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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.
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.
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