Mar 21, 2013



Out of all of the films in German New Wave alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinematic oeuvre, I unhesitatingly regard Despair (1978) – a cinematic adaption of the 1936 Vladimir Nabokov of the same name – as the director’s greatest failure as a filmmaker as an ambitious and audacious work that had all the ingredients for what could have been a completely chilling yet cruelly campy S&M arthouse masterpiece, but ultimately fell short of being a piece of celluloid perfection due to language barriers and business-inspired artistic compromises, among other things. Fassbinder’s most expensive film at that time, even costing more than all of his precious cinematic works combined, and funded using tax-shelter money, Despair was a rare German film of its time in that it had guaranteed international distribution from a major US studio, thus it was rather disastrously decided that the work would be shot simultaneously in English (making it the first of two films Fassbinder shot in English, preceding Lili Marleen (1981)) and German, thereupon resulting in a curiously culturally-mongrelized (in the culture-distorting Hollywood sense) and somewhat contrived high-camp work missing a soul and a bit of the filmmaker’s signature auteur flare. Featuring gay English actor Dirk Bogarde (The Servant, The Night Porter aka Il Portiere di notte) – one of the stars of Fassbinder’s self-professed #1 favorite film The Damned (1969) aka La caduta degli dei directed by Luchino Visconti – Despair received a less than warm reception when it played at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival and the star was so disenchanted with the film that he inevitably disowned own it, complaining that the director erratically re-cut the film during a manic moment of melancholy. Not by any means fluent in the language that Despair was widely released with it, Fassbinder would go on to describe his lost-in-translation direction of the film as follows in an interview with Gian Luigi Rondi, “It’s true, there was a whole bunch of words I didn’t catch… but in film it’s much more important how language sounds than what its concrete content is. From my point of view, even in German the most important thing is the melody of a sentence, its tonal coloration, its modeling. And then Dirk Bogarde was in the cast. I didn’t need to understand his English, any more than he needed to understand my German. During the shooting an almost extrasensory form of communication developed between us; he understood what I wanted, and I understood perfectly what he was doing.” Of course, judging by Sir Bogarde’s rather severe reaction to the whole ordeal, one must question Fassbinder’s remark regarding the supposed 'chemistry' (Fassbinder was known for being afraid of and artistically handicapped by 'big stars') he had developed with the actor, but the filmmaker never reneged his opinion that Despair was one of the best films he had ever made, even listing it as number three in a top ten list of his personal favorites of all the films he had ever directed. Depicting the slow but steady mental disintegration of a white Russian émigré and tycoon mogul named Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) with a rather radically discordant racial persuasion (his father was German-Russian and his mother was a member of the Jewish Rothschild banking dynasty) who comes up with the dubious and duplicitous scheme of faking his own death after taking out a hefty insurance policy and killing a proletarian man he believes to be his doppelgänger (but looks only slightly like him), so he can start a new life in Switzerland, Despair is probably the closest a film has ever come to cinematically depicting the haunted German psyche during the Weimar Republic era and on the eve of the National Socialist takeover as analyzed in German-Jewish Frankfurt school film theorist Siegfried Kracauer revolutionary text From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947).   Needless to say, also like Kracauer's propagandistic pop psychology book, Despair sounds more delectable in its seemingly mind-fucking magnificence than it actually is.

