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.