Colour, 1970, 88m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Michael Fengler / Starring Kurt Raab, Lilith Ungerer, Irm Herrmann, Lilo Pempeit, Hanna Schygulla / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC)
Colour, 1978, 124m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Colour, 1974, 115m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Margit Carstensen, Karlheinz Böhm / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC)
FASSBINDER'S BRD TRILOGY
THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN
Colour, 1978, 120m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch
Colour, 1981, 113m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl
B&W, 1982, 104m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate / Criterion (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Colour, 1974, 93m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem / Criterion (US R1 NTSC)
Color, 1982, 108m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero / Columbia (US R1 NTSC), Second Sight (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) Color, 1971, 84m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC) Color, 1971, 95 mins. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Günther Kaufmann, Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Bär, Ulli Lommel / Music by Peer Raben / Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus Format: DVD - Fantoma (MSRP $29.95) / Letterboxed (2.35:1) / Dolby Digital Mono
Four years after escaping from both a Turkish prison and a potential change of sexual orientation in the shower room in Midnight Express, late actor Brad Davis went over the edge in Querelle, the last film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died of a drug overdose before the film's US premiere. The director's most blatantly homoerotic work (to put it mildly), Querelle throws aside the touchy gay politics of realistic studies like Fox and His Friends in favor of what can only be described as a hellish, horny mixture of Heironymous Bosch and Kwaidan. Derived more or less from a novel by revered thief/poet/novelist Jean Genet (who also inspired Poison and The Balcony), the fractured story follows the misadventures of Querelle (Davis), a sexually undecided sailor who winds up at a port in Brest and encounters a variety of colorful characters, including his brother, Robert (Hanno Pöschl), who is having an affair with saloon owner and singer Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Meanwhile her burly black husband, Nono (Günther Kaufmann), sets his sights on Querelle, whose lust is temporarily distracted when he impulsively knifes a fellow sailor to death and diverts the blame to Gil (Pöschl with different facial hair), a murderous criminal with whom Querelle begins to fall in love. Meanwhile Querelle's commanding officer, Seblon (Franco Nero), lusts from afar and begins devising his own agenda.
Upon its release, Querelle was critically scorned (especially in the US) for its jolting and deliberately artificial storytelling technique, which regularly punctuates the action with rambling voiceovers and onscreen quotations from Genet and other seemingly random sources. Davis' performance deliberately turns Querelle into a blank slate upon which the other characters project their desires; the crafty, intense charm which made him famous is transformed here into a casually voracious presence, whether engaging in choreographed knife and fist fights or lolling around in a different character's bed every night. While Nero has virtually nothing to do but gaze intensely from afar, Moreau fares better (in her second Genet adaptation after the underrated and startling Mademoiselle) thanks to her ability to give poignancy to even the silliest lines and lyrics. The studio sets used to represent Brest are a visual feast of blazing oranges, reds, and yellows, which can make the whole experience queasy after a while but certainly give the film a distinctive, unforgettable look. From the phallic statue formations to the corruptively ripe saloon interiors, this is Fassbinder in full throttle, choking the screen with as much overstuffed excess as he can possibly muster.
For those unfortunate enough to suffer through Columbia's old pan and scan VHS transfer, Querelle on DVD will look like a different film entirely. Fassbinder uses the entire scope frame to experiment with bizarre angles, distorting lenses, and deeply layered compositions and tableux, while the saturated colors which bleed all over the screen on videotape look more refined and tolerable here. The anamorphic transfer provided by Gaumont most likely comes from a PAL source, and for some reason in 16:9 playback the image looked a bit coarse and noisy (as if suffering from excessive digital noise reduction), while on another widescreen monitor it looked perfectly smooth and glossy. If it looks a little odd on your television, you might want to try another. The end titles sport a Dolby Stereo tag, though the film is presented in mono in both English and French. Davis, Moreau, and Nero provide their own voices, while virtually all of the other actors are very artificially dubbed in a manner that may cause even diehard Italian horror fans to bristle with annoyance. The alternate French track (which can be played with optional English, Spanish, or French subtitles) is a little easier on the ears, but it also suppresses or eliminates altogether most of the sound effects and music. (The UK disc from Second Sight is letterboxed but only retains the English dubbed option.) This unrated edition also runs about two minutes longer than the US edition; while there's still virtually no nudity in the film per se, a few sequences (such as Davis' forced manual stimulation of another sailor at knifepoint) are more explicit and may not have been faked. Inexplicably, the US disc's only supplements are trailers for The Opposite of Sex and sex, lies and videotape, which might give you an idea of where the marketing people are coming from.
Though best known for his visually florid, emotionally overwrought warscapes like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Marriage of Maria Braun, the prolific and self-destructive Rainer Werner Fassbinder began his career with low key, downbeat portraits in kitchen sink realism like Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and The Gods of the Plague, whose titles give a fairly clear idea of their emotional timbre. In this respect, Pioneers in Ingolstadt is a pivotal work, sandwiched in between these two periods and offering a sort of backward glance at the style he was soon to leave behind.
Over the credits we witness the processional arrival of a group of military engineers and laborers into the small town of Ingolstadt, where the citizens await the construction of bridge which will unite it more directly with the rest of the country. The women in particular take a liking to the new male arrivals, with young Berta (Hanna Schygulla) taking a particular liking to the handsome Karl (Harry Baer). Meanwhile the sole black soldier, Max (Günther Kaufmann), becomes the object of desire for more than a few women. Soon simple evenings spent at the local taverns become fraught with sexual interplay and suspicion, leaving the town marked forever in the name of progress.
