD be with the way Ansil and Irmgard are looking at each other and especially the sneer she gives Ansil, and maybe he IS, but just doesn't care because he's beyond the point of worrying about his wife's infidelities and more concerned with finding a good, honest replacement for himself.

Fox said...

So what is Fassbinder choosing to tell us about Harry? That he's secretly sadistic, and that Irmgard is really in for it now?...

He's trying to tell us the truth about Harry. Eeek. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

But, Bill, both yours and Marilyn's comments are making me rethink the scene. Honestly I hadn't really thought about it that much beyond us being shown that Harry saved Hans.

I'm not really sure what to make of that scene right now, because I want to see Harry in a positive light, but I think you both bring up valid points about his character.

Fox said...

she knew he wanted him. Even though he was so short. Not what I'd call a very inviting passage to passion....

Yes, not a very exciting way to jump into some sex. "Hey, honey, you're a short, little man!".

I think this scene is a particulary devastating one. And what makes it so is the way Fassbinder shoots Hans' rolling over next to his record player like a little child listening to comforting music. I really liked the tiny turntable as a prop in this film.

And I don't see Irmgard as trying to be specifically cruel to Hans in this scene, it's just that the love - if there ever was any - they have has seeped away. Sex seems very rudimentary in this scene. Another chore in the day for Irmgard, as if she wants to use Hans to get off. Again, I don't think she's doing this purposefully in a mean way, it's just what their relationship has morphed into. Passionless sex is quite common as we all (or, uh, YOU ALL) know.

Contrast that sex to the sex she has with Ansil, where Irmgard is clearly having a raucous time until Renate walks in on them.

Pat said...

The Morocco scene was puzzling and disturbing to me, too, and to me, it's yet another example of people standing by and letting Hans suffer without doing anything to help him. Harry could have intervened much sooner - the fact that he wanted to wait and see what happened felt creepy to me. I felt like the insertion of that Morocco scene into the scene where Hans drinks himself to death just underscored the fact that no one really cared about him.

bill r. said...

This is only going to complicate matters, more than likely to no good end, but in that Moroccan flashback, when the Moroccan pulls the gun and Hans looks back, we see the gun from the back, in close up. At the time -- and I really should have gone back and double-checked -- it looked to me that there were no bullets in the chamber. Then it cuts back Hans, looking at the gun, as though he's noticed this, saying "Pull the trigger." Maybe a sort of false bravery, I thought, knowing as he did that there were no bullets in the gun.

I basically assumed I was mistaken, because none of this jibes with his desire to die, which is a pretty inescapable conclusion about Hans.

If anyone can check out that shot of the gun and let me know if I'm wrong, that would be great.

bill r. said...

Argh. In my previous comment, the phrase "...we see the gun from the back..." should, of course, be "...we see the gun from the FRONT..."

Marilyn said...

I believe I saw a bullet in the chamber, as I was looking for it. The Arab could just as easily have strangled him if the gun misfired, so I don't think it was false bravado on Hans' part.

Fox said...

Pat-

Marilyn brought this up in her previous "Christ" comment, but I think this scene is kind of Christ-like again in it's flogging on Hans with a whip. Though, as Bill said, Hans seems to be welcoming it in this scene. I mean, I guess technically Jesus was saying "kill me! kill me!" too, but not so pathecially as Hans... or so we've been taught.

Pat said...

Bill -

I went back and watched the scene. It looks like there is one bullet left in the gun to me. But I didn't get the sense that Hans would be able to see that. The way he's tied with that rope through his mouth, he can't really turn around very far.

Pat said...

I need to head out for a doctor's appointment, so I will be back on thread later.

This is a good discussion.

Fox said...

Bill and Marilyn-

I applaud y'alls attention to detail in the Arab gun scene! And since I am at home today, I will go put in the movie now and check...

Fox said...

Oops... Pat beat me to it.

Marilyn-

What were your thoughts on the sex in Merchant? I feel like we didn't hash that out yet.

And BTW... if I'm missing anyone else's comments, please feel free to reset them because I feel like I am slow in responding to everthing.

bill r. said...

I don't know if my attention to detail was all that strong, as I appear to have been wrong about the absence of bullets. I figured that angle was a wild goose chase anyway.

Fox said...

Pat, that scene struck me too. Schygulla gives a performance that is very deliberately in a different register from most of the other actors in this film: she's much warmer and quieter than the rest of Hans' family....

Ed, yes. And I think that ties in to what Marilyn said about her seeming like a member of a greek chorus, drifting around in and out of scenes. In that scene that you and Pat mention, and, actually, almost every scene that Anna is in, she seems to be in a kind of spiritual existence. I particularly like the shot of Hans staring at her from the couch late in the film when he is visiting her for the last time before his death.

