Jul 15, 2013

Lola (1981)

When I first attempted to view German New Cinema master auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fortieth and antepenultimate film Lola (1981)—the concluding historical chapter of the director’s BRD Trilogy, following The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and Veronika Voss (1982), which focused on the West German Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) of the 1950s—I honestly could not get into it and found it hard to believe that such a seemingly soft and fluffy work is oftentimes regarded as one of the late great filmmaker’s minor masterpieces. And, indeed, upon its initial theatrical release, Lola was a commercial and critical flop and inspired the producers to cut their losses by not producing Fassbinder’s ultimately unrealized film project Cocaine, a drug-related work that would have been surely interesting, if not depressing, considering the way the director lived his remaining years and eventually died. Of course, like virtually every Fassbinder film—whether I liked it or not upon my initial viewing—I decided to give Lola a second look recently and, somewhat to my surprise (I don’t typically change my mind about a film), I found myself simply captivated by the jovially cynical kraut ‘romantic comedy’ that is Lola, a festive and kaleidoscopic anti-celebration of capitalist corruption during the last years of the Adenauer era (1957-1958) set in a town with two very different yet intrinsically connected worlds: the everyday and seemingly ordinary business realm and the seedy and sleazy whorehouse that acts as the town's power elite's own personal pleasure dome. Loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) aka Der blaue Engel starring Marlene Dietrich and its source novel Professor Unrat (1905) written by Heinrich Mann (Thomas Mann’s older brother), Lola centers around the timeless tale of an outsider and his interaction with a new group in a new area and said outsider’s transformation as a result of his ultimately life-changing experiences, which, as one can except from a Fassbinder film, involve corruption and dehumanization of a once noble and virtuous fellow who falls not only prey to capitalistic ‘birds of prey,’ but also his own unchallenged weaknesses as a traditional Prussian aristocrat with a positively pristine moral compass. Of course, compared to The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronika Voss, both of which conclude with major characters dying horrible and unnatural deaths, Lola ends on a semi-happy, if not socially deleterious, note that will be totally inexplicable to the average American filmgoer and brings validation to Fassbinder’s telling claim that, “A good director can contrive a happy ending that leaves you dissatisfied. You know that something is wrong—it just can’t end that way.” Indeed, had it been one of Fassbinder’s earlier works, the protagonist would have surely ‘run amok’ in the end, but far from the aesthetically static and minimalistic cinematic Godardian works of the filmmaker's formative films, Lola is a celluloid cabaret of luscious carnal colors clearly inspired by the director’s #1 favorite film The Damned (1969) aka La caduta degli dei directed by Italian maestro Luchino Visconti, as well as the popular Hollywood melodramas of Danish-German auteur Douglas Sirk. A quasi-nihilistic condemnation of moral corruption, social cowardliness, and corporate cronyism in post-Nazi ‘democratic’ West Germany, Lola is, aside from a meticulously stylized period piece, a carefully cultivated key to the past that lets the viewer know how the nation culturally devolved into the materialistic Americanized land that no longer has poets and thinkers, even if for a time they had great and groundbreaking filmmakers like Fassbinder himself. 

