Mar 26, 2013

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven

Out of all of German New Cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films that deal with the innate hypocrisy of the radical left, especially in regard to its impotent armchair (anti)intelligentsia of the post-WWII era, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven aka Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven (1975) aka Mutter Küsters' Fahrt zum Himmel takes the most personal and uncompromising, albeit classically melodramatic, approach against what the director saw as a disease of the soul of the self-loathing, anti-bourgeois bourgeois. Borrowing its title from one of Fassbinder’s favorite films, Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (1929) aka Mother Krause's Journey to Happiness directed by directed by Phil Jutzi, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven has a message that is in stark contrast to the conspicuously com-symp film that partly inspired it, not least of all due to the fact that where the silent film portrays communism as the savior of the sub-working-class (even if the protagonist is too late in receiving such ungodly help), the Sirkian German New Cinema film portrays the Marxist doctrine as a tool used by members of the parasitic bourgeois, who in their intrinsic emotional and social sterility, still attempt to subjugate the proletariat, albeit through more pathologically patronizing, pathetic, and entirely misleading means. On top of both filmmakers cinematically adapting Alfred Döblin's novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), Jutzi and Fassbinder would both go through changes in political persuasions during their filmmaking careers, with the older Jutzi going from being a leading director of proletarian films and an active member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) to a National Socialist party member and strangely prolific director of short films (from 1933 to 1941, he directed 49 short films) and Nazi spy dramas, and with the younger Fassbinder going from a rather cliché quasi-commie comrade who hung out with members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group and made minimalistic films in the vein of Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard attacking the supposed latent Nazism and authoritarianism of the bourgeois, to becoming a hyper-pessimist who described himself as a 'romantic anarchist' and directed a number of naked melodramas and black comedies condemning ‘money-changing Marxists’ and ‘aristocratic Trotskyites.’ What makes Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven especially effective in its condemnation of cardboard commies and antique connoisseur anarchists is that it utilizes a kindly and innocent grandma figure as the object of the bloodsucking neo-bolsheviks’ exploitation. Like his rarely seen TV movie Like a Bird on a Wire (1975) aka Wie ein Vogel auf dem Draht made that same year, Fassbinder directed Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven in tribute to Brigitte Mira (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Chinese Roulette), who plays the title role as a working-class housewife named Emma Küsters whose world is turned irrevocably upside down after her husband runs amok and kills his supervisor and then himself.  While in a state of shock and complete and utter vulnerability, the widow becomes the unwitting pawn of predatory and posh poser proponents of the proletariat who, despite claiming to be friends of the working-class, have never done a day of real work in their entire lives.

  A rather naïve yet hearty woman of a limited education and even more meager monetary means, 60-something-year-old Emma Küsters faces virtual hell when her husband Hermann, a man who has worked a menial job at a tire factory for over twenty years, kills his boss and himself in an enraged moment of temporary insanity, thus leaving his wife a widow, who in turn becomes the proletarian prey of sleazy journalists and wealthy communists. As someone whose ‘rebel without a care’ James Dean-like son Ernst (played by Fassbinder’s then-boyfriend Armin Meier) is the passive cuckold of his overweening and domineering wife Helene (played by Irm Hermann) and whose daughter Corinna (Ingrid Caven) cares more about peddling her ass on stage in a selfish yet self-exploitative attempt at establishing a fruitful dance career than her father’s disastrous death, Emma naturally becomes the victim of wolves in sheep’s clothing in the form of a bourgeois communist couple named Karl (Karlheinz Böhm) and Marianne Tillmann (Margit Carstensen ) who, in a groveling and grotesque display of counterfeit empathy, tell her that her husband was a ‘revolutionary’ and victim of capitalism. While Emma initially finds the Tillmanns’ propaganda to be quite dubious, not least of all because her late husband described communists as unruly troublemakers and her daughter describes West German commies as 'armchair communists' and Red East Germany as a virtual slave state where a small minority rules over the majority thus totally contradicting the idea of a classless society, she eventually concedes to the Tillmanns’ wish to join the Communist Party. After all, while her daughter in now fornicating with an odiously opportunistic journalist named Niemeyer (Gottfried John) who wrote a scathing article about her husband, Karl Tillmann wrote a singularly sympathetic article of masterful and manipulative propaganda for the pink agitprop newspaper he is the proprietor of as a commie capitalist. In fact, Emma takes such an active role in the Communist Party that she even gives a speech at one of their meetings, where she later meets a nerdy revolutionary fellow named Horst Knab (Matthias Fuchs) – the sort of intemperate and anti-intellectual leftist terrorist that Fassbinder would portray in a more fiercely farcical manner in his subsequent film The Third Generation (1979) aka Die dritte Generation – who quite confidently proclaims, like a seasoned psychopath, he really and truly has her interests in mind. Fed up with the Tillmanns’ tedious verbal swill, but especially their lack of action as patronizing posh pricks whose passive actions have done next to nil in clearing her husband’s name, Emma joins up with cracked kook Knab and his gang of anti-everything anarchists, and is in for a big surprise when she and her new malcontent crew go to the office of the yellow press magazine Niemeyer works for and make some rather irrational demands.