So, is everyone in agreement that Hans is on a very aware path to suicide sometime after he survives his heart attack? It seems that we disagree on when this becomes a reality to him, but I'm curious if anyone think he doesn't come to this conclusion at all, and if he just kills himself out of bad judgment brought on by his drunkeness.

Fox said...

Bill-

Did you find that there were allusions to Christ at all?

Watching it again last night, I felt even stronger about the Last Super vibe at the bar table (albeit, more pathetic and not as noble), and then at the graveyard, after his true love walks away, Fassbinder leaves the camera lingering on a stone cross for about 5 seconds.

kassy said...

About the sex

I got the feeling that there wasn't much, if any, sex between Hans and Irmgard because he was busy schtupping the love of his life, also there wasn't any affection between Hans and Irmgard at that time. But after Irmgard had what I believe is revenge sex, I think she started thinking differently about sex in general. Maybe she was feeling empowered by having had some good sex and that made her more willing to have sex with Hans even to the point of instigating it herself. But she also felt more kindly towards him after the heart attack, so maybe she just gave him pity sex.

bill r. said...

He definitely killed himself deliberately. He certainly had it in mind when he last saw his sister, but at one point the idea took hold, I don't know. I don't think it occurred to him as early as the heart attack, though.

And Fox, I didn't pick up on the Christ allusions, and I feel like a dullard as a result. I'm usually on those like white on rice, because they're often none too subtle (though they can still be effective; there was a great one in, um, Lost last season), but this time it slipped by me.

Marilyn said...

I don't know if Fassbinder intended this, but it is a rather common occurrence after a heart attack for people to go into a deep depression. Perhaps the Morocco scene was necessary so that we could see Hans was suicidal all along. I personally might have attributed it to the heart attack otherwise. And, after all, Hans is very fagile and really can no longer work. The hubby feared that all his running while watching Ansil would kill him.

As for the sex, I feel that Hans might have been impotent off and on. It would certainly fit with his personality. Irmgard might have imagined it had to do with her attractiveness, further embittering her and making her more jealous of her rival.

I was put in mind of Bunuel with some of the sex scenes, particularly the close-up of Hans licking Irmgard's nipple. It had such a surreal quality to it.

Fox said...

Kassy-

Good points.

Irmgard's sex with Ansil almost feels revelatory with the way she is grinding on him. Yeah, I know that isn't necessarily an odd thing to do, but the look on her face and the abandon with which she is flinging her arms freely made me feel that she had never experienced something quite like this before. So much so that she forgot that her daughter might hear and walk in.

Also, Ansil is such a physically opposite man than Hans. Big, tough, hairy, proportioned. I love that actor. He's really fun to watch in The American Soldier. He's so manly looking.

Lastly, I just wanted to add - about this scene - that I love the shot of Irmgard semi-hiding behind the curtain after she is ashamed from her daughter seeing her. The slenderness of her body looks lovely with the curtains. That's really just a superficial comment, I guess.

Fox said...

And Fox, I didn't pick up on the Christ allusions, and I feel like a dullard as a result...

Don't feel that way, because maybe I'm just overlooking. I don't THINK I am, but it's just as possible as any other interpretation. Greg saw the same images that I did, but didn't take the same feelings from them, so...

I don't know. I'd like to do some digging on that after this is over and see if Fassbinder had anything to say on the subject. I hate to say I don't even know his religious beliefs or history of them. I suppose I should but I don't.

bill r. said...

Also, Ansil is such a physically opposite man than Hans. Big, tough, hairy, proportioned. I love that actor. He's really fun to watch in The American Soldier. He's so manly looking...

So manly looking as to be a cliche'. I thought he was kind of funny, this big beefy mustached fellow with the deep voice, and a kind of slanted, doofus grin. Not a bright guy, I don't think (the character, I mean), and I liked the way he just dropped out of the story. He didn't come storming back for revenge, like you'd expect. He probably got drunk, punched a wall, said, "Man, fuck her" and picked up a hooker.

Fox said...

The hubby feared that all his running while watching Ansil would kill him....

Aww... that's about the sweetest comment about this film that I've heard thus far! :) You're hubby is sensitive!

bill r. said...

Obviously, Marilyn's right that the Morocco scene indicates Hans's death wish stretching way back, yet I've been saying that I don't believe it started as early as the heart attack.

I suppose my take is that he tried to put that wish behind him. Things were looking up for him, however briefly. But having a successful fruit stand was still just having a fruit stand (in his eyes, by way of his family) and even when she was trying to rekindle some love and heat between them, his wife still laughed at him.

Fox said...

