Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Rio das Mortes

by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Rio das Mortes / 1971

Even those who might be described as devotees of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder seem to have difficulty when talking about his 1971 television film, Rio das Mortes, describing it as “ill conceived,” “badly filmed,” “perfunctory,” and illogically plotted. What is the relationship between the seeming hero of this work, Mike (Michael König), his girlfriend Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), and the intruding salesman-former friend Günter (Günter Kaufmann)? Why are the two “blood brothers” (Mike and Günter) so determined to travel to Peru simply upon having discovered (then lost and rediscovered) a treasure map? Why does Hanna, so adamantly opposed to their travel plans that she seems ultimately willing to kill the male “buddies,” so insistently attempt to help them by hooking them up with her investor uncle (Franz Maron) and, later, with Joachim (Joachim von Mengerschausen), her girlfriend Katrin’s (Katrin Schaake) student lover? And what are we to make of the fact that the region the map purportedly portrays is actually in Brazil? In short, most critics argue, the parts just don’t add up to a whole.

      Actually I don’t quite see the problem. In several of Fassbinder’s early films, including Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) and Gods of the Plague (1970), a male friend of the central masculine figure shows up after a long period of absence, intruding upon a heterosexual relationship only to rekindle a long-ago male-bonding that bears a close resemblance to a homosexual attraction between the two that is so strong it eventually results in the “intruder” not only moving in with the couple, but sexually sharing the female figure. In frustration and anger, the females in these films generally turn on their original boyfriend, betraying him and causing the end of the relationship or even his death.

     True, both of the above named films appear to make that homosexual bond more transparent than does Rio das Mortes, and the female figure in this case seems far more ambivalent about her attempts to revenge her lover’s abandonment. The figures of Rio das Mortes, admittedly, are less well-defined, both by the writer-director and by their own persons, than the gangster-driven figures of Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague. Mike, Günter and even Hanna are, socially and economically-speaking lower-class, individuals who have never looked within and have little conception of their lives or their roles in it. Hanna, as she continues to assure her obviously bourgeois mother, simply wants to marry—despite her vague attempts to educate herself and possibly embrace a feminist position. Mike—bored by his work as a journeyman laborer, spending most of his days re-tiling the bathrooms of wealthy clients, payment for which he gets only a fraction—has no perception of any alternatives. His schoolboy chum, Günter, although having vowed that he will not join the military, is, by his own retelling, mindlessly drawn into the navy, and now is working as a salesman, pretending to his customers to provide travel bonuses if they will purchase his company’s products over a period of several months. Neither have any imagination, as their attempts to put together funds to travel to Peru soon reveals. As Günter summarizes his behavior throughout his navy stint—“I took the line of least resistance”—the very same tack we have observed Hanna taking with her mother in the very first scene of the movie. Throughout their lives, these three individuals have basically done what has been expected of them

     None of them has ever truly explored his or her own feelings nor even imagined personal identities that go against the norm. Yet it is quite clear in Hanna’s scenes with her friend Katrin that there is a lesbian undertone in their relationship, particularly in Katrin’s continual kissing and hugging of Hanna and, later, in her insistence that her friend acquire her favorite designer dress. It is almost as if through the purchase of that private item, the two might be able to share a bodily sensation that sexually they resist.

     Similarly, upon accidentally reencountering one another once again—Günter having entered the house to try to sell Hanna his products—their immediate response is a rough-housing wrestle that ends with Günter splitting his pants. The utter electrical thrill the two have in rubbing their bodies together is obvious. And even if they never come to realize why they are so desperate to escape the worlds in which they are currently trapped by joining up with one another to fulfill their ridiculous childhood fantasy, we immediately sense that it has nothing at all to do with buried treasure, Peru, or any other logical motivation. Indeed, when they are asked to make their journey fit some normative pattern— when they are required to recast their adventures in terms of a farming venture or a scholarly inspired trip—they utterly fail. Cotton and native culture and artifacts have absolutely no bearing on their need to fly away together. And it doesn’t matter a hoot whether they end up in Peru or Brazil. There is no gold to be found except in Günter’s possible recognition of the beauty of Mike’s long golden locks. Only Günter’s seemingly refined mother (nonsensically played by Fassbinder’s own mother, Lilo Pempeit) seems to recognize their actual intention when she offers up the money she has saved for her son’s marriage to help pay for his trip to what her son and friend misconceive as the land of the Mayas! For it is a kind of marriage they are seeking, an coming of age adventure for which Mike is even willing to give up his beloved car—an obvious symbol of male virility and sexual allure. The scene, in fact, in which he sells the car to auto salesman (Ulli Lommel) is so filled with sexual innuendo that, when Mike hands over the key to the car, he might as well be also offering up a tool to unlock his pea-green pants.

    Fassbinder makes it quite clear throughout that if these three believe there are truly heterosexual they are utterly deluded. Hanna will clearly never find fulfillment, even in the sexy dancer she encounters in a bar—played, with great irony, by Fassbinder himself.

    Fassbinder’s work is quite openly a gay and lesbian fantasy, a film which associates its central figures’ sexuality with the clown-like efforts of someone like Buster Keaton’s absurd efforts to win his incompetent and prejudiced girlfriend in The General or the operatics of a born-diva like the multiply married Lana Turner who, when her daughter killed her own gangster husband, dramatically “collapsed”—as the newspapers described her grand gesture—an act of such ridiculousness that gay poet Frank O’Hara would mock it in his “campy” poem "Lana Turner Has Collapsed.” Even the landlady who comes to collect the rent sings a song from Madama Butterfly, as if to rub in Hanna’s own loss of her navy man, Günter, with who whom she has just  spent a sexless night.

    Although Hanna intends/pretends to play out a drama of revenge by showing up at the airport to shoot the two men who have now abandoned her, she is so indeterminate in her action that they escape behind a luggage wagon and then the wing of the plane itself. Returning the gun to her purse, she reapplies her lipstick, suggesting perhaps that she has suddenly realized that she is now free to pursue her own hidden sexual desires with Katrin.

     If the desires of these unwitting and unthinking beings are absurd and ridiculous, however, they are absolutely sensible when put into the context of the film’s other figures, nearly all made even more incredible through their pretense of knowledge regurgitated from almost senseless books about the process of education, from economic theories that tie up the relationship of Brazilian religious figures with those of the country of Columbia, and emanate from the purposeless, personal assignment of roles—Güther is to be the cameraman and Mike the “friendly” mountaineer to Joaquim’s scholarly researches of the Peruvian landscape. These supposedly intelligent individuals of the upper class, well integrated into the German society, know even less about reality, Fassbinder demonstrates in this comic work, than the completely unperceptive clowns who take the path of least resistance.

    We might imagine, at least, that when their feet reach the ground in Peru, the two men will “wise up,” rubbing their bodies together in a more purposeful manner in order to scratch the itch of their unrealized desires.

Los Angeles, September 25, 2014

1 comment:

  1. This is an incredibly good essay. Really first rate. I am so glad becuase I had just finished watching this film and came away quite disappointed. Determined to find out what other people though I eventually cane across this review and it has helped me undertsand the multifacted and in fact cohesive nature of the film.