Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Despair (Rating out of 5): **
I Only Want You to Love Me (Rating out of 5): ***
I love Rainer Werner Fassbinder because he lived cinema. He slept, breathed, ate, and excreted cinema. And he died for cinema. The math tells much of the story. He died at the age of 37 having completed over 40 movies and TV shows, including two lengthy mini-series and several short films. One can only guess that he was always working on something. The films I like best of his are the ones that reflect this speed and passion, the ones that feel somewhat reckless; although, in his defense, Fassbinder's films were usually quite beautifully and rigorously shot.
And thus we come to Despair, which is not one of his best. It comes from a Vladimir Nabokov novel, and the playful Tom Stoppard adapted it. That's an interesting combination, and it suggests a movie of twisted humor, but Fassbinder doesn't seem quite tuned into the structure or the precision or the absurdity of it all. Despair is more weird than funny. It seems too airless, weighed-down and lacking in the instinct that drove the filmmaker's earlier films. (It reminds me of another ornate movie he made the same year, The Marriage of Maria Braun, which earned him worldwide acclaim.)
It's also filmed entirely in English, which probably didn't help much either. Dirk Bogarde stars as Hermann Hermann, the manager of a chocolate factory in pre-WWII Germany. He's married to a bubble headed wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol), and she in turn is presumably having an affair with her like-minded cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler). One day Hermann meets a man, Felix (Klaus Löwitsch), whom he thinks is his exact double. He conjures up a scheme involving insurance money, which of course, goes terribly wrong.
Oddly, what would have been the best joke in the book is totally lost on the screen, and there's not much left but long scenes of talking, though set in gorgeously detailed rooms (photographed by the great Michael Ballhaus), as if that's all Fassbinder could think to do. I would have loved for this to have been shot in German, so that perhaps subtitles would have helped the dialogue sound better. As it is, the thick accents and lack of subtitles on Olive Films' new DVD make it difficult to follow the conversations. Perhaps if the film had been less fussy and more visual, it could have been sharper and funnier.
In any case, Olive Films has made available a film that myself and Fassbinder fans have been interested in seeing for years, and in a very fine transfer. There are no extras.
On the other hand, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1976 movie I Only Want You to Love Me was made for television and not released in the United States until 1994; it's as downbeat as the director's films ever get, but it's a fascinating cautionary tale that transcends its time.
Peter (Vitus Zeplichal) is the hapless hero, a fearful, eager-to-please soul. He begins the film by building a house for his wealthy parents, and they immediately take this gesture for granted; Fassbinder adds intertitles to remind us of this fact. He meets the kindly, Erika (Elke Aberle), a cute little mushroom that constantly gazes up Peter, and manages to court her (his only true act of bravery in the film). Later, to impress his parents -- or to avoid looking foolish in their eyes -- he moves to Munich.
He easily gets a job as a construction worker, but Munich is brutally expensive, and he and Erika quickly fall behind, a situation made worse by the birth of the inevitable baby. Hence the film is a series of ups and downs, a vicious cycle in which Peter figures out ways to borrow money, then foolishly spends it on gifts for Erika when he fears that she is going to stop loving him for borrowing money.
Like Fassbinder's earlier Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), this one doesn't end nicely. But this is the kind of Fassbinder film I like best, the lowdown, desperate productions that rely more on guts than on production design, although it's hard to get terribly excited about a movie this depressing. Even Herr R. is quite a bit loopier and stranger; this one feels perhaps a bit more straightforward, as if Fassbinder were trying hard to make one of his beloved Sirk/Ray Hollywood melodramas.
Usually Fassbinder reserves a kind of buried sympathy for foolish, doomed characters like these, and it's a bit hard to find here. But imagine how much worse this story could have been with the availability of credit cards; perhaps a modern-day remake is in order.
Olive Films has released this long-neglected film on DVD, and the quality is fine; as a bonus feature, it includes a new 62-minute making-of documentary.
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