Round Eight / Fassbinder – focussed visions of yore (2)
Faced with the question whether anyone in this world can ever be truly considered free, or able to embrace freedom, the late German director / writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder might have answered with a resounding negative. Nora Helmer (1974), his adaptation of the legendary Henrik Ibsen play A Doll’s House, features a heroine who, contrary to Ibsen, does not leave her husband. Instead, she stays in the prison that is her marriage. The prospect of freedom, of life outside the cage, frightens her to such an extent that she would prefer to go on living in subjection, playing the role she has long been familiar with – that of the unfulfilled spouse.
Fassbinder was particularly good at examining how the roles people choose to play in society straitjacket them. Members of both sexes can be counted among the victims – Dirk Bogarde in Despair (1978) resorts to murder in his attempt to break the chains, but only succeeds in ensuring his descent into madness – though his most astute portraits concern women.
The eponymous heroine of the Theodor Fontane novel adapted to the screen by Fassbinder in 1974, Effi Briest is another unable to free herself of the societal expectations that keep her bound. Toward the end of the film she breathes some fire but it is the final flicker of a flame about to die.
Martha (1974) deals with another eponymous heroine. She marries shortly after the death of her father, a man who has dominated her life up to then. It is no accident that she will elect as her partner a man with pronounced sadistic tendencies. His oppression of Martha extends to the imposition of his music, literary and other tastes. He demands, in addition, that she relinquish her employment – underhandedly engineering the necessary steps – and not venture out of the house (another ‘object’ imposed on her) while he is busy at work or away on business trips.
When she becomes a partial cripple as a result of a car accident, thus leaving herself in complete subjugation, she may be seen to gain, as Fassbinder argued, what she has subliminally wished for – total dependence on a male figure. She no longer has to bear the burden of deciding anything for herself or take responsibility – things that require fortitude. None of what befalls Martha is accidental in the sense that has been discussed. The steps that lead to her total reliance seem perfectly logical, even inevitable.
It is highly likely that Fassbinder would have had little truck with a certain kind of women’s ’emancipation’ story quite common these days. The heroines of these stories are often brave enough to break out of situations, predominantly relationships and jobs, that keep them under the thumb and unable to be true to themselves.
The irony is that their experiments with freedom often take them from situation y to a variation on situation y. What use Lisa casting off Jermaine in Matariki if she then substitutes him for someone possessed of not dissimilar character traits? She may be one of those women with the unhappy knack of always latching on to unsuitable men.
Fassbinder obviously believed Ibsen’s Nora was not about to do anything groundbreaking or radical in a future apart from her husband. He reckoned she would perpetuate the cycle, the old ways, regardless of where she went. So what use her ‘advance toward freedom’? In his adaptation she does not bother to take the leap.
Petra Von Kant in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) and Maria Braun in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) represent, on the surface, markedly different heroines in the Fassbinder canon. Both are highly successful career women. Petra has reached that point already at the commencement of the film. Maria, after being frustrated in the search for her husband in the immediate post-WW2 period, becomes one in a resurgent Germany.
Petra has been married twice, the first time happily to a man whose life was cut short, the second time to a man from whom she has separated. Despite the success of her business she is unhappy emotionally. Maria lives in an emotional void too. Her missing spouse is a wound that cannot be healed by the material gain she accrues. It is significant that Maria and Petra succeed in a man’s world through the adoption of methods traditionally associated with men. Both, at times, are hard and callous.
It is not until the unexpected (after a lapse of many years) reappearance of her man that Maria comes to more closely resemble the woman she was at the beginning of the film. Petra, on the other hand, wallows in a drunken tirade of spite, vindictiveness and self-pity when Karin, a conceited young model she groomed for success, ultimately spurns her love.
Another Fassbinder character of note is the hero / heroine, Erwin / Elvira of In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978). Irredeemably in love with another man, the young Erwin has a sex change operation when the object of her affection Anton offhandedly remarks that were she a woman he could love her. But this voluntary move out of the masculine domain of power and ascendancy backfires. In the feminine guise Erwin is just as forlorn and unloved. As a transexual, neither wholly male nor female, he / she is a curiosity to friends and family, now and again a ridiculous figure of fun.
Love, according to Fassbinder, is (or could be) colder than death. One of the warmest depictions he gives the emotion is contained in Fear Eats the Soul (1974), a film about the odd couple relationship of an elderly cleaning woman and her much younger black lover. The pressures that would destroy their love are manifold but miraculously it survives, battered yet intact.
In showing how clearly love can enslave and shackle, as opposed to liberating, Fassbinder’s films are liberating. Pure, unconditional love may never be attained, but it exists as an ideal, a construct that audiences might strive for in their lives outside the movie theatres.