An emotionally subdued work by Fassbinder standards, Pioneers could almost pass for a small scale, early Werner Herzog film instead. Most of the sex takes place offscreen and remains confined to longing looks and erotically charged discussions on benches; the joy, of course, comes instead from watching the director's regular stable of performers at their height. As usual Schygulla steals the show and proves her worth as one of international cinema's greatest performers; she could simply file her nails for 90 minutes and make the experience fascinating.
Considering it has almost been completely forgotten in light of Fassbinder's later films, Pioneers seems to have been given a second lease on life via the magic of DVD. No one will be likely to peg the film a masterpiece, but it's exceptionally direct and finely tuned from start to finish, making it a fascinating experience for those with an adventurous taste for moviegoing. As with most of Fassbinder's early, low budget efforts, the image quality varies wildly depending on the film stock and lighting at hand, made all the more erratic by the fact this was evidently lensed in 16mm and intended for German television. DVD fanatics may bristle during the opening credits, in which the optical processing necessary to layer the titles has rendered the image with a strong blanket of haze and grain. However, things improve about five minutes in once we switch indoors, and from there onward the material is pleasantly colorful and clean. The optional yellow English subtitles move at a good speed and are well articulated throughout. The rest of the extras are understandably limited, consisting of a Fassbinder filmography and excellent, thorough liner notes by Chuck Stephens. For an interesting comparison at just how much Fassbinder's available means increased within the span of less than one year, take a look (review below) at Fantoma's DVD of Whity (issued later in 1971), a glossy, Cinemascope riot of boisterous colors and articificial sets. Even for those who dislike Fassbinder's work, there's no denying that his versatility as an artist could be astonishing.
In his relatively brief lifespan, controversial and undeniably gifted director Rainer Werner Fassbinder churned out over forty films before overdosing in 1982, and his work managed to hit the mark more often than not. He started out in the '60s doing gritty "slice of life" films like Gods of the Plague, none of which were especially cheerful. However, beginning with the rarely seen musical western Whity, he turned towards a more stylized, formal approach which emphasized color, set design, absurd plot twists, and of course, melodrama. Rarely screened outside Germany, Whity nevertheless caught on as a familiar title among the art house crowd, particularly after Fassbinder distilled its tumultuous production history into the story of another film, Beware of a Holy Whore.
Set in the late 1800s, this perverse epic takes place in the Southwestern household of Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell, the former Bulldog Drummond) and his highly disturbed family. Ben's trophy wife, the blonde Katherine (Katrin Schaake), sleeps with almost anything that moves, while his sons are either outrageously gay (Ulli Lommel) or mentally handicapped (Harry Bär). Each family member is fixated in a different way on Whity (Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder's occasional lover and regular actor), the mulatto servant who tends to their pathetic needs. Whity's mother (Elaine Baker) is content to be a stereotypical "mammy" figure, but Whity has other plans, mostly involving his love for the sultry saloon singer, Hanna (the always magnificent Hanna Schygulla). After Ben reads his will aloud to the family (the film's most astounding scene), each member of the clan's demands on Whity escalate out of control to a murderous finale.
So bizarre that it can't even really be considered offensive, Whity twists the entire notion of American race relations and western cliches to create something entirely unearthly. The white cast members all sport bleached ivory make up, giving them the appearance of walking corpses, while Whity's mother sports a traditional and often alarming blackface. Whity himself and Hanna retain their natural skin tones, as do a few supporting characters (including R.W. himself in an amusing uncredited bit as a gunslinging barfly). Filmed on the same Spanish sets used for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, this is truly an amazing looking film, saturated with vibrant colors even in the darkest scenes, and the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (who later worked with Scorsese, Coppolla, and many others) is never less than masterful. The actors do what they can under the circumstances, considering each character is insane and on edge in almost every scene.
While Fantoma had understandably flawed source materials to work with for their maiden effort, Jodorowsky's Fando and Lis, they had no such difficulties here. Whity is simply one of the most startling color transfers to DVD so far, with hues so vibrant they put many MGM musicals to shame. The slow pacing of the film itself may not be to everyone's taste, but from a technical aspect, this disc is a stunner. The anamorphic image preserves the original Cinemascope framing, which lends an appropriate visually expansive flavor to this tawdry tale. The optional English subtitles are easily legible and synched well with the dialogue, though it appears that at least several portions of the film (Randell's scenes in particular) were shot in English and later dubbed into German. Several songs are also presented with British singers overdubbing the actors, resulting in a very odd and often incongruous soundtrack. However, the audio itself is very clear and does a fine job of showcasing the melancholy music score by the great Peer Raben. Ballhaus and Lommel (who later turned director with films like The Boogeyman) provide a fascinating audio commentary track which covers not only this film but the entire experience of working with Fassbinder. They remain appropriately sketchy about some of the more sordid, operatic aspects of the director's working patterns, but anyone interested should find plenty to chew on here. They also make some funny observations along the way, such as Lommel's comments during his character's seduction of Whity while dressed up in slinky Victoria's Secret undies.
Color, 1982, 108m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero / Columbia (US R1 NTSC), Second Sight (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Color, 1971, 84m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC)
Color, 1971, 95 mins. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Günther Kaufmann, Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Bär, Ulli Lommel / Music by Peer Raben / Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus Format: DVD - Fantoma (MSRP $29.95) / Letterboxed (2.35:1) / Dolby Digital Mono
Format: DVD - Fantoma (MSRP $29.95) / Letterboxed (2.35:1) / Dolby Digital Mono