To appease more fantasy-minded American viewers, Fassbinder created two radically different endings for Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven: one where Emma literally goes to heaven after a tragic showdown with the police and the second being a much happier one, to the point of absurdity, that recalls F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist masterpiece The Last Laugh (1924) aka Der letzte Mann in its outstanding yet ostentatious optimism, but both conclusions thankfully express the complete and utter futility of radical left-wing action. Personally, I prefer the ‘happy ending’ as few filmic characters are more deserving of it and despite portraying a sort of ‘fantasy reality’ at the end, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven features a sweet and suitably sentimental scenario you would never see in Hollywood yet executed with an immaculate Sirkian flare that makes the Danish-German filmmaker’s films like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959) seem ostensibly outmoded and thematically irrelevant due to Fassbinder's socio-politically astute insights as a lapsed member of the extreme left. What makes Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven especially interesting is that not for one moment in the film does Fassbinder make it seem like protagonist Emma or any other member of the working-class will “break its chains” because, as history has proven, revolutions never happen from ‘below’ as demonstrated by the Russian Revolution, which was, in part, funded by Wall Street and led by mostly Jewish intellectuals from bourgeois and aristocratic backgrounds who were failed members of their own privileged class backgrounds (Russian SFSR leader Vladimir Lenin was from a wealthy family and was a failed lawyer whose interest in ‘revolutionary’ activity was due to his deep-seated desire for revenge against the czar for having his brother executed in 1887). In a sense, the armchair revolutionaries featured in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven are no different from the ethno-masochistic bourgeois American whites who describe themselves as “progressive” (but, at least as far as mother nature is concerned, are retrogressive) and dominate positions in mainstream academia, the media, and the government today – main difference between the two groups being that, while the kraut commies of the 1970s patronizingly ‘fought’ for the mostly white Teutonic proletariat (after all, there were not that many colored folks in the Fatherland back then like there are today), their contemporary Yankee quasi-commie compatriots confirm their sense of superiority over working-class whites by championing non-whites, illegal aliens, abberosexuals of every stripe, the disabled, and just about every other loser 'victim' group that confirms they are a degenerate class who has developed an inexorable slave-morality and a sickening sense of self-loathing, and epitomize the decadent elite who, in an act of social suicidal, inevitably wipes itself out as described in Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto’s The Rise and Fall of Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology.

In an interview featured in the book Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1997), Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven star Brigitte Mira described her experience with the film as follows, “I remember Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven: that practically caused a riot, people whistled and booed, not because the film was bad but because the subject was so controversial. I know nothing about politics and I don’t feel entitled to make any judgments. Rainer always said, “you certainly know your job.” That was high praise coming from him.” Indeed, a film that attacks a very large portion of the audience it was created for, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven also manages to give an honest, albeit patently pessimistic, message to the working-class that the bourgeois never did them any favors in the past and they certainly are not showing them any genuine empathy and support today, sort of like how white leftists in America have only all the more crippled the majority of blacks by supporting their campaign for independence and stability via the welfare state and anachronistic programs like affirmative action. Of course, it goes without saying that the media in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is portrayed as no less a source of exploitation of the working-class and victims of crimes, but everyone already knows that, so it makes for a less important and interesting aspect of the film.

Foretelling his own premature death, Fassbinder once admitted in an interview that his main motivation as a filmmaker was,“the concrete longing for this utopia. If this longing is driven out of me, I will not do anything else; that’s why as a creative person I have the feeling of being murdered in Germany, if you would please not mistake that for paranoia….I believe this recent witch-hunt…was staged in order to destroy individual utopias…If it comes to the point where my fears are greater than my longing for something beautiful, then I’ll quit. And not just quit working,” and, indeed, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, in its patent pessimism and uncompromising cynicism, seems like the work of a man disillusioned with politics and people, so it is no surprise that he would be dead seven years later as one of the few members of German New Cinema who had the gall to admit his generation had failed, but not without giving false hope to the hopeless in the process. 

-Ty E

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