Tag Archives: Klaus Löwitsch

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN/ Die Ehe der Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1979)

The personal is always related to the social in Fassbinder’s work. With THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, the personal and the social are also interlinked to the historical. The film has been read as an allegory for the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutchsland) during the period of the ‘Economic Miracle’ – Maria Braun with her fine clothes and furs but dead inside – and is considered to be the first of what’s been called the ‘BDR’ trilogy, alongside LOLA (1981) and VERONIKA VOSS (1982).

It’s true that the film begins with a picture of Hitler crashing down, ends on a scene of the BDR’s victory over Hungary in the 1954 FIFA World Championships, where we hear the Federal Republic of Germany declared ‘Champion of the world’ over the radio, and then the final images, negatives of all the BDR chancellors to the time the film was made with the exception of Willy Brandt, who had exiled himself from Germany during the Nazi regime, and shown as negatives except for the last one where we see the transformation of the negative into the positive, giving the impression of devils made flesh. There’s no question that the film is making a commentary on history and the nation.

Germany in Ruins

That said it’s important the film also be considered as about Maria Braun. It’s a woman’s film and a melodrama, not unlike MILDRED PIERCE in some ways. A woman with responsibilities, living through hard times that make for difficult moral and ethical decisions but who ends up a successful business-woman. As books like Marta Heller’s A WOMAN IN BERLIN and Miriam Gebhardt’s CRIMES UNSPOKEN: THE RAPE OF GERMAN WOMEN AT THE END OF SECOND WORLD WAR, the period between the end of the War in 1945 and the end of the occupation in 1955, resulted in an unprecedented period of sexual violence.

Maria’s material success

Maria has few choices, she dabbles in the black market, she becomes a ‘hostess’, she navigates the world sexually: lucid, clear-eyed, intelligent and unsentimental about what she’s got to do to keep what’s left of her house fed, clothed, warm. Her mother prays for her soul but end up sewing her the type of dress she needs for her new ‘business’. The way she jumps on a cigarette, a sweet of a sip of alcohol whenever Maria brings something home vividly expresses the basic privations of the period. Yet as Maria says, ‘My mother loves me, supports me and cries with me over my pain but she leaves all the thinking up to me, thus leaving me no time to dream’.

The Mata-Hari of the Economic Miracle

The film is a melodrama in that you do side with the powerless, it’s ‘excessive’ and it’s designed to make an audience cry. The most important thing in her life is her marriage. But she only gets to enjoy it for one afternoon and one night after which her husband is sent to the Eastern Front. We see her with his picture on her back going day after day to the rail station to see if anyone’s seen him. She’s later told he’s died but he hasn’t. He returns to find her in the middle of coitus with a black man she’s now pregnant with. In the ensuing fight between the men she kills the American GI, Bill, who she’d been fond of. At the military hearing, when her husband hears her say she was fond of Bill but loves her husband, he decides to take the rap for her. She loses her baby. When the husband’s jailed, she vows she’ll learn to work and make enough money to build the house he would have built for them. She seduces an industrialist who falls in love with her and does exactly as she promised. Only to find in the end that it was all for nought. Except for her husband and her family, she’s put aside all feelings, feelings don’t keep you warm or fed. But it all blows up in her face.

Defiance Amidst the Ruins

If the film is about Maria, it’s also about marriage: THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN. Maria fervently believes in it. There’s that wonderful screwball scene at the beginning when in the middle of a bombing they chase after the document and make sure it’s stamped. An institutional approval of their love. The certainty of her feelings for her husband, of her wish for a married life, is one of the films that make the film so romantic. Her husband feels the same way. Hearing of her love for him is what makes him take the rap for her. But this marriage, bounded between two explosions, what has it amounted to? One afternoon and one night of married life. After which, she’s cut of her feelings and sold her body. He’s suffered prison and ends up pimping her out. There illusions are romantic, the reality as with Fassbinder is something else again. It’s a film that begins with marriage but also with deadly explosions.

Marriage as Romantic Prison

A great film, I think, with a mysterious and charismatic performance by Hannah Schygulla. It’s the film that made her into an international star, and it was also West Germany’s biggest box office success internationally to that point.

José Arroyo

DESPAIR (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany/ France, 1978)

Fassbinder’s first English-language film is a tony affair. It’s based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Tom Stoppard gets sole credit for the screenplay, the first instance I can think of where Fassbinder himself did not collaborate extensively on the script for one of his films. At 6 million DM ($2.6 million) it was his biggest budget to that point and you can see all the production values on the screen.
It’s all Art Deco gorgeousness, designed by Rolf Zehebetbauer, beautifully lit by Michael Balhauss, with a fluid, precise and imaginative mise-en-scène from Fassbinder, often filmed through windows, glass cages, onto mirrors to dramatize the disassociation of the protagonist, his splits of consciousness and finally his psychic disintegration. It’s sublime work with what must be one of Dirk Bogarde’s greatest performances: to watch him acting changing responses timed through the movement of a zoom, where when the zoom ends he creates a change in signification just through the co-ordination of his expression to the rhythm of the camera move is simply awesome . Yet the whole is here less than its parts and this is a curiously inert film, one that doesn’t ‘play’, hard to follow, with little narrative tension.

boxed in despair – mise-en-scéne

I had to see it twice just to figure out what the hell was going on. And I don’t think the problem was me. There was a three-hour cut by Reginald Beck. Then Julia Lorenz and Fassbinder edited did a two and a half hour cut that all the collaborators now remember as magnificent, then Lorenz and Fassbinder cut it to under two hours to fulfil their contractual obligations. Now it doesn’t quite make sense.

first dissasociation

Film within film doppelganger

It’s a film full of discordances. Some seem deliberate: the ironic playfulness of the acting is a productive counterpoint to the progressive grimness in the narrative. The casting of Klaus Löwitsch as Hermann’s doppelganger adds an element of narcissistic desire and self-delusion to Hermann’s madness. But discordances in the film’s sound, so much clearly dubbed, with actors from different countries (Andréa Ferréol, Volker Spengler, Bogarde, Löwitsch) all speaking in English with varying accents and sound levels that seem oddly mixed, that just adds an element of strangeness and distance that feels alienating.

