Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death)

"the film should create new feelings"

Fassbinder had imposed himself on the stage – first with the Action Theatre and latterly with antitheatre – but his first love remained film. With the positive feedback given his shorts (by Jean-Marie Straub amongst others), a company of actors ready to do his bidding, and a stroke of financial fortune, he was ready and eager to make his first feature. He would take one of the three leads, along with longtime acting chum Hanna Schygulla and a handsome young man he’d just met on a TV show (Tonys Freunde) named Ulli Lommel.

Living expenses were covered by his fee for acting in a TV film, Al Capone im Deutsches Wald (“Al Capone in the German Forest”) but his own film’s 95,000-mark budget (then around $27,500) came from eccentric artist and gallerist, Hanna Axmann Rezzori, friend of Ophuls, ex-lover of Nicholas Ray and Bosche heiress. She handed over the money saying “'if the movie makes a profit, you can pay me back, and if it doesn't, never mind” [2]. To stretch the budget, participation was carried out on a contractless, profit-sharing basis, with nominal per diems for the cast and an “official” production company in the form of Antitheatre-X-Film; their financial officer, Peer Raben, did not trouble himself with accounting: the first of many tangled productions that led to countless rights issues in the future.

"the first screenplay started from the premise that people are sitting in jail, are oppressed, and then try to make something of freedom. And that becomes a mirror image of society, if you want to call it that" [3]

Raben also looked after the music for the film, about which Fassbinder had firm ideas, and on which they had already begun before the script was completed: Raben reported that Fassbinder had the whole style, shape and feel of the movie in his head before the camera even started to roll. He had been studying not only the American cinema of the forties and fifties, with particular emphasis on the crime and film noir genres, and the male friendships in Hawks and Walsh, but also the previous decade’s burst of activity within Europe, spearheaded by Godard and the New Wave, and it was from both these influences that Love Is Colder Than Death was born.

“on the whole the film turned out pretty much the way I thought it might if everything went as well as possible” [4]

Fassbinder himself described the plot as follows:
“At the start a crime syndicate wants Franz (acted by me) to work for it. But he only wants to work for himself and keep all of what he earns. Bruno (acted by Lommel) works for the syndicate and is sent after Franz. Franz grows to like Bruno. He invites him to his place and wants him to sleep with his girl, just because he likes him and doesn’t question his liking. But then he can’t question anything, just like Bruno, who does what he’s told. Joanne, the girl, does the same. She (acted by Hanna Schygulla) is actually the main figure. Her character reveals that she is bogged down in middle-classness, despite her profession, even worse than the others; she wants to save her bourgeois relationship with Franz by being his whore and even by betraying Bruno and a bank robbery to the police. She would rather be alone than share Franz with Bruno. She just can’t stand that.” [5]

The basis of friendship need not be spelled out and thus need not be separated from sexual attraction. The Bieberkopf/Rheinhold template from Berlin Alexanderplatz recurs throughout Fassbinder’s career, wherein simply giving oneself to one another is impossible, both through unsurety due to that very lack of definition, and as a result of the power balance that is naturally established when one is desired and one is desiring.

As would always be the case with Fassbinder, it is primarily a film about people, even if gangster and prostitute are archetypically classic exiles from bourgeois society. It is about these specific people, but there are many others like them, sharing their predicaments. Franz is related to Mecki from Brecht’s Beggar’s Opera, the most recent anti-theatre production: neither wants to work for anyone but themselves, on simple entrepreneurial, capitalist grounds. But so too is he like Fassbinder’s consistent inspiration, Franz Bieberkopf (the surname is briefly mentioned), fresh out of prison and unwilling to go back to work for the Berlin Alexanderplatz gangsters. He therefore must have a Reinhold – Bruno –and their friendship has a vibrant homosexual undertow: when Bruno arrives at Franz’s pad and the latter pats him down, the look of unexpected, pleasant surprise on Lommel’s face is the perfect evocation of that unspoken desire. As per Fassbinder’s outline, Franz may not question his liking of Bruno, but the camera zooms in to emphasize their moment of communion (the sexual dimension will later be reinforced by an echo of the same shot, with Johanna and a john). Like Bieberkopf, Franz gives his friendship unreservedly, encouraging Joanna to sleep with Bruno. She breaks out laughing. He slaps her face, needing for justification only “Bruno is my friend”. Bruno will do his part for Franz also, waiting riskily outside the police station for him but, like Reinhold, his role is the traitor, whose position of power in the relationship enables him to take advantage.

"I want(ed the audience) to experience the kind of rage I feel, and…it also had to be beautiful" [6]

Franz’s declaration that he wants to work alone is undermined by the bond between the trio, as much of his own making as Fassbinder’s, their movie gang cool repeatedly emphasized in striking compositions.

