Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Der amerikanische Soldat (The American Soldier)

fassbinder’s dance of death
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Der amerikanische Soldat (The American Soldier) / 1970

As the third in a series of films using the tropes of American gangster films, Fassbinder’s Der amerikanische Soldat (The American Soldier) is the least narrative and the most abstract. Like the two other previous works, Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, the action, embedded in the underworld of Munich, involves tough-guy punks who returning to that German city, look up their old friend Franz Walsch (played in Fassbinder in the earliest film and Harry Baer in the second, and resurrected and again played by Fassbinder in The American Soldier) who vaguely reacclimatize themselves to the city by visiting old haunts—bars and neighborhoods—and, after reestablishing a close relationship with his male friend that borders on a homoerotic if not utterly homosexual bonding, finding themselves facing the barrel of a gun. If that homoerotic bonding is missing from the third film—although The American Soldier ends with a far stranger homosexual situation that the first two—it is because the central character of the third film, Ricky (Karl Scheydt) is a loner who, although encountering some of the same figures who appear in the other two films, in particular the porn-seller Magdalena Fuller (Katrin Schaake in this version), doesn’t really sexually commit to anyone. If fact, one might argue, Ricky is not so much a character-as-type in this instance as he is a type-as-pretended character. For in The American Soldier is it clear that Fassbinder is less interested in any coherent narrative plot that in simply illuminating the archetypal figures underlying the whole series of loosely inter-connected films.

      Ricky, a former Vietnam soldier, lives half in and half outside the German reality of this movie (he’s born of a German mother and an American father), returning to his childhood home as if he were some robotic being, a hired killer, who is less a figure of flesh-and-blood than a mythological figure (as his first pick-up girlfriend proclaims, Americans provide “fantastic sex”). Just as the Fassbinder gangster types before him, Ricky is somehow connected to the police (here he is hired by a trio of renegade cops who hire him to wipe out the possible leads to a previous murder or series of events of which we are never given full knowledge), but even for them he is less a flesh-and-blood man-for-hire than he is a shadowy legend. The first long scene, in fact, reveals their endless anticipation for his arrival him if he might be a arriving messiah (or, more correction, an avenging angel) who might save them from their own pasts. 
    But once set in motion, this dark angel, it is clear, has little room in his life for human interchange and, in particular, for anything that might resemble love. Even before he arrives, he attempts to ditch the talkative broad whom he has apparently picked up en route. When she doesn’t get the hint, he drives to an isolated location, parks the car, and drags her out onto the grass before taking out his gun and shooting her dead, this—the only time—in pretense; “they’re only blanks,” he manically laughs, driving off into the darkness. 
     As soon has he checks to the hotel he orders a bottle of Ballantine (scotch)—his one apparent vice—delivered up soon after by the hot-to-trot hotel maid (played by the now well-known filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta), whom in an almost campy pose positions herself to be awarded his impulsive kiss, before, just as impulsively, he brusquely orders her out of his room.  At a local bar, he re-counters his former lover (played by Fassbinder’s former wife, Ingrid Carven) singing “With My Tears.” But nothing from the past is stirred up between them, particularly after she reports that she is now happily married to the bartender. And soon after, tracking down his first victim, a beautiful if aging gypsy, palm-reading-gay boy (Uli Lommel)—who like the woman before him, attempts to lure the handsome American into his bed—Ricky promptly shoots him dead. Soon after, he plugs the pornographer who has steered him to the gypsy, as she returns home from an evening with her boyfriend, who is so startled by the point-blank shooting that he can only laugh, as he too is shot in the chest.

     The only sexual contact that Ricky has in this film is with a call-girl named Rosa von Paunheim (the moniker of another German filmmaker, and played by the transgender actor Elga Sorbas—born Holger Mischwitki)—a woman in cahoots with the crooked detectives— occurs with hardly any bodily movement while the jealous hotel maid sits on the corner of their bed relating a long story—oddly, a variation of the plot of Fassbinder’s yet-to-be filmed flick Ali: Fear Eats the Soul*; and even in that encounter Ricky seems to be performing as the passive partner, stretched out naked on the bed before the Rosa even enters. Goodbye to the illusion that Americans are great lovers!

      Later, we discover, Rosa grows to care for him, as she puts it, because he is “nice.” But if the murders of three individuals weren’t enough to prove that adjective to be absurd, his and her negotiation down the stairs to elude the suddenly-suiciding room maid (who has just received a call from her current boyfriend to tell her their relationship is kaput), should have wised up the dumb broad.
     Certainly, a visit by Ricky to his obviously estranged mother and brother is creepy enough that any romantic notions we may have entertained about this man and his past are quickly dismissed. When he attempts to kiss his magisterially aloof mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz), she turns her face away. Within the dimly-lit house we discover a pin-ball machine over which hovers an over-wrought brother (Kurt Raab), who greets his clearly beloved sibling by rubbing his hand across his face, as he were a blind man. Ricky immediately wipes the gesture away as if he had been rubbed with blood instead of simply being touched.
     And a short while later, when Ricky turns up at Rosa’s apartment, we and she both realize that this “nice” man is about to wipe her out as well, a fate she accepts by hugging him close to her at the moment the gun explodes.
     Ricky, it appears, is neither straight nor gay, but sexless, a man who consumes people, like the steak from which he steals only one bite early in the film, in tiny increments. His hunger, apparently, is only for others to disappear—which perhaps explains the near empty streets of Fassbinder’s cinematic city.
     The evil cops realize that once they have set this destructive robot on its course there are no magic words (like “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto”) to stop him. The only way to shut him down is to track his whereabouts and shoot it out.