 A reasonably successful capitalist who has taken over his Russian family’s chocolate company and relocated abroad in Germany due to the capitalist-killing chaos of the Russian Revolution, Hermann Hermann (Bogarde) is really nothing more than a glorified cuckold at home who can only ‘rise to the occasion’ with his cock (or so only one can only assume since he is always fully clothed) when engaged in softcore sadomasochism like having his lecherous wife lovingly licking his boots. A patent pushover who mistakes petty pomposity with personal prestige, Hermann passively ignores the fact that his busty and blonde yet slightly bloated wife Lydia (Andréa Ferréol of Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973) and The Tin Drum (1979) aka Die Blechtrommel) is carrying on a lurid love affair with her own cousin Ardalion (Fassbinder Superstar Volker Spengler of Satan’s Brew (1976) and In a Year of 13 Moons (1978)), a horribly horny hack of a painter who looks like a gay and grotesque version of Vincent van Gogh, had the Dutch painter packed on 50 pounds and had a botched lobotomy. Despite the fact he has no problem telling Ardalion to his face that he is, “nothing but a Ukrainian peasant pretending to be a bohemian,” Hermann does not have the gall nor the balls to be brawl with the exceedingly effete fellow who is quite blatantly buggering his wife, thus one can only assume that he is quite apathetic when it comes to penetrating his salacious spouse as she is clearly a woman he does not love and vice versa, but a trophy wife with big tits and nil brain. A nauseatingly narcissistic fellow who most naively tells people that regarding his relationship with his wife, “She needs a patronizing type like I need a patronizable woman. Were a perfect couple. I like literature…She likes trash. I’m clear thinking…she’s scatter brained. We are a perfect match…Like a lock and key,” hysterical Hermann eventually comes to terms that he is stuck in a demeaning and deferential dead-end marriage and is living a life of lingering lethargy and lunacy, thus he must breakthrough and develop a new identity.  A forsaken fellow who is also facing bankruptcy and the loss of his glorious chocolate factory, Hermann begins to confuse the words "merger" and "murderer" as his life becomes all the more miserable.  Needless to say, when a merger with another chocolate company falls through, murders begins to sound like a much better option.  A typically Nabokov-esque “unreliable narrator” (or in the case of the film, a demented schizophrenic), Hermann was described by Fassbinder, who put a new spin of the character with the help of screenwriter Tom Stoppard, as follows in an interview, “The crisis experienced by the hero…who suddenly has the feeling that the rug’s being pulled out from under him. You could list a whole series of reasons for that: the political, economic, and social problems of those years; but the real or, at least, the most important reason is his sudden insight that everything’s pointless and that nothing has meaning anymore. Why? Because old age is approaching, the age when a person just doesn’t expect anything new, when a person no longer gets satisfaction from looking for things, desiring things, coming up with ideas.” A desperate man living in desperate times who already lived through the virtual hell of the Russian Revolution, Hermann comes up with a complex, albeit ultimately imbecilic, conspiracy that involves calculated coldblooded murder that will offer him one last chance to transcend the banality of his current life as a posh pansy for something more 'real,' but rather unfortunately, the batshit crazy candyman has trouble discerning between reality and his own audio-visual delusions. 

 While Hermann falsely believes him to be his 'double' and an immaculate doppelgänger, destitute peasant philosopher Felix (Klaus Löwitsch) – a poor but prideful man who believes that, “Philosophy is an invention of the rich. So is religion…poetry. I don’t believe in love either” – could not be anymore diametrically opposed in character to the cowardly choco-capitalist.  Although H.H. is a sexually and physically impotent tyrant (at least in his own mind) of a weakling who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, has never done a minutes worth of physical labor in his entire life, lives a lavish and heedlessly hedonistic lifestyle, and generally hides inside his head as opposed to confronting the outside world, Felix is a stoic man's man who lives off the land, has a powerful body, and takes pride himself, thus the two characters represent the two extremes of Occidental man and naturally, for modernity to go on, the decadent and deracinated mensch must kill his archaic comrade. While Hermann seems to have sexually repressed homoerotic feelings for Felix as especially obvious when the worker gets naked and shows off his proletarian physique, he has a pernicious plan to kill the down-and-out drifter as he believes they are physically identical, thus enabling him to fake his own death with a simple change of clothes and identities and cashing in on a new life insurance policy he has just obtained and subsequently escaping to neutral Switzerland so he can begin a new life.  As a man who tells his insurance salesman, "I have neither priest nor doctor.  I need them not at all.  So why shouldn't I confide in my insurance consultant?," Hermmann, aside from suffering from schizophrenia, also seems to be plagued by acute autism of the deracinated aristocrat sort. Of course, anyone viewing Despair knows that Hermann is hopelessly fated to fail, thus giving the character a certain vague tragicomedic charisma in his feeble and feckless campaign for freedom from a forlorn life of personal failure and unfulfilling fetishism. As someone who opportunistically bought forged personal identity cards to fit in with changing political trends, including going from a blackshirt fighting reds in the white army to a “Caucasian” fighting SA brownshirts in the red army, Hermann at least has enough honesty to admit to himself (as well as a potential business client) that he is merely a, “yellow belly in a brown hat” whose life has amounted to nothing. Throughout Despair, Hermann says a lot of contradictory things about his mother who he has admitted incestuous feelings and goes from described her as a, “fat bourgeois addicted to chocolate,” to a “pure Russian of princely stock.” Of course, as a Rothschild (assuming Hermann is not lying), Hermann's mother comes from a positively parasitic family that made its fortune by loaning money to opposing sides during all major European wars during the last couple centuries, thus the candyman was born with both blood and chocolate on his hands.  Fassbinder certainly had complex and rather empathetic feelings regarding the character, stating, “What do people like Hermann Hermann usually do when it becomes clear to them that they’re at a turning point where they have everything behind them and nothing ahead of them? They pull into their shell, they resign themselves, and rather than admit that their life’s over, they’d prefer to spend the rest of it in a sea of compromises and resignation. The few who rebel, on the other hand, even if in a totally irrational way, those people achieve something, they discover something that gives them new hope. So no exoneration, but if you’re comparing him to the person who gives up in the face of life, I prefer the person who’s at least still capable of hope, even madness.”