In trying on an American style, it was important to Fassbinder that his protagonists look the part, and indeed they do: Lommel, handsome, well-dressed and cool, even when hailing a taxi, especially when casing parked cars; Fassbinder himself, beefy and feral in his favoured leather jacket; and Schygulla, languid and sexy, saved from a sniper’s bullet at the end simply, it seems, because she looks so good. They go shopping for sunglasses “like the cop in Psycho”. Fassbinder’s star-making tendencies are already in effect, in frequently striking portraits; showing off Schygulla’s stocking tops or breasts; and devoting a long-held shot to Lommel’s entrance, lingering on his defiant, cool stare and his sensuously parted lips. He is the centre of attention, his most obvious antecedent the Delon/Melville hitman of Le samourai, the fedora ever present. And like that character, Bruno takes on a hint of mythos: the V-struts of the door against which he is first shown recall large wings, the wings of an angel, but an angel of death. In the film’s most mysterious and suggestive scene, Bruno heads out into the world from the syndicate’s imprisonment. The young woman across from him on the train can see his symbolic aura of evil for she carries some symbolic weight herself: Bruno grabs with gusto the apple she offers, and he ignores the breast she bares, rejecting mother and whore in one fell swoop (two later whores hold his attention only so long as they can help him find Franz). He declares his cold self-isolation in a brief, matter-of fact description of his earliest murders. Almost all the killing in the film is carried out implacably, patiently by Bruno, and each time the victim is given the chance to stare into the face of death before being dispatched.

Bruno has a mysterious, angel of death quality to him, not unlike Delon’s uncanny hitman in Le samourai. After shooting the motorcycle cop, he is eerily framed and haloed against the backlight of the sky. On each other occasion he removes his sunglasses, so that his victims may look Death in the face.

The relationship between the two men comprises the emotional core of the film, but Johanna stands at its thematic centre. Her desire to conform to bourgeois norms – have an apartment, a child, peace, just one man – motivates the actions that provoke the film’s climax. But she is also the first of Fassbinder’s many characters who submit willingly, eagerly and often unknowingly to oppression. Puttering about clearing the table or obeying Franz’s orders, she is content for him to be the master, and he knows he can wield that power since, as he tells her, “you love me anyway”. Relationships of love are never equal. She remains determinedly subservient even to the end, confessing rather than boasting that she had called the cops; and Franz’s final pronouncement of “whore” completes for her a happy ending, where she has gotten her man back to herself, and remains fully defined by his ownership.

The dynamics of these relationships are expressed briefly and simply. These are not characters who talk out ideas or feelings; they react, for the most part, rather than thinking and initiating. Action, not language, is the expressive mode of emotion, in a slap, or a caress. If Johanna wins in the end it is precisely because she has taken an initiative, even if she has won for herself only enslavement. The men lose in a different way: Bruno says to Franz “you don’t want to talk? It’s better that way” and the point is emphasized by having them walk three times past the same blank wall. There is a sense that he is unable to articulate his emotions, articulate his way out of his situation. He is capable of tenderness towards Johanna, even compassion towards a fellow prisoner, but at base he is a brute, and his almost subhuman inability to confront societal oppression is a badge, for Fassbinder, of pitiful dignity. One of the cops reminds us that this sort of guy in this sort of situation is nothing out of the ordinary. For Bruno, on the other hand, his hitman cool is fractured in classic style by an emotion, however understated, and it must prove his undoing. So it is Reinhold rather than Bieberkopf who is thrown from a moving car. Bourgeois values prove stronger than organized crime; love, or at least a twisted, parodic form, is more coldly calculating than Death. And Franz is still on the bottom.

"What remains when one has seen this film is not that six people were murdered, that there were a couple of dead bodies, but that there were poor souls here, who didn't know what to do with themselves, who were simply set down, as they are, and who weren't given a chance." [7]

Hanna Schygulla was an old friend of Fassbinder’s from the private acting classes he took in late 1963. Throughout his early films she was the actress most obviously presented as a “star” in the glamorous, Hollywood mould. But she would soon be joined by many others.