 During the first couple moments of Lola, one gets a very good indication of the film's feisty female title character and her weltanschauung, as a capitalistically wanton woman who, to quote Oscar Wilde, “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” After her beta-male friend reads some melancholy poetry to her, Lola (played by Barbara Sukowa, who played a radically different ‘angelic’ streetwalker in Fassbinder’s masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which won the new star the German ‘best young actress’ Award)—the girl with the “sweetest ass in all of NATO”—complains that she does not like it because it is not funny and when her comrade remarks that “poetry comes from the soul” and “the soul is sad,” she proudly and stoically states, “For me, the mind knows more than the soul” and as a professional whore who sells her flesh to every bigwig in her town, she is certainly not bullshitting. The cabaret whorehouse that Lola sings, dances, and sells her sweet sex to is owned by a certain ‘construction entrepreneur’ named Schuckert (played by perennial filmic ‘boorish bad buy’ Mario Adorf), a man who also essentially owns the young feline-like flesh-peddler and provides financial support to her mulatto bastard child, which the girl's mother raises. Not only does Herr Schuckert own Lola, who arrogantly but rightfully describes as his “private whore,” and the cathouse, but he is also essentially the secret ruler of the small West German town, Coburg, that has made him rich and even tells the local mayor what to do, but his ruthless rule is ultimately threatened when an idealistic and morally pristine East Prussian aristocrat named von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl) comes to the area to work as its building commissioner. Luckily for Schuckert, von Bohm basically falls in love at first sight with his Mistress Lola not knowing that his romantic interest lives a double life as a raunchy femme fatale who knows how to put a spell over any man. Unbeknownst to him, von Bohm takes residence in a home where Lola’s mother’s (Karin Baal) works as a housekeeper, which is also occupied by a race-mixing American negro soldier (played by Fassbinder’s one-time flame Günther Kaufmann, the real-life product of a black American G.I./white German woman relations). Before von Bohm arrives in town, the only one that puts a resistance to Schuckert and his cronies' shenanigans is a cowardly cuckold named Esslin (Matthias Fuchs) who follows the writings of anarchist Mikhail Bakunin yet considers himself a “humanist” and “rejects revolution”, thus he puts up no real fight at all, but that does not stop him from telling the new building commissioner about the town’s parasitic power elite. A small man on the totem pole among Schuckert’s crooked crew who moonlights as a drummer at the cabaret at night and who seems to love Lola too yet is too intrinsically cowardly and weak to seriously pursue her, Esslin’s pseudo-subversive political persuasion seems to be more a reaction to resentment and his failure as a man as opposed to a serious form of idealism, but he gets his revenge on Schuckert and company by taking the unsuspecting von Bohm to the local whorehouse one night, where the priestly Prussian learns that not only is Lola a two-faced prostitute who led him to believe that she was a cultivated girl of class into East Asian art, but also that every member of the town’s ruling class, including the mayor, is a dedicated degenerate. Von Bohm begins to lose it and openly plots revenge against Schuckert and his minions by revealing the corrupt business contracts, insider trading, and bribing of politicians that has been going on for some time, but deep down inside, his heart is screaming for Lola. Finally, Schuckert—a proud prole who got rich quick via the “economic miracle” but never lost his charmingly vulgar character—confronts Von Bohm and tells him to go to Lola and “do whatever you want. She’s a whore.” A broken man with nothing to lose, von Bohm takes Schuckert’s advice, goes to the whorehouse, and takes Lola to bed, but instead of sexually ravaging her, he cries like a cowardly cuck, which brings utter joy to the prostitute as she realizes he is the first man in her life to actually love her and not see her as a pricey piece of ass. In the end, von Bohm is internally eaten by the town’s corruption, but finds solace in it and marries Lola, who naturally spends her honeymoon screwing her #1 customer/business partner Schuckert. 

 In a somewhat recent interview included as an extra feature with Criterion Collection DVD release of Lola—part of the The BRD Trilogy box-set they released—star Barbara Sukowa state of her parents’ generation that they were, “Absolutely traumatized people. They had seen the films of the openings of the concentration camps…but they also themselves had incredible losses…and, uh…they were the perpetrators…and I can’t even imagine what it meant to deal with all that.” Indeed, the character she played in Lola is clearly, like Maria Braun of The Marriage of Maria Braun, someone who has been irreparably spiritually and emotionally damaged by the Second World War and has traded in their femininity, humility, happiness, and even self-respect just so she could survive, which she did quite well as a sort of ‘feminist by circumstance’ who used her body, the only thing she had left to barter with, to turn herself into an almost cannibalistic businesswoman and fierce femme fatale who has learned every titillating trick of the trade when it comes to seducing men, be they dorky anarchists or old fashioned aristocrats with seemingly unconquerable moral characters. A woman whose father was killed in battle in Stalingrad during the Second World War and who birthed a bastard mulatto (one can only assume how/why this happened), Lola, like many German women of her generation, had to make the decision whether to live in desperation (or worse, simply die) or utilize her best and most highly desirable asset—the “sweetest ass in all of NATO”—to live a life of security and, albeit disgraceful and degrading, relative success. While critics have oftentimes described Fassbinder as an overt misogynist and woman-hater due to his somewhat unflattering cinematic depictions of women, it is clear while watching Lola that he empathizes with this seemingly sociopathic whore, giving her a voice without condemning or whitewashing her, but portraying her as a tragic child of circumstance who triumphed in the end, even if it was probably not the way she dreamed of as an undefiled and pre-disillusioned little girl. 

