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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Bolwieser (The Stationmaster's Wife)


methods of escape
by Douglas Messerli


Rainer Werner Fassbinder (screenplay, based on a novel by Oskar Maria Graf) and director Bolwieser (The Stationmaster’s Wife) / 1977, USA 1982


Filmed shortly before one of Fassbinder’s very greatest films, In a Year with 13 Moons, his 3 ½
hour 1977 television film, Bolwieser (The Stationmaster’s Wife) pared down to about 2 hours in the DVD version I saw the other day, may appear to be a much-more contained soap-opera given his next film’s almost hysterical comic and tragic scenes. Many critics, in fact, have described this work as a kind of provincial Madame Bovary.

      Certainly Hani Bolwieser (Elisabeth Trissenaar), married to the local stationmaster, Bolwieser (Kurt Raab)—a man she, herself, enduringly calls “Chubby,” despite his assertions that he is not “that fat”—is a woman easily swayed in matters of the heart. Although she appears to actually love her husband, and certainly has intense sex with him, she is also in love with the handsome village butcher, Frank Merkel (Bernhard Helfich), with whom she has not only regular sexual liaisons but, with her husband’s approval, to whom she provides a loan so that Merkel might buy and improve a local restaurant and dance club. Fortunately, the butcher is better as a businessman than he even is as a lover, and the Bolwiesers begin to see a healthy profit from the interest of their loan. Bolwieser, since he has interest in the club, is encouraged to visit the club at nights, but he clearly would rather stay home with his wife to engage in sex.

     One quick perceives that the stationmaster is so obsessed with his wife that he is utterly impervious to the local gossips who whisper among themselves about his wife’s affairs. When, at a funeral wake, the patrons also “wake” him up to the truth, Bolwieser finally confronts his wife, who pretends such an intense innocence that her husband has no choice but to believe her;  and ultimately she and Merkel join together to sue the gossips and win, despite the fact that Bolwieser himself stumbles over his own testimony, the fact of which later brings his downfall.

      Yet Hani is off to get a new hairdo, and begin yet another affair with the hairdresser, Schafftaller (Udo Kier), an even more handsome man, but one who might remind inveterate filmgoers of the clothes designer, Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) in the Fred Astaire film Top Hat, a man more in love with himself (and, consequently, his own kind) than with the woman he is courting. In the small town of Werberg, unfortunately, which by the end of the movie we perceive is being infiltrated by Nazi supporters (including Bolwieser’s two incompetent employees at the station), that Weimer-like behavior is intolerable. And, when finally, Hani determines to overthrow her passionate marriage with her infatuated husband for the slightly more sophisticated charms of her hairdresser lover, Bolwieser has no choice to admit his wife’s behavior and refute his own past testimony, which, after a short, dramatic court drama, sends him to jail.

      The cuckolded stationmaster simply accepts his fate, as the slightly, but only slightly sorrowful Hani moves on to the rest of her empty life.

      It is easy to characterize Hani as a whore, a woman without any loyalty to her husband and an open liar who destroys her men. But Fassbinder also shows us, quite clearly, her own torture by these men, who all claim her as their property, describing her body itself as evidence of their conquest. At least the slightly effeminate Schafftaller tempts her with a different lifestyle and a way out of the Werberg “empire” which, in the director’s metaphor, represents the future Nazi control of the German heartland. We can imagine, surely, that as much as she may try to escape the male-controlled world of the Nazi nightmare beginning to close in upon her, she will be unable to succeed.

     At least, Bolweiser, representing another version of Fassbinder’s memorable character Franz Biberkopf of his 1980 television series, Berlin Alexanderplatz, may survive simply because of his mental incompetence. Yet like Biberkopf, the naïve Bolwieser will obviously fare no better in the Third Reich. If nothing else, Hani may become a high class whore which might, at least, connect her with the people to help her get through the war—or utterly destroy her in the process.

      In the end, it appears, Fassbinder’s melodrama is simply another extension of his central concerns. How does one survive in a world determined to destroy and outlaw different forms of morality and perceptions of love that lie outside of what is described as the norm. The next step in this exploration was quite naturally to question the boundaries of what even a body was, and who might possibly define and control it: issues very much at the center of In a Year with 13 Moons. And, looking back on this film now, we can recognize its importance in Fassbinder’s amazingly productive career. I have not yet encountered, despite the equivocations of other critics, a film by this director that I could dismiss. And The Stationmaster’s Wife is clearly an important work.

 

Los Angeles, June 11, 2017

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