As for the sex, I feel that Hans might have been impotent off and on. It would certainly fit with his personality. Irmgard might have imagined it had to do with her attractiveness, further embittering her and making her more jealous of her rival....

I don't know if what I'm about to say is accurate, but it seems that Irmgard abandons her early "glasses look" after her sexual romp with Ansil. Maybe it wasn't the intention, but the big glasses gave her more of a homely look than when she was in a slender dress at the hospital.

Also, when that man hits on her (or, I guess, tries to rent her) on the street outside the bridal and furniture displays, I wonder if that is a visual expression of Fassbinder saying Irmgard is leaving those domestic ideals behind for a more adventurous sex life.

I was put in mind of Bunuel with some of the sex scenes, particularly the close-up of Hans licking Irmgard's nipple. It had such a surreal quality to it....

Oh, I'm glad you brought that up because I had totally forgotten it. I saw it as kind of fumbling, as if Hans had ventured into territroy where he knew not what to do. It was kind of unsettling even, leaving me on edge. It's like... come on Hans! Get it! What are you doing???

bill r. said...

I felt like Fassbinder was trying to get across a sense of tenderness in that scene.

Fox said...

So manly looking as to be a cliche'. I thought he was kind of funny, this big beefy mustached fellow with the deep voice, and a kind of slanted, doofus grin. Not a bright guy, I don't think (the character, I mean), and I liked the way he just dropped out of the story. He didn't come storming back for revenge, like you'd expect. He probably got drunk, punched a wall, said, "Man, fuck her" and picked up a hooker....

Exactly. He even seems doofus like in bed. Though surely he is meat enough for Irmgard to have a good time, he kind of just seems to be sitting there with a a Butthead "huh-huh" look on his face.

My mind is getting jumbled now, but doesn't a lady walk up to Ansil and ask him where that "short little man" is, or something??

Fox said...

I felt like Fassbinder was trying to get across a sense of tenderness in that scene...

Again, I think the dryness in this movie really leaves things open.

I re-watched this movie at least three times this week, and felt differently about specific scenes each time. I think Fassbinder makes us work with this film, and I think a lot our comments show that.

Ed Howard said...

Sorry I've been away, busy at work for a bit.

I read the Morocco scene, like some others here, as a further indication of people standing by and not acting on Hans' behalf. I don't think Hans himself knew that Harry had been waiting and watching, but the flashback shows that -- as in the final drinking scene -- even those who care most about Hans are shockingly ambivalent about whether he lives or dies. Even Anna, the one person in the film who really seems to give a damn, is distant and distracted when Hans visits her. He's sad and quiet, and it's obvious to the audience that this is his way of saying goodbye to his sister, but she doesn't pay much attention to him; she takes it for granted that she'll see him another time. The rest of them simply sit by and watch at the finale, just as Harry watched Hans get tortured nearly to death.

As for the sex, I'm with Fox that Irmgard's sexual experience with Ansil was a revelation for her, a moment of passion that she's never experienced with Hans, who seems to have reserved his real intense desire for the other woman. The sex scene between Irmgard and Hans is profoundly unsexy.

Irmgard is actually set up from the very beginning of the film as an object of sexuality: the first glimpse we get of her is the scene where she's lifting her skirt and fastening her stockings to her garter belt, and Hans is looking at her legs. It's a sexy image, and then she looks up and she's got on those big and decidedly unsexy glasses, so that her whole image is this clash between carnality and a kind of homely matronliness. Of course, Hans is then immediately distracted by the love of his life calling from upstairs, which makes him forget Irmgard altogether. So it's obvious that there's a spark of something between Hans and Irmgard -- you can see why they got together -- but on the whole whatever feelings they have for each other are awkward and hesitant.

bill r. said...

Fox, out of curiousity, and because I'm self-centered, what about this film made you specifcally wonder what I would think about it?

bill r. said...

Also, anybody else think the hooker who attempted to give her services to Hans in the police station looked not unlike the "love of his life"?

Fox said...

Maybe Hans' death wish was way before we even know. When he's on the stairs telling Anna that he's joining the legion, he seems done, resigned.

However, when he returns to his mother's home (as she ascends the same stairs he sat on with Anna), there is a little hope in his face as if he's thinking "hey, maybe I can still make something out of my shitty life", but Mother Epps squashes that pretty instantly.

And when Mother Epp is finally proud (somewhat) - at that dinner table scene with the whole family - that her son is making enough money to live up to her standards, Hans is already done, eating food just to get him to the day that he will kill himself.

P.S. I know the brother-in-law character Kurt has the "Herr R." history with him, but that actor just cracks me up whenever I see him. The way he was eating his dessert in that scene was quite humorous to me.

Fox said...

