Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague)

cobbler, stick to your last

 Rainer Werner Fassbinder Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague) / 1970, USA 1977

 Often grouped in a loosely based trilogy with Love Is Colder Than Death (of 1969), and The American Soldier, of the same year, Gods of the Plague begins soon after the earlier film ended, with the small-time crook, Franz Walsch (this time played by the handsome Harry Baer rather than Fassbinder) being released from a Munich prison.

 His first call is to his former mistress, Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), now a singer in a local nightclub, Lola Montes (named in deference to Max Ophüls’ 1955 masterpiece, one of numerous film references sprinkled throughout this movie*). And for a short period the film focuses on his continued infatuation with her former lover before Franz moves on, partly in search of his old friend, Gorilla (Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder’s reluctant lover for several years), now in hiding and whom, he soon perceives has killed his brother.  A second woman, Magdalena (Ingrid Cravven) briefly takes Franz into her bed, and a third woman, Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) soon appears as another would-be suitor to Franz. Indeed throughout this highly theatrical and somewhat slow-moving early part of the film, women quite literally hang on Franz’s shoulders and arms, undressing him like he were a play toy. Yet throughout Franz seems almost to be dead, saying little, responding sexually even less, often simply laying still as he were a traumatized survivor. He is the kind of figure, as one critic has noted, to which all the other film’s figures assign whatever desires or possible relationships they imagine.
     The film finally quickens its pace when Franz suddenly encounters Gorilla on the street and seemingly snaps out of his trance, the two deeply hugging one another and quickly determining to take a trip into the country to visit a friend Joe (Micha Cochina). At this point the dark, dreary scenes of city life quickly disappear as they go “on the road,” so to speak, inviting Margarethe, at the last moment, to join them. Here, for the first time, a series of real conversations begin, where Gorilla admits he has killed Franz’s brother (“It was just business.”). After a series of pauses, Franz asks Gorilla, “Did you sleep with Joanna while I was gone?” Another long pause occurs, as if the question have been asked of Margarethe rather than Gorilla. When Gorilla replies “yes,” Franz responds, “I love you.” Obviously, he could be saying that to Margarethe, but it is clear that it is Gorilla to whom he is addressing his remark.
      At Joe’s country house, the three men once more spring into life, rough-housing with each other in a manner that is more about grabbing and holding on to one another than it is about a mock battle it pretends. Using the tropes of dozens of film noir and crime movies, such as White Heat, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Killing, Fassbinder reveals the misogynistic and homoerotic elements of the genre. When the three travelers return home, we find them all bed together, Franz dreaming aloud about a Greek paradise where the three might live, like the Jules and Jim trio, hunting, fishing, and drinking out their days together.
     Throughout Gods of the Plague women also form quick lesbian-like alliances, with Joanna embracing her rival Magdalena, and Margarethe briefly establishing a close bond with Joe’s wife. But these relationships, compared with the long term and far deeper homosexual bonds between Gorilla, Franz, and Joe, pale and are short-termed. And, in the end, it is the women who feel betrayed by Franz’s inability to fulfill them, and it is both Margarethe and Joanna, ultimately, with the help of the pornographer Carla Aulaulu (Carla Egerer)—a woman with whom Gorilla has been involved—who, in turn, betray their men.
      Johanna and Margarethe both have different reasons for the betrayal: the first, feeling shut out from Franz’s life takes on the unattractive policeman (Jan George), and clearly wants revenge, pleading with the policeman to shoot Franz; the second wants to prevent Franz and Gorilla from robbing a supermarket, fearing that her lover will be caught.

     Even the supermarket manager seems to be a former friend of Franz’s, suggesting by his open acceptance of the two men into the nearly empty store, that he may also be under the thrall of the handsome Franz. When Franz and Gorilla turn on the supermarket friend, the policeman, who has followed them into the store, takes Johanna’s plea to heart, shooting Franz dead and wounding the escaping “Gorilla.”

     Franz’s last words, “Cobbler, stick to your last,” is strangely enigmatic. The phrase suggests that one should do one what knows best instead of taking on a new role. But here, the idiom somewhat loses its significance since Franz has always been a small-time crook, and is, even now, a film’s end. Does he mean that he should have remained in the penny-ante world which has already resulted in his imprisonment? Surely not. Perhaps he speaks that line not regarding his vocation, but his sexuality. But even here it is unclear precisely what he means. Should he have stuck to Joanna instead of turning to other women or, realizing that the women have betrayed him (just as Joanna had in the previous film). Or does he mean he should have remained with his male friends such as Gorilla or Bruno from the first of this trilogy? Perhaps he is simply referring back to the cobbler of the earlier film, Love Is Colder Than Death, who sells Franz and Bruno the weapons which end in Bruno’s death and Franz’s imprisonment.    

     As if in answer to that question, the seriously wounded Gorilla seeks out Carla Aulaulu, forces her to confess and shoots her dead, hinting that now both sexes have wrought their revenge, transforming the dirty little criminal figures of Munich night-life into near Shakespearian figures.

Los Angeles, April 21, 2013

*Joanna, herself sings a song much in the manner of Marlene Dietrich. When seeking out the Gorilla, Franz discovers his dead brother in an apartment belonging to "Schlondorff.” Another figure of the New German Cinema, who directed The Tin Drum.

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