Our review of The Essential Jacques Demy (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published August 22nd, 2014, is also available.
"He was convinced that he would die young. I don't know whether he died young because he pushed himself, or [he] pushed himself because time was running out."—Actress Hanna Schygulla on director Rainer Werner Fassbinder
"The critics couldn't keep up. He wanted to have a new film [opening] while the previous one was being reviewed."—Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus
The brief career of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who lived from 1945-1982) is dizzying in both its output and quality, and likely unique in the history of cinema. Between 1966 and 1982, he directed 45 films (averaging three or four in most years). He wrote or co-wrote 50 screenplays; acted in 40 films (at least 15 for other directors); wrote at least 14 plays and directed for the theatre; wrote and directed for television (including his fifteen-and-a-half hour magnum opus, the television miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, which, incredibly, he wrote in a three month period, while also directing The Marriage of Maria Braun).
Critics and audiences were bombarded with these works to such a degree that few could really follow the arc of Fassbinder's career. It is only in the last decade or so, thanks mainly to the efforts of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, that people could re-visit these films with adequate time to digest them. Books have begun to appear, film retrospectives have been launched, and at least twenty of the films are now available on DVD in Region 1. In June, the Criterion Collection released a splendid, two-disc, deluxe edition of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). In retrospect, this appears to have been a mere appetizer for the sumptuous main course under consideration here: the four-disc box set, Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun / Veronika Voss / Lola.
First, a brief history lesson: Fassbinder was born near Munich, a little over three weeks after Germany's unconditional surrender ended the European phase of World War II. He grew up during the administration of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963), which saw West Germany (known in German as the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or BRD, and in the US as the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG) arise from a decimated foe to an economically viable member of the European community. This turnaround is often referred to as the German Economic Miracle. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and the perceived threat of Communism by the West, convinced many that it was in West Germany's best interest to reestablish its army. Many Germans, still haunted by World War II, protested against this rearmament. Fassbinder set his trilogy of films during these economic and political upheavals of the 1950s.
There were cinematic precursors to these films as well. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) is partly based on Michael Curtiz' film noir Mildred Pierce and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk (as well as the experiences of Fassbinder's mother, Lilo Pempeit). The inspiration for Veronika Voss (1982) can be found in the real-life story of German actress Sybille Schmitz, and in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. Lola (1981) is modeled after Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930). None of these are direct remakes by any means, but show Fassbinder's fluency and range. Taken together, these three films stand among the director's finest achievements.
Facts of the Case
The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun) opens with the marriage ceremony under siege. Bombs dropping all around them, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) weds Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch), a German soldier she has known only briefly during the waning days of World War II. After a one-day honeymoon, Hermann returns to the Russian front, and Maria keeps a daily vigil at the train station, searching for any word about her husband. When word comes that he has died, she refuses to mourn her loss. Instead, she trades her mother's brooch for a sexy black dress and finds work as a bargirl. In the redecorated confines of an old school gymnasium, she meets a black American GI (George Byrd), and begins a relationship with him. A chance meeting on a train with a factory owner, Karl Oswald (Ivan Desny), earns her a secretarial job. She begins an affair with Karl, and soon proves to be a formidable businesswoman. Maria's single-minded rise through the company's ranks mirrors the renaissance of the German postwar economy.
In Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss), a sports reporter named Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) comes to the aide of a mysterious femme fatale (Rosel Zech) during a pouring rain. When Veronika invites him for lunch the following day, he discovers that she was once a popular actress during the war (and was rumored to be the mistress of Hitler's infamous propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels). Alternately seductive, needy, and unfathomable, Veronika proves irresistible to Robert, who attempts to protect her from the apparent danger posed by a powerful neurologist, Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer).
Lola (Barbara Sukowa) is a popular singer and prostitute at a garish brothel, where the city's power brokers come for illicit pleasure. Schukert (Mario Adorf), a corrupt building contractor, is her devoted client (as a capitalist, he treats her as any other commodity). Lola's mother (Karin Baal) raises Lola's illegitimate daughter and serves as housekeeper for the city's new building commissioner, an upright and incorruptible man named von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). A demure Lola conspires to meet von Bohm, and they begin a chaste courtship (von Bohm knows neither Lola's profession, nor her relationship to his housekeeper). Later, when von Bohm is confronted with the truth, his world is shattered.
Fassbinder tells the history of the German Economic Miracle of the 1950s through the eyes of three survivors—outwardly tough women who are inwardly devastated by the war. Maria loses her husband, and sublimates her pain through capitalistic excess. Veronika loses her career, and puts all of her energy into the act of forgetting. Lola loses her self-respect, but creates the myth that she's having the time of her life. Each has a chance at love that might redeem all the years of pain. Yet Fassbinder seems to say that Germany can't be truly happy until it confronts its past; there is a price to be paid for collective amnesia. For all of Fassbinder's criticism of the German state, it should be emphasized that these films are not coldly didactic political allegories disguised as melodramas. He makes his points, but doesn't hit the audience over the head with them. These films can easily be enjoyed without any special knowledge of German history.