 Interestingly enough, the main villain of Lola, Schuckert, is not an ancestrally blessed blueblood who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but a proud proletarian who has no problem flaunting the fact that he loves big boobs and butts, beer, and belligerent behavior, thus highlighting the fact that the desperation in West Germany following the second World War enabled the opportunity for some of the most parasitic and barbaric individuals to profit greatly and become members of the ruling class, which also acts as an enthralling indictment on democracy and capitalism of itself. Of course, this is a common theme in much of Fassbinder’s oeuvre, which probably reached its most controversial and totally taboo extreme in In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) aka In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden where a good Aryan orphan boy grows up to be a melancholy and mixed-up butcher who tragically falls in love with and has a sex-change for a rich and seemingly evil Jewish holocaust survivor turned black market bootlegger turned ‘legitimate businessman,’ who only laughs at and rejects his ‘dick-less’ ex-lover after learning of his dramatic life/body-altering operation, thus highlighting the sort of callous and cutthroat sort of individual that it takes to compete in a capitalist society, especially during a depression, but also the sort of unscrupulous and morally unhinged individual it takes to survive a concentration camp. Undoubtedly, the melodramatic and thematic genius of Lola, as well as much of Fassbinder’s work, was not only to ask, but also answer the questions no one seemed even interesting in acknowledging, let alone studying, in regard to how modern day Germany came to be the economic powerhouse it is today after the nation was totally destroyed after the Second World War. 

 German-Jewish theatre/film director Peter Zadek (I'm an Elephant, Madame, Ice Age), who Fassbinder dedicated The Marriage of Maria Braun to and even gave a cameo role to as an old filmmaker in Veronika Voss, also directed his own pseudo-kraut comedy based on the “economic miracle.” Made in tribute to Fassbinder shortly after his premature death via drug overdose, Zadek’s The Roaring Fifties (1983) aka Die wilden Fünfziger is a totally kosher Hollywood-like sex comedy featuring countless tasteless quasi-exploitation scenes of naked (and mostly 'mature') women and a number of scathing scatological Hebraic jokes, including a references to SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s chicken farm (which the film's protagonist makes a monetary killing on!) and the Nazi fetishism of certain American politicians. Featuring Juraj Kukura—a tall, dark, handsome and totally un-Aryan Slovak Clark Gable-clone—in the lead role, The Roaring Fifties is really just a potent, but ultimately forgettable, piece evidence of regarding how Fassbinder artistically eclipsed his much older hero Zadek, a man the filmmaker once described as “one of those who shattered the ossified way of life that THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN describes. From a certain point on, Zadek was also very important to me, as a person, as someone to talk to. It liberated me a bit to know there was someone around who was over fifty and completely set in his way and then changed himself so totally.” Although arguably the weakest chapter in the BRD Trilogy, Lola is still one of the greatest films ever made about the West German “economic miracle” as it ingeniously depicts the spirit of an entire degenerate generation via a melodramatic microcosm featuring the unlikely relationship between a morally pristine and socially respectable Prussian aristocrat that represents Germany of the old and his fateful interaction with a cute and corrupt call-girl who acts as an unflattering archetype for what is now described as a ‘modern’ and independent German woman. Ironically, as American film professor Jane Shattuc documents in her study Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture (1995), were it not for Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, triumph of democracy and capitalism in West Germany, and the subsequent Wirtschaftswunder, it is rather unlikely that someone like Fassbinder—an unrepentant, miscegenating homosexual libertine—would have been able to not only become the Fatherland’s most famous and popular post-WWII filmmaker, but be a filmmaker at all, thus making the master of Teutonic melodramatics an unpredictable consequence of the very phenomenon and political system that he spent his entire career criticizing, yet artistically and monetarily profited from greatly. That being said, Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss can be seen as not only female characters that Fassbinder could relate to, but also transsexualized cinematic alter-egos where he could cinematically live out the fantasies that he wanted to live out in real-life, but could not as an overweight biological man with acne scars and an unflattering semi-Asