Veronika Voss (1982)

veronikavossYou get a sense that if they had ever met, Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss might have been good friends. Either that or they would have hated each other’s guts. And the reason for that is quite clear. They share so many similarities. Both are fading stars, prima donnas, who used to be big shots and now not so much and that seems to scare them so much so that they try and cover their insecurities with delusions of grandeur. Having to look at your near reflection would be utterly unnerving.

In the case of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film, the tale of Veronika Voss actually finds inspiration in a real-life figure. It’s often true that you cannot make something like this up. You can play with the truth and stretch it a bit but still, there’s at least a kernel of reality here. The source of the story is the UFA actress Sybille Schmitz a star who came under fire for her continued work in the German film industry during the Nazi regime along with a disclosed love affair with Joseph Goebbels. That in itself made her a somewhat controversial legend. That and her tragic demise…

But rather like his forefather Billy Wilder, it seems like Fassbinder too was interested in teasing out a bit of the comedy and bitter tragedy of such a bygone star. Someone who used to be big and must begin to acknowledge the fact that they are no longer what they once were. Except very rarely are they willing to acknowledge their shortcomings. There lies the tension in Sunset Boulevard and Veronika Voss.

Voss, as played by Rosel Zech, is perpetually out of breath, preoccupied with lighting and shadow, the perfect environments to showcase her looks. Nervously trying to hold onto the last shreds of her waning fame. Now she’s scrimping to get just one role a far cry from her commanding star power when she worked with her one-time husband and screenwriter.

She’s rather incredulous when she meets Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) a bland sports journalist who doesn’t have the slightest idea who the great Veronika Voss is. Imagine that. It’s hard to know if that’s actually something to be surprised about or if it simply dictates the sign of the times. In 1955 Voss is an apparent nobody, a has-been. She simply has not accepted the reality.

Robert has a girlfriend and they seem generally happy but still, he begins a bit of an amorous romance with Voss. However, he also gazes into the deep recesses of her personal life which are currently dictated by the controlling and manipulative Dr. Katz. The lady doctor constantly keeps the dwindling star medicated and helpless, sucking dry all her assets in the process.

The film ends calamitously but its pale tones almost make us forget the drama. Instead, all conflict gives way to a distinct wistfulness. Popping pills and alcohol are a lethal combination (Fassbinder’s own death is a testament to that), but there’s something so debilitating about human greed and treachery. It’s positively lecherous, sucking the lifeblood out of all adjoining entities.

Going back to the Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss parallels, there’s no doubt that both are thoroughly tragic figures. It shows how fickle humanity can be. We’re so quick to love someone when they provide some sort of agency or pleasure but lose that allure and you’re kicked to the curb. That’s the way things often work — the sad inner workings of the world.

Fassbinder always has a knack for framing his sequences given his background in the theater and numerous scenes are shot through windows, windshields, and the like. Also noticeable are the quick transitions and wipes cutting from scene to scene like films of old. Voss also utilizes a fascinating layered sound developing an auditory collage of dialogue, score, and diegetic music. Featured tunes like Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans and Tennessee Ernie’s Ford’s brooding Sixteen Tons serve a double purpose. They lend a specific time stamp to the alert viewer, while the country sounds simultaneously feel strikingly at odds with this world that we are introduced to.

But one last time the parallels become obvious, this time between the director and his subject. There’s a sense that he knew all too well what it was like to be someone like Veronika Voss. Famous beyond your years and in the same breath so utterly tragic. And both their lives, the adapted truth and the reality, arrived at much the same devastating ending. As surely as sparks fly, Man seems born to trouble.

4/5 Stars

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

marriageofmaria1The Marriage of Maria Braun opens with a bang and a thud, literally, as bombs rain down on Germany in the waning hours of WWII. It’s perhaps the most chaotic wedding ceremony ever put to celluloid. And the story ends in an equally theatrical fashion.

But although the beginning and the end do speak volumes, it’s the in between that we must , try and piece together if we ever want to make sense of the eponymous Maria Braun. In all honesty, it’s extremely difficult to know quite what to do with her.

However, to understand her a little context is in order. Germany is in ruins. The allies have swept in victoriously and now the German people must learn how to survive with the new order. Husbands who are as good as dead, black market goods, and scrounging around just to make ends meet.

Maria Braun carries on such an existence to watch over her widowed mother and grandfather who depend greatly on her. She begins working at a bar often frequented by American soldiers and there she meets her first conquest Mr. Bill dancing the night away to “Moonlight Serenade.” Aside from being big and strong, Mr. Bill has resources to support her and there’s a happily symbiotic relationship of romance. Except Hermann returns and he catches the two lovers together. But the strangest thing occurs. In a moment Maria drops all prior activities and rushes to her husband. It seems she still truly loves him, but then what was she doing with this other man?

What follows is the next stage of her life as Maria must play the waiting game as Hermann is relegated to a life in prison. But he is still her husband so she agrees to faithfully wait for him. On a train one afternoon, she bumps into an industrialist named Mr. Oswald. He becomes her next conquest as she first gives him industry advice and then gains a position in his company slowly becoming more affluent. Her spell as Oswald’s mistress begins simultaneously and yet she seems willing enough to be with him, if not for the financial capital to be gained. It’s followed by a strikingly familiar moment of intimacy that looks almost identical to a previous sequence if it were not for the varying skin tones. Maria continues basking in her success.

