Sunday, 9 October 2011

Fassbinder-Veronika Voss(1982)

Fassbinder’s penultimate film, “Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss” (“The Longing of Veronika Voss”) being it’s German title, occupies the middle section of what has come to be known as “The BRD Trilogy”, three films made during the latter part of his career, each focussed on a female lead character trying to make her way in the early years of the new post-war German republic. Each is also a kind of tribute to one of his own favourite films: “The Marriage of Maria Braun”(1978) has been identified as having parallels with “Mildred Pierce”; Barbara Sukowa as “Lola” is a recognisable homage to Marlene Dietrich’s “Blue Angel”; and “Veronika Voss” is strongly reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” in that it charts the decline of a washed-up screen star who proves dangerously fascinating to a younger man. However, Fassbinder’s model for his character has also been identified as being Sybille Schmitz, a highly successful actress in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s who, in turn, became a favourite of Joseph Goebbels. Like Voss, Schmitz found that there was no place for her in post-Nazi Germany and, her career over, she committed suicide in 1955 through an overdose of sleeping tablets, although a year later legal action was taken against her doctor for improper medical treatment. Read on and you will see striking similarities!

The film, set in 1950s Munich, begins in a cinema with Voss (Rosel Zech) watching one of her old films in which her character, a movie star no less, desperately signs away her life and belongings for a hit of the drugs to which she is so obviously cripplingly addicted, this as we see actually being a mirror image of what has become of Fassbinder’s heroine in “real life”. Interestingly, watching the film over her shoulder with great concentration is the director himself, making a Hitchcock-style cameo appearance, the irony being that his life would soon be cut short, too, as a result of the drugs on which he had become increasingly dependent. Anyway, Veronika can only take so much of her former glory and storms out of the cinema in tears. Then, as she stands crying in the rain, a man takes pity and offers her shelter under his umbrella and so begins the film in earnest.

The man, we find out, is Robert Krohm, a sports reporter who soon falls under her spell, both sexually and as a journalist wanting to unravel the mystery that her life has become. Having alighted from the tram and run into the premises of Dr. Marianne Katz, “Nervenärztin” (a lady doctor for the nerves), he is clearly on her mind, too, and in the next scene we see him and his girlfriend being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from her, inviting him to tea later that day so that she can reward his gallantry. During this, their first rendezvous proper and where it becomes apparent that she is deluding herself that her star quality and fame are still what they were in prior decades, she borrows 300 Marks from him so that she can run off and buy a brooch she says she has seen at a kiosk downstairs from their table. Having just got him to admit that he finds her very beautiful and procured the money, she exclaims “When I see something, I have to have it.” The brooch, by the way, gets returned for a cash refund once Robert has left the restaurant. 

Robert, having undertaken a bit of background research, then seeks out Veronika in pursuit of his 300 marks and traces her to Dr. Katz’s clinic where she lives, signing away what remains of her fortune for the opiates she now needs to survive. As he gains admittance and enters, we see that the place has an otherworldly glow of pure whiteness (the film is shot in black and white, anyway) suggestive both of the powder she must have regularly administered and the afterlife into which she has effectively already passed. It soon turns out that Dr. Katz sees wealthy clients privately for their depression, writing out false prescriptions to which they will become addicted and through which she can bleed them dry of all they possess. The elderly Jewish couple, survivors of Treblinka, whom he meets on this first visit to Katz, are also suffering a similar predicament, their antique business slowly being sucked away from them by their slavery to their addiction. Veronika has been gagged behind the scenes for the duration of Robert’s meeting with the doctor and gets a real dressing down once he has left. “Whenever you need something, you should ask me. Understood?” she “reassures” her client in a sinister and threatening manner.