Stylistically, the films could not look more different. Maria Braun, which was Fassbinder's greatest success as a director, has a soft, nostalgic look, dominated by muted neutral and earth tones—browns, blacks, grays, and greens. Veronika Voss is shot in high contrast black and white, with clever touches of German Expressionism and film noir. Fades to a new scene are accomplished by the creative use of "wipes," as in old silent films. Visually, Lola has an eye-popping, theatre-meets-whorehouse quality, full of rich, saturated colors. The lighting design is stunning and very creative—witness the use of "eye-lights" to emphasize Mueller-Stahl's brilliant blue irises. (Note than in Lola, Fassbinder appears to use a grainy 16mm camera to film the brief sequences before and after each fade to a new scene. The reason for this is not clear, but it is not a fault of Criterion's transfer.)
Having spent a great deal of time with this set, I can say that Veronika Voss is my favorite, followed closely by Maria Braun. Lola is visually arresting, but the narrative doesn't flow nearly as well as the other two. Fassbinder often said he preferred directing women to men, and he gets stellar performances from Schygulla, Zech, and Sukowa. Of the male leads, Hilmar Thate (Veronika Voss) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Lola) get the meatiest roles, and turn in excellent performances. Fassbinder had a longstanding stock company of actors (which included his mother, Lilo Pempeit), who crop up repeatedly. Günther Kaufmann (one of Fassbinder's former lovers, and the man he famously slept with on the night of his wedding to Ingrid Caven) plays a minor—but strangely unifying—role in each of the three films as a black American GI.
Each film is presented in its original aspect ratio in new, high-definition, anamorphically enhanced transfers. Lola looks the best, with Veronika Voss closely behind. Maria Braun has some minor compression artifacts, which are noted in a couple of scenes with a great deal of steam and smoke. The eagle-eyed will note some instances of apparent edge enhancement in Maria Braun and Veronika Voss (where I think it is merely a byproduct of the photographic style employed by Fassbinder and his cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger), but they are minor. The color in Lola is breathtaking, as is the black and white photography in Veronika Voss. Sound is the original German mono, and is uniformly excellent.
Let me say a word about the overall appearance of the set. A handsomely designed, medium weight cardboard box (with perhaps my favorite Criterion cover art) contains four separate Digipak cases (the same box design that was used for The Adventures of Antoine Doinel and The Complete Monterey Pop Festival box sets), graced with iconic close-ups of the three main characters, and a fourth of Fassbinder himself (with ever-present cigarette). A booklet is also enclosed, which is described below.
The extras are copious (counting the films themselves, there are nearly eighteen hours of material on these four discs), so prepare to spend a lot of time with this set. If ever a Criterion release were truly a "film class in a box," it is this one (too bad they don't offer any college credits). Instead of approaching the extras disc-by-disc, I will discuss them by categories.
Each film has a full audio commentary track with different participants. The best, in my opinion, features film critic and author Tony Rayns (Veronika Voss). He takes an easy, conversational tone, and manages to sound spontaneous while still covering all the bases. His is the most screen-specific of the three, and is a model commentary.
That for Maria Braun contains the edited comments of the film's cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, and Fassbinder's fellow director and friend, Wim Wenders, with bridging narration by Rob Webb (who has one of those dull, books-on-tape kind of voices). Ballhaus talks about his often-strained relationship with Fassbinder, and the way in which many of the shots were obtained. He also talks at length about his post-Fassbinder career, particularly his work with Martin Scorsese (GoodFellas, Gangs of New York, and The Last Temptation of Christ)—these comments seemed a bit self-serving to me.
Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder's friend and biographer, uses his carefully scripted commentary to provide an overview of Fassbinder's career. He covers many recurring themes in the director's work, and provides a lot of interesting anecdotes (he chronicles the sad fates of many of the director's former lovers). The problem with his commentary is that it often has little to do with what's happening onscreen.
One innovation I don't recall seeing elsewhere is that Criterion has provided onscreen chapter descriptions for both the films and the commentaries. This makes it easier to find specific information within a given commentary.
