What Lola Wants: Lola and the Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder Re-Viewed
By Robert J. Cardullo
Perhaps in ironic reference to the sentimental, idyllic postwar genre of the Heimatfilm (homeland film), Rainer Werner Fassbinder once said, famously, that he was trying to construct a house with his films – which is hard, enervating, and even dangerous work. Many filmmakers have left their own houses half-finished. But, with the possible exception of, say, Yasujiro Ozu, Fassbinder was the only one who left a beautiful, livable dwelling into which others might enter and be inspired to build their own.
Had he lived, he would surely have made modifications and built many extensions, but the fact that he left us with a finished product is fairly astonishing given the short time he had to complete it. Not every part of the house is equally interesting: Think of Satan's Brew (1976) as the plumbing and Chinese Roulette (1976) as the wiring. The three films that comprise the famous FRG (Federal Republic of Germany) trilogy, as it came to be known, are the rock-solid foundation – or, perhaps, the central staircase: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Veronika Voss (1982) and Lola (1981).
Unlike most of the other houses going up around him at the time, built with flimsy modern foundations that did not go deep enough (for fear of hitting the rotten substratum of Nazism), Fassbinder's house was built with a sense of history. Of his generation, Fassbinder was the only director whose interest in German film history neglected neither the period of the Third Reich nor the much-disparaged 1950s. He had no fear of contact when he was giving parts to such actors as Luise Ullrich, Werner Finck, Adrian Hoven and Barbara Valentin, whereas most of New German Cinema was busy relegating former stars to the background and making its farewell to "Papa's cinema".
Fassbinder understood that as a German in the 1970s, one had to do real historical excavation to recreate not just the images but the mental framework of the past, not merely to acknowledge historical amnesia, but to make an effort to understand how and why it manifested itself. Fassbinder once said of the traumatised German reaction to the American television miniseries:
He knew, you see, that all roads led back to the grey, amoral confusion of the 1950s and the years of the Wirtschaftswunder, Germany's postwar economic miracle.
Fassbinder realised that he had to build his house quickly if it was going to have any meaning, which means that he did something almost impossible: He acted at the speed of his emotions and thoughts. He wanted and got a direct correlation between living and fiction-making. This is almost impossible in film production, where there's a lot of atrophy-inducing waiting time because of the effort, money, needed manpower, tactical and strategic difficulties, endurance tests, and care required to get a presentable image. It's no wonder, then, that he resorted to cocaine and an assortment of other drugs. Indeed, it would have been shocking if he had not done so.
Fassbinder's nonstop work ethic also allowed him to break through the removed, God's-eye view that comes all too often with the territory of modern cinema. He's always right there with his characters, in time, space and spirit. "Should you sit around waiting until something's become a tradition," he once said, "or shouldn't you rather roll up your sleeves and get to work developing one?" (Anarchy of the Imagination). Too much time spent listening to the music of your own voice gives rise to a temptation to round everything off into a definitive statement; it gives you a sense of false confidence that you're delivering, from on high, the last word on human affairs.
By building his house from the inside out, Fassbinder was essentially trying to create a whole body of German films that would stand politically and spiritually against the flood of hypocritical, unfelt cinema that had come before and that was sure to come after. He tried to bypass hazy generalities and windy formulations through sheer speed and determination, and largely succeeded. "There's a sense of process in Fassbinder, a feeling of the movie as it's being made," said the American critic Manny Farber, an early champion. That sense of process, of the movie and the man behind it thinking and reacting as he went along, was there right to the end, even in the fancier and more vaunted later works like Despair (1978) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).