The fateful day that Hermann returns comes and goes as he informs Maria that he will take a leave to Canada to get his life in order. What she doesn’t know are all the workings behind the scene, not until a major dramatic reveal. Whether you view Maria’s life as success is purely based on point of view. In the audience’s eyes, her story feels quite sad, but we have a feeling Maria never felt that way. She was too strong and self-assured for such a thought.

To its credit, Fassbinder’s drama utilizes language well between German, English, French, and so on with characters dancing between all with a rudimentary skill that helps to paint the post-war canvas with all sorts of dialects. But amidst all the white noise Hanna Schygulla is most obviously the main attraction. What are the words to describe Maria Braun? Provocative, icy, sneering, vindictive, a cynical terror of a woman?

Except, in the beginning, she’s not like this, at least not yet. There are some indications, but they’re only slight signs of what is to come. She uses and abuses but in such a way that her male conquests want to be manipulated. She’s so tantalizing that they don’t mind it in the least.

Could we call Maria a female counterpart to Charles Foster Kane? Yes, except it’s not simply that she’s accrued wealth, power, and influence without love by the end of the film. She has all the love she could ever want. All the attention, all the eyes of any red-blooded man, but she doesn’t seem to know what to do with that love. She compartmentalized her life in such a way where she holds onto her matrimonial bond to Hermann an entire lifetime. When Hermann’s left for dead, when Hermann’s in prison when Hermann takes leave in Canada.

Still, Maria holds onto the fact that she is married to this man she loves, while simultaneously freely being involved with other men. Does she really love him? I think it’s all too probable, and yet she doesn’t know how to function in that singular capacity. These other men hold a purpose in her life. Is it a coincidence that Hermann and Maria barely share any screen time together? It doesn’t seem like it. Not with someone as engaged as Fassbinder. He, like Maria Braun, knew what it was to be loved, but perhaps he did not know what it was to love others in a normal, healthy way without undermining it with his own inner demons. He died back in 1982 of a drug overdose at the ripe young age of 37. His genius was realized, but in the wake of such genius lay innumerable tragedies.

4.5/5 Stars

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

alifear4Werner Rainer Fassbinder is one of those artists known for his tumultuous personal and political life, and yet with all the dialogue swirling around his backstory and untimely death, there is no doubt that he sent a charge through the film community that is still being acknowledged today. The New German Cinema of the 1970s breathed new life into an industry and created a massive impact. Part of the fact is that Fassbinder’s work hearkens back to his forefathers while constructing a space within the medium that was all his own. That’s what the great filmmakers do. They take what has already been done, grab hold of some inspiration, and run with it into some new uncharted territory.

In the case of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, he takes the work of 1950s melodrama master Douglas Sirk and transposes it to his contemporary Germany. His particular inspiration is All That Heaven Allows, which revolves around the shocking romance between a respectable woman and her younger suitor. That in itself makes for a juicy piece of drama, but Fassbinder expands on that by adding a racial component. Always fascinated by topics of race, Fassbinder looks at an elderly German lady (Brigitte Mire), who begins to form a bond with a much younger Moroccan laborer named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem).

alifear3What begins as a small gesture, soon enough actually develops into something more, because once they sit down to coffee, they realize they actually appreciate each other’s company. Although I don’t understand German, the subtitles make it clear that Ali’s German is rather rudimentary, and yet that matters little to Emmi. She just enjoys having someone to talk to.

Emmi works as a maid and her husband is deceased and her children are grown up. She’s lonely. Ali has a group of friends from his homeland, but he feels like he’s treated less than human in Germany. Emmi’s different than your average German, but then again, her first husband was a Pole during the Nazi regime, so she’s no stranger to going against the grain. To her, it’s not a big deal. It’s just gets blown up by family and the tenants around her. Her nosy neighbors are quick to gossip and they all have a heavy case of discrimination. In fact, the unlikely couple is surrounded by narrow-minds sitting atop old bodies. A prime example is the local grocer, who ignores Ali, before changing his tune since he wants Emmi’s business.  But even Emmi’s children are not pleased. You can understand being surprised and a bit dismayed, but once a television set is kicked in, there’s automatically more to it. It’s not simply anger in it being such a rash decision, but the fact that Ali is a foreigner (and much younger). And yet all these separate issues are so closely intertwined it becomes an interesting situation. More often than not it’s the pervading bigotry that is the most noticeable.

alifear5Although the issue of age plays a role too, because at times Emmi looks out of place with Ali’s friends, and the same goes for Ali among her friends. It even leads him to a one night stand with the sultry bar owner (Barbara Valentin).  But Emmi is a very forgiving soul and in her, Ali finds grace. I’m not sure if I concur with all the conclusions that Fassbinder draws, but I can respect his stands on race. In fact, when Ali alludes to the catastrophe in Munich during the Olympics in ’72, such a current events make this prejudice toward Arabs all too real. It was a real pertinent issue and it still is to this day.

As for Fassbinder, he certainly knows how to work around his sets. The composition of his scenes is simple, but vibrant in mise-en-scene. He certainly has a touch of Sirk, being a little less luxurious, but still as bright. The closest modern example I think of is Wes Anderson as far as utilizing interesting color schemes and symmetry to frame shots. Also, there are quite a few times where Fassbinder maintains a shot for seconds on end. In such moments, it feels like we’re looking at a painting in a Fassbinder gallery. And it is exactly that. Art with an emotional depth from one of the foremost German masters.

4.5/5 Stars