Also, anybody else think the hooker who attempted to give her services to Hans in the police station looked not unlike the "love of his life"?...

Yes, and that kind of makes me wonder if Hans made the whole thing up.

Greg said...

Fox and everyone, please accept my apologies again. I hate missing so much and then having to catch back up. I cannot disguise the fact that this has been a difficult day for me so please accept my apologies. If the stuff I have to do could have happened on any other day...

Anyway, I am also having trouble with this discussion, and I'll be up front and honest about that. I am unfocused today so that may be it but I am wondering what, in the end, Fassbinder intended with this story. Perhaps it is because with the first seven (True Meaning of Pictures, Tin Drum, Boudou, Serpent's Egg, Dancer in the Dark, Somebody to Love, Black Book) all had clear meanings and purposes to me. I'm not sure what Fassbinder was intending to do. Is it all just an academic exercise, a deconstruction of the fifties melodrama? I liked the film and even found its deconstructions fascinating but it left me completely empty. So is there another point or purpose other than deconstruction?

bill r. said...

I'm sorry you're having a rough day today, Greg, and I don't think you should feel obligated to take part today if you don't feel up to it.

But in answer to your question, I think that beyond the deconstruction, I think the point is to tell this story sincerely. Fassbinder may be self-conscious about his chosen genre here, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't mean it. If you get what I'm saying. If deconstruction was all he cared about, I don't think the film would have been so idiosyncratic.

Fox said...

I read the Morocco scene, like some others here, as a further indication of people standing by and not acting on Hans' behalf. I don't think Hans himself knew that Harry had been waiting and watching, but the flashback shows that -- as in the final drinking scene -- even those who care most about Hans are shockingly ambivalent about whether he lives or dies....


OK, so I just went and watched that Morocco scene again, and I want to defend Harry a bit here.

Now, it's true that he doesn't act immediately, but it appears that Harry is the one who says, "we must help him" while the other says "let's wait and see what happens".

That's not to excuse Harry's delay in shooting, but I'm not sold on the fact that he was ambivalent about whether Hans died or not. I still think Harry is genuine in his feelings for Hans, just as Irmgard and Anna are.

Ed Howard said...

Greg, I think the lack of a didactic "purpose" here is one of Fassbinder's best attributes. One rarely walks away from a Fassbinder film feeling like they've been at a cinematic lecture. But that hardly means the film is pointless. Fassbinder's films are almost all about relationships of various kinds, about the ways in which people are continually using and hurting one another, both intentionally and unintentionally. His films are about how love is both absolutely necessary, and, more often than not, absolutely fatal. His characters thirst for love, they need it desperately, but it also destroys them. Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" could've been written about Fassbinder; its title is a driving sentiment throughout much of his work. I think all of Fassbinder's formal maneuvers, like his tributes to 50s melodrama, are intended as ways of expressing these ideas about the human condition. It's a bleak and rather harrowing outlook on humanity, but I'd hardly say the film is empty or devoid of purpose; in fact, I find it quite moving.

Fox said...

Fox, out of curiousity, and because I'm self-centered, what about this film made you specifcally wonder what I would think about it?...

It was mainly because I'm generally unable to gauge your reactions to the films we've seen so far. I always try to guess who will like/dislike the film we watch, and you seem to be the one I can't pin down. Not that I have pinned down anyone, but you've been the squirreliest.

Also, you seem to respond to character driven films from the stuff you've written about on you blog (books included) that I thought you might respond positively to this film.

AND... because Greg told me that you were a German alcoholic who sold fruit.

Greg said...

Bill, I don't feel obligated, I want to take part, it's just things keep pulling me away.

Bill and Ed - I understand a story standing on its own without specific educational purpose, I was saying, and feeling while watching it, that because the emotion is drained from it by the purposeful monotone I did not get anything from it but Fassbinder's desire to tell a story through genre deconstruction - and I think that's a valid purpose - I was just curious if anyone got any more from it. And Ed did. As for me I found it interesting but not moving in any way. The generic interiors, where it looked as if Fassbinder used the same room for every location, also left me cold. Hans death was handled so emotionlessly and sterilely that I felt nothing.

There's a falsity here that fits in well with Sirk but nonetheless kept me at a distance (as it does with Sirk). For instance, others here called the wife beating scene disturbing. I watched with a blank expression. It is so screamingly obvious he's not putting any weight behind his hits and there is no attempt made to force me into a suspension of disbelief and so I sat there watching him flay his arms up and down on her. I appreciate a good deconstruction, it's just that, for me and possibly me alone, it was so thorough as to be devoid of any further meaning.

Fox said...

Greg-

Don't apologize. Seriously. And I follow-up with what Bill said by saying I'm sorry you're having a rough day.