      Even Ricky’s mother is on her guard, sending out her own detectives to follow him on his travels. The scene in which Ricky stops by a roadside pay phone to call his friend Kurt, followed by the detective in the next booth, both presumably followed by the murder-minded authorities reminds me of a Lewis Allen noir I saw just the other day, Illegal, in which a judge (Edward G. Robinson) is being followed by a detective working for the prosecuting attorneys, both followed by the cops. No one trusts anyone to get the job done.

      In Fassbinder’s variation of this trope, Ricky is cornered in a long train station passageway by the police before the tables are turned by Ricky’s friend Franz before they, in turn, are surprised by the appearance, at the other end of the dark passage by Ricky’s mother and brother. The rest is pure dance.
     Let me explain. First of all, as I think any one reading my summary above would perceive, The American Soldier has very little of what might be described as “plot.” A thread perhaps—the murders of four individuals (five if you count the room maid) whom this passionless killer encounters—is all we have to go on. There’s no story because there’s nothing behind this humanoid hero. He’s just another, sort of, pretty face. How then, to explain The American Soldier? I argue that this seemingly incomprehensible film is one of the great German director’s most important works—a sort of Rosetta stone that reveals not so much Fassbinder’s meanings as it does his methods. The American Soldier simply doesn’t function as what we usually think of as a traditional movie, that is, a narrative that uses images to get its story across, a story that usually provides some sort of meaning or significance to our lives.
     Here there are all sorts of significant moments expressed. Individuals encounter one another and nearly devour each other in their stares. Even the old neighbor woman who recognizes Ricky and Franz stalking out their old home ground, greets them with disbelief, staring after their departure as if hinting at some deep secret. Ricky’s old lover, the bar singer, cannot keep her eyes off of him. The gypsy surveys Ricky’s body while slowly unveiling his own naked chest before a mirror. The room maid awaits his hugs as if she were undergoing a catatonic fit. Rosa rubs up against him as if she might set him afire. As I previously reported, his own brother cannot resist rubbing his hand across his face. For all of these figures, apparently, Ricky represents something highly totemic: he stands for something important in their lives—desire, love, fantastic sex, fulfillment, escape (Rosa, is after, all willing to run away with him)—about which the viewers remain clueless, as if the story behind their reactions had been erased.
     Indeed, Fassbinder, while using and exaggerating the standard and familiar tropes of gangster noirs and melodramatic domestic dramas of American cinema, such as the movie masterworks of Douglas Sirk, has wrenched them just enough out focus that in this film they suddenly appear to be slightly incomprehensible, fresh and strange.
     Even the character’s simple gestures, their strides across open space, their stances in a room, their positioning in a chair, seem throughout this work to be radically askew, as if the film as suddenly skipped a few frames in its spool. Or, we might more correctly describe Fassbinder’s attention to his figures’ movements as being a thing of dance.

     In short, this entire work relies on a figure moving through space who encounters others who, instead of coherently speaking, can only gesture and dance. The whole piece, we suddenly perceive is one grand ballet, a stunning dance of death.

     The man who loves no one, who knows nothing but how to kill—quite obviously, death himself—requires every other figures to embrace him, as all of us ultimately must embrace our own mortality. And Fassbinder’s film can best be understood, accordingly, as a playing out of a gentleman caller with scythe in hand.

     That is, however, until death himself is shot down, whirling out a dance of death even more grand that what he has offered others. Spinning, twirling, bending, and, falling, collapsing, finally death itself is taken down; and suddenly, in its vacuum, can finally be tamed, mounted if you like, sexually ravaged in a way that death previously, in its utter disinterest in the human race, could never enact. The long five minute sequence which shows Ricky von Rezzori’s** little brother mounting his elder’s body, pulling it upon him, rolling over it again and again, not only reveals what is a clearly a horrifying transgressive lust (pederastic, incestual and necrophilic all at once)—all vaguely smiled-upon in voyeuristic contemplation by their mother—is simultaneously, strangely, a highly redemptive act—the first real act that doesn’t have to do with shooting a gun. In a film deprived of human interactions, this final series of heaving sexual excess—the very opposite of Ricky’s and Rosa’s coupling—has, if nothing else, to do (half of it at least) with the living instead of the dead. If it is, quite obviously, a non-generative act, it nonetheless  is a dance of primal urgency, a performance of undefinable, unspeakable and unquenchable desire that Ricky as Death’s messenger, could never comprehend***

Los Angeles, October 17, 2014

*Of the review and essays I’ve read, the other critic who has noticed this recounting of later movie’s plot has been Jim Clark, who has written extensively, and often brilliantly on Fassbinder’s films on the internet.

**Van Rezzori, Clark reminds us, was also the name of the wealthy patroness, who bankrolls the character’s voyage to Peru in Fassbinder’s 1971 film, Rio das Mortes, a fact which suggests, along with the reference cited above that Fassbinder was working on several future works at the same time he was writing and producing the four films and one TV feature of the 1970s.

***Fassbinder’s film, in fact, had an enormous impact on American art, through the director’s friendship with artist Robert Longo, who borrowed not only the specific image of “The American Soldier” from the filmmaker, but used similar images of gesturally dancing figures through the paintings and performances of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.
     Longo, also a good friend of Howard’s and mine (Howard curated a show titled Robert Longo at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989, and wrote the first published essay on Longo in our Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art in the Fall of 1979, which featured a reproduction of his “The American Soldier” on the cover), has readily admitted to Fassbinder’s—as well as Goddard, Coppola and other filmmaker’s—influence upon his work. I have written about performances that play out

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