When Robert spends a night with her at the villa near Lake Starnberg, which she tries to pass off as still being her own – she had turned up at his home and demanded in front of his girlfriend that he left with her, right there and then – her desperate state becomes apparent to him as she begins to suffer withdrawal symptoms and Robert the sleuth is fast on the case. He finds out that Dr. Katz is not acting alone but is in cahoots with more official suppliers and decides to expose their racket. Getting his girlfriend to pose as a potential client, she sees Katz and gains the all-important incriminating prescription. However, the doctor’s secretary unearths the plot, the girlfriend is mowed down by a car and the evidence is swapped for a more innocuous alternative. Meanwhile, Veronika is trying to stage a comeback by organising a party where she sings a rather clipped version of “Memories are Made of This” in front of an invited audience. It’s all in vain, though, as Dr. Katz has decided she’s trouble and goes away over the Easter period, leaving Veronika in the clinic without the drugs she so desperately craves. Unable to cope, she makes up her face, overdoses on sleeping tablets – a good supply of those has been thoughtfully left by her bedside – and dies. The film ends with Robert realising the futility of his actions, refusing to do a follow-up article on Veronika’s death because “Journalistically speaking, this case is closed.” Impotent to take on such deep-rooted and institutionalised corruption, he returns crest-fallen to sports journalism.

Part film noir, part Hollywood melodrama, “Veronika Voss” is a delight to the eyes from start to finish and epitomises a degree of sophistication which Fassbinder achieved in the later stages of his career in the BRD Trilogy films, the epic television adaptation of Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and the colour saturated fantasy of “Querelle”. It’s no wonder he finally achieved the recognition after which he so hankered at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival. However, the bite of early Fassbinder films is still there, too, as “Veronika Voss”, like its sister films, is a searing critique of the post-war German miracle in which not all Germans fared as well as others and in which a sort of historical amnesia was necessary in order to move forwards. Veronika Voss, who rode the crest of the wave of the Nazi era, and the Jewish couple, who represent the other side of the coin but who also end up committing suicide when their supply dries up, all end up in the same desperate boat in the new, improved republic where, it seems, a new set of tyrants now inflict a less conspicuous brutality upon the weak than that doled out by their predecessors.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Fassbinder-In A Year Of Thirteen Moons(1978)

During the opening credits of what must be one of Fassbinder’s most brutal yet poignant films, we are told that - “Every seventh year is a moon year. People whose lives are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression in these years. To a lesser degree, this is also true of years with 13 new moons. When a moon year also has 13 new moons, inescapable tragedies may occur. In the 20th century, this dangerous constellation occurs six times. One of these is 1978.” – and whilst this is all being relayed, we are also being introduced to our ill-fated heroine, Elvira (formerly Erwin – played brilliantly by Volker Spengler), who is out cruising leather clones in a riverside park in the half light of the early morning. Money exchanges hands and, as her chosen man unpicks Elvira’s biker drag, he realises that she’s missing the necessary tackle and throws a wobbler, calling over his colleagues who then partially strip her and give her a good kicking, vicious and angry blows being repeatedly directed into her modified crotch. She then crawls away, across a railway line and through some bushes, like a wounded animal, and our first impressions of Elvira as being one of society’s outsiders and as someone whose difference will lead to her eventual downfall are being formed, as we prepare to watch the crash course which will be the last five days of her life.

Fresh from her assault, Elvira returns home to her flat and, thinking she’s alone, she slumps behind the front door, only to then hear the toilet flush and her ex-lover, Christoph, emerge from the bathroom. Within seconds an argument ensues in which the first details begin to emerge about this mysterious character we have been watching for the last five minutes or so. Elvira tells Christof that she has been dressing in men’s clothing again recently and he accuses her of being drunk and hysterical. Then, when Elvira replies that she is simply lonely, continuing to state that “the only thing I did wrong was to yearn for someone to caress me and kiss me,” Christof strikes her, strips her down to her underwear and drags her to the bathroom mirror where he truly begins to vent his spleen. “Look at yourself!” he demands. “Do you see now why I don’t come home anymore? You drink and get fatter and fatter till your face revolts me like a contagious disease, like leprosy.” He then packs his bags to leave for a final time, telling Elvira that she’s superfluous to life, has no brain and that “it smells of putrefaction” when she’s around. Her attempts to make him stay are futile, even when she reminds him that she helped him to rebuild his self-respect when he was at rock bottom. He’s straight out of the door, anyway, Elvira, in a state of déshabillé, hot in pursuit. Moments later, as she sprawls across the bonnet of his car and ends up in a heap in the road, we then meet Red Zora, who is a prostitute and who just happened to be seeing off a regular client as Elvira’s drama spilled out into the street. She runs to her rescue and becomes her companion for much of what remains of Elvira’s life, as together they visit people and places which have been significant to her and through which Elvira attempts to make sense of her troubled past.


