Who was Fassbinder making films for in 1970 and what did he hope they’d get out of them? THE NIKLASHAUSEN JOURNEY begins with a group of people circling around the room asking: ‘Who is the revolution for? The people. And who makes the revolution? The people. And who prepares the ground for it? The party. And if there is no party but only a cell of three or four people? Three or four people can form the vanguard of a party. Can three or four people start a revolution? They must try to create the basis for it’. It could be dialogue lifted directly from any student Marxist-Leninist group of the period and almost certainly ideas discussed at the Anti-Theatre Collective. .
The film is based on a historical account of a failed peasant revolt against the church in the Middle Ages. Michael Köning is Hans Boehm, the charismatic shepherd who claims the virgin speaks through him and directs his actions. This claim to be a voice of the divine gains even more traction when a group of friends ‘direct’ Johanna’s (Hanna Schygulla) appearance as the Virgin herself, with Fassbinder himself giving line readings. They gain celebrity and sponsorship, lots of followers who are willing to engage in violent action, the church retaliates and it all ends in carnage.
Fassbinder was influenced by Brecht and though the film is set in the Middle Ages, it’s a Middle-Ages where Fassbinder himself appears with sunglasses, jeans and a leather jacket, through carriageways and in ‘car cemeteries’. Verfremdung is the intended effect. ‘Plans sequence’ is the technique, with most scenes shot in one long take, whizzed with zooms for emphasis, and with minimal additional sound work. There are songs interspersed throughout (religious & revolutionary, with a rock number thrown in to spice things up). The Black Panthers are mentioned by name, May ‘68 is clearly an inspiration as is the figure of Camilo Torres and Liberation Theology, the cinema of Glauber Rocha (ANTONIO DAS MORTES) and that of Godard (WEEKEND in particular).
I found it hard-going until the very last sequence, where the peasants are betrayed, crucified and burned, all with the very camp Bishop’s blessing. It’s extraordinary directing in large scale, with lots of figures, over a wide space with startling imagery and to great dramatic effect. It’s dazzling, and that that’s where the whole film leads, makes one in turn re-think the beginning, forgive that whole scene where König utters a whole scene as his whole face is rendered invisible (see below, top left) through careless lighting, and ask were the earlier bits amateurish? Was there some grander purpose missed? Can amateurishness be a virtue?
It’s certainly a striking film, one which reminds me of Claude Jutra’s WOW (1970), and feels daring and powerful. Would it matter if Fassbinder made the film only for himself and with state money? I resisted, resisted some more…and then surrendered.