Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Eine Reise ins Licht (Despair)

mistaken identity
by Douglas Messerli

Tom Stoppard (screenplay, based on the novel by Valdimir Nabokov), Rainer Werner Fasssbinder (director) Eine Reise ins Licht (Despair) / 1978

By the early 1930s surely everyone in Berlin must have known that the governmental world had already gone mad, and that it was only a matter of time before the disease would strike down everyone. Surely wealthy chocolatier Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde), a Russian émigré of vaguely aristocratic connections, is aware that everything has changed. Of course there is the market, the fact that money has hardly any meaning; and then there are the brownshirts crawling all over the city streets, sometimes effectively but, more often, ineffectually threatening Jewish businesses. In one brilliant scene in Fassbinder’s film, with bricks and bats four of them attempt to break out the windows of a Jewish shop, without much effect. As they move on, the shop workers simply come out with brooms and clean up the mess. 

But then the doubly named Hermann is also tortured by his stupid wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol) with whom he appears to have a somewhat tame S&M sexual relationship—certainly he verbally (and quite amusingly) abuses her. So ignorant is this magazine-reading chocolate-consuming member of the German bourgeois that she perceives of the Wall Street Crash as an accident in the streets of New York. And what’s worse is that she is having a quite open affair with her cousin, the painter, Ardalion (Volker Spengler). Ardalion is not only a bad artist but is an outrageous cross-dresser, appearing thoroughly in outrageous robes and beads as if he were some sort of absurd Puba, who might actually not even be an true heterosexual in completion for Hermann’s Lydia.. Fassbinder presents his role as a kind of Dionysian fool, who in explicably satisfies Lydia when her husband is not available, which is further proof of her vapidity. 

      Hermann is further humiliated by the fact that when he attempts to buy out another chocolatier, his mockery of their “soldier” molded chocolates ends in his failure, the owner refusing to sell to anyone who cannot appreciate his militaristically edible creations. Back in his office, one of his major employees turns up wearing a complete Nazi uniform. How can Hermann, knowing of the government authoritarianism, even protest?

      The ultimate story that Fassbinder tells is less Nabokov, however, than it is a sort of mad detour into Hermann’s delusions, which in the German director’s version involves his audience as we attempt to negotiate Hermann’s belief that a gypsy-like performer, Felix Weber (Klus Löwitsch), whom he encounters upon his business travels, is an exact duplicate of his own vision of himself. 
       In most ways, the two appear to have little in common, including their facial characteristics; but so convincing is Bogarde that they are visual twins, that we have ourselves to continually ask ourselves about what we are perceiving, particularly when Hermann offers his “double” the possibility of receiving more money than Felix has ever seen to impersonate him. Of course, once Felix accepts the offer and attempts to transform himself into Hermann, the chocolatier kills him, presuming that he will not be perceived as dead, and his wife (and he) will receive the benefits of his new insurance policy which will allow him to escape the Nazi world (and presumably his stupid wife) into Switzerland.
      The fact that his “double” (his long-lost brother, be believes) does not truly look like him obviously bollixes everything, as truth forces Hermann himself to embrace the madness that he had hoped to escape. What he had hoped would be a “mistaken identity,” represents his own mistaken perception (visual and moral) of himself. He was, after all, just another of those from whom he sought to escape. His “journey into light” was inevitably a voyage into darkness, a “despair” to which Hermann could never admit.
      Fassbinder’s sophisticated and introspective vision, along with the high literary achievements of both the original author and screenwriter Stoppard should have assured that this film would be perceived as a major cinematic contribution. And it was entered into competition of the famed Palme d’Or. Certainly, it is Fassbinder’s most witty work and has the most outwardly comic film elements—despite its obviously dark thematics—since his Fox and His Friends of 1975. The music, by Peer Raben, contributes to this film almost as much as it would later to Fassbinder’s great television series, Berlin Alexanderplatz.
     Yet all my film guides and even the usually ploddingly specific Wikipedia entries seem to suggest that their contributors somehow fell to sleep before the final scenes of the movie. What went wrong is quite inexplicable. It’s certainly a film that is worth watching—if nothing else for Bogarde’s, Ferréol’s, and Spengler’s remarkable performances. One has to wonder that, in the same year that Fassbinder produced the absolutely brilliant In the Year of 13 Moons, perhaps he had simply overwhelmed his audience. 
     Oh, if only one could go back and show one’s appreciation for the miraculous creations at the time! History doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Works that should not have been dismissed are, sometimes subject to a fluke of timing and misconceptions. 
      I’m here to tell you, simply, look at this film again. It may not be the greatest of Fassbinder’s conceptions, but then, all his works are astonishing, and this was certainly not one of the least of them! If nothing else, this film reveals that Fassbinder was one of the greatest of artists to document the psychological effects of World War II and the post–war years that followed, which is a quite an amazing achievement in itself. The director’s singular vision and brilliantly eccentric visions, moreover, make all his films moving documents not only of their time but of cinematic history. I’ve yet to encounter a Fassbinder film which did not totally intrigue and involve me in its fictions.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2015

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