After PIONEERS IN INGOLSTADT Fassbinder took an eight-month break, saw Sirk’s 50s melodramas (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, IMITATION OF LIFE, etc) and was so excited by what he saw that he travelled to Switzerland to meet with Sirk personally and discuss his work.
The effects are evident in THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS, Fassbinder’s first popular box-office success. Though the film was still shot very quickly (11 days), one can see signature Sirkian compositions in his use of frames within frames created by doorways, arches, and staircases; or in his expressive use of mirrors to communicate tensions in what is being shown.
For the first time (that I at least can detect), he also uses colour deliberately and expressively, in relation to character and then changing situations. It’s a colour coding of drama. Thus, for example, Hans (Hans Hirschmūller)is often shown in various shades of blue, that meld best into the table and background of the tavern where he is most at home. His wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) is shown in or next to earthy reddish browns, which often match the curtains of her kitchen. As Hans loses his place in his world to Harry (Klaus Löwitzch), his old legion friend, Hans begins to be associated with blue as Hans begins to be associated in the white and black of the funeral that awaits him. It’s a 1950s big studio style of expressive colour coding, brilliantly deployed here.
THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS is that story of an ordinary man in 1950s Munich, Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmūller), thwarted at every turn. He wanted to go to a trade school and work with his hands but his mother had loftier ambitions and denied him. He got a job as a policeman but lost it when caught with a prostitute trading sex for favours. He went to the foreign legion only to be caught and tortured, a turn-on to his comrades, who waited much too long to rescue him in order to watch. When he returns from the foreign legion, which we’re shown in the very first scene, his mother tells him: ‘It’s always the same. The good die young and people like you come back….Once a no-good, always a no-good!’ Even the love of his life, who loves him back, reduces him to a bit on the side as her family has forbidden her to marry a fruit peddler, which is how he earns his living as the film begins.
Hans’ life is such a misery that he drinks himself into a stupor, and then takes his failures out on his wife, physically, and in front of the daughter. This leads to a threat of divorce, which precipitates a heart attack and changes in his life. After the first 30 minutes or so, it’s his wife who takes care of the family and the business, who gains in strength, power and say. There’s a lovely moment (see above) after Hans’ heart-attack where we see her coming out of the hospital, her life in ruins, pictured in front of a wedding dress in a department store, walking past the dream living room it now seems she’ll never have, and propositioned as a prostitute by a man driving through the dark streets. It’s a heart-breaking moment. But as soon as she begins to take charge, we begin to see how easily replaceable Hans is. He’s replaced in his job by Anzell (Karl Scheydt) a new employee who happens to have had a sexual adventure with his wife whilst he was in hospital, and highlighted by both of them being shot peddling their fruit in the same way (from below as they turn and look up at the apartments below).
Anzell also replaces Hans in his bed;
and then Harry will replace Hans as head of the table, the family and as father:
Hans’s whole life will be taken over by Harry:
Part of the reason why the film is so great is because it’s so spare yet so complex and rich. Everyone has their reasons in the film, everyone is understandable if not necessarily nice. Hans’ mother is bringing up her children alone and sees Hans, her sole male child, as having particular obligations he is not fulfilling. His wife has to keep her child protected, a roof over their head and income rolling in. Irmgard is at least as interesting a character as Hans and probably even more so. Structurally, flashbacks add layers of understanding and complexity to the minimal narrative so that we see all those aspects of class, gender, adding socio-economic relations adding dimensions to the narrative. Fassbinder brings out the sexual power dynamics in a more vivid manner than most. And colour and composition are used to bring out a superbly expressive use of the visual in a way that I had yet to see in Fassbinder’s work. There is no attempt (or perhaps budget) to visually periodise the film so that it creates a peculiar sense of time and history in the film, so that the film’s fifties does not quite convince as then but is yet somehow also now, the then in the now. It’s a truly great film.