A shadowy figure on the margins of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but ever-present is Marlene, the mute servant played by Irm Hermann. A designer herself, like some wise demigod she has borne witness to much in her life as Petra’s live-in help and associate.
She is alternately the fashion designer’s unwitting confidant (not unlike Elizabeth is to Alma in Persona) and doormat. Depending on the mood she is in, Petra gravitates between studied condescension and the utmost contempt in her treatment of Marlene, who bears up with an even, unblinking stoicism. Until the end, that is, when Petra rouses from her heartache. She has behaved appallingly in response to the break up with Karin, but she is now repentant and chastened.
She will make amends to her, too, she promises Marlene. From henceforth things will be different. Marlene is invited to think of herself as Petra’s friend and equal. Petra urges her to talk about herself. Marlene’s reaction? She solemnly packs a bag and leaves. It is one of the great moments of liberation, or escape to freedom, in the modern cinema.
Liberty prevails again! Five to three.
Round Nine / Haneke, Ozon et al – open ends
Though it rarely rises to the surface, the films of the Austrian writer / director Michael Haneke contain an astounding undercurrent of violence. Watching Isabelle Huppert as the piano teacher in the film of the same name (2001), one would not be surprised were she to leap off the screen and start assaulting the audience. Her knife wielding episode at the close of that film is much like exhaling after having held the breath until the lungs are crying out for release.
When Majid, in the extraordinary Hidden (2005), does the same, the sense is similar. But the violence in Haneke’s films is not just physical. It is as razor sharp in its effect in ordinary human interaction. A scene in The White Ribbon (2009) where one of the male characters viciously belittles a woman with whom he has formerly been intimate represents an extreme of non-physical violence. No weapon could lacerate deeper than the volley of verbal abuse uttered here.
Haneke is representative of a kind of director – a rare breed these days – who uses the cinema to investigate and explore rather than necessarily solve. Hidden is a classic example of this type of film, one that raises far more questions than it purports to answer, if it purports to answer anything at all.
Hidden, as do all his films, needs to be watched closely. It invites the audience in and in so doing offers viewers a participatory experience. Auteur directors, especially in Europe, have been working this way for decades, Bergman, Saura, Bresson, Antonioni and Buňuel being among the most famous. In an era marked by less experimentation in the cinema, they still have the power to stand out. But because the style is against the grain and because they can be far from easy films, film-makers who work the way Haneke does make many uncomfortable.
Georges and Anne, the affluent couple at the centre of Hidden, begin receiving anonymously sent video cassettes in the mail. The bizarre recordings hint to the pair that their apartment is under surveillance though by whom and to what end is unclear.
They are also sent drawings that manage to unsettle in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, the childlike nature of the hand that has scrawled them. They show a small boy vomiting blood and a decapitated chicken bleeding from its severed neck. We learn during the course of Georges’ self-started investigation – the police are unable to be of assistance because no crime as such has been committed – that they relate to an incident from his boyhood.
He tracks down his old childhood acquaintance Majid. After becoming an orphan at a young age, Majid was taken into Georges’ family, for whom Majid’s deceased father worked. But the envious natural son ruthlessly undermined Majid’s place, with the result that he was returned to the orphanage. Georges becomes convinced that Majid is getting back at him through the mailings, a charge Majid denies though he and his son are temporarily taken into custody as suspects when Georges’ and Anne’s son Pierrot inexplicably vanishes.
Georges’ suspicions are shown to be fallacious when the packages go on appearing even after Majid’s death. What is going on? Is Majid’s son responsible, despite the flat denial that he, like his father, makes? Or are the packages bound to continue as long as Georges refuses to acknowledge his culpability in the long-ago events? Haneke does the audience the courtesy of letting them determine much for themselves. He refuses to offer easy answers in this probing study of guilt.
The last scene of Hidden presents further insistent questions. Having baldly accused Georges to his face of being responsible for Majid’s death, his son then meets Pierrot outside the latter’s school. After a brief, unheard conversation the two walk off together.
The odd recent events have strained the marriage of Georges and Anne and this has had a detrimental effect on Pierrot. The last scene, featuring him and Majid’s son, is fully open to interpretation. Even as it plays out before us, in a long single shot reminiscent of the film’s opening shot, we wonder. Is Majid’s son the ‘bad guy’? Is he now planning to use Pierrot as a further means of tormenting Georges?
Or does the scene indicate something else altogether? Might it be read as some short of show of strength or empathy between the sons of the respective fathers? The new generation coming to terms and burying the hatchet in a way the old were unable to? Can other interpretations be placed on it? It is for us to mull over for as long as we care to do so.
In respecting the audience’s intelligence and enabling them to take a film and turn it into their own film, so to speak, open endings empower. The Fassbinder influenced Francois Ozon works accordingly. Without doubt some of the beauty of Ozon’s films derives from the multiple interpretations that can be applied to them.
