Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons)

a remarkable loser
by Douglas Messerli 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons) / 1971

Fassbinder’s Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), like so many Fassbinder characters, is a kind of remarkable loser, a man seemingly determined from birth to fail. While some of these figures live lives of petty thievery and gangster underworld behavior (as in Love Is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plauge, The American Soldier), others are hopeless dreamers (Fox and His Friends) or simply ordinary men driven to insanity (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and In a Year with 13 Moons) by the unaccepting world around them. All of them are simply attempting to find love in societies seemingly hostile and disinterested in their definitions of it. On the surface Epp is closer to the central character of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but then none of these “remarkable losers” are quite alike. They are simply all incapable of living within the confines of post-war German life.

    Epp is perhaps the most commonplace of these individuals. The son of a domineering bourgeois mother (Gusti Kreissl), whose husband probably died in World War II, Epp is simply not brilliant enough to live in the world which his mother and elder sister imagine for him. He might have made a good mechanic, but his mother will have nothing to do with people who live what she calls “dirty” lives. She would much better that the “dirt” be of the intellectual kind like her journalist son-in-law, Kurt (Kurt Raab), who writes for a Catholic newspaper without truly believing the tenants it espouses. The only family member who seems to comprehend how they have treated Epp and loves him despite his shortcomings, is his younger sister Anna (Hanna Schygulla), an intelligent college-going beauty.

    Failing at his school studies, Epp escapes to the French Foreign Legion, but even there he fails, as we find out later in the film, when, upon being tortured, he reports the whereabouts his legion base. His torturer, having gained the information, is ready to shoot him, but two Legionnaires, observing the scene from nearby, save Epp. One of the two turns out to now be Epp’s closest friend—and, as in many of Fassbinder’s films, a kind of surrogate male-lover—Harry (Klaus Löwitsch), who later moves in with Epp and his wife.
    Returning home from the Legion, Epp is met with utter disdain by his mother, but finds a decent job, soon after, as a policeman—that is until he is caught receiving a blow-job from a prostitute he has just arrested. With no other choices remaining, Epp is forced to take to the streets as a fruit vendor, selling the “Frische birnen” (fresh pears) with which the film begins. Having been rejected by the “love of his life” (Ingrid Craven)—again because his employed status is below her family’s standards—Epp is now married to a sensible and forceful woman, Irmgard (Irm Hermann). Despite providing a working-class living for his wife and daughter, Renate, however, and being gifted with a full and melodious voice that draws the neighborhood women to his cart, Epp, it is clear, is still ashamed of how he makes his living, particularly when called up to deliver fruit to the woman he once loved, while being carefully watched by his now somewhat dictatorial wife. 
     One might say that Irmgard’s careful watching over of her husband quite literally drives him to drink, except that, once he begins to become inebriated with his equally failed friends, we realize that Epp is himself the cause of his own problems. He simply can’t resist destroying nearly any good thing that so rarely occurs in his life. 
     Tracking him down when he does not return for dinner, Irmgard tries to bring him home from his drunken binge without success, and when he does return home, he beats her brutally (even if Fassbinder presents all blows and slaps in these early films as melodramatic gestures that symbolize rather than actualize the real violence of his character’s lives). 
     Insisting that she will leave him, Irmgard, with Renate in tow, retreats to Epp’s family, who, with the exception of Anna, predictably once again take her side against their own flesh-and-blood. When Epp finally shows up, everyone including the viewer expects further violence, but Epp is rendered by the familiar wall of disdain so ineffective that he can only sing a few lines of the ditty that brought him and Irmgard together, before he falls to floor as a result of a heart attack. Only Anna has the perspicuity to call for the ambulance, as the others stand around in in simple startlement. 
      Visiting her slowly recovering husband at the hospital, Irmgard swears she will stay with him, but when he is eventually released, it is clear he can no longer lift the fruit crates or maneuver the cart; the doctor warns that any serious drinking will immediately bring about his death.

     Somewhat like Maria Braun in Fassbinder’s 1978 BRD Trilogy piece, Irmgard suddenly springs into action, suggesting that she take over a permanent vendor stand and that they hire someone else to handle the cart. She even bargains for a new cart, while Epp interviews a clearly unqualified immigrant, Anzell (Karl Scheydt) with whom, unbeknownst to him, his wife has had a sexual encounter during his hospital stay. 
     If that coincidence seems exaggerated, one must recognize that throughout this film, the director has used all the conventions of melodrama (particularly in the manner of American director, German-born Douglas Sirk), adding to them the numerous tableaux and heavily theatrical gestures (such as Anna’s melodramatic drop to the floor upon hearing of her brother’s decision to join the Foreign Legion) that also dominate his very next film, The Better Tears of Petra von Kant. These gestures further help, in their alienation of the audience, to create a temporarily comic or slightly-camp aura which points away from the realism of the actors while underlining the film’s dramatic themes. 
     When Anzell turns out not only to do a fairly good job as Epp’s fruit-selling replacement but also honestly reports his sales, which Epp has nefariously watched over during the day, Irmgard plots to protect herself from the knowledge of her sexual transgression by suggesting Anzell overprice the fruits and share the difference with her—all the time knowing that her husband will observe the maneuver and fire him. While the inevitable happens, Anzell retaliates by telling Epp that he has been sexually involved with his wife.

     White Irmgard emphatically denies the charge, Epp secretly recognizes the truth, and, soon after begins to fall into depression. Momentarily, he is buoyed up by meeting his old friend Harry, inviting him into their home and placing him in charge of the cart. But Epp soon shows even greater signs of depression, staring for hours off into space through their apartment window, as Harry takes over Epp’s previous help with Renate’s homework and other daily familial chores.
      A would-be sexual encounter with his “great love” ends with Epp leaving before engaging in sex; a visit to his sister gives him little pleasure as the student continues working on a manuscript during their conversation. Bit by bit, we watch the man stitching together the numerous failures of his life to end, finally, in his recognition that he would be better off dead. Even Harry had betrayed him, he perceives, in watching to see if Epp would confess before coming to his defense.
     Dining with his drunken friends, Epp, one by one, swallows shots of liquor as he toasts to all the people who have slung arrows into his pain-racked body: mother, sister, wife, daughter, lover, Harry, and all his would-be “friends.” Predictably, his had falls to the table, as Harry, coming to his side, reports that Epp is dead.
     At the funeral, Irmgard, practical and sensible as always, suggests that Harry continue to live with her since it would be better for her daughter, for Harry, and for herself. The final line of this comically-tinged melodrama of another of Fassbinder’s “remarkable losers,” is a banal “okay.”

Los Angeles, July 22, 2015

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