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.
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.
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.