I found WHITY a riveting film to see but a difficult one to process. The first of Fassbinder’s films I’ve seen, and this was his tenth feature, that I found amateurish, no, worse: dilettanteish. It was shot in one of Sergio Leone’s old sets in Almeria and is itself a combination of spaghetti western and half-penny Brecht/Weill imitation, Southern Gothic and Grand Guignol. The film is set in 1878, after emancipation. It was ostensibly inspired by Raoul Walsh’s BAND OF ANGELS where Yvonne De Carlo is a mulatto raised by her white father as an ante-bellum Southern Belle, only to find upon his bankruptcy and death that she’s to be sold off as chattel. The French title – L’ESCLAVE LIBRE is interesting to contemplate as Whity (Günther Kaufmann) is the opposite of that, he too is mixed race and living with his father but he’s been brought up as a slave, and the ideological forces of family and society keep him one longer after the law has freed him.
The film begins with the head of a fish being cut off, pans to a caged bird, clearly a symbol for Whity, who then enters the scene in the red livery of a house servant, and tells the cook that the pudding hasn’t been to their taste. ‘Lots of things aren’t to their taste’, says the cook, who looks like she’s in blackface. ‘You don’t understand me. I want them to like everything we do for them,’ he says. When he later berates the cook for singing black music, she spits in his face and calls him, ‘Whity!’
We’ll later learn that the cook, Marpessa (Elaine Baker) is his mother. His father is Ben Nicholson, the master of the house and one of the richest, most powerful and most crooked men in Texas. His father has a new young wife Katherine (Katrine Schaake) who’s eager for him to die so she can collect his money and is already cheating on him. Whity has two half brothers from his father’s previous marriage, Frank (Ulli Lommel) a nasty piece of work who likes wearing garters and women’s lingerie to bed, and Davy (Harry Baer), who’s lacking most of his marbles and looks like Nosferatu’s sidekick. Like the Terence Stamp character in TEOREMA, Whity is happy to serve and service them all, even his father who gets off on whipping Whity. Whity who has selflessly offered to take Davy’s punishment, is clearly getting off on it as well. Whity is the figure upon whom all the other characters social, sexual and racial fantasies converge. His own desire is for Hanna (Hanna Shygulla) the local hooker/ saloon singer, who desires him also and who want to run off with him, something he can’t do until the end. A sexual masochism pervades the whole film.
The film is a work of cinephilia, with shots lifted directly from Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Josef von Sternberg’s MOROCCO, amongst many others. It also has two dazzling scenes, innovatively filmed by Michael Ballhaus: the reading of the will, and the descent of Hanna (Hannah Schygulla) and Whity into the saloon where Hanna, in good voice, gets to sing two quite forgettable songs in one shot.
Reading of the Will (above)
Descent into saloon (above)
It’s also clear that Fassbinder learned how to use mirrors, frames within frames, etc – how to make images beautiful and expressive through carefully composed mise-en-scène — way before his Damascene encounter with Sirk ‘s work (see above). But much of the rest seems slapdash, amateurish and chaotic (see the scene where Fassbinder as a sadistic cowboy makes a grab for Hannah, below).
What remains startling in the film is the way that it dramatizes and visualises race, links its oppression to sex and the family as well as other socio-economic hierarchies, and goes into areas American cinema still doesn’t dare to, though it would be interesting to compare this to the nearly contemporaneous Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaass Song (Mario Van Peebles, 1971) and Buck and The Preacher (Sidney Poitier/ Joseph Sargeant, 1972). The shoot had so many problems, some of them caused by Fassbinder’s unreciprocated desire for Kaufmann, that it became the source material for BEWARE THE HOLY WHORE. The film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival but remained unreleased and largely unseen until it began to crop up in television in the 80s. It was still quite difficult to get a hold of a copy and I had to order it from the US. It’s a film I’d like to read more on rather than see again.