Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Whity

a rancher, a cowboy, and a slave walk into a brecht-weill bar
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Whity / 1971

Never before or since has there been a stranger “western” than Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971 “kraut western” (named by some critics after the Italian “spaghetti westerns”), Whity. On top of the usual trips to the local saloon, housing the usual saloon gal—in this case the marvelous Hanna Schygulla, who sings five
Weill-like songs in vaguely intelligible English—and the always expected final shoot-out, Fassbinder has added a tale of miscegenation, a greedy family of incestuous and gay vampires, a mammy (Elaine Baker) in ridiculous blackface forever mumbling “Glory, Glory!” and a bisexual black hero, Whity (Günther Kaufmann). If this mulligan stew produces a lot of wonderful giggles, it’s also a very chilling horror story that reminds one, at moments, of Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.

The time is 1878, and patriarch and slave owner Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell) is dying, his absolutely ghoulish family—wife Katherine (Katrin Schaake), and sons Davy (Harry Baer) and Frank (Ulli Lommel)—impatiently waiting for their part of the inheritance. Katherine is having an affair with Ben’s doctor and, apparently, with her own son Frank. Davy is more interested in the black servant Whity, who we gradually discover is the illegitimate son of Nicholson, who brutally whips Whity for even the slightest of infractions. It may be that the entire family has slept with Whity at one time or another, but his true love is the prostitute Hanna in town, through whose window he crawls each night. Oh, and did I mention the numerous scenes that hint at Whity’s and other family members’ penchant for
      With Nicholson about to die, each of these monsters comes to Whity, begging him to kill others so that they might receive a larger share of the inheritance. Hanna, for her part, insists he escape from the vampirish clan and run away with her. Whity, a good servant to the end, wants only to please, and despite Hanna’s pleas, determines to stay. 
       Actually Nicholson is not at all dying, but merely putting his family members through a loyalty test: which obviously they all fail. In recompense Whity, at film’s end, puts them all to death in rhythm to the beautiful score by Peer Raben.

       Yet something’s missing in my brief reiteration of events—in fact, everything’s missing. This isn’t just a plotted movie, but a remarkable event, a work so stuffed with its various genres and beautiful cinematic effects, that one perceives, moment to moment while watching it just why Fassbinder is such a significant filmmaker. The wonderful cast members neither play-down the stereotypes they have been asked to portray or wink at them, but actually bring out, despite the superficial wackiness, the realities implicit in the western genre. Everything you might have imagined in a film by Ford, Hawks, Sirk, Boetticher, or even Peckinpah is here, but just a little askew, viewed from a slightly different angle that completely transforms our visions.

      As one of the best commentators on Fassbinder, Jim Clark, has observed:

                 Most importantly, I believe that Whity is one of the 
                 most fascinating, and essential, Westerns ever made. 
                 It exposes almost every ugly latent assumption contained 
                 in the genre since its birth a century ago in dime novels and 
                 early silent films. And in these days when so many people, 
                 including politicians, wrap themselves in the myth of the 
                 cowboy, it is important to follow Fassbinder's lead in 
                 digging beneath the genre's surface. In all of his films 
                 Fassbinder wanted to create a dynamic space in which 
                 his audience could think about both his film and its implicit 
                 comment on society. Of course, Fassbinder—like Godard 
                 and Brecht—did not always succeed in this lofty aim. But 
                 with Whity, Fassbinder forces you, at gunpoint, to 
                 deconstruct the Western's subtext—social, political and 
                 sexual—now... or git outta town.

      Yet this important film was apparently never released in the US, and only became available in a DVD version in 2003, and even last week I had trouble procuring it, being forced to purchase a used copy. 
      Watching it yesterday, I almost broke into tears for its breathtaking originality (as Pauline Kael might have said: “I lost it at the movie”). This was the 21st Fassbinder film I’ve seen to date, without a single one of them failing to impress me. How did he do it, particularly within the short-span of his life? Several of his cast members evidently suffered, during the making of this movie, something like a group mental breakdown, but surely it is was worth it, giving up their lives for art.

Los Angeles, September 1, 2016

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