Monday, February 2, 2015

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Pioniere in Ingolstadt (Pioneers in Ingolstadt)

bridge to nowhere
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (teleplay, based on a play by Marieluise Fleißer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Pioniere in Ingolstadt (Pioneers in Ingolstadt) / 1971 Television movie

Marieluise Fleißer, a German playwright of the 1920s, might be forgotten today were it not for two notable figures of drama, Bertolt Brecht, who encouraged her to write her second play, after her first, Purgatory in Ingolstadt was performed in 1924—also collaborating with her and directing it in its 1928 premiere in Dresden, without, evidently, completely taking credit for the work as he did with so many other female collaborators. The play, set in 1926, was described as a comedy in 14 scenes, but clearly presented such a dark vision of early pre-Nazi activities that the work outraged the citizens of her Bavarian community and was censured by the National Socialists, particularly when it was reproduced at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin in March and April of 1929.
     Indeed, the play might have been forgotten were not for its rediscovery in the 1970s, after Fleißer had attempted to again revise it, by theater director Peter Stein and playwright Franz Xavier Kroetz. Fassbinder’s 1971 adaptation of the play for television radically shifts the time frame of the work, alternating through its costumes, dialogue, and sets between a kind of pre-World War II small town society and a post-war outpost wherein the nebulous “pioneers”—obviously reminding everyone in German culture of the pre-Hitler Jugend groups (akin the Soviet inspired “pioneers”). If these figures are represented by men instead of adolescent boy-scout-like youths, they are nonetheless almost as ridiculously innocent and inexperienced as boys, and what they discover is not something of the future but what exists already in the past.    

The girls of this world, mostly serving women of the small community, desperate to find love and freedom, are equally childlike, represented by Berta (Hanna Schygalla) and the far less intelligent Frieda (Carla Egerer). Similarly, Karl (Korl in the original) (Harry Baer), and the wealthy industrialist’s son, Fabian (Rudolf Waldemar Brem), if not exactly innocent, have no idea how to function in the world in which they have discovered themselves. Set against these figures’ clumsy explorations of love and search for significance, are those who demonstrate their experience such as Berta’s friend Alma (Irm Hermann) and Karl’s friend, Max (Günther Kaufmann) or assert power such as the Pioneer regiment’s Sergeant (Klaus Löwitsch) and Fabian’s father, Unertl. The battles between these two groups of beings, played out mostly in a fog of alcohol and sexual desire which erupts from time to time into overt lust and violence, is the perfect Fassbinder Anschauung conveying, through the petty and insignificant activities of these backwater types, the larger issues of misogynism, sadism, sexism, and class consciousness that perverts the whole culture.

       To Ingolstadt the Pioneers have come to build a bridge, but not, as Fassbinder wryly points out, a grand structure as in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, not even a sturdy, well- constructed structure such as the one across which we see characters walking early in the film, but a small, poorly designed wooden crossing that seems to go nowhere and to have little purpose, except as a location for the young sex-craved girls to gather to pick out which of the   pioneers most appeals to then. Local businesses have banded together to provide the lumber (even though they steal some of it back each night), expressing a grandiose such of largesse without costing them a cent.

        Unertl and his son Fabian, serving as stand-ins for the local gentry, make it quite clear why the young maidens of this village rush into the arms of handsome strangers. Unertl is not only a misogynist pig, having already gone through a series of wives and mistresses, but is a crude beast whom even his son cannot abide. Yet Fabian, a slightly overweight imbecile who might be described as a mamma’s boy, is frightened not only by his father and their serving woman, Berta, but by nearly everyone in town. In the end, using Berta simply as a way to obtain a car his father has promised him if he could get the girl on a date, Fabian proves that his only capabilities lay in petty acts of revenge against the town’s visitors (loosening a connecting beam from the bridge from which the petulant, masochistic Sergeant falls) and planning for the destruction of the bridge by dynamite. The fact that his acts end in a series of torturous nighttime drills for the young Pioneers, results in their revenge instead of his, a brutal scene akin to the extenuated death scene in Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (see My Year  ), except that, instead of representing a kind of homoerotic dance, the violence here is performed with Judo-like chops, as the “pioneers” deck Fabian again and again, only to stand him up  temporarily before sending him into another fall. And, in this sense, his beating stands for a kind of absurd resurrection, For, when they are finished with him, Alma—having been rejected by all the would-be soldiers—rushes to his side, suggesting she will show him how to make love, and, accordingly, establish a place for herself in the future society once the Pioneers abandon the town.
     Most of Pioneers in Ingolstadt, however, is presented as a world in stasis, rather than action, in part because none of the things the girls are truly seeking will ever be found. Most of these poor working girls, unlike Alma, give themselves freely in sex in hopes of finding love and, in their dreamlike fantasies, potential husbands. But, of course, that is impossible, as the introverted Karl keeps trying to make clear to the purest of the Ingolstadt women, Berta, perhaps the only virgin in this small outpost. The innocent yet intelligent Berta, wants its all: love, a husband, and future in which she will be transported from the world which she now inhabits. 
     Narcissistic and selfish—a role in which the handsome Baer seems to specialize—there is still enough kindness and empathy in Karl that he attempts, again and again, to explain to the disbelieving girl that he—and, for that matter, the entire male species—is no good. His specialty, it appears, is fathering unwanted children in all the towns which the Pioneers have visited, and, accordingly, he is one of the most disillusioned of all of Fassbinder’s figures, recognizing his position on the military totem pole, but also realizing the frailty of all ideas of power. He plots and, with others, actualizes the death of the tyrant Sergeant. And, although he tries hard to dissociate himself from Berta, in the end he uses her, violating her virginity at the very moment he is about to leave her behind.

     Berta’s first reaction after their sexual intercourse is so painfully expressive in its understatement that it nearly burns the words in our ears: “Is that all?” For Berta it is not simply a Peggy Lee-like plaint for the lack of meaning in life— “Is that all there is?”—but is a desperate plea for life to offer more than the backside of a departing “Pioneer.” Berta ends her scene by crying out in a prone position that can only remind one of Petra Kant’s “bitter tears” of a year later in Fassbinder’s film chronology.

    For Ingolstadt’s desperate women and even the equally abused military boys, sex is merely a surrogate for something they know they can never attain, physical and spiritual intercourse that might transform their lives. In one of the most amazing scenes of this often melodramatic expression of Fassbinder’s concerns, the characters sit around a bar in desultory, drunken positions, some figures alone, others in deep embrace, some reaching out for a simple touch, others retreating in despair while the camera nervously pans the room—the effect of which, in many respects, reminds one of Visconti’s gay military orgy in The Damned (which I describe below), filmed just two years before Pioneers. It is almost as if Fassbinder’s camera were itself attempting to find someone in the room to approach, to hold onto, or simply to touch, some other being to serve as a bridge, no matter how short and insignificant, to a better future. Unfortunately, as Berta discovers, there is only this place, this terrifying now—a hellhole from which there is no exit. As Alma has already comprehended, it is better to grab on quick to the empty figures who remain in Ingolstadt after the Pioneers have gone.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2015

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