Their first port of call is the slaughterhouse where Elvira was once employed and where she has recently reapplied for work, only to have been laughed out the door now that she is a woman. Before their arrival, Zora has questioned this line of employment, saying that she feels that it is “acting against life”. However, Elvira replies, “No, it’s not. It’s life itself, the streaming blood and death. That’s what gives an animal’s life meaning.” A tone is being set. Then, as they weave through one bleeding cadaver after another and, as we witness blood and innards spilling out in this most grotesque scene, Elvira begins to tell her story of how she married a butcher’s daughter, got divorced and then lived with Christof, an actor whose career had been a failure. As the story is calmly told over images of slashed open, dead and dying cattle, the comparison with Elvira’s own inner turmoil is only too clear.

Next, they go to a games arcade where the incessant, jarring sounds and flashing lights create an atmosphere of hellish chaos which, again, is reflective of Elvira’s spiralling maelstrom of a life. In a gorgeously tragic moment, she sinks despairingly against a wall whilst Roxy Music’s “Song for Europe” grows in volume and intensity in the background. What was already a brilliant song takes on a new dimension in this context.

Zora then takes Elvira to see her friend, Seelenfrieda (a name which suggests a soul in peace) for help. He lives in a darkened apartment and seems to have relinquished any contact with the outside world. Over a soundtrack of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”, Alan Vega’s “Heart of Darkness” screams wonderfully complementing the horror which is Elvira’s life, he relates a dream he had in which he’d seen gravestones in a cemetery, the inscriptions on which suggested that those buried beneath them had only lived for short periods of time, years, weeks or even days. When he had asked a nearby gardener why this was the case, he had learnt that this, in fact, represented not their entire lives but the portion of which they lived them with a true friend by their side. His contribution, of course, does not lighten the mood.


As Elvira’s story further unfolds, we find out that she was brought up in a convent and she and Zora pay a visit to find out what truly happened. It transpires that Erwin was a loveable, quiet little boy who was popular with all of the nuns and who also caught the eye of a young couple wishing to adopt. After spending time with them and visiting their home, they began to formalise proceedings, only to find that Erwin was the illegitimate child of a married woman. Her husband had been incarcerated in a prison camp at the time of his conception. Now, back on track with her life, the woman requested that her husband never learn of the child, this in turn leading to the quashing of any adoption plan, as this would require the signatures of both the woman and her husband in order to proceed. She then continues to say that Erwin became seriously ill following this disappointment and was expected to die. However, he emerged alive but a changed character who took to stealing and now inspired hatred rather than love in his Christian keepers.

We also learn from a visit paid to Elvira by her ex-wife (Irene) that she has recently given an interview to a newspaper about her trans-gender experience and how it came about. At the slaughterhouse, Erwin had fallen in love with a work colleague called Anton Saitz who, in turn, had replied flippantly that he would have been more successful were he a woman. However, desperate for love following his childhood knock-backs, Erwin had taken this literally and immediately travelled to Casablanca for the operation, leaving behind the life he had started with his wife and daughter. As a result of the article, Irene is now concerned that Elvira will have inspired the wrath of Saitz who has since become a ruthless and highly successful businessman, firstly through owning a brothel which he ran along the lines of the concentration camp he had lived in as a child and, secondly, through a rather conscienceless line of property development where existing tenants are thrown mercilessly onto the streets. She convinces Elvira that it might be worth paying him a visit to explain and to ask for his forgiveness.