 In a writing Fassbinder did on Despair during pre-production of the film, he concluded the essay with the following sentence, “Of this despair and the painful search for something in motion, and the courage to recognize a utopia and to open yourself up to it, however poor it may be—of these things I tell in this film.” Of course, the L'Enfant terrible auteur used the artistic medium of cinema as a means to, “recognize a utopia,” albeit an innately imaginary one, with Despair being a project of potential celluloid paradise that was ultimately held down by its star power, international film crew, monetary motivated utilization of a foreign language, and big budget. Utilizing some of the sets from Swedish master auteur Ingmar Bergman’s commercial and critical failure The Serpent's Egg (1977) – a work also set in pre-Nazi Germany and centering on a foreigner character (played by a foreign actor) that many people felt did not ‘work’ artistically and featured nonsensical casting (David Carradine is certainly not Bergman material) – Despair almost seems like it was a foreordained film from the very beginning. Ironically, protagonist Hermann Hermann – a man who claims the schizophrenic ancestry of, “my father was a German speaking Russian from Ravel. My mother was a Rothschild” – is a fellow who, like Fassbinder himself (especially in regard to Despair), is an idiosyncratic entity with a capacity for greatness, but ultimately fails in carrying out a meticulously constructed master plan due to cognitive dissonance and confusion. With his utilization of Dirk Bogarde instead of one of his Superstars (Kurt Raab comes to mind…) and focusing on debauched and deranged aristocrats as opposed to marginal and melancholy members of the middle-class, Fassbinder must have have been trying to realize the dream of directing a Teutonized Luchino Visconti period piece of the arthouse Euro-sleaze perusasion with Despair – the first film where the director replaced a good percentage of his original film crew with professionals from all around the world, hence the too “polished and pretty” feel of the work. Sort of like the debauched and abridged blueblood equivalent to Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) in its depiction of the perturbed protagonist’s precarious personal life and plagued psyche and how it parallels the increasingly chaos of the wanton Weimar Republic, Despair ultimately seems, not unlike Effi Briest (1974), more like a fantasy project for Fassbinder where he was able to uses a professional crew, nice budget, and take his directing skills to new levels in terms of technique, but unfortunately the film seems less like an intimate ‘auteur piece’ and more in the vein of a Tinto Brass big budget exploitation flick on psychosexual steroids made to appeal to both decadent bourgeoisie Americans and European alike, but no notable audience ever seemed interested in the film as a piece of smutty yet sleekly stylized S&M cinema that was not even approved of by its posh poof star Dirk Bogarde.  Of course, a failure by Fassbinder is always more interesting than a supposed masterpiece by Wim Wenders or Jean-Luc Godard, thus making Despair worth seeing for fans of German New Cinema's prodigal yet princely son.  After all, what other film features odiously obese gay Austrian Peter Kern as a Nazi SA brownshirt who works for a chocolate company and whose beautiful brown uniform is described by protagonist H.H. as, "most appropriate, a chocolate-colored jacket!"

-Ty E


Fox said...

Just poking my nose in to say 'thanks' for continuing to write more deeply about Fassbinder than anyone else seems to want to do these days.

It's refreshing to come here and read a modern take on Despair instead of the 2000th blogger discussion about Quentin Tarantino. Thanks for providing an alternative.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Fox, i still prefer Tarantino because although hes a load of old rubbish he is at least heterosexual unlike that disgusting woofter Fassbinder.