MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN/ Mutter Küsters’ Fahrt zum Himmel (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1975)

A film that incited laughter, tears, and, towards the end a palpable sense of sustained dread – ‘please don’t let that happen’. Indeed, there is an alternate ending –gentle and utopian –that was filmed but shown only in the US, where it doesn’t.  As I watch Fassbinder’s work, mainly in chronological order, some films detach themselves from the rest as more beautiful, more meaningful, better; films I want to revisit again: THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS, THE TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, FEAR EATS THE SOUL. And to that I would now add MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN.

The film is set in Frankfurt, then the financial capital of West Germany, and already a site of terrorist actions. What we’re shown first is a close-up of plugs being assembled. Frau Küsters (Brigitte Mira) is a working-class housewife, making extra money by doing piece work from home. Her son Ernst (Armin Meier) is helping out as her daughter-in-law, Helene (Irm Hermann) makes a salad. She’s got a stew in the oven, one that needs more sausages, the way her husband likes it, and she’s multi-tasking with the plugs and the stew and conversation with her children about their upcoming vacation in Finland, the danger of preservatives in meat, the pros and cons and salads, when they overhear a report that some man in a factory got into an argument with a personnel supervisor and killed him before committing suicide himself. That man is Frau Küsters’ husband.

Soon the press descend. Her daughter, Corinna (Ingrid Caven), a cabaret singer returns home to support her mother but also to get press for her career. The whole family is interviewed. Her daughter Corinna starts an affair with the news reporter she trusts the most (Gottfried John) but even he twists all their words and her husband, who she sees as a nice, even-tempered man who never complained, fair and reliable, is headlined as a monster in the press.

The Spectre of Marlene still hovers (see above)

Is it significant that all of Mother Küster’s children are played by Fassbinder’s former or current lovers? Mother Küster loves all her children unconditionally. She accepts everything from them. And they love her also. But they’ve got their own lives. The first third of the film reminded me a little bit of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY. Everyone has their reasons. They do love each other and it’s nobody’s fault. But her son and daughter-in-law end up going on their vacation to Finland and missing their father’s funeral. The daughter exploits her father’s tragedy and moves out of her mother’s house and in with the journalist. At the funeral she vows to restore her husband’s name. But how? She’s all alone.

She’s befriended by a couple played by Margit Cartensen and Karlheinz Böhm , journalists, members of the Communist Party, and the wealthiest most bourgeois couple in the film. They offer her warmth and understanding and they’re the only ones who seem interested in clearing her husband’s name. The husband will be turned into a working class martyr murdered on the altar of capital.  Of course they’re using her, her daughter tells her. ‘Everybody’s out for something,’ she replies, ‘once you realise that, things get simpler’. Mother Küster’s simple, unaffected and naïve oration at the Communist Party meeting moved me to tears, partly because it contrasts so strongly with the film’s ironising of power relations, social, institutional and interpersonal.

It’s worth pointing out that all the film’s possibilities for exciting action (the revolt at the beginning, the shoot-out at the end) are left off-screen(see below).

 That’s not what Fassbinder’s interested in. Instead, we get Brigitte Mira’s sensitive, common-sensical and accepting everywoman, so emotionally transparent and so moving. Ingrid Caven as a low grade diva playing cheap dives and making the most of her moment in the spotlight with sub Marlene Dietrich, sub Brecht-Weill cynical chansons; a queerness that seeps through into laughter with the fat man dragged up as a ballerina, shaggy dark chest hair jutting out of his tutu, pirouetting for his life in the nightclub scene; and then that incredible last scene of the occupation of the magazine offices, where Mother Küster thinks she’s just participating in a sit-in to clear her husband’s name but, to her surprise, a gun appears and the whole action descends into tragedy.

Mother Küsters speaks to the Communist Party (above)

A critique of labour relations, of how the press distorts and manipulates, and an interrogation of whether left-wing parties and action groups are really interested in improving the life of a the proletariat. A moving portrait of complex family relations in the process of dissolution. A truly great film.


José Arroyo

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