But as with what Fassbinder was trying to achieve with this, I take it as a tragic character drama tinged with his own spin on the melodramas that he fell in love with. To me, Fassbinder is taking in his movie loves and reinventing the melodrama in his own way instead of just regurgitating them a la Todd Haynes with Far From Heaven... a film which I find totally uninteresting.

I do think there is some sloppiness to it, which can either be attributed to his fast working style, his still fresh career at the time (though I think he knocked it out of the park the following year with The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant), or both, and I think that gives the films some hiccups.

But, for me personally, I would narrow it down to the fact that Fassbinder has an approach to art that I jive with, a desire to investigate the individual and the small (sometimes mundane) moments they (we) go through. I think Ed pointed to this earlier, but most of Fassbinder's films really swing back around to that, as in The Marriage of Maria Braun, where the collapse of Germany is happening, yet Fassbinder larely sticks to Maria instead of the events around her.

Ed Howard said...

Also, Fox mentioned above Kurt Raab, the actor who plays the brother-in-law. He's definitely a great actor and a hilarious presence in Fassbinder's films. I'm sure everyone knows that Fassbinder had a stable of regular actors who he used again and again, including of course Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Ingrid Caven, and lots of others who appear in this film. Raab was another one, and I always love seeing him, often drifting at the fringes of Fassbinder's films in quirky roles. And then of course there's the shockingly funny Satan's Brew, a starring role for him and Fassbinder's purest dark comedy.

Pat said...

Greg -

Sorry you're having a bad day, and I hope it gets better.

To you other point, I had the same kind of struggle with the film. I was moved by the character of Hans and felt great pity for him. But beyond that, I wasn't really sure what Fassbiner intended or why he made this film. So you're not alone on that count.

Marilyn said...

I find the emphasis on romance in Fassbinder and Haynes an interesting commentary on gay cinema. I remember Tony Kushner saying he wanted to write a play that took gay theatre out of its emphasis on romance and create a social important context. I think Haynes has tried to do that with mixed results. Fassbinder still seems very relationship-driven; Hans' failure is only a social one in that his mother disapproves of his working-class ambitions, and his true love must reject him for the same reasons. You could read a gay subtext into this entire film if you want to, but I don't.

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn, I agree with you about Fassbinder and gayness. I think people often read gay subtext into his films because they know about his life, but personally, I've always felt like his interests were more generally about humanity as a whole rather than specifically about the gay experience. Even in his films that are explicitly about sexual identity and desire -- Fox and His Friends, In a Year of 13 Moons -- his characters' desire for love can easily be adapted to a straight context. With the exception of Querelle (which I don't get much out of myself, but that's another story), none of his films really need to be about gay themes.

That said, he is often socially and politically conscious in a broader sense. Maybe not in this film, but in many of his films the forces conspiring against his characters are societal/structural in nature, particularly in The Third Generation, Fear Eats the Soul, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven and Berlin Alexanderplatz. In films like that, Fassbinder depicts characters trapped by societies and political situations designed to screw over the ordinary person. Then again, ultimately I think Fassbinder is too hopeless and pessimistic about people to be a truly political filmmaker; he depicts the misery of most people's situations with a razor-sharp sensibility, but can never quite visualize a way out.

kassy said...

Also, anybody else think the hooker who attempted to give her services to Hans in the police station looked not unlike the "love of his life"?

I thought so too, I'm not sure if it actually was her, but if it was maybe that is how they met? And if it was her, it seems very Hans-like that in meeting the love of his life he lost his job.

Greg said...

Pat, thanks on both counts. As far as this being a tragic character drama or any other descriptive purpose one might give it, what I'm saying, and I think Pat may have felt the same way, is that the technique rendered that story meaningless to me. As a result it became a blueprint for a tragic character drama or a rough walkthrough but not the actual thing.

I am sure we are all aware as cinephiles that Fassbinder has some serious detractors in the community and their main objection is that his films are empty exercises. I don't fully agree with that but I am possibly closer to their side than I am to say, Ed's side. The thing is, I can't fully judge anyway because I've only seen this, ALI and MARIA BRAUN, both of which I thought were much better but I can see the detractors points. And their belief that fans are projecting things onto the screen that aren't there.

Marilyn said...

Ed - Yes, I see that in Fassbinder, too, but I don't think he doesn't give us an out. He has a unique ability to turn pessimism into a kind of optimism - the optimism of compassion. This film is almost his "Death of a Salesman," where attention must be paid to the disrespected fruit peddlar whose heart has been broken by life.

Fox said...

Greg-

Also... I would add that even though I agree with you about the monotone quality to the acting and film overall, I still reacted emotionally to it the way I do with Bresson's films (as Bill alluded to earlier). To me, A Man Escaped is one of the most spiritually powerful films I've ever seen, and it's actors are like wood.

I think it makes sense if you, or anybody, responds to Merchnat in an anti-emotional way (and btw, I don't mean to imply that doesn't mean you can't/don't like it), and views the film as kind of an experiment, but I will offer up that I find Fassbinder to be a filmmaker where a consumption of his larger body of work chunk helps in appreciating individual films within that. Because he worked so fast, a lot of his themes and ideas cross over into other films.

Again, this may make someone dislike a specific film, or someone may find that "body of work" theory to be bogus, and I totally respect that, but that's just way I interpret his work and his films.

Ed Howard said...

I agree with Fox that Fassbinder is a case where seeing more of his work really enhances appreciation of what he's after. The first few Fassbinder films I saw, I honestly really didn't know what to think, and it sounds like that's the reaction some people are having here. It wasn't until I saw In a Year of 13 Moons -- probably Fassbinder's most emotionally affecting and aesthetically bold film, incidentally -- that he really clicked for me as a director. I'm not sure it was the particular film I saw, either, so much as the fact that it was the 3rd or 4th Fassbinder film I'd seen by then and I had more of a context to really understand it at that point. After that I've seen another 20 or so films by him and he's become one of my favorite filmmakers -- but it certainly wasn't an immediate connection.

Ed Howard said...

Ed - Yes, I see that in Fassbinder, too, but I don't think he doesn't give us an out. He has a unique ability to turn pessimism into a kind of optimism - the optimism of compassion. This film is almost his "Death of a Salesman," where attention must be paid to the disrespected fruit peddlar whose heart has been broken by life.

Marilyn, I think you're probably right there. Most of Fassbinder's films show people treating each other like shit, more or less, existing in misery and despair. So the implicit message of all of these films is that if we only treat one another a little better, with a little more compassion and empathy, maybe things wouldn't be so unbearable.

Marilyn said...

I clicked with Fassbinder immediately. I saw my first Fassbinder, Lili Marlene at the theatre, and was drawn to it the way I was to Black Book. Honestly, his touchstone with women's films makes it extremely easy for me to like him. When he wants to devastate, there's no one like him: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tore me to pieces.

Greg said...

I still think this work stands on it's own and I still like it I just didn't draw anything from it emotionally and felt it's most powerful intention was one of deconstruction. However, reading Fox and Ed's comments I am more likely to believe that my take on it is heavily influenced by my lack of familiarity with him and the more I watch the better I will see the true intentions of the director.

bill r. said...

This is my fifth Fassbinder film (or maybe only fourth, if what Ed tells me about Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is true). My first was Bitter Tears..., then Chinese Roulette, and by that point I was still unsure. I plugged along and checked out Ali, and I think that's where things started to come together for me. I think Fox is right about Fassbinder focusing on the little moments, the little details, that make his films live, moreso than, say, performances. That odd, sad little bar in Ali is still quite vivid to me, for instance, and I think in some ways Ali is about how that bar looked. It's about how even the places people go to to get away from everything kind of suck.

The equivelant in Merchant of Four Seasons would possibly be the fruit cart business, although I don't think that Fassbinder -- and I'm certainly not saying this -- is looking down his nose at people who hold those kinds of jobs. It's more that nothing is ever good enough. You can start to make your way in a job that people sneer at, or that you hate, and you're still going to hate it, and people are still going to sneer at you. Even if your wife loves you, she's still going to laugh at you. These things can be brushed off or forgiven or put into perspective by some, but not by others, and Hans has had too much of it in his life to not be one of those others.

I feel like I've lost my point about Ali and the bar, but anyway...busy frickin' day, and all.

Fox said...

Sorry... I was away getting my car... but now I'm back... for a bit...

When he wants to devastate, there's no one like him: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tore me to pieces....

Marilyn, I agree. That scene where Ali and the woman (sorry, I forget her name right now) are the courtyard of yellow tables??? Devastating for sure!

I think also the fact that Fassbinder was dating the actor who played Ali at teh time of that filming helped inject a lot of emotion into that film. I'm sure a gay and interracial couple was just as upsetting to some as the straigh interracial (not to mention the age difference) bewteen Ali and the woman.

Fox said...

Bill-

You're so right about that little bar. Maybe it was just Germany in the late 70's but it had a very ... how do I say ... kind of bloated and scary look to it. Whenever Emmi (I finally looked up her name!!) would go in there, you could feel the tension. I love when she walks in and stands her ground after Ali has turned his back on her. Plus, the bartender has this Amazonian intimidation to her.

Bill, did you like Petra when you watched it?

