Sunday, May 12, 2019

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Santansbraten (Satan's Brew)

fassbinder’s absurdist comedy
by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) Santansbraten (Satan’s Brew) / 1976, USA 1977

Satan’s Brew is now the 27th film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s I have reviewed, and, in one way or another, I have loved every one of these movies. Even my beloved Hitchcock has not fared so well: I do not like several of his apprentice films, and the films from The Birds forward are disappointments that cannot compare with his greatest work of the 1940 through 1960’s Psycho—although I do know that there are plenty of critics who might disagree. But Fassbinder, far more difficult to love that Hitchcock, has not ever completely disappointed me.
      How in a brief period of 13 years Fassbinder created so many amazing pieces of cinema is nearly impossible to comprehend: generous support by the German cultural community, governmental and private, a repertory-like group of actors with whom he worked, and lots and lots of drugs and sex probably helped. But it still doesn’t explain the genius of this director.
      For years now I had been waiting for Netflix to add the 1976 film Satansbraten to their list; but when it never came about, I finally found it on the new Criterion streaming service and quickly determined to watch it. Now I think it’s one of my very favorites, since it involves absurdist drama traditions, from Artaud and Ionesco to more contemporaneous theatrical artists such as Harold Pinter and Edward Albee with whom I feel a deep commitment.
      It is a heady mix of theater of cruelty, farce, and social critique that seems so different from Fassbinder’s other films that some critics, as quoted in Andrew Grossman’s excellent essay on the film, argued for its total exceptionalness in Fassbinder’s short career. As Grossman quotes film historian Thomas Elsaeeer, for example, the movie is “a rare attempt at comedy from a filmmaker who, as commentators have noted, is entirely devoid of humor.”
      Christion Thomsen, a critic devoted to Fassbinder’s films, described it as “ultimately nihilistic,” summarizing that “the film is light years away from the time when Fassbinder tried to be positive and constructive and present alternatives to the reigning misery.”
      I can’t explain how these important critical figures have seen a Fassbinder who I have never experienced. But, for me, the great director’s films have almost always been filled with humor and a great deal of campy satire. I might almost suggest that Fassbinder’s ability to turn his miserable character’s life into humor is one of his signature qualities. How else to explain the crazy Bonnie and Clyde-like robberies of Love Is Colder than Death, the fetishized murder of the hero of The American Soldier, the absolutely crazed societal replay of popular American films in In a Year of 13 Moons, the melodramatic breakdown of Petra Kant (right out of Djuna Barnes), the crazy adventurers of Rio das Mortes, the absurd gathering of his regulars in Behold the Holy Whore—and the list goes on? If you haven’t a good sense of humor, then you might never comprehend Fassbinder’s darkest films.

     I might even argue that humor is always what saves Fassbinder’s melodramatic depictions of his needy and downtrodden circus of post-World War II Germans. This director, as in his own depiction of the naïve gay dreamer of Fox and His Friends, is a clown experiencing very serious results for his absurd perceptions. Surely that is how you would have describe the sad-sack fool, Franz Biberkopf, in the director’s monumental television series Berlin Alexanderplatz. If Fassbinder always has close ties to his fellow German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, he also comes out of the tradition of Georg Büchner, whose Wozzeck was as foolish as he was tragic.
      It’s simply that in Satan’s Brew Fassbinder opens up all the spigots, turning up the gas, so to speak, on his completely ridiculous figure, Kranz (a marvelous Kurt Raab), a writer, evidently of some note, who has been unable to write anything for years and is now totally broke and unable to even obtain another advance from his publishers.
     Kranz obviously stands for the temporary or perhaps permanent writer’s block that perhaps every writer in the world must face and one time or another (except perhaps for Fassbinder and, alas, me). If he is logorrheic, he is also logophobic, unable in the world he now inhabits with his several domineering prostitutes to communicate—except through his terribly bitter fights with his long-suffering and insufferable wife Luise (the indomitable Helen Vita), who not only allows him to have numerous affairs with his prostitute-lovers but continues to argue for her own rights for sex as his married partner. Their conversations, at times, appear to be lifted out of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which in 1976 Fassbinder would have been well aware.
       All of this is even more exaggerated by the household existence of Kranz’s brother, Ernst (Volker Spengler), a man much like the mad Reinfeld, Count Dracula’s assistant, with flies, attempting not only to collect them but, after naming each of them, and through masturbation to mate with them. At one hilarious moment Kranz admits to his brother’s obsession, suggesting that he hasn’t succeeded, to his knowledge—“at least yet.” When the unpaid furniture dealers come to collect the chifforobe, they almost take the shy brother, hidden away in its confines, with them.
       In fact, Kranz is a kind of Dracula, using the women from whom he begs for sex also as sources of possible income—a reversal of the usual “john,” using even a prostitute, sold to others by her husband, as a possible source of income. Another prostitute, into heavy bondage, writes checks out to Kranz as he threatens (and possibly does) shoot her to death with her own gun.
       Yet, when the detective, investigating the incident, shares a foot tub with Kranz and joins his and his wife for lunch, we can’t even be sure that her death wasn’t also just a sexual fantasy.
        As Grossman perceptively writes:

What becomes normative in Satan’s Brew is not a state of bourgeois passivity, but a panicked desperation that, taken to its “extreme,” unbridles characters’ ids and returns them to states of irrational infantilism. If the sociopolitical revolutions (of the 1960s, we assume) in which Kranz once believed have died away, he can now do little but succumb to a rising capitalism that bloats appetites but never sates them. Thus afflicted, Kranz is part-beast, part-child, his attempts at dignity dissipating
as the film goes on. He is a pressure-cooker of frustrated desires, and sexually hopeless. We laugh when the degraded yet “normal” Kranz, spying through a keyhole on a female friend as she scratches her buttocks, exclaims, “I want to screw you like a stoat!” He then complains incredulously to her husband, “Your wife doesn’t want to sleep with me!” Perhaps we initially mistake Kranz’s joyful desecration of monogamy for a poet’s iconoclasm. But Kranz is also a beggar, and when he asks his married friends for a loan, his unaffected artist’s ways become indistinguishable from a vagabond’s destitution; it is only when he repays his debts to the couple that the husband is happy to whore his wife. Yet Fassbinder’s humor is impersonal, political — when we laugh at Kranz, we really laugh past him, and at the meretricious culture that has made human appetites an allegory for degeneracy.
        What’s even worse is that Kranz, ultimately, does begin to write. But this time, perhaps without his even knowing it, in the romantic voice of the beloved German poet Stephen George, whose Nordic images of the German race later became popular with the German National Socialists. When Kranz discovers that the “new” poem he has created is from the pen of George, he imagines that he himself an incarnation of the poet, attempting to look like the poet and even taking on a group of young gay acolytes with whom, we do not know for certain, he now embraces homosexuality.  
      Louise, meanwhile, becomes desperately ill with cancer—well-earned in her world of absolute servitude—who is taken away to the hospital, with even the retarded Ernst realizing the desperateness of the situation.
      Finally, Kranz himself, in his total downward spiral, realizes he has lost the only person who truly might care for him in the real world in which he lives. And he admits for the first time in the film what she has attempted to proclaim throughout: “You’re my wife before God and man!” But in so doing, of course, he admits that his entire life has been a fraud, that he, his poetry, and his identification with George is an absurdity no longer able of being supported. Her death is his death. The comedy is over.

Los Angeles, May 12, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2019).

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