However, high up in his empty suite of offices, dressed in tennis gear and ridiculously re-enacting Jerry Lewis dance routines with his hencemen, Saitz barely remembers Elvira and, when he does, he ridicules her and laughs cruelly at her life. The interview doesn’t bother him either, so long as his name is spelt correctly with an “ai”. He does, however, return with Elvira to her flat where he meets Red Zora and the two start on some heavy petting, completely unmindful of Elvira’s presence across the hallway, chopping off her hair in the bathroom mirror. Seelenfrieda’s dream comes forcefully back into the viewer’s mind at this point, as Zora’s previous concern for Elvira’s well-being now flies out of the window at a sniff of, well, you know what. Schwanz?

In the closing segment of the film, Elvira, now dressed in men’s clothing, pays two more visits, the first to her family who are having a meal al fresco and who seem to be the only ones who truly love her. The scene, although tender in parts, is also very strained as everyone realises it’s too late for their lives to be reconfigured, Elvira’s inability to sit at the same, already full, table as his daughter and ex-wife being a powerful symbol of their irreconcilable rift. Elvira, therefore, departs and now goes to see the journalist who recently interviewed her, in a last bid attempt at finding solace. However, upon the insistence of his wife, he sends Elvira away, saying it is too late to invite her inside their home. Despairing and friendless, Elvira now returns to her apartment. Whilst Zora and Saitz are busy together on the bedroom floor, she takes an overdose and lies down to die beside them. Meanwhile, to a soundtrack of the interview she recently gave, those who she has recently visited (her family, the journalist, the nun) become aware that a tragedy is taking place and - too late was the cry - they all arrive at the flat to find Elvira dead. A Connie Francis tune plays us out but the record gets stuck after a few bars.

Written over a period of three or four days and filmed almost immediately afterwards, in July/August 1978, for many people “In a Year of Thirteen Moons” is Fassbinder’s response to the suicide of his lover Armin Meier with whom he was becoming increasingly estranged and who had taken his own life whilst Fassbinder and his coterie were at the Cannes Film Festival in May/June of that same year. Elvira’s suicide certainly seems to bear similarity with real life occurrences. Also, in a kind of echo of Elvira’s childhood, Meier (an ex-butcher, too) had grown up parentless in an orphanage, being a product of Himmler’s Lebensborn programme, Elvira’s search for and confusion regarding her identity and her need for love, perhaps, also being reflective of uncertainties and needs he, too, must have experienced. Identity is certainly a key theme of the film, with Elvira having experienced two during her shortened life, the outcome being, though, that she was actually left as a kind of non-person who could no longer fit in anywhere:  not amongst the gay men cruising in the park; nor back with her family; in a stable relationship; or returning to her old line of work for which she had the requisite training. Similarly, Anton Saitz, for all his faults, has also been shaped by his background in a concentration camp, as he protects himself from the outside world with the password “Bergen-Belsen” and then, when he is not passing on the brutality with which he was familiar from the earlier part of his own life, he is ludicrously trying to relive the childhood we presume he missed out on through enacting idiotic dance routines. Finally, as with many Fassbinder films, “In a Year of Thirteen Moons” can be read as an allegory, the characters and their individual stories serving only as metaphors for a much broader, universal truth as he, perhaps, saw it. Certainly, many of the scenes which should carry the most emotional charge are executed rather coldly, in a stylised and somewhat perfunctory fashion, heart-rending stories being related in emotionless monotones and often accompanied by highly distracting images, as though Fassbinder were trying to distance his audience from emotional engagement with the tragedy of Elvira’s individual story. He also refuses to let her be a pathetic victim, as the melodrama convention would normally dictate, as she maintains a high level of dignity throughout, even at the times of her worst humiliation. It’s been suggested, too, that by deciding to make the film in Frankfurt, the financial heart of Germany’s post-war economic miracle, Fassbinder was partly commenting on the self-interested and ruthless capitalist society which had grown out of this affluence. With very few exceptions, the characters in this film act out of self-interest when push comes to shove and much of the suffering experienced by Elvira is avoidable and comes as a direct result of the actions of those she has encountered in her life. The overall message seems to be that we’re all doomed, no matter what delusions we use to mask this inevitability. “In a Year of Thirteen Moons” is a brilliant film, even if the plot sounds a little fantastic in places, but it’s certainly not one to watch when you’re feeling a little out of sorts with yourself. Leave it to happier days.

Saturday, 1 October 2011


What’s been described as a film depicting “marriage as a vampire story” begins with unmarried Martha (played by Fassbinder regular of the period Margit Carstensen), in her early thirties and still a virgin, holidaying in Rome with her domineering father who cannot bear to be touched by her. As they climb the Spanish Steps, he suffers a heart attack and dies and, even at this stage, he rebuffs her offer of physical help, snapping, “You’re always wanting to touch me!” Martha, in a panic and confused - it simultaneously transpires that her purse, containing all of their money, has been stolen - then flees the scene and leaves him to the care of a group of layabout hippies. Later, outside the German consul, where she has gone to organise repatriation of the body, as well as the financing of her own carriage home, she has her first encounter with Helmut (Karlheinz Bohm – 14 years on from his role as Mark Lewis in “Peeping Tom” and here embarking on a short period where he was to be quite a significant member of the Fassbinder repertory). What she is unaware of at this point, though, is that this is the man who she will later marry and who will ultimately wreck her life, as well as her sanity. The audience, however, are given a clue to the significance of their meeting, as they circle one another silently and in a dreamlike state before each continuing on their ways, seemingly unaffected and unimpressed.


Back home again in Constanz, ensconced in a bourgeois milieu, Martha is held responsible for the aforementioned death by her alcoholic and drug addicted mother, a woman who also mocks her daughter for being unmarried and left on the shelf. So, for the second time, we see Martha being the figure of abuse for so-called loved ones, her patient acceptance of this behaviour clearly defining her as being possessed of the masochistic tendencies which her name suggests. Martha isn’t, however, without suitors as, shortly after her return, we see her respectable manager at the vast, deserted library where she works ask for her hand in marriage. When she refuses, though, he instantly asks her best friend and colleague the same question and she readily accepts, the rapidity and coolness of this switch indicating early on that Fassbinder may, perhaps, be cocking a snoop at “the sacred institution”.

Shortly afterwards, at a very stilted wedding reception, where Martha’s mother takes the first of the sedative overdoses which will lead to her being sectioned, Helmut turns up as the brother of the groom. He follows Martha, who is clearly distressed by his arrival, into the garden and, from this stage on, their relationship, Martha’s humiliation and Helmut’s intimidation begin, as he grabs her in a violent embrace, but not until he has clarified that he will be moulding virgin clay and then told her, “I don’t think you’re very beautiful and certainly not attractive and charming. You’re too thin, almost skinny. When one looks at you, one can almost feel your bones. And I have the impression your body smells.” If it wasn’t so cruel, this film would be hysterical in places.

During one of their first dates, to a fairground, Helmut insists that Martha rides on a rollercoaster with him, even though she is terrified and tells him that she will be sick. As he smiles and chuckles the whole ride round, she gasps for breath and turns whiter by the minute. Then, as predicted, straight after disembarking, she vomits in a dark corner, unaware of the secreted lovers just a stone’s throw away witnessing her every retch. An early indication of Helmut’s cold and twisted personality ensues when, instead of asking after her well-being, he announces, “Martha, I want you to be my wife,” to which our ill-fated heroine responds, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You’ve no idea how I’ve yearned to hear these words.” Instead of embracing her, Helmut then turns coldly away. Could this woman be marrying her deceased father?

It is then on their honeymoon on the Italian Riviera that the torment and erosion of her personality begins, starting seemingly innocuously with Helmut insisting that she has tea and cornflakes for her breakfast rather than her preferred eggs and coffee and admonishing her for smoking too early in the day. When she sunbathes later that day, he tells her “You’ve got such white skin. I’d like you to get a sun tan quickly,” refusing to apply cream to protect her, as she has requested. What then follows is probably the most shocking scene in the film, when the severely sunburnt Martha, who has fallen asleep and deliberately not been woken by her husband, lies unable to move due to her pain. Her suffering, however, serves only to inspire lust and cruelty in Helmut who forces himself upon her there and then on the hotel bed. Now, the domineering sadist has fully surfaced.