Interviews and Conversations
There are a total of seven video interviews (averaging about 30 minutes apiece) scattered throughout the set, which feature the three lead actresses (Hanna Schygulla, Rosel Zech, and Barbara Sukowa) and Fassbinder's editor (Juliane Lorenz, who now heads the Fassbinder Foundation. She is interviewed by Laurence Kardish, the Senior Film Curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art); the co-writer for all three screenplays (Peter Märthesheimer); the cinematographer for the last two films (Xaver Schwarzenberger); and Fassbinder scholar Eric Rentschler. All are exclusive to this Criterion edition, and were filmed earlier this year. Most are conducted in German, with optional English subtitles. Instead of static, talking-head interviews, all are skillfully supplemented with stills and clips, and are indexed by subject. With amazingly little overlap, I can highly recommend all of them.
I'll single out two of the interviews. Hanna Schygulla talks about her long history with Fassbinder, dating back to his first film. After making 16 films together, the two had a falling out (apparently over money) and didn't speak for four years, until Fassbinder sent her the script for Maria Braun. Schygulla is relaxed, wistful, and funny in this interview, and demonstrates not a trace of arrogance or self-promotion. She has an inner beauty that simply radiates from the screen, and this interview left me wanting more. Harvard professor Eric Rentschler gives an insightful analysis of Maria Braun, and provides the political and economic history necessary to understand Fassbinder's trenchant criticism of the West German state.
Perhaps the most startling information gleaned from the interviews centers on Fassbinder's working style. He was famous for demanding that scenes be shot in a single take (his colleagues claim that this allowed him to get a high degree of concentration from the cast and crew). This one-take philosophy also contributed to the almost unheard-of efficiency of his productions: Veronika Voss was shot in a mind-boggling 24 days (and the editing was finished only three days later). He resisted discussions with actors about their parts or line readings, made few revisions to the screenplay (though he did change the original ending of Maria Braun), delegated a lot of responsibility to his crew (for instance, he didn't like to scout locations ahead of time), and preferred to work more through intuition than careful planning.
Three excellent featurettes are included. I Don't Just Want You to Love Me (Ich will nicht nur, daß ihr mich liebt) (1993), by Hans Günther Pflaum, is an excellent hour-and-a-half documentary overview of Fassbinder's career. For those new to the director, this is the perfect starting place (perhaps even before watching the films). Life Stories: A Conversation with R.W. Fassbinder is a 49-minute interview with Fassbinder, dating from 1978—apparently the longest interview he ever gave. He appears physically bloated and mentally exhausted (he keeps refilling his coffee cup), but responds candidly to questions about his childhood, brief marriage, and filmmaking style.
Finally, Dance with Death (Tanz mit dem Tod), by Achim Podak, is a one-hour biographical portrait of the German actress Sybille Schmitz, the inspiration for the character Veronika Voss. Outside of Germany, Schmitz is probably best known for her roles as Leone in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), and as the disgraced, pregnant housekeeper in G.W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). Once again, Criterion provides excellent chapter descriptions for all. The Fassbinder documentary and interview are both full-frame. The interview has a washed-out look, but this is irrelevant considering its documentary value.
A handsomely designed 53-page booklet is included. It contains an excellent essay by journalist Kent Jones. Author Michael Töteberg provides production histories for each of the films. The text is illustrated with photographs of Fassbinder and with stills from the films. Finally, credits are provided for the cast and crew of the films, Criterion's DVD production team (Issa Clubb was the producer), and details of the transfers.
As a package, I will go out on a limb and declare that this is likely Criterion's best-ever release. Given the quality of the films, the excellent anamorphic transfers, the exhaustive, entertaining, and insightful interviews and commentaries, three essential features, the 53-page booklet, and the integrated, artful design concept, the Criterion team has once again raised the bar for excellence.
If not for the recent experience of Alabama's chief justice, this box set had me ready to construct a 2.6-ton granite monument to Rainer Werner Fassbinder just outside the DVD Verdict courtroom. In a year of great releases, this one rises to the top tier. Criterion is not only guiltless, but also peerless. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice, The Marriage Of Maria Braun (Die Ehe Der Maria Braun)
Perp Profile, The Marriage Of Maria Braun (Die Ehe Der Maria Braun)
Distinguishing Marks, The Marriage Of Maria Braun (Die Ehe Der Maria Braun)
• Audio Commentary by Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and Director Wim Wenders
Scales of Justice, Lola
Perp Profile, Lola
Distinguishing Marks, Lola
• Audio Commentary by Fassbinder biographer and friend Christian Braad Thomsen
Scales of Justice, Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht Der Veronika Voss)
Perp Profile, Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht Der Veronika Voss)
Distinguishing Marks, Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht Der Veronika Voss)
• Audio Commentary by Critic and Author Tony Rayns
Scales of Justice, Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy: The Supplements
Perp Profile, Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy: The Supplements
Distinguishing Marks, Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy: The Supplements
• Video Interview with Fassbinder Foundation director Juliane Lorenz and film curator Laurence Kardish (32:00)
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