Utterly out of his element in this world of dreamers, Robert discovers himself being strangely drawn to the mysterious woman, and is swept up into her horrific world. Obviously, this world also parallels, as most critics have noted, the one into which American actor William Holden, equally by accident, steps in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, where the equally delusional Norma Desmond madly rules; like Norma, Veronica spends much of Fassbinder’s movie trying to get back into filmmaking, finally convincing a director to cast her in a couple of scenes of a new movie, which end, like Norma, in her mental collapse.
These allusions to other films, in fact, serve as further mirroring images, doublings that Fassbinder uses at every level. I am sure Tony Rayns is correct when he suggests that Fassbinder used a common “woman’s problem” genre, popular in the German cinema of the 1930s. But the director also calls up, in the blindingly bright all-white sanatorium, a kind of lit-up hell run by Dr. Katz, wherein Veronika often finds herself entrapped, the Lewis Allen mystery/romance film of 1944 The Uninvited, wherein the characters all must also face past ghosts (in this case quite literally) which threaten to tear apart their current lives and kill one of them. In that film, as well, a psychiatrist, a lesbian lover of the young heroine’s mother, imprisons the young girl with the intent to kill her. Fassbinder makes clear in Veronika Voss that his heroine’s involvement with her doctor is not merely her drug addiction, but derives from her need to be loved; and that relationship is revealed—particularly given scenes with the doctor’s assistant, Josefa—as a lesbian one. Despite Robert’s later attempts to free her from the clinic in order to help Veronika come to terms with the “real” world, the actress lies, revealing her masochistic attachment to the self-destructive situation.
Later, incidentally, after observing Veronika’s breakdown and encountering her former husband, screenwriter Max Rehbein (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Robert and he share a few beers, resulting in what appears as far more than a male-bonding relationship, Rehbein, in particular, almost caressing and holding the drunken Robert, begging him not leave.
There are similar connections with numerous other films, even including George Stevens’ 1942 Hepburn-Tracy “comedy,” Woman of the Year, wherein an equally clueless sportswriter attempts to woo a brilliantly strong-willed beauty and bring her into his reality, but ultimately fails.
Many critics, moreover, have observed the strange use of music by Peer Raben throughout, mostly American songs which might have been heard on German radio during those postwar days. These have generally been described as creating a kind of irritating and disorienting feeling (much like the visual use of Fassbinder’s lover Günther Kaufmann, an African-American GI, who speaks only in English, who appears as a kind of minion to Dr. Katz’s evil empire—but, in fact, is busy wrapping up extra drugs from the clinic for sale in the illegal market outside). Certainly, the zither-like tunes, the intrusion of country-western ballads, the heavy beating of a kettle drum—are irritating. But they are also thematically important, creating yet more “mirror-like” allusions, which enrich this already thickened film. The zither music, as Roger Ebert, perceived, reminds one surely of The Third Man, another movie about postwar Europe that involves evil intentions regarding drugs, and centers upon the arrival in Austria of a kind of cowboy like character—a writer of westerns, Holly Martin—who is equally unable to make sense of the world around him.
At one moment I thought I heard remnants of the song that accompanied the trail by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, as he attempts to track down the innocent children whom he intends to murder. Later, I listened through the score again, but couldn’t precisely find that passage. But I most certainly did hear bits from the Tennessee Ernie Ford classic country-western song, “Sixteen Tons,” an appropriate choice for a story about a woman indentured by her doctor:
You load sixteen tones, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
No longer an innocent—Robert now knows the complete involvement of the head of public health and the drug-dealing doctor—our would-be hero rejects any attempt to “finish” his reporting duties, declaring, quite cynically, that “journalistically speaking” it is not much of a story.
In Veronika’s death scene, in retrospect, the film suddenly jumps out of its several mirror-like frames into real life. For a few months later, Fassbinder would replay the scene, overdosing—either accidently or intentionally—on drugs, and, in that act, finally carrying his cross into Robert’s “real world.” **