A film that frightened me when I first saw it as a teenager. Richard’s only now seen it. Does it hold up? Made at a time when there was a real dearth of representation, this is a daring work, as queer as a film can be, on many levels. The problem is not homosexuality but bourgeois exploitation, including by gay men. Why hasn’t Fassbinder been canonised by all the young queer boys? We speculate on that and much more in the accompanying podcast.
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.
THE AMERICAN SOLDIER is not so much a pastiche of noir as a noirish dream incurred by watching American gangster films of the fifties and sixties.
The plot is basic: Ricky (Karl Scheydt), a German-American Vietnam Vet returns to Munich and is hired as a contract killer by three policemen. The whodunnit element is negligible. There is no suspense.
The psycho-sexual elements are heightened. It’s all songs and smoke, fedoras and phone booths, a romance of futility, of dark forbidden desires, laced with whiskey and ennui, that lead to death.
Your future’s all used up.
There are innumerable references to crime films, of which my favourite is the Dietrich ‘your future’s all used up’ scene from TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles, 1958). It’s full of personal references, not, I suspect, meant for a general audience: the prostitute who falls for Ricky played by Elga Sorbas is called Rosa von Praunheim, after the director who would soon release IT IS NOT THE HOMOSEXUAL WHO IS PERVERSE, BUT THE SOCIETY IN WHICH HE LIVES (1971). The film is self -referential. The nightclub the characters go to is the ‘Lola Montes’, just as in GODS OF THE PLAGUE(1970); Ricky goes to visit his old home, in front of which are railings exactly like the ones the characters of KATZLEMACHER sit on throughout much of that film.
Like in Almodóvar’s work, where a scene in one film is developed into the main plot of a later one, here we get a chambermaid (played by Margarethe von Trotta, the celebrated director) who comes into Ricky’s hotel room as he’s making love to Rosa, sits by the bed, and tells us the story of what will become ALI, FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) .
There’s luminous black and white cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann that adds to the incantatory quality in the film, and seen to advantage in this very beautiful restoration. The acting seems posey and theatrical, though that too adds a symbolic dream-like dimension to the drama. There are moments that seem awkward and amateurish. Some of the compositions seem well thought-through, others merely grabbed, but this too adds to the film’s dream logic. It’s less a pastiche than a dramatic rendering of personal fantasies and desires that are rendered vividly, sometimes even graphically, but remain inchoate. Murnau, Clark Gable and Batman are referenced. I loved it, though I don’t know if I would have had I not already been immersed in Fassbinder’s world.