Johanna is at the centre of the film because she is the most mired in middle-classness, the bad faith Fassbinder most abhors, and she represents the invidious power of those values, the individual expression of a general tendency seen by Fassbinder throughout society and beyond: "the gangster environment is a bourgeois setting turned on its head, so to speak. My gangsters do the same things that capitalists do except they do them as criminals. The gangster’s goals are just as bourgeois as the capitalist’s" [8]. The syndicate boss acts like the head of a company, offering Franz security, a salary. The gangster milieu is not a mirror of bourgeois tendencies, however, but an extension: society's ability to oppress – its need, even –is not exclusive to the bourgeoisie, and human nature's fundamental drive to divide itself into oppressors and the oppressed is endemic throughout all strata of society. Outside the organised structures of both conventional society and the syndicate, these characters are not rebels but victims, the oppressed, those without chances or options, those with whose plight Fassbinder is always in sympathy. For him it was another form of crime story: "to me the everyday oppression people experience is criminal" [9] . Thus, the actual criminal acts in the film appear everyday. Killings are matter-of-fact; beatings take place offscreen. Franz’s dearest wish is “I want to be free”, but he can free himself from neither the syndicate nor his relationship; and he perpetuates the hierarchy in his overlording treatment of Johanna. It is not the syndicate that brings him down in the end, but his inchoate efforts to be free from sexual bourgeois norms that drive Johanna to betrayal. Despite the leather jacket and posturing attitude, he is a directionless schlub, a loner loser. By contrast, if Bruno sports an effortless cool, he can do so because he is secretly backed – up to a point – by an established power structure. “The syndicate gets what it wants”.

“right from the start we tried to go about film-making as if we were making real films. Even at a time when we couldn't get it right, and we didn't have the means, we always assumed that everything was already there, the experience and the finance.” [10]

Fassbinder’s fearless leadership in the theatre translated immediately to cinema. “Real” for him was American cinema, not the sort of rinky-dink German product of the late 60s. “Real” was also intellectual engagement, such as could be found in the works of his European mentors: Jean-Marie Straub, the French New Wave, and Godard above all. The baton was handed down at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, when Godard named Straub as one of the three film-makers capable of continuing his work after the dead-end of Le gai savoir (the others were Bertolucci and Rocha). In Fassbinder’s own relation to Straub, and his unstoppable self-belief, that made him the bright new hope of cinema.

Fassbinder was intent on getting across a message in his first film, as he had been doing repeatedly on stage, but he also wanted an audience. He was not alone in his love of 50s American crime films, and wanted to use the genre in the way that genre is always used, to provide a setting with which the audience is familiar, which they already know they enjoy. The crime story was an easily-managed vessel for his theme, like the dummy machine gun the trio buys: with the right trappings it’ll look like the real thing. As ever, there was something audacious in this: Fassbinder was “determined to be a commercial film-maker at a time and in a country where no viable commercial cinema existed.” [11]

The film plays largely as a deconstruction of the American gangster picture, but Fassbinder allows room for a climactic shoot-out, shot with steely precision in shot in the streets of Munich.

The title credit may contain a jokey pause, but from the plain, silent, white-on-black text, to the austere visuals and bursts of stately classical music (Henze), the bold starkness of the film looks like anything but commercial cinema, never mind the commercial psychedelia of the late 60s. Of the film’s dedicatees, the obscure Linio and Cuncho were from a popular but strange Italian western (Quien Sabe? aka A Bullet for the General, Damiani, 1966) and provided the male friendship template as well as the “Bruno is my friend” line; Chabrol, Rohmer and the Nouvelle Vague in general were important for Fassbinder, although his secret touchstone was Godard, whose increasingly socio-politically focused genre breakdowns had lit a fire beneath the young acolyte; but it is the last name, the gloriously uncommercial Jean-Marie Straub, whose influence is most felt. Fassbinder had acted for him in a filmed stage piece and the long car shot at night across store and house fronts was donated by Straub himself. Aside from neat, swift cuts for bursts of action, and the dynamic final gunfight, the film plays in long takes, a balanced mixture of static, tableau-like compositions and gently gliding camera movement: one particularly striking sequence, a Godardian back-and-forth track left and right, creates disorienting layers of movement on shallow planes as figures walk with and contrary to the path of the camera. This staginess extends even to having the prisoners lay out their blankets like set dressing. Fassbinder declared later: “in the theatre I always directed as if it were a film, and then shot the films as if it were theatre. I did that fairly determinedly” [12]. Dietrich Lohmann’s photography is elegantly austere, realising Fassbinder’s vision of having the characters emerge from bright whiteness – many of the stage-like framings foreground figures against a blank white wall or burned-out windows, and Fassbinder spoke almost regretfully of the Hollywood demands of the genre, which would forbid his presenting his message against an entirely blank white background.

Fassbinder’s tableaux are in full effect and he toys with some frames within frames and the bars of a telephone box. But his lifelong love affair with filming in mirrors begins here also: used to emphasize a dichotomy between speech and meaning, duplicitous, hypocritical or unconscious; to suggest doubling, duality and superficiality; to imply thought; to include more information in the frame; or simply to look more cool.