As a result, Fassbinder casts a long shadow. His admirers have followed his example of throwing the moral underpinning out from under their narratives, but with rare exceptions (Olivier Assayas and André Téchiné come to mind), they all lack something that Fassbinder had in abundance, and that more than counterbalanced the endless, discomfited bitching of his characters: a tender eye. Such tenderness was part of a fullness of vision, and of the way he simply looked at people, that had not been seen since the silent era. In a 1977 interview, Farber declared that, "If someone sits on a couch in a Fassbinder movie, it's the first time it's been sat on that way in movies, it seems to me, in a long time. It's a big person on a small couch who's uncomfortable. A woman standing in a doorway in a Fassbinder film – that's a great vision. Of someone who's uncomfortable and doesn't like it and emits a feeling of savagery. In ecstatic, hieratic lighting of the kind found in Fra Angelico."
The plasticity of Fassbinder's images is almost unparalleled – in the sound era, only the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard, at its very best, has a similar force and beauty. But Fassbinder had something else, too: He was an inventor. He gave us a whole new point of view, devoid of sentimentality or even grace yet profoundly empathic. In Fassbinder, a magical world of purely human wonders is parcelled out to us in the form of tales in which desperation, treachery, scheming, hypocrisy and ignorance play no small part, and where desire plays a major supporting role, but the will to power is sadly dominant. Contrary to the opinion of some, however – and it's an opinion that I myself used to hold – Fassbinder did not make cruel films. His dramatically blunt tales speak, with tremendous urgency, for the Maria Brauns, the Veronika Vosses and the Lolas of this world. In one sense, then, the films are blunt instruments, but what's most important is that they give the lives of ordinary souls the care and attention they deserve. Fassbinder protected his characters from the infectious diseases of idealisation and sentimentality; his filmic space is far from transcendental: There is no beyond, nor any ultimate reality. There is nothing but human relations, given an awesome intensity, elevation and richness. No one enjoys a state of grace, but everyone is ennobled.
Like a number of other Fassbinder films, The Marriage of Maria Braun Veronika Voss and Lola describe the unconscious, collective enactment of an essentially negative action, namely the suppression of national memory, through hyperdramatic heroines whose fates are intertwined with the imperatives of their awful historical moments. How did the historical moment of the Wirtschaftswunder, of the postwar German economic miracle, come into being? Free-market boosters like to believe that it began with the installation of Ludwig Erhard, the economics minister of postwar Germany. In June 1948, when the country was at its lowest moral and economic ebb, Erhard went on the air to make two momentous announcements. The almost worthless Reichsmark would hitherto be replaced by the Deutschemark, 40 of which would be distributed to every German, followed by 20 more, and followed by debt conversions at the rate of 10 to one. Erhard also took the unprecedented step of dropping the wage and price controls introduced by the Nazis, first on consumer goods and, six months later, on food – a move that even the Allies had not considered. It's likely that Germany's recovery would have gone forward no matter what measures had been taken, since the country had nowhere to go but up. Still, a reconstruction boom took place under Erhard, and he had a lot to do with it.
Fassbinder himself was wholly uninterested in the reasons behind the miracle and more interested in the less fashionable topic of how the "miracle" narrative came into being in the first place, as well as the level of amnesia required to make it stick. In The Marriage of Maria Braun Veronika Voss and Lola, Fassbinder saw parts of an overall picture of the FRG that help to answer these questions, as well as to better explain this strange democratic construction – its hazards and dangers, as well as its benefits and sureties. Each of these films, of course, features a female character. "All sorts of things can be told better about women; men usually behave the way society expects them to," explained Fassbinder in an interview (quoted by Töteberg in 'Candy-Colored Amorality'). His screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer elaborated: "As far as men are concerned, it is instructive that in Lola, from a purely dramaturgical point of view, it is not Lola who is the hero, but rather Mr Von Bohm. And what are we told about our hero? That he is a victim. So the secret hero is Lola after all" (as quoted in Press Guide to Lola, 1981). The history of the FRG is told through female characters in the FRG trilogy, which did not start out as one. Originally, Fassbinder had not conceived of three works on the same theme, but now he inserted, in the opening credits under the title of Lola, the subtitle "BRD 3" (Bundesrepublik Deutschland 3, or FRG 3).
