Blogging Fassbinder, Part 5: The Niklashausen Journey
Rainer Werner Fassbinder excelled at smoking. He did it while directing. He did it during interviews. He did it while he was writing. And, most of all, he did it on camera, immortalizing his addiction for time immemorial. He was a smoking exhibitionist, and maybe a smoking advocate. He makes you want to do it. He makes it seem like a creative act, or at least the compulsive act of an obsessed creator.
I don't point this out as an anti-smoker, of course, but because I think it's a key factor in Fassbinder's own pretentious, and admittedly appealing, self-mythology. He thought he was not just cool, but so fucking cool. I suspect it's the Godard influence; you always saw Godard with his sunglasses and his cigarette. It made him look impassioned, as if he had to smoke to keep going, to keep making films at a breakneck, frantic rate, and I think Fassbinder wanted to give the same impression. The leather jacket, big glasses, and walrus mustache completed an egomaniacal self-portrait that said: Here I am, a big, fat genius, and I look like a Hell's Angel. I'm the great wild rooting boar of Das Neue Kino, generous of flesh and spirit.
This mythic, oversized self-reflection is on full display in The Niklashausen Journey. The first thing you see is the back of Fassbinder's jacket. He's in a room with Hanna Schygulla and the actor Michael Gordon -- dressed in full 16th Century garb, looking like he just stepped out of a Hans Holbein painting -- and the three of them are walking back and forth, talking about revolutionary cinema, with Fassbinder puffing away dramatically. It was the way a number of movies started back then, when postmodernism was the rage and there was a boom of sorts in big self-reflective cinema. Everyone thought the surest route to be Cassavetes or Godard or Bergman or Fellini or Truffaut was to let the audience in on the creative process, to reveal themselves as tormented artists fraught with insecurity and indecision (or lack of financing) and who usually realize that the only story they have left to tell is one about how hard it is to tell a story. Charlie Kaufman's screenplay for Adaptation is only the latest addition to the form.
There is also the aspect, where Godard and Fassbinder are concerned, that breaking the political system meant breaking down the conventions of "bourgeois cinema," which I guess you could say this film more or less does, if by "bourgeois cinema" we mean conventionally entertaining, as well as to be conventionally paced and structured. Fassbinder has no problem with shots that go on too long, or to shut down the story the story for an actor to exhort the audience to overthrow the pigs and fascists. It's unashamedly self-indulgent, but that's also part of its fascination, because at any given moment you just don't know where Germany's Marlboro Man is going to take his picture.
I had problems through the first sitting of Niklashausen because I didn't understand its historical context. All I could tell was that had distinct echoes of Bunuel's The Milky Way, in which the old Surrealist used another famous religious pilgrimmage as the framework for a series of goofy anti-clerical japes. Turns out it is based in part on the story of Hans Boehm, a shepherd who received a vision from the Virgin Mary, which inspired him to preach a gospel of social equality, which led to a peasant revolt in Niklashausen in 1476, resulting in Boehm's subsequent trial and execution for heresy. (Wikipedia tells the whole story here.)
This back story lends itself rather easily to Fassbinder's own more or less undigested Marxian viewpoint and garden-variety left-wing pieties, as Boehm is presented as a pasty-faced rock star hippie leading a flock of groupies and hangers-on to Niklashausen, where they will wage war on the rulers of church and society. Hans preaches a revolutionary gospel between the haves and have-nots, of communism versus capitalism, and at one point sings a song about Lenin. Representing the enemy is Kurt Raab, who gets to camp it up as a orgiastic gay bishop who greets Boehm's emissary by sniffing him like a dog.
It's all very much about politics and theater (that is, cinema), and what each has to do with the other. When it looks as if the actual journey to Niklashausen is losing steam, Boehm's associates decide that a vision from the Virgin Mary might do the trick. Hanna Schygulla is hired to play Mary, and in one interminably long scene she learns the lines shell deliver; possibly an acknowledgement on Fassbinder's part of the manipulative nature of film, even his own.
Ultimately, the journey fails; instead of liberating the working class it chains them to religion, which becomes a tool of exploitation, which leads to all-out war and the destruction of Boehm, and a lingering message that a real revolution is a triumph of ideas over violence -- or something like that. Other than that, it's not much. Thrown together. Silly. Weird. One of those half-baked ideas of Fassbinder's which he could always somehow round up enough money, crew and time to make into a film before moving on to the next one.