"The American way of making [films] left the audience with emotions and nothing else. I want to give the spectator the emotions along with the possibility of reflecting on and analyzing what he is feeling.” [13]

The described plot is pared to essentials. Even basic detail is obscured – it takes a while to realise the initial setting is some sort of prison (we never learn who Franz’s fellow captives are, or why. Doesn’t matter). The calculated monotony of form is a method of emphasis and the genre elements are reduced almost to absurdity as Fassbinder concertedly deconstructs easy methods of emotional involvement. Just as scenes are lit with no shadows, nowhere for the characters to hide, so too are narrative, editing, sound and music used to deny the audience an easy way out of engaging with the message. Discomforting technique and direct statements carry the day, through actions, language and camera, and distraction is removed. Fassbinder’s sole focus was to illustrate the hierarchies of power and the way that they oppress, in a manner that would allow the audience to think itself into emotional involvement.

A long take near the centre of the film shows the three protagonists simply walking down a country road. Fassbinder said that if he had ever seen something like that in a film, it certainly would have struck him. Divorced from context and genre definitions, these are simply people, the understanding of whom, and empathy with, would be fundamental to his entire oeuvre. His use of long takes was to ensure that the audience wouldn’t miss the point.

With this first film Fassbinder was off. The core of his stock company was already well formed from the theatre: of his lovers, Ingrid Caven and Irm Hermann have little moments, but Kurt Raab gets to show only a sliver of that distinctive, pinched profile. Peer Raben, Action Theatre founder Ursula Stratz and others lurk in the background. Lommel brought with him his wife, Katrin Schaake, to play the girl on the train. These would all be recurrently familiar faces in Fassbinder’s films, to be joined by many others; Lohmann would return to shoot most of Fassbinder’s pictures for the next five years; and the problems of these characters would return again and again throughout the whole of the rest of his oeuvre. Lording it over his company in fluidly communal living and working arrangements, Fassbinder’s obsession with power relations between individuals and within society had already been well developed on stage and in life. Cinematic technique he would learn as he went along: his debut is as cold as his late films are decadent, but the artistic temperament is on fire, and any first-time hesitation is masked by a perfect surliness.

Liebe ist kälter als der Tod was shot over twenty-four days in April 1969 and premiered at the Berlin Festival in June to a hostile response (boos, foot stamping). Fassbinder mounted the stage to jeers, and shook his clasped hands over his head as if in triumph. He treated the press with monosyllabic disdain. Contemporary reviews jumped on his comment that he made films “against emotion”. He would later amend that in private conversation to “against exploitation of emotion” [14] and as his film-making develops, he becomes more adept at distinguishing the two. If the contemporaneous critics were justified in noting the absence of emotion in service of intellectual process, their objections were amplified by the fact that such practices were rarely hung with genre trappings. Fassbinder’s was an unusual, and unusually assured, debut.

He was soon ready with his “comeback”. Fired with enthusiasm, already critical of Chabrol (too dull) and Godard (not radical enough), his prolific theatrical workflow took cinema in its stride, and with all these actors at his disposal and a little financial imagination, there was no need to wait around for approval. By August he was shooting again, an adaption of his own play Katzelmacher.

d/sc Rainer Werner Fassbinder pPeer Raben, Thomas Schamoni ph Dietrich Lohmann ed Franz Walsch (ie RWF) m Peer Raben, Holger Münzer cast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, Hanna Schygulla, Hans Hirschmüller, Katrin Schaake, Ingrid Caven, Ursula Strätz, Irm Herrmann, Will Rabenauer (ie Peer Raben), Kurt Raab, Rudolf Waldermar BRem, Yaak Karsunke
(1969, WGer, 88m, b/w)

[1]RWF interview with Jochim von Mengeshausen, Film, May 1969, reprinted in Michael Tüterberg and Leo A. Lensing, eds, Anarchy of the Imagination (John Hopkins UP, Maryland, 1992); [2]-[4] ibid; [5] RWF, quoted in Tony Rayns, ed, Fassbinder (BFI, London, 1979); [6] RWF interview with von Mengeshausen, Film, 1969; [7]-[9] ibid; [10] RWF quoted in Thomas Elsaesser, “A Cinema of Vicious Circles”, in Tony Rayns, ed, Fassbinder (BFI, London, 1980); [11] ibid; [12] RWF quoted in Peter W. Jansen and Wolfram Schütte, eds, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Hanser, Munich, 1975, 1987; Fischer, Frankfurt, 1992); [13] RWF interview with Norbert Sparrow, Cineaste VIII/2, Fall 1977, p20; [14] cited in Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder: the life and work of a provocative genius (Faber & Faber, London, 1991)


Blogger Kieran O'Leary said...

Great great article. I only just discovered your blog. I'm working my way through RWF's back catalogue so I will consult your site further.

July 31, 2012 at 3:48 AM  

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