Jul 20, 2013

Gods of the Plague

Although most of them are too cool for school to know or take the effort to find out, none other than a high-strung German (there is nothing cool about being about a member of the master race!), Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is responsible for directing what is probably the most quintessential gangster hipster flick, Gods of the Plague (1970) aka Götter der Pest. A sort of monotonously melancholy and misanthropic gangster/pseudo-film noir flick for fairy-like fellows who are totally too dainty, depressed, and vehemently vogue to hold a gun, let alone actually shoot or point one at somebody, Gods of the Plague follows the miserable musings and defiantly blank yet sassy stares of a misery-addled anti-hero with an archetypal hipster appearance, including the highly fashionable American Civil War-esque mutton chops and a mustache, as well as a pathologically posturing I-don’t-give-a-shit-even-though-I-spend-a lot-of-time-preparing-my-ironically-outmoded-wardrobe-attitude that that makes the totally hip hipster seem like he would not even care if someone raped him in the ass and/or set him on fire. A sort of unofficial sequel/reworking of Fassbinder’s feature-length directorial debut Love is Colder than Death (1969) aka Liebe ist kälter als der Tod, Gods of the Plague is a homoerotic Godardian/Brecht-esque deconstruction of the American gangster flick/film noir about an absurdly apathetic fellow who does not seem to care even in the slightest about the fact that he has just been released from jail and seems especially quite disinterested in his loving girlfriend, so he decides to find another chick with a similarly apathetic demeanor and ultimately falls in love with a naughty Negro criminal with the fitting name “Gorilla” who is responsible for killing his brother. The black criminal is played by Günther Kaufmann (Kamikaze 1989, Querelle) in what would be the first of many cinematic collaborations with Fassbinder who, for deeply personal and perverse reasons, fell madly in homo love with him. The first of the ill-fated filmmaker’s three great loves, Kaufmann was described by Fassbinder as “my Bavarian Negro” and a paradoxical Negro who, as the director describes, “thinks Bavarian, feels Bavarian, and speaks Bavarian. And that’s why he gets a shock every morning when he looks in the mirror.” Of course, as a married man with two quadroon children, the biggest shock for Kaufmann was the fact that a kraut fairy fell in love with him and wanted to make him an arthouse superstar in a country that only a few decades before put a very high premium on racial purity. Also featuring Carla Aulaulu (aka Carla Egerer)—a muse/superstar of Fassbinder’s celluloid compatriot Werner Schroeter, as well as future feminist filmmaker and onetime-wife of Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Hannah Arendt), in one of the leading roles, Gods of the Plague is indubitably an interesting footnote from German New Cinema history, even if it seems like hokey homo hipster celluloid heaven and features grossly gratuitous shots of Günther Kaufmann's bare black ass and an unflattering shot of star Harry Baer’s limp cock and balls. 

 Fresh out of prison and consumed with a superlatively self-destructive case of Weltschmerz, Franz Walsch (Harry Baer) seems rather reluctant to see his diva Dietrich-esque singer girlfriend Johanna Reiher (Hanna Schygulla) perform at a dark and seedy lounge but, against his own better judgment, he does and the couple have a sort of anti-celebration at a local restaurant due to his release from prison, but when he refuses to eat a delicacy of snails, things go drastically downhill from there. After Johanna tells Franz that she loves him, he rather disinterestedly replies “I have to phone someone." Franz also visits his mother (not by chance played by Fassbinder’s real mother Lilo Pempeit) with his brother Marian (Marian Seidowsky ) in what will ultimately be the last visit together. Not long after, Franz accompanies Johanna to a gambling event between gay Americans, krauts, and a faggy frog. Johanna is exhilarated to win a game of blackjack, but when she goes to tell Franz, he is nowhere to be found. Franz has learned that his brother has been shot and decides to passively dump prissy and possessive Johanna and hangout with the much more laidback chick named Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta). After successfully avoiding paying his hotel bill, Franz has the bright idea to rob a gang of vulgar Turks, who instantly capture and manhandle him after he grabs one of their bags, but luckily his deceased bro’s old lady Magdalena Fuller (Fassbinder’s onetime wife Ingrid Caven) pays off the hostile foreigners with a kiss and some cash. Magdalena takes Franz home and takes off his pants, but he finds the entire thing rather banal, so his penis hangs rather languidly like that of a cold corpse laying in a morgue. More than anyone, Franz wants to meet the mysterious man who killed his brother, ‘Gorilla’ (Günther Kaufmann), and when he does, he is not the least bit letdown. Franz respects Herr Gorilla for killing his brother and even falls in love with him. Like the Franz by Fassbinder himself of Love is Colder than Death, Franz of Gods of the Plague also has no qualms about sharing his girl Margarethe with Gorilla, so long as he is willing to disrobe in front of him. Meanwhile, jilted lover Johanna wants to get back at Franz for his abrupt abandoning of her, so she starts fornicating with a cop and ultimately sets him up to be killed. Franz, Gorilla, and older blond gangster plot to rob a supermarket, but unfortunately the black buck’s porn-peddling girlfriend Carla Aulaulu (as Carla Aulaulu) has tipped off Johanna, who has in turn tipped off her new cop boyfriend. Both Franz and the old gangster are instantly killed by a cop during a raid, but Gorilla, who has been shot, manages to wobble out of the supermarket, find his girlfriend Carla, and shoots her after tying her to a chair. Before dropping dead himself, Gorilla states “Life is very precious... even right now,” a line featured a countless number of times in Werner Schroeter’s arthouse epic Eika Katappa (1969). 

 In his 1981 “Hitlist of German Films”, Fassbinder not only listed Gods of the Plague as one of “The Most Beautiful” films of German New Cinema, but also as number five among his “Top Ten” list of all the films he ever directed. Personally, I cannot agree with Fassbinder regarding the film in the context of his entire oeuvre, but I have to assume the director has personal reasons for giving Gods of the Plague so much praise as it was made in at least partial dedication to the director’s “first love.” While most of the film was shot in dark interiors to the point of obscuring the faces of characters, Fassbinder made sure to shoot many of the scenes with Günther Kaufmann outside in bright sunlight, including the most expensive scene of the film of a countryside that was shot in a helicopter. Undoubtedly, a formative work from an auteur who had yet to master his craft, Gods of the Plague is a must-see work for Fassbinder fanatics as a marginally superior flick to its ‘brother film’ Love is Colder than Death. For those that find the conventions of gangster flicks to be a bit sterile, Gods of the Plague makes for a rather rude and a little bit faggy aesthetic and thematic ravaging of the subgenre. Indeed, with its sometimes campy imagery, less than inconspicuous homoerotic undertones, joyless and impassionate sex, portrait paintings of “Mad King Ludwig II” and room-size pop-art portraits, horribly hopeless and hapless ‘heroes’, gynophobia, and terribly tragic ending, Gods of the Plague is arthouse film noir with a decidedly dark and dead soul. Although I think hipsters might find the wardrobes and moods featured in Gods of the Plague to catch their fancy, the film is still sophisticated and ‘masculine’ enough to totally appeal to their mumblecore-inclined nature, even if Fassbinder himself stated that it was, “probably a homosexual film.” 

-Ty E

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