Back in Germany, after what she thinks is a wrong turning on their return journey, Martha learns that their wedded life will be spent not in her family home, as she had expected, but in a huge property nearby which Helmut has got cheaply on account of it having been the site of a murder. Then, once inside their new abode, he tells her she is not permitted to have any of her own furniture as it will be out of keeping with the property and that she is only allowed to smoke in the conservatory, a decree we see her obeying immediately after he departs on one of the numerous business trips which keep him away from Martha and the house throughout the week. She, meanwhile, returns to her own place of work only to be told that Helmut has tendered her resignation for her. Trying to keep face, she pretends that she has only gone in to borrow a book and that she has not, in fact, turned in expecting to do a day’s work.

Back at home, now holed-up with nothing to do and no company, Martha smokes, reads and listens to music all day. However, even this is not good enough for Helmut as, when he returns home one weekend with the gift of a record for her, after laughing at her new hairstyle and then demanding the savage sex he expects on tap, he removes her own choice from the turntable, screaming, “Do you listen to this dreadful music? But, Martha, that’s not music. It’s slime! Pure slime!” (It’s not even U2!!) Similarly, wishing to control her reading matter, too, he buys her a book about dam engineering. “You have a whole week to read it,” he tells her. “I want you to understand my work so that I can talk with you.” We later see her memorising huge chunks of text in order to please him.


And on it goes. He tells her he wants her to promise that she will never leave the house, he kills her pet cat and he has the phone disconnected, all before Martha sees the light and decides to flee Helmut’s controlling and increasingly deranged ways. Even now, though, he wins the day and total control of his wife, as the film ends with him wheeling Martha out of hospital, now paralysed from a car accident which occurred as she tried to escape his tyranny. Her one remaining friend and ally, an ex-colleague, has been killed in the same accident. The final shot then shows the doors of the hospital lift closing, indicating that life is over for Martha and that she has no option other than to submit fully to Helmut’s regime.

Many levels of interpretation can be layered onto “Martha”. On the one hand, it can be read as Fassbinder’s reworking of George Cukor’s 1944 film “Gaslight” in which Ingrid Bergmann suffers psychological torment and is driven towards a nervous breakdown by her husband, updating and paying homage to old Hollywood films being one of Fassbinder’s old hobbies. “Ali : Fear Eats the Soul” is essentially Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Knows” transposed onto post-war Germany and many of his other films like “Fox and his Friends” bear resemblance to Hollywood melodramas albeit transferred to an alternative context. At the same time, it can also be seen as Fassbinder’s own childhood revisited and turned into celluloid. His own father (also called Hellmuth, you’ll remember), apparently, had a sadistic, controlling nature and once had the family telephone disconnected in order to sever contact with the outside word, just as Helmut does in “Martha. It’s even a wickedly cruel comedy – some scenes are actually laugh-out-loud funny, especially when she tries to memorise the correct consistency for mixing concrete to please Helmut. Freudian interpretations are possible, too, with regard to a sexual tension between fathers and daughters which leads the heroine to marry a man so similar to the one she watched die at the beginning of the film and who, we suspect, treated her equally cruelly. She is delighted, for example, when, on their honeymoon, Helmut professes to share the same favourite food as her late father (When she prepares it for him later in their marriage, though, he tersely announces that he is allergic to offal and refuses to eat it). Like a lot of Fassbinder films, it also acts as a critique of bourgeois conventions, this time marriage and, at the same time, is partly an emblematic allegory, the kind of cautionary tale you might consider buying as an engagement gift for a friend you can see entering into a doubtful pairing. This is a character called Martyr, after all, who stays with her man and lives in a town called Constance. The heavy rain on her wedding night is highly ominous and then has a coda in the tears we see falling from the eyes of the religious bust which stands immediately inside the portals of their new home. It’s all very reminiscent of an early literary model like "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "The Faerie Queene". Whichever of these slants you warrant the most weight, “Martha” is certainly a film which is beautifully shot, with sumptuous colours and settings and, therefore, comes highly, highly recommended to you on that level alone. Get yourself down to your local Amazon now!