Feb 7, 2013

Veronika Voss

New German Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film, Veronika Voss (1982) aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss aka The Longing of Veronika Voss – a black-and-white neo-noir work that is just as much a tribute to old school UFA Teutonic melodramas as it inspired by Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950) – is also the second film in the director’s BRD Trilogy (films set in Bundesrepublik Deutschland over three decades following World War II), sandwiched in between The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Lola (1981). Loosely based on the tragic life of German actress Sybille Schmitz (Carl Th. Dreyer's 1932 phantasmagorical masterpiece Vampyr, the forgotten 1943 Nazi masterpiece Titanic), who as a prominent diva of the National Socialist silverscreen, was blacklisted after the conclusion of the Second World War and found it virtually impossible to obtain lead roles. Naturally, sassy Schmitz's erratic behavior and wayward affairs with both men and women only further compounded her problems with the German film industry. No longer a celebrated starlet, but more like a damned diva, Schmitz did what many non-working actors do during downtime by drowning her tears with alcohol, but things only got worse as time passed and depression weighed her down, even resulting in suicide attempts and a stay at a mental institution. Schmitz eventually found herself an ‘angel of death’ from Munch in the form of a criminally-inclined physician who sold her morphine at absurd prices, and when the actress could no longer fund her nasty habit, the good doctor assisted her in predictable suicide, which is ironic considering that in the last film she starred in, Das Haus an der Küste (1953), she portrayed a character who also committed self-slaughter due to all-consuming despair. Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss more or less portrays a similar scenario with Fassbinder's naked and nihilistic melodrama, but what makes the film an especially standout work is that the director attempted to stylize the miserable melancholy melodrama in a manner during the UFA eras from when Sybille Schmitz worked as an actress as a mostly metaphysically macabre yet masterfully directed celluloid obituary for a bygone era in German cinema and history.   In Veronika Voss, there is no question as to whether or not the star-crossed starlet will die, nor by what method, but when and where.

 The year is 1955; exactly one decade after the fall of the Third Reich and the place in Munich. Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech as an 'Ingrid Caven' type), a formerly loved and glorified queen of the UFA silverscreen, is now a shunned has-been who finds herself more concerned with the magical feeling chemical of morphine than the organic high she once obtained by starring in mainstream movies as a prominent celebrity and much-desired sexual icon. During one rainy night after watching one of her old movies in a local movie theater (with Fassbinder making a cameo sitting in a chair in the row above the damaged diva) and running abruptly out of the screening after realizing her own life now mirrors that of the tragic character she once played, Voss encounters a white knight in shining armor named Robert Krahn (East German actor Hilmar Thate in one of his first West German roles); a less than handsome, short and swarthy blue collar sports journalist who does not think twice about saving the blond bombshell from the pain of the rain. Krahn has no idea that Voss is a once-famous movie star, thus the actress is extra impressed that a stranger would help her, confessing to him as they fine dine at a local restaurant, “Let me tell you it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again.” Of course, being a perennial actress, Voss is only playing a role as a crypto-drug-addict who has essentially given up on life and is now a lost cause, but that does not stop gentlemen Krahn from helping to save a woman in trouble who clearly cannot save herself. Featuring flashbacks to her past life, including the happiness she once had working on film sets with her favorite film director (Volker Spengler) and the slow but steady disintegration of her marriage with screenwriter Max Rehbein (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Voss’ life, like West Germany itself, has indubitably rotted rather radically and cannot be replenished to any notable degree.

 Not long into their torrid non-relationship, Krahn realizes that Veronika is the dope sick virtual prisoner as an inpatient of a naughty neurologist named Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer) – a lethal lesbian that, like many female sadists/serial killers, uses poison as her method of murder – who keeps the emotionally afflicted actress high on a steady diet of opiates that she also has the power to take away, which she does from time to time so as to speed up the actress' final descent into oblivion. Despite interfering with the personal life of another woman and a rich one at that, Krahn convinces his longtime girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) to go to Dr. Katz posing as a doctor-shopping rich woman looking for a negligent physician to provide her with a prescription for morphine, thus obtaining proof of the doctor of death's criminal malpractice. Although Henriette receives the prescription for the narcotics, she makes the mistake of making a questionable phone call right outside her office, thus revealing her cover, so the demented doc has her ran over and killed. Naturally, Robert Krahn shows up with the police, but Dr. Katz has already covered up the murder and Veronika Voss goes along with her opium dealer’s charade about not really knowing the sports journalist and would-be-savior. As Fassbinder told his filmmaking friend Frank Ripploh in a 1982 interview regarding Veronika Voss’ passive acceptance of her own murder: “She accepts it completely because she knows in any case that the game is played out, there won’t be any more variations – that’s how I’d interpret it – no major opportunities for variations, and then a person can simply accept the end; there isn’t anything left that interests her much.” 

 In the Fassbinder biography Love Is Colder Than Death (1987), author Robert Katz wrote: “Veronika Voss, a tight little black-and-white movie with a bite that’s hard to forget, would have been, if you had to die young, the film to exit on.” While I can understand Katz’s reasoning, I personally prefer Fassbinder’s final, posthumously released work Querelle (1982) to Veronika Voss any day, not least of all because the Jean Genet adaption, although riddled with death and human recklessness, seems to be a work directed by a man with a desire to drive on with life, at least artistically speaking. While a sleekly stylized celluloid work that sticks out quite boldly among Fassbinder’s diverse cinematic oeuvre, Veronika Voss reeks of a decidedly defeated tone as if directed by a nihilistic filmmaker who has finally accepted death. That being said, it should be no surprise that before working on Veronika Voss, Fassbinder started working on an unrealized film projectable entitled “Cocaine,” which he wrote the following proposal for in 1980: “The film Cocaine, based on Pitigrilli, will most certainly not be a film for or against that drug; Cocaine will be a film about the kind of experiences (with specifics) that someone has who constantly lives under the influence of the drug cocaine…In short, the decision in favor of a short but fulfilled life or a long but unaware and on the whole alienated existence will be left entirely up to the audience. My film won’t help them at all.” Of course, Fassbinder personally opted for the “short but fulfilled life,” much like his drug addicted character Veronika Voss, even if his own life personal/artistic life never reached the unbearable lows of the fictional character. After all, for someone who was marking absurd remarks like, “I’d rather be a streetsweeper in Mexico than a filmmaker in Germany,” by 1977 – a number of years before his death and the height of his commercial/critical success as a rare famous and world renowned German director – Fassbinder could not have been a truly happy-go-lucky fellow. It should also be noted that Veronika Voss features a subplot about an elderly holocaust survivor named Mr. Treibel (Peter Lühr), who is also a patient of killer Katz, that drowns out his memories of Treblinka concentration camp with the hard stuff. Unlike Voss, who had the time of her life during the Third Reich era, the elderly Treibel is now happily married, but in the end both morphine addicts – who lived inverse lives in terms of the chronology of their chronic metaphysical pain – can no longer cope, thereupon ending up in the same self-prophesied predicament of passing over via poison prescription. Like Fassbinder himself, the two characters undoubtedly reached the point of no return.  In regard to both Voss and Fassbinder, the materially-inclined bad buys come out the winners with Katz and her corrupt crew taking over the Diva's assets and Hollywood homogenizing world cinema with big budget blockbusters.

-Ty E

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