Saturday, November 04, 2006

Blogging Fassbinder III : Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?

Anyone who knows the title of this film, or has seen the grim, oft-reproduced still shown here, already knows how it ends: a man whose world is closing in around him kills his family, then himself.
I've known this basic plot for at least 20 years, and it only made me want to see it more. I can now say that knowing the ending may actually be a help in getting through it, because even at 88 minutes it can sometimes can seem longer than it is. As you sit through conversations about nothing much, or long office scenes of no dialogue, where we watch people doing their mundane jobs and hear only the incessant clacking of a secretary's typewriter, it's worth knowing the film really is going somewhere, even if it risks your own restlessness in the process. Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with the dull parts cut out; for this film, drama is life with the dull parts restored. It's a tragedy of boredom that gets under your skin. The film has no music, by the way, and none is necessary; the sad, deadening atmosphere does not need an orchestral cue.

This is the fourth film Fassbinder made in the extraordinary debut year of 1969, following Love is Colder than Death, Katzelmacher, and Gods of the Plague These films were all made on the cheap, but they never lacked for style; indeed, his intuitive film sense could often cover his amateurishness (if only up to a point.) He gets around this problem in Herr R., which is also his first film in color, by adopting a gritty and presumably improvisational reality. The film is fiction, but it plays like some documentary -- the Maysles Brothers' Salesman, for example -- where average life yields a story about the limits of existence.
Kurt Raab (also the actor's name, following standard Fassbinder convention) is a typical middle-class man who is stuck: with a wife, a child, overbearing parents, a dull job and, in the good old Sartrean phrase, other people. He's not a bad guy, to look at him: he's responsible, loves his wife, helps his son with schoolwork, has his friends, tries to do the right thing, generally. He is also the picture of sincere; there's no deceit to him. He is also somewhat socially inept, the kind of person who never seems aware how he's getting on your nerves, and in every way, his life is characterized by mediocrity. In one scene, for example, he goes into a record shop and describes the song he's looking for in so much mundane, earnest detail that the girls at the counter laugh at him, and even have some fun at his expense by getting him to sing it.
Kurt spends his days working at an architectural firm, hunched over, dutifully making technical drawings on blueprints, but he can't ever really get ahead; he and his boss aren't on the best of terms and Kurt is neither the best of employees nor all that adept at office politics. When he goes home, we get an immediate idea of how much he and his wife communicate: they argue over whether a mutual friend is named Christoph or Christian. Their son, Amadeus, isn't doing well in school, either; inattentive, the teacher says. The couple's friends are petty, small-minded and cruel; they wonder among themselves about how Kurt's family lives on his meager salary and they ask freely about Amadeus, whom their own children have confirmed is something of a dunce.
We also meet Kurt's parents, who stop by for a visit. His father is a withered, mild-mannered lump, his mother a meddlesome shrew who freely lectures Kurt's wife on everything. You get the strong feeling Kurt is easily led by women, a kind of Strindbergian castrato. His wife seems more interested in Kurt getting a promotion than he is -- so she can live the good life she's always dreamed about -- and he has never really cut the apron strings of his mother; he is no more able to stand up to her than his father is.
Things fall down yet further at an office party, where Kurt drinks too much and and only succeeds in completely embarrassing himself when he tries to offer an ass-kissing toast to the boss. This is one of many scenes where the camera lingers a painfully long time, so that you feel the discomfort of everyone involved. Later an old school chum of Kurt's drops by; they talk endlessly about the past while his wife is bored to death. We also follow Kurt to the doctor's for a routine medical exam, where Kurt says he gets frequent headaches and the doctor tells him to give up smoking. Otherwise, he gets a clean bill of health -- there's nothing organically wrong with you, he's told.

Of course, there is, it's just not the kind of malady that shows up on an X-ray: life itself is the problem, a prolonged series of small but dependably regular humiliations and failures. To look at Kurt is not, incidentally, to see someone in the throes of madness; he's his usual calm self, and he himself seems no more aware than we are that it's only going to take one more frustration for him to go off. The wife has a friend over, and now it is Kurt's turn to be bored. She yammers on excitedly about some skiing trip she took, which is just the kind of thing Frau Raab loves to hear about, just the kind of thing Kurt, with his dream of a promotion likely dead, can't provide. Kurt tries to focus on the TV, but the woman won't shut up. Then he goes and sits in front of the TV, which isn't any better. Then he lights a candleabra -- and then, as calmly as anything, he turns and bashes his wife's friend over the head. Enough, already. Then he beats his wife to death. Then he goes to his son's room and does the same. The next day he calmly goes to work and heads for the bathroom -- where the cops will find his limp body dangling over a toilet. Cut to the film title: Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?

The answer comes easily enough, given what we've just seen, but is it completely satisfying or just nihilistic and kind of typically leftist in a mid-1970s German way? Fassbinder doesn't see Kurt as a killer but as a victim, sort of the way Kubrick saw Alex in A Clockwork Orange, someone who is less to blame for his life and its consequent horrors than the society that reared him. To think about the film is to fire back questions at it: couldn't Kurt have gotten a divorce, moved, gone back to school, told his ma and pa to shove it? Easy to say, of course, but it's difficult to upset a routine when the routine has shaped you, when the routine is you, and eventhough one wishes a different course for Kurt the one he winds up with is perfectly credible -- made more so, perhaps, by the fact that these kind of implosions have become so common. No one would be remotely fazed by the news that some modern Herr R., who today works in a cubicle, wiped out his whole family before turning the gun on himself.

Some extended commentary here by David A. Cook, in his excellent A History of Narrative Film -- which is such a key textbook of my life that I refrain from quoting it as much as possible, but I'll make an exception here -- are worth pondering:

Most of Fassbinder's films are about people who don't "make it," who have somehow failed to reap the material benefits of the German "economic miracle ." For depicting the condition of these people, he sees melodrama as a form of heightened realism. He has written: "I don't find melodrama `unrealistic': everyone has the desire to dramatize the things that go on around him ... everyone has a mass of small anxieties that he tries to get around in order to avoid questioning himself; melodrama comes up hard against them ... The only reality that matters is in the viewer's head." Melodrama, in other words, is about real life. From this perspective, bourgeois culture despises melodrama because it has developed much more repressive forms of communication (for example, the high-culture forms of classical music and art, literature, and history) whose aim is to conceal process and function, and therefore to keep the bourgeoisie unaware of itself as a class in relationship to other classes.
Excellent point, but watrching the film is a little like watching a play by Beckett: it's more effective, maybe, if you're given to a particularly glum, hopeless, the world-is-totally-fucked frame of mind.

While I'm on the subject of people who understand Fassbinder better than I do, I recently checked out what looks to be an interesting sort of critical guide: Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art by Wallace Steadman Watson, which I'm certain I only found at the library because it is published by the University of South Carolina Press. It looks quite juicy; I've resisted reading it because I wanted to see the films first. I've noticed though that there's a whole lot of biographical and artistic background information on which I should come up to speed, so maybe in between films I can review it.

Also, I finally, at long last, picked up an English translation of Alexander Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz, which I plan to read before Fassbinder's massive masterpiece is unleashed by Criterion or whoever sometime next year .

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