Doppelganger mis-recognition

There are several intersecting aspects to the story: the state of Herman Herman’s business and the coming of the Nazi; Hermann’s disengagement from his life, his descent into madness with his doublings, doppelgangers, fracturings; a murder story that goes awry; and finally a protagonist finding light and relief from despair in his own madness. The German subtitle is a JOUNEY INTO LIGHT and Hermann is supposed to find some light and release – from the obligations to his wife, his chocolate factory, his exile – as he descends into madness: I’m an actor, he says at the end, a bit like Gloria Swanson SUNSET BOULEVARD. The Film is dedicated to Antonin Artaud, Vincent Van Gogh and Unica Zürn.

Desire and doppelganger

It’s a curious experience. It’s a film that doesn’t work, that doesn’t ‘play’, and yet it has so many beautiful elements that I enjoyed my second viewing even more than the first. The rationale for the second viewing had been utilitarian: how to make sense of the film. But the result was a sensuous enjoyment of the pleasures the film had to offer in décor, mise-en-scène and performances. It’s not ‘good’ but it really is quite extraordinary in some ways.

Broken beginnings, shattered endings

Intimations of the camps.

José Arroyo

WORLD ON A WIRE/ WELT AM DRAHT – Part II (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1973)


In the second part of WORLD ON A WIRE, Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) finds that an ‘identity unit’ called Einstein is the contact person a between his world and the computer program. But it then occurs to him that his own world might itself be a computer program. Is he smoking a cigarette or someone’s idea of a cigarette? Is the coffee he’s drinking brown or has it been programmed to be brown and is really purple? Moreover, someone now has financial skin in the game, the program is not just being used for scientific purposes but also for commercial ones. As soon as he suspects he too might be someone else’s construct, an identity unit like those he’s programmed and overseen, the show takes on the form of the conspiracy thrillers then so in vogue (THE PARALLAX VIEW, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE CONVERSATION). Is Fred mad or does someone want to kill him because of what he knows. He keeps getting headaches, losing consciousness; is someone out to erase him?

Michael Ballhaus, who so dazzingly filmed this, was executive producer along with Roland Emmerich, of THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR (Josef Rusnak, 1999) an American adaptation of the novel that is also WORLD ON A WIRE’S source material, SIMULACRON-3 by Daniel F. Galoueye. Rusnak’s is a handsome, expensive looking film, but it gets nowhere near the philosophical complexity, social critique or the dazzling play with form that we get in WORLD ON A WIRE. It has some attractive and skilled actors (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Gretchen Mol, Vincent D’Onofrio), a loud score, quick editing, a focus on the individual; an easy nostalgia for the past (the constructed world is 1937 Los Angeles) and a rather naïve optimism about the future. The group, a sense of collective, of politics, of competing economic forces, none of this is to be found in what can feel like an overly individualistic quasi monadic exercise; pretty and banal.

There are so many things I love about this second part of WORLD ON A WIRE: the carnality of what are meant to be identity units. Lowitsch is constantly filmed with his shirt off, his sexual potency winked at through a play of mirrors and statues in the mise-en-scène(see above).

And I love Barbara Valentin as the ur-blowsy bruised blond, madly in love with someone who doesn’t deserve her but happy to play around; she knows the ways of the world all too well but doesn’t quite seem to be fully in it (see above).

I love how the figure of Marlene Dietrich is deployed to bring up ideas of spectres and simulations and how that’s tied to power (see above). There’s a clear sense here that computer programmers begin to think themselves as God, can too easily get to love totalitarian power, and have no moral compass about the effects of their decision on others – something entirely lacking in the THIRTEENTH FLOOR.

I love also the extraordinary long take with Fred on the run (see above), where we see Klaus Löwitsch do extraordinary physical feats jumping through fences, but unlike with someone like Burt Lancaster who does it with such grace, power and ease, here you also see the effort it costs: Fred is tired, he’s fit but these feats cost; and he might not make it.

And always the queerness seeps through; in the filming of Lōwitsch, the use of Marlene, the scenes set in the nightclub with the musclemen cooks, and the grotesque men who appear with bright lipstick like something out of a painting by George Grosz or Otto Dix.

I love Kurt Raab’s design (see the extraordinary take above), which seems to be made of cling film and aluminum foil, shiny, reflective but not quite real, flimsy and on the verge of disintegrating. I love the use of Eddie Constantine (see below), part of what the show tries to achieve by using old movie stars with strong personas to indicate a constructed world, and partly also a nod to ALPHAVILLE.

There are some dazzling 360 degree long takes, and quite astonishing images with guns and mirror, distorted multiple reflections, always expressing a feeling and a point-of-view on the world it’s filming (see a mere sampling, below).

Made on a tight budget, for television, an appreciation of its achievements – intellectual, political, aesthetic, as a viewing experience only grows when comparing it to what was remade in THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR. I’s influence on THE MATRIX now seems  unquestionable.

José Arroyo