Apr 5, 2013

Love Is Colder Than Death


Undoubtedly, few directors, including great ones, successfully achieve making a masterpiece with their directorial debut and German New Cinema alpha-auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Satan's Brew, The Marriage of Maria Braun) is certainly no exception to this unofficial rule, as his first feature-length cinematic effort, Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) aka Liebe ist kälter als der Tod is a highly aesthetically derivative, albeit particularly personalized, work that owes more to classic American film and the French New Wave than any sort of Teutonic film movement, yet it is surely an auteur piece, but one plagued by the ultimately banal practice of deconstructing and reconstructing gangster films – a cinematic practice that autistic fanboy Quentin Tarantino would ultimately take to more degenerate and philistinic extremes. Beginning with dedication to four of the film's influences, including Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub, Linio and Cuncho (the final tribute being a reference to the two main characters in Damiano Damiani's 1966 film A Bullet for the General aka El Chucho, quién sabe?), Love Is Colder Than Death is a work that ultimately owes more to the early amateurish gangster films of Jean-Luc Godard and the ex-convict protagonist Franz Biberkopf (Fassbinder’s character in the film is even named Franz) of Alfred Döblin’s Weimar era modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) than the hodgepodge of individuals Fassbinder decided to actually pay official tribute to. Even the original iconic poster of star Ulli Lommel sporting a trench coat and aiming a handgun at the viewer is inspired by Alain Delon’s character from French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime flick Le Samouraï (1967), yet Fassbinder still managed to leave his novice auteur fingerprints in what is a German film that ripped off frog films that ripped off Yank films. In an interview, Fassbinder differentiated the character he plays in Love Is Colder Than Death from all other classic crime films with the following insight regarding his nihilistic gangster persona, “Franz doesn’t have any backup—he’s a loner. Not like the great loners in the American flicks, though, where it’s never really clear to me why they’re loners. They’re just heroes, I guess. Franz is no hero. He’s primitive, just wants to work for himself, doesn’t want to hand over any of what he earns.” Indeed, Fassbinder, a man who once described himself as a ‘romantic anarchist,’ essentially plays himself as a reckless renegade of the hyper alienated and antagonistic sort, even among fellow crooks, who is more interested in doing his own thing than following an established gang code and making a big name for himself, despite it ultimately having deleterious and self-destructive results. A film with a timeless title that has influenced countless post-punk/darkwave/coldwave song titles and band names, Love Is Colder Than Death – the first film in Fassbinder's early black-and-white 'Gangster Film Trilogy,' preceding Gods of the Plague (1970) and The American Soldier (1970) – is the quintessential minimalistic kraut gangster flick set in a disillusioned, post-nationalistic Teutonic zeitgeist where every man is condemned to fight alone, especially in the metaphysical sense, whether he likes it or not. As protagonist Franz learns, having a friend, especially con friends, has more cons than benefits, especially when a jealous and extremely fertile woman is placed in the middle of it all.

 Criminal dilettante, petty pimp, and sometimes bank robber Franz (Fassbinder) falls into trouble when he refuses to join a multicultural organized crime enterprise called the Syndicate. A lone man of the intrinsically individualistic lone wolf persuasion, Franz is brutally beat in an anti-melodramatic Brechtian fashion after refusing to join the Syndicate as he has enough company already as he lives with his hooker girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla) – a wanton woman who wants marriage and stability despite being a lowly flesh-peddler. The Syndicate orders a stool pigeon by the name of Bruno (Ulli Lommel) to befriend Franz so he can keep tabs on him. Rather strangely, perennial loner Franz takes an instant liking to Bruno and even invites the Syndicate member to move in with him and Johanna. On top of sharing his apartment, Franz begins to share his woman with Bruno, but jealousy of the outsider taking away attention from her man, seemingly harmless cutesy girl Johanna ends up causing more trouble than the Syndicate ever could in her pernicious scheme to drive the two men apart. In between tedious trips to department stores that involve harassing a sales woman (Irm Hermann), including Fassbinder's nod to Hitchcock when his character tells the retailer that he is, "looking for round glasses like the cop in "Psycho" had," Bruno – a man who claims he killed his dad at the mere age of 12 via a vase smash to the head and became a gang leader by age 16 – commits a couple murders and pins them on his supposed pal Franz. Bruno also has plans to slay Johanna for the Syndicate, but little does he know that the quite literal femme fatale has different plans of a more elaborately evil sort. Bored with Bruno and mad at Franz for not marrying her, Johanna tips off the cops about a bank robbery that the two men have planned, thus resulting in the murder of the Ménage à trios and the death of a handsome two-faced traitor who is drunk on his own narcissism. Regarding Schygulla's character Johanna, Fassbinder stated the following in an interview, “Hanna’s the key to everything. You can tell that the character she plays is totally bogged down in bourgeois values—much, much worse than all the others. That’s what she wants to preserve, and that’s the reason she betrays Lommel to the police, because she’d rather be alone than be part of a threesome; that she just can’t handle.” Of course, like Fassbinder’s epic cinematic miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), the homoerotic subtext between Franz and Bruno is the most personal key in Fassbinder’s dark romantic gangland fantasy, where conspiring whores make for the most malignant force against man and his most forbidden and intangible dreams.

 As a man who worked as both a pimp and hustler in real-life during his teenage years, even pimping his young, dragged-out pal Udo Kier to foreign 'guest workers,' Rainer Werner Fassbinder, unlike most filmmakers who directed similarly themed works, actually lived out the gangster lifestyle he cinematically portrayed to a degree, even if in a rather gay fashion, and he had the following to say about the underworld lifestyle, “the gangster environment is a bourgeois setting turned on its head so to speak. My gangsters do the same things that capitalists do except they do them as criminals. The gangster’s goals are just as bourgeois as the capitalist’s.” Indeed, in the context of Love Is Colder Than Death in regard to art reflecting life and vice versa, Fassbinder is Franz and Fassbinder is Franz, albeit in a much more butch fashion than the damned director would later do in works like Fox and His Friends (1975) – a work where posh fags make for much more ruthless and wretched villains than buffoonish gangsters and flesh-flaunting femme fatales. Shot over a 24 day period in April 1969 in an ostensibly overexposed fashion on the dreary streets and in the sterile buildings of Munich, Love Is Colder Than Death premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in June 1969 and the screening concluded with a loud combination of jeers and cheers, including a number of hecklers yelling "dilettantism," yet Fassbinder approached the stage like a victorious dictator who had just conquered an enemy nation and had its leaders ceremoniously executed, thus signaling the arrival of post-WWII Germany’s most important and influential filmmaker. While I am no connoisseur of gangster flicks of any persuasion (although the sort featuring Guido philistines also makes for great laughs), Fassbinder’s Love Is Colder Than Death has an ingredient that makes it radically different from, say, Godard’s Breathless (1960) aka À bout de soufflé, which is having a soul as opposed to asinine and azoic posturing and bland Bogart fetishism. While I regard Love Is Colder Than Death as being far from one of Fassbinder’s greatest works, it does make for a nice novelty in seeing a cinematic genius during his most primitive stage and how he evolved into the idiosyncratic Übermensch auteur behind Berlin Alexanderplatz – one of the most important and ambitious cinematic works in all of film history.   Indeed, with the death of two of his three great loves via suicide as inspired by his own belligerent and neglectful behavior, as well as his own lonely demise a little over a decade after completing his first feature-length film, Love Is Colder Than Death has developed all the more meaning since its underwhelming premiere at the Berlinale over four decades ago.

-Ty E

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