Like Gaspar Noe, one of his films, 5 x 2 (2004), reverses the chronology of the action and, also like Noe, his name is sometimes associated with the cinéma du corps. But the resemblance ends there, I would hasten to point out. Ozon’s polished, subtle style and narratives could, on the whole, be better likened to certain of his French film-maker forebears. He has the intelligence and finesse of an Alain Resnais.
Even after multiple viewings, I am not certain what to make of the conclusion of his erotic thriller Swimming Pool (2003). Has Sarah, the author who is the mainstay of the action, merely imagined the bizarre events she has been through? Is the film a reflection, as Ozon hints, on the problematical nature of the writing process? Different people will come up with different interpretations.
The action the dying fashion photographer Romain takes near the end of his life in the courageous Time to Leave (2005) will elicit divergent emotions. Some, like the New York Observer film critic who reviewed the film at the time of its release in the US, may consider it an act of selfishness. Others will beg to differ. Does Romain only wish to perpetuate himself now that he stands at death’s door? Or is his concern primarily geared toward helping a barren couple finally realise their (until then) thwarted dream?
The director’s haunting study about the inability to accept loss and move on, Under the Sand (2000), features an ending that is both affecting and tantalising. Marie’s refusal to process her husband’s death extends to such incredible lengths in the face of irrevocable evidence that the viewer may hold on to a residue of doubt and tend to believe, along with her, that perhaps her husband is still living. Is her faith valid? Is the medical evidence incorrect? Maybe this is beside the point. He lives on in her mind so tangibly that he might as well still be alive in reality.
Liberty gets one more back! Five to four.
Round Ten / Spielmann – do I dare disturb the universe?!
To go back to where we began: coincidence. There are the highly contrived, one chance in a million variety and those that are eased into narratives far more coherently and believably. But before considering Gotz Spielmann’s Revanche (2008), it is worth pointing out that this is the same man who wrote and directed a film by the name of Antares (2004).
Antares is about life in Vienna as lived by three couples searching for love, intimacy and passionate romance during the course of three momentous days. Yes, the blurb has a familiar ring and, no, Spielmann could not ignore the trend! The fact is starkly underlined in the opening scene: a man is sitting in the back of a taxi perusing intimate photographs of a woman when (heavens to Betsy!) the cab is struck by another car. Thus our introduction to the story of unfulfilled wife and mother Eva and her lover.
Not content with developing this line of narrative in a way that could offer real insight into the married couple’s dilemma (God alone knows what really ails the relationship), this story is then interweaved with that of the second couple, a cashier in a grocery store and her immigrant lover, and finally that of a third couple, a woman and her abusive estranged husband. The randomness of the encounters and / or events that serve as connecting or linking points between the three plot lines, the swallowtail effect, the routinely if not poorly developed characters (we are not with them long enough to get a fix on them or discover what makes them tick) … the hodgepodge is well-known.
Who, sitting through Antares, would have expected the same writer / director to invent Revanche four years later? In the film’s first act ex-con Alex’s bank robbery, in which he is morally aided by his prostitute girlfriend Tamara, goes horribly wrong. Quite by accident, she is shot and killed by Robert, the policeman who stumbles upon the scene and unsuccessfully tries to prevent their getaway.
Like many films, this is a narrative that relies much on coincidence, tellingly when Robert arrives at the scene as the heist is in progress. Robert’s wife Susanne is a friend of Alex’s grandfather Hausner. They are near neighbours and she often looks in on the ailing man.
Deeming it to be his safest option, Alex repairs to his grandfather’s rural spread after the botched robbery. In part, too, he is fulfilling familial duty or a promise to help the old man around the property. Susanne is immediately drawn to the brooding, taciturn stranger when she meets him during one of her visits. Alex is unaware of the lion’s den that he enters on taking up with his relative. Or with whom he is sharing caresses when he responds to Susanne’s overtures. Nor does she at first have any idea as to his ‘real’ identity.
In the meantime, guilt has weighed heavy on Robert since the accidental slaying. To such an extent that he insists on carrying around a permanent prick to his conscience – a picture of Tamara. Susanne sees the photo but does not become aware of the link to Alex until she visits him one day and ‘recognises’ the dead Tamara in a photo that Alex has held on to – as a keepsake of his departed love.
Revanche takes place in a compact town and the countryside nearby. Robert is one of a small team of police officers. So it is not hard to accept he is on duty when Alex puts his plan into action. That this killer of Alex’s ladylove should be the husband of a woman who has befriended Hauser is also within the realms of possibility in these environs.