Where The Marriage of Maria Braun itself is dark and luxuriously shadowed (like a late-1940s Warner Brothers picture in glowing colour) and Veronika Voss, in black and white, displays the visual style of an American film noir, Lola has an aggressively bright palette of hot pinks and lurid reds mixed with light greens, lemon yellows and pale blues, married to hard shadows and a relentless, impulsive physicality. (Fassbinder and his cinematographer, Xaver Schwarzenberger, watched Technicolor films from the 1950s to get the look that they wanted.) Former East German star Armin Mueller-Stahl (Von Bohm) claimed that he and his costars were constantly entering into the "red zone" with their performances throughout the lightning-fast shoot, which took place in the spring of 1981. Fassbinder himself encouraged all the participants to dare to go to the extremes in their respective fields, to go to the limit in attempting to extend the scale of cinematographic aesthetics.
They were helped by the film's music. Melodrama (hyperdrama, even as I have used it – or histrionic drama – may be a better term in this context) is literally drama with music. Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) had already musically illustrated the world of the bourgeoisie, with its traditional melodies whistled by Professor Rath in the morning, as contrasted with the honky-tonk of current popular songs ("Get out there, give 'em the old schmaltz," advises the director, shooing Lola Lola out onto the stage). "Classical or modern?" asks Von Bohm of Mrs Kummer in the Fassbinder version, when he learns that her daughter is a "singer". In fact, the pop hits of the 1950s telling of wanderlust and lovers' bliss make up Lola's repertoire in the Villa Fink establishment: 'Am Tag als der Regen kam' ('The Day the Rain Came'), 'Plaisir d'Amour' ('The Pleasure of Love') and, above all, Rudi Schuricke's aforementioned 'Fishermen of Capri'.
Lola, ostensibly the third part of the FRG trilogy but chronologically the second, was shadowed by Dirk Bogarde's desire to make another film (after Despair) with the director he considered so chaotically brilliant. His idea was to film Heinrich Mann's novel Professor Unrat, which had provided the basis for Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. Fassbinder's producers even offered a settlement to the Mann estate as a precautionary measure (and perhaps to buy the added commercial cachet of a Blue Angel remake). The screenwriters Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich then turned the tables on Mann's hero by letting their hero, Von Bohm, now a building commissioner, humiliate himself, first by making a public spectacle of his hatred of the amoral pimp and building magnate Schuckert, then by withdrawing into a state of nostalgic denial.
Fassbinder wanted to make a film about the 1950s, but the theme of the high school teacher as small-town tyrant, a figure from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm, simply did not fit into the period of the German economic miracle. The protagonist had to have something to do with the reconstruction of the country, so a building commissioner seemed to be the ideal profession. A big-time building contractor as his antagonist formed a logical constellation. And the whore fit in with the time, as a virtual representative of the 1950s, because – as Fassbinder explains in the press booklet – "the years from 1956 to 1960 were more or less the most amoral period that Germany ever experienced."
In Mann's novel, the high-school teacher Professor Unrat falls into social isolation through his liaison with Rosa Fröhlich, aka the "artiste" Lola Lola; in Fassbinder's film, the building commissioner, with his moral principles, was an outsider (from East Germany) in the town, but he becomes one of their own through his relationship with Lola. The story is no longer set in 19th-century imperial society, but instead in the 1950s. "Of course there was something like bigoted, hypocritical morals," Fassbinder again explains in the press booklet. "But between the people there was an implicitly sanctioned amorality." Lola embodies it, as does Schuckert. The building contractor is the man of the hour: down-to-earth, unscrupulous and free of inopportune class conceit, unlike his wife, who cultivates it.
