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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a Holy Whore)


a sheep in wolf’s clothing
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a Holy Whore) / 1971

1971 was an amazing year for filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, even for a man who made many films every year; that year he managed to shoot five feature films: Rio das Mortes, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Whity, and Beware of a Holy Whore, and The Merchant of Four Seasons, while both he and his communal-living cast were recovering from the particularly exhausting film, Whity.

     

     Beware of a Holy Whore, reportedly, recounts some of the difficulties the group had while shooting Whity, not only the delays in promised governmental grants, but with materials—both that film and Holy Whore were shot in Spain, where sets, shooting locations, and equipment were more difficult to procure—while also being mired in the numerous interpersonal relationships between the actors and crew. Even applying for the grants was an arduous business; as Fassbinder joked, “I can make an entire film in the time it takes others to read the small print of a grant application form.” 
       It is no wonder, accordingly, that the director, Jeff, depicted in Holy Whore (the dark-haired, somewhat overweight Fassbinder being played, ironically by the handsome Germanic looking blond and blue-eyed Lou Castel) is seemingly disinterested in making the film for which the cast and crew are huddled in a semi-luxury hotel, awaiting his arrival. By film’s end, Jeff is utterly exhausted, an empty shell of a human being.
       It is the same kind of exhaustion we witness also in two models that Fassbinder surely used for this film, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, the exhaustion not only from the never-ending demands creation makes, but from the kind of decadent world that seemingly accompany films and their multiple creators. Godard’s film, like Fassbinder’s, is also about violence and brutality, both sexual and intellectual, while 8 ½ clearly humorously and seriously accounts a mini-history of both.

      For those who know about the Fassbinder “commune,” as one character describes it, there are many in-jokes in this film—Fassbinder, himself, plays the harried directorial assistant, Sasha, and Magdalena Montezuma plays a character to whom the director had once been married, named Irm, while Irm Hermann, who played in 19 of Fassbinder’s films, is nowhere to be seen in this one; and Fassbinder’s real-life, short-term wife, Ingrid Craven here appears as a married woman desiring a bit role; and there are also several subtle references to previous Fassbinder films—but to read the movie as entirely autobiographical, I believe, would be a mistake.       
      Certainly the various sexual goings-on in this film—heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and, in particular, bi-sexual—which we are forced time and time again to observe through various voyeuristic tableaus—may have been part and parcel of a Fassbinder shoot. At some points it appears almost as if every one of the numerous cast and crew members are determined to get each other into their beds or least upon a lobby couch. And by film’s end, they do seem to be entwined into a large group grope similar to the comical goings-on in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. Yet behind the basically satirical vision of Holy Whore there are also a great many serious issues which seem far more personal, as the director character attempts to work them out, than general. If this should not be understood precisely as a group autobiography, it is certainly one of Fassbinder’s most personal works, even though he uses a stand-in for himself.  
     Indeed, given the almost bi-polar shifts in Jeff’s behavior once he does fly in on a plane (procured evidently from another isolated paradise, Ischia) it would have been almost unbearable to actually see Fassbinder playing himself. At once, instead of hugging his boy-toy of the moment, Ricky (Marquard Bohm), Jeff puts his arms around his hunky assistant-director, David (Hannes Fuchs) and then hugs several of his women actors, including Hanna Schygulla, playing herself.

Image result for beware of a holy whore     Soon after he slaps Irm, and when she drunkenly shouts out about his abuse of her, slaps her several more times and fires her on the spot, demanding she leave the site. The drugged-out cameraman, Deiters (played by Fassbinder’s openly gay filmmaker friend, Werner Schroeter) has already abused her, telling her, after a brief kissing session, that she needs to clean her teeth more often. Yet she is the only saved from the emotional abuses which follow.

       By the next morning Jeff is shouting for and at nearly everyone, furious about the shooting location, the Spanish equipment, and the cinematographer’s inability to immediately comprehend his rather complex instructions. The actors take too long to get into costume, and the group translator is seen in the distance, for long hours at a time, entwined in a kiss with a driver. Furthermore, the money from Bonn has not yet come through. Both Jeff and Ricky wish for one another’s complete “destruction.”
       If Jeff is explosively violent, he can also, a moments, be tender in his manipulation of his cast. But the film he intends to make is utterly brutal:  As he describes it to his actor, Eddie Constantine, who has complained that he cannot give a karate chop to his female victim, “Lemmy Caution is always such a gentleman, so noble. What I want to show here is the guy at the height of power. Brutal cold-blooded, capitalistic, rational, cold as ice. I don’t want to show a rain of sympathy for people who cat in the name of some fascist government."
       In short, the world of drink, drugs, and sex which these characters inhabit is also, in a more political sense, what the movie-within-the-movie is itself about.
       The two worlds, the satirical film about filmmaking and the murderous film at Holy Whore’s heart, accordingly, are oddly mirror images, one comic and one tragic, but both suggesting that all of these figures, “real” and “imagined,” in giving their lives over to art and artifice, allow themselves to feel a sense of holiness, while still whoring for their own sense of control over one another and reality. In this world, status, even being one of Fassbinder’s original Munich group members, having grown up in a better financial situation, or imagining future scenarios for their lives, is crucial and, in the end, self-destructive.
       Of course, the real holy whore is art itself. The support that the German government lavished on film and theater during the 1970s and 80s, as Thomas Elsaesser intelligently reminds us in the DVD liner-essay, encouraged directors such as Fassbinder to become “clowns and professional enfant terribles,” in part to justify the control and power the government had built up to delimit such behavior in everyday life. Each, directors and government, needed the other to justify their existences and to satisfy their desires, the fact of which the young Fassbinder immediately perceived. 
       Fassbinder’s films are almost always centered on real moral issues, but are presented, as here, in a manner which forces you to see them for what they are: artificed creations. If they are actually whores, things which make you want to love them, they, at least, are honest enough to make it very clear that they are not entirely holy, that their beauty is a created one through make-up, camera tricks, and clever acting. 
     Perhaps none of the great filmmaker’s works revealed this so clearly as Beware of a Holy Whore, a work which you can simultaneously love and find utterly perverse. These are beautiful people acting quite brilliantly, but they’re only to be let out of their box for one or occasional nights. Art, alas, is not life—a fact, despite his utter dedication to it, of which Fassbinder was only too aware. 
       The film ends with a statement by another bisexual author, Thomas Mann:
      "I tell you that I am often deadly tired of representing human kind without participating in humanity."
       Yes, by the end of 1971, Fassbinder must have exhausted. In 1972 he made only one film, The Bitter Tears of Petra Kant.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2016

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