A dazzling work of mise-en-scène. Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus deploy a gliding camera, shifts in focus, compositions that group alliances or fractures, social and internal, with beauty and precision. Has anyone made more expressive use of a glass drinks cabinet? Doublings, decompositions, reflections, often filmed through glass or on mirrors. Nothing is as it seems in this movie and the process of discovery is brutal: ‘eavesdroppers often hear false truths’.
mirrors and reflections;
The setting is the real life Ballhaus family Schloss, but empty and with echoes of recent occupying army ransackings. The film has been compared to an Agatha Christie country house murder narrative such as AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. But there are limits to such a comparison: there are gun shots but no one is killed in this movie; and the wounding, psychic as it is, is also deep, primal and savage, going into areas Christie wouldn’t dream of.
The plot revolves around a couple, significantly named Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson). He’s ostensibly going on a trip to Oslo; she to Milan. But in fact both have arranged assignations with their lovers; he with his long-time mistress, Irene (the divine Anna Karina); she with Gerhard’s assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel, then Anna Karina’s partner). The problem is that their assignations are to take place in the family schloss, so they end up discovering each other’s adultery. All are sophisticated people of the world and try to behave elegantly. But things become more somber and delicate with the realisation that this has all been organised by the Christ’s daughter Angela (Andrea Schroeber).
Symphonic Opening Scene
Angela believes that her parents blame her for ruining their lives; that her father first took on a lover when she was diagnosed with a crippling disease that hampered the use of her legs; and that her mother took on a lover when Angela’s disability was pronounced incurable. In fact Angela thinks her mother wishes her dead, and the whole weekend has been designed by Angela, with the same precision that she enacts the role play of the dolls that surround her, to drive her mother to murder her. In fact games, strategy, enactments, role-play, through dolls, cards, chess, are running motifs in the film, culminating in Chinese Roulette, played viciously and with murderous intent. In the process the victim will become the victimiser, the Bad Seed, or as John Mercer more colloquially puts it, The Exorcist’s Linda Blair on crutches.
The two couples are in tension with another set of four: Mrs. Kast (Brigitte Mira) who has some kind of underground or criminal relationship with Mr. Christ – ‘Ali Ben Basset has been murdered in Paris. We are the only two left,’ he tells her, a sort of McGuffin as this remains external to the main narrative but adds clouds of narrative possibilities that overhang but are never brought into focus. Just like Mrs. Kast’s son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), boot-boy and plagiarist, at the beginning of the film when he asks the petrol station attendant. ‘Have you ever been to hell?’ ‘Yes’.
The other two of that outside four are Angela herself and her nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril). Traunitz has the kind of easy relationship with her charge that Angela wishes she had with her mother. They listen to techno – Kraftwerk: fun, rhythmic, partial — instead of symphonies (Mahler’s Symphony No.8) aiming for the totalising and divine. Traunitz herself is conducting a sexual relationship with Gabriel, who reciprocates though he seems himself as more androgynous, sexually more anarchic; and that includes a sexual tension depicted with Angela, who discovered he was a plagiarist years before and has the upper hand.
Fassbinder turns the tables here and explores the cruelty and harshness of the small and the weak to show the power and ruthlessness of the victim. That is basically the function of the character of the daughter. The mother is as is usual with Carstensen’s characters for Fassbinder, the target and recipient of much of the film’s sadism.
rhyming shot and another kind of discovery
When the game of Chinese Roulette begins, the verbal rapiers begin to wound, culminating in the question, ‘What Would This Person Have Been in The Third Reich?’ The film ends mysteriously with the sound of a gunshot, a night-time procession and a quotation from Christian wedding vows; a somewhat reductive ending as the film seems to have been about so much more than that.
According to wiki, Andrew Sarris devoted a whole university course to CHINESE ROULETTE. I can understand why.