Friday, March 24, 2017

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Mutter Küsters' Fahrt zum Himmel (Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven)

by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kurt Raab, Heinrich Zille (writers), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (director) Mutter Küsters' Fahrt zum Himmel (Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven) / 1975, USA 1977

Throughout Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven, almost all of the characters utter the word “aber,” (“but”) letting it hang in mid-air between a sentence and an alternative they seem unable to express. Indeed the family at the center of his drama, the Küsters, certainly have a lot of reasons to seek for other explanations to what appear to be the facts, since the work begins with their husband and father killing the bosses’ son before committing suicide, after, apparently, learning that he would be among the employees laid off from work.

Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira), in particular, needs all the alternatives she might find, given that soon after the event, she is betrayed by a journalist, Niemeyer (Gottfried John), who promises her an enlightening article but serves up insinuations of her husband’s violence and other pieces of information which she sees as lies. At the same time, her selfish, pregnant daughter-in-law, Corinna (Ingrid Caven) insists that her husband Ernst immediately accompany her on their already planned vacation to Finland without even attending or helping Emma with the funeral. Emma’s daughter, Helene (Irm Hermann) returns home to Frankfurt am Main, but soon after takes up with Niemeyer and moves out of the house. She plays to the cameras at her father’s funeral simply to jump-start her career as a cabaret “singer” (read part-time prostitute).

       In search of outside support, Emma seeks out the wealthy couple Karl and Marianne Tillmann (Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstensen), members of the German Communist Party, who gladly take her in, and even feature her as a speaker at a party meeting. Emma is moving as she simply expresses her reasons for joining the party and, more importantly, her need to look into the world around her more deeply:

                  We never asked much. My husband never complained. 
                  Maybe he'd said, it was tough today, but that was all.
                  He accepted his superiors. We just lived our lives, 
                  day in, day out, without asking each other much. Maybe 
                  I should have asked him more. Perhaps he had troubles. 
                  He just bottled them up.

                  I think I can make you understand why I joined this party 
                  at my age.... not because of politics, but because of people.... 
                  I believe [the Tillmanns], and that's why I'm here.... 
                  There's a reason for all the terrible things in the world.... 
                  I did what was expected of me. Is that really life? In 
                  the way others wanted us to live? In the valley, all 
                  you see is the mountains.... Forty years... I thought I knew 
                  him, and that there was no reason to talk.... But that's not 
                  true. I had no idea. How my husband must have suffered 
                  to have done what he did. And I knew nothing about it. 
                  Is that life?... But we never really learned how to live together.... 
                  How desperate he must have been, not knowing which way to 
                  turn. He had nobody like you to talk to.... Things would 
                  have been different.... My husband is no murderer. And he's 
                  not crazy either. He's a man who hit back because he was 
                  beaten all his life.... I, Emma Küsters, will join you in your 
                  struggle for justice.

Yet, time passes without the Party helping to restore the truth, and the friendly couple grow more and more disinterested in her problems as governmental elections become the center of their attention. “Mother” Küsters has been a useful symbol, but only a temporary cause for these “arm-chair” leftists.

       Still seeking justice, Emma joins up with a local anarchist, Horst Knab (Matthias Fuchs), who suggests that she and others join him in a sit-in at the editorial offices where Niemeyer works. She hesitantly joins, but is shocked when Horst and his cohorts suddenly produce guns, demanding, like the Baader-Meinhoff gang—that all anarchists be released from prison along with other ultimatums. 
       In this instance the director himself offers an “aber,” splitting the ending of his film in two, one ending (shown mostly in Germany) in a shoot-out wherein the editor Linke is killed, as well as Mother Küsters and the anarchist; this version was mostly reported by captions (and is included in the Criterion edition, along with the second (mostly American-shown one). 
      In the second version, the group stages a sit-in, but is mostly ignored by the workers as they step over and around the protestors, and finally leave for the evening. Eventually even the anarchists abandon Emma, who seems to be left in the offices entirely alone. A friendly janitor arrives to clean up, and seeing Emma sitting on the floor invites her to his empty home (his wife has died) to have “heaven and earth,” the traditional German dish of liver, apples (heaven) and potatoes (earth). And so, does Mother Küsters take another kind of trip to “heaven.”
      Fassbinder’s first ending suggests that this work is a kind of tragedy, a work which reveals that the entire society ultimately does care for the hardworking ordinary beings who Emma Küsters represents. But in the second version, the second alternative, the director’s film becomes a kind of comedy, a satire on journalists, the Communist Party, and the anarchists—in short, the left, right and supposed “middle-ground”—of German society, none of which can seemingly provide safe-haven for such sufferers….but perhaps there is still a place for her and her kind.

Los Angeles, March 24, 2017

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