Schuckert is not a one-dimensional negative character, however: He is a man of considerable charm, a kind of sympathetic pig. "At least in a period when it came to rebuilding the country," said Fassbinder, "the kind of vitality that this man has to have… to be a construction entrepreneur is an admirable vitality" (Press Guide to Lola). The happy ending is disavowed, but so is the melodrama: In contrast to The Blue Angel, Lola does not end in tragedy or even pathos. To wit, even after their marriage, which integrates Von Bohm once and for all into small-town society, Lola remains Schuckert's own private whore. (When, toward the end, she is a guest of the Schuckerts and the marriage, as at the end of The Marriage of Maria Braun, is effected through a deal about which the man in question knows nothing, once again we hear in the background a radio broadcast from a world soccer championship, this time from 1958 [Germany versus Sweden].) As for the marriage itself, Lola is all in white as she bids farewell, gets into her red convertible – and meets with the building contractor. This is followed by a closing scene in which Von Bohm and his co-worker take a walk in the woods, during which Von Bohm's assertion that he is happy does not sound convincing. Thus does the false happy ending get a different accent, for Von Bohm seems to have willingly resigned himself to his fate and the fact that Lola is betraying him.
Lola herself may instructively be contrasted here with Maria Braun. "With me, the actual development always lags behind my consciousness," states Maria Braun. In the end she has to recognise that her marriage was based on deception, and the film ends in catastrophe. Lola has no illusions: She will not make a mistake, "because the soul knows more than the mind," she explains right at the beginning. In the Villa Fink she gains insight into the structures of small-town society, but she is excluded from it; she wants to be part of it, however, and the way to achieve that for a woman is still through marriage. Lola knows that her marriage is a deal with a third person, but that is no reason to shun marriage. On the contrary: She has defused an explosive through union with Von Bohm, and her marriage is the guarantee that the power structure remains intact. In reference to Douglas Sirk's "weepie" melodramas, Fassbinder once remarked that "love is the best, most perfidious, and most effective instrument of social oppression" (Anarchy of the Imagination), and in Lola he demonstrates this mechanism to perfection.
Lola metaphorically demonstrates, then, the arrangements on which the FRG was built, but it is not Fassbinder's aim merely to expose the double morality and ideology of the economic miracle – he was not a moralist. According to Märthesheimer, "Lola is also a film about the erosion of bourgeois values under Adenauer, about the junking of conservative ideals in the name of a quick buck" (Press Guide to Lola). The debris of war was pushed aside, but there was no coming to terms with the past; economic reconstruction went hand in hand with political restoration. Von Bohm sees through what is happening, as is revealed in his inaugural address in the town hall, but he believes that the reconstruction will not succeed without "expansive powers", so he doesn't offer any resistance and instead supports Schuckert's plans. Ultimately, then, Von Bohm caves in to the capitalist principle. (In this posture, Fassbinder saw a correspondence to the Social Democrats, who, with the 1959 Godesberg Programme forswearing all Marxist ideas, gave up their demands for a reform policy of their own.)
Shortly after Lola, Fassbinder supplied the missing second part of the trilogy: Veronika Voss. Tellingly, Veronika Voss was the last film he was able to complete. His next project was to have been a film about Rosa Luxemburg. But in the early morning hours of June 10, 1982 – he had just made some notes on the treatment by Märthesheimer and Fröhlich – Rainer Werner Fassbinder died of a lethal combination of cocaine and barbiturates. Manifestly, this was a director who knew how to give his endings, in life as in art, the force of a blow to the solar plexus.
In Lola's own ending, as revised by Fassbinder (from Märthesheimer and Fröhlich's screenplay) and turned into a refrain, Von Bohm returns to the pastoral paradise where he "deflowered" Lola, accompanied by her young daughter, who unwittingly re-creates her mother's provocative pose in the hayloft: a harbinger of future sellouts. Lola is thus a character at once real and allegorical, trying to make her way through a misbegotten postwar Germany – a country and time into which Fassbinder himself was born on May 31, 1945, 24 days after the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied armies of Europe. Fassbinder dedicated his final energies to bringing those lost grey days, and years, back to life, perhaps because they offered the clearest and least obstructed view of humanity at its most vulnerable.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018