When the truth of their respective situations dawn on Susanne and Alex, it is quietly shattering for both. Alex knows her ‘secret’ and she knows his. What can they do? They tacitly agree to chart a course that allows both to save face.
The greatest suspense in the film stems from Alex’s dilemma: whether or not to kill Robert, the one who took the life of his beloved, albeit unintentionally. He has ample opportunity. Robert is a fitness fanatic and habitually jogs open trails in the forest. The pair even talk on one occasion, the hunted interrupting his workout to engage his equally tormented hunter.
The resolution to this film is open to interpretation in the sense that some may not agree with it. But I suspect they would be in the minority, that the majority would see Alex’s action (non-action?) as freeing. What we have to be grateful for is considerable: simply the fact that Revanche is a gift to the audience, in an age when the last thing on many film-makers’ minds is giving. The fracturing of a cycle that comes uncomfortably close to repeating at certain points of the narrative has a cathartic effect on the viewer. Thanks, Gotz. Your past ‘sins’ are forgiven! Go and sin no more!
Liberty, you bewdy! Five to five.
Conclusion / Banishing fear permanently
His films often have a playful, if not absurdist, touch that can make it hard to conjecture where exactly Luis Buňuel stood on the issue of liberty. Does the title of his film The Phantom of Liberty (1974) say it all? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is a film that delights in multiple narratives and relishes in the freedom to dispense with a unifying plot line.
Storylines supposedly developing are broken off all of a sudden as characters or incidents ‘planted’ in the scene are followed, meaning that the film goes off on different tangents on a number of occasions. It is an arresting technique that the American director Richard Linklater beautifully paid homage to years later in Slacker (1991).
Contrary to the multiple narrative films we have been discussing, Buňuel’s and Linklater’s films go against the convention that demands that films of this kind should turn in on themselves in swallowtail fashion. The Phantom of Liberty and Slacker are the more inventive for it though they are not necessarily probing studies of the problem of liberty.
With reference to the subject, I imagine Buňuel might have belonged in the middle ground. His was an off-the-wall intelligence and quite likely he would have known, almost instinctively, that while many in this world, especially among the wealthier classes, have much freedom to choose, that freedom is at the same time heavily circumscribed.
The implication appears to be that none born into this world are truly free. But one need not be cowed by the knowledge. A person can even proceed in life as if this were not so. Not blindly or in a foolhardy fashion, but as faithfully as it is possible to go forward when the dice is loaded.
This is not the way characters in heavily contrived narratives behave. Frequently their level of control over their own lives is so compromised that they are marionettes or automatons. If they instigate action it is usually of the reactive kind in a world where things tend to happen to them rather than vice versa.
The playing field in such narratives can be malignant in the extreme. What results are heroes and heroines who go under at the drop of a hat unless blessed with almost superhuman resources. Why strive for anything, they might ask themselves, if the odds are so stacked against them?
Their mindset is not, Come on world, I am ready! but Okay, world, swallow me up! The trouble with such an attitude, naturally, is that it destroys any chance of individual growth. For there can be no growth without striving. A wrestler’s chances of improving his skills will remain slender so long as he refuses to challenge himself with stronger opponents.
A fatalistic, even nihilistic, cinema is the result. The fear that may have been born in little Ann in Dr Lewis’s anecdote could be likened to what might become rooted in the psyches of the audiences sitting through these films. Film, with its multidimensional appeal, has a potential to uplift that is second to none among the arts. Its most skilful practitioners have shown this time after time in the hundred plus years since moving pictures were discovered. It is a travesty not to use this potential or at least attempt to use it. A greater travesty occurs when film-makers produce work that leaves audiences feeling earthbound and chained.
When we purchase a cinema ticket we pledge to let our guards down and be taken in by the amusement for a specified time. In our heart of hearts we know none of it is real but our wish to see an entertaining show wins out. Because the projector that is the source of the entertainment is positioned at our backs we can forget it is there quite easily. All the better to serve the illusion; the easier it becomes to partake of the players’ heartaches and joys.
But one split second glance over the shoulder would be sufficient to know the truth. Whether a comedy or a drama, the totality emanating from the light goes back to the light when the projector stops. Like the individual flames on a gas burner return to a single source when the dial is switched off.
We can, if we choose, practise the same detachment with the seeming greater dramas, the highs and lows, of our personal picture shows, the colossal entertainments of this world. We can take a moment to pause and reflect and discern the ‘light’ from which it, too, radiates. One single moment might be enough to ‘awaken’ us for all time.
Indeed, the most extraordinary cinema narratives have much to teach us. They are a veritable ticket to freedom for those with the good fortune to experience them. The positive spin-off effects may be incalculable. So much cinema dumbs down or disempowers. By contrast these other works are like a fifth column of the incomparable seventh art. Long may they live!
Final decision: liberty defeats blind chance on points!