Also, Ebert's GREAT MOVIES essay on Ali: Fear Eats The Soul is pretty great for anyone who hasn't read it already.

bill r. said...

Fox, I didn't know what to feel about Bitter Tears.... To be honest, I was watching it because I'd never seen Fassbinder and felt like I should, and my hopes weren't all that high. I don't know why I thought I wouldn't like it, but I did. Anyway, I didn't dislike it, but I didn't know what I thought about it. I was encouraged to go further, though, and I'm glad I did, because I'm really starting to get into his films.

Ed Howard said...

I'm convinced that Bitter Tears is the first Fassbinder film for a lot of guys because they read that it's about bitchy lesbians. And boy must they be disappointed. It's such a strange, alienating film.

Fox said...

However, reading Fox and Ed's comments I am more likely to believe that my take on it is heavily influenced by my lack of familiarity with him and the more I watch the better I will see the true intentions of the director....

Greg-

And just to be clear - though I don't think you took it this way - I wasn't trying to imply that "you must be well-versed to understand it", that's just what happened with me. Plus, in Marilyn's case she connected immediately.

I've had a hard time connecting to Eric Rohmer's films in the past, for whatever reason, and though it may be because I just haven't been exposed enough to him yet, it could just be that I don't jive with his work. It's interesting, I think, how this stuff happens.

bill r. said...

I'm convinced that Bitter Tears is the first Fassbinder film for a lot of guys because they read that it's about bitchy lesbians...

I don't remember reading that myself. I may have hoped for that regardless.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, as Fox says, I think each of Fassbinder's films do stand alone. It's just that he's a particularly difficult director in some ways and it might take some time and patience to acclimate to his world, if you do at all. (And then others will likely "get it" right away.)

Rohmer, on the other hand, is one where if you like one, you'll probably like them all; and maybe vice versa as well. I love his work and clicked with it almost immediately.

Fox said...

I'm convinced that Bitter Tears is the first Fassbinder film for a lot of guys because they read that it's about bitchy lesbians. And boy must they be disappointed. It's such a strange, alienating film....

That's pretty funny Ed, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's true.

But now reading everyone's comments, I'm trying to figure out what would be the best first film to recommend of Fassbinder's if someone asked you. What do y'all think? Just browsing his body of work right now, it's hard for me to say.

I'm tempted to say something like Chinese Roulette or Satan's Brew b/c they are pretty accessible, but then they can be pretty nasty films as well, and I don't know if I would want to leave that first impression. I really think Fox and His Friends is extremely (bitter)sweet, but then it may come off as plodding for first timers. I don't know.

Fox said...

I find the emphasis on romance in Fassbinder and Haynes an interesting commentary on gay cinema. I remember Tony Kushner saying he wanted to write a play that took gay theatre out of its emphasis on romance and create a social important context. I think Haynes has tried to do that with mixed results. Fassbinder still seems very relationship-driven; Hans' failure is only a social one in that his mother disapproves of his working-class ambitions, and his true love must reject him for the same reasons. You could read a gay subtext into this entire film if you want to, but I don't...

Marilyn-

I agree. I don't read the disapprobal and rejection of Hans as gay subtext either.

The thing with Hanyes and his reimagining of All The Heaven Allows with Far From Heaven versus Fassbinder's with Ali, is that I think Haynes was trying way too hard with the sub-story of Dennis Quaids. It felt almost as if he felt pressured into it because he was a gay filmmaker. And for the Haysbert and Moore relationship, well, it just felt like old territory after the Wyman/Hudson and Emmi/Ali storylines. Even more, I was disappointed with the style of Haynes' film. I wish he would have reimagined All That Heaven Allows in his own style instead of attempting to pay tribute to it. That film just perplexes me.

Fox said...

OK guys... I have to leave for a bit again. :( (life sure gets in our way, doesn't it??) But please don't stop the discussion as I will be back later this evening.

A big thanks to all of you for making it such a fun and enlightening day. I feel like I have so many Fassbinder characters and films swimming in my head now that I may need to go to the video store just to stare at them.


Fun fun day! And thanks again! But, please don't stop because I will be back tonight... talking to myself if I have to!

Ed Howard said...

But now reading everyone's comments, I'm trying to figure out what would be the best first film to recommend of Fassbinder's if someone asked you. What do y'all think?

I never get tired of recommending In a Year of 13 Moons, maybe because it was the Fassbinder film that first really did it for me, maybe just because it remains such a bittersweet masterpiece. It's incredibly depressing, though, even by Fassbinder's standards.

I do love Chinese Roulette and Satan's Brew, both of which are among my favorites, but I think those are both so caustic that it might be offputting for many people. I mean, those are some really fierce films.

Maybe the most accessible of his films, all around, is Lola, another great one. That might be a fine place to start.

Marilyn said...

I think I would recommend The Marriage of Maria Braun. I think people are very used to seeing WWII films - they're perennially popular - and this is one of the best.

bill r. said...

I really want to see Satan's Brew. I was reading about it yesterday. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn't carry it, and so I'd have to buy a used copy off Amazon for about 20 bucks. Not prepared to do that yet, I'm afraid.

Fox said...

Ed & Marilyn-

Both good recommendations. I like the idea of WWII being an way of easing into a Fassbinder film. It makes sense. And, in fact, the BRD trilogy from Criterion (w/ both Maria Braun and Lola) might be the best place even though it was near the end of his career. Yet, sometimes that's the best place to start, I've found.

And Ed, I agree about the caustic-ness of both Satan's Brew and Chinese Roulette, and I think you're right that that would not make for a jumping off point, b/c it might give a nasty first impression. And it's been a long time sense I've seem them as well, I just remember them being accessible compared to others.

Bill-

That's irritating - but not surprising - that Netflix doesn't carry Satan's Brew. I guess it couldn't be their fault if the DVD went out of print, but I KNOW there is one because it was part of all of those Fassbinder sets that came out like 3 at a time. But, with those being kind of old, I guess it makes sense for them to be out of print. Man, I sure hope stuff like that makes it to Blu-ray. I am really in the dark on if it's expernsive for DVD labels to reissue movies on Blu-ray, especially for small houses like Wellspring that I don't even know exists anymore or not.

Fox said...

Bill-

BTW... I just check used Amazon for Satan's Brew, and they are going from a low of $29.95 to a high of $89.95! Yikes!! I guess that means it is definitely OOP.

Seems as Blu-ray phases in, we may all have quite a few collector's items on our hands.

Ed Howard said...

Fox, unfortunately I think most (if not all?) of the Wellspring Fassbinder DVDs went out of print and Wellspring has pretty much gone under. It's a shame. I have them all, but unfortunately it does make it difficult for Region 1 viewers to get acquainted with his films now. The Wellspring DVDs weren't perfect -- yellow subtitles, yuck -- but the picture quality was mostly good. I think I remember hearing that Criterion picked up a bunch of them to package as Eclipse sets, but I don't remember if that was just a rumor or not.

Fox said...

God bless Criterion. Seriously.

It's great that you have them all. I need to start scrounging what I can. All I own is Merchant, Petra, and the BRD Triology.

And Ed, did you like (have you seen?) Fear of Fear? I remember really liking it, but I'm foggy on it. I just saw it on the list when I went to Amazon and was trying to recall it but was doing a poor job of it.

And what about the label that put out Martha, 13 Moons, Whity, and others? Is that one still around? Gosh, it feels like just yesterday when those films were seeing DVD releases, and now they are out of date.

Ed Howard said...

It's been a while since I've seen Fear of Fear, but I remember it being a minor, surprisingly conventional Fassbinder, despite a typically great performance from Margit Carstensen. I thought Martha was much better in a similar vein. I did a double bill post a while back where I compared it to Todd Haynes' masterpiece Safe (and I'm amazed I've managed to resist responding to all the Far From Heaven snipes in this thread heheh).

Fantoma, the other boutique label that released a lot of Fassbinder in the US, is also, I think, out of business at this point, though I'm not sure if their stuff is OOP also; I haven't looked. I hope all this stuff will remain readily available no matter what happens to media formats in coming years.

Marilyn said...

Facets has Satan's Brew for rent. I'd be happy to acquire it and run DVDs for anyone who wants them.

BTW, I just found out my review of Bresson's A Man Escaped is in a published bibliography (the most complete in history, I believe). Look who I'm listed under:

Fassbinder, Rainer Werner
1998 [sine titulo], in: [Quandt (ed.) 1998], 549-550
Ferdinand, Marilyn
2006 'A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s'est échappé) (1956)', ferdyonfilms.com, 15/02/2006 (internet)

Fox said...

Marilyn-

Where can we find that bibliography? That's amazing and awesome.

Also, a friend said something recently about Facets doing a Netflix type thing. Is that accurate?

Fox said...

Ed-

I think the success of a label like Blue Underground is something to have hope in and follow. They are already putting rare stuff out on Blu-ray. Granted, a lot of that cult stuff has a pretty big audience that is larger than, I would imagine, something like out-of-print Fassbinder. But at least it's something.

Marilyn said...

Here's the link to the bibliography. It's absolutely amazing.

You can rent films from Facets, but I don't know how they work it. Because Shane volunteers there (and now my buddy Mike is in charge of rentals), we can take a couple of movies for free as long as we get them back in two days. Here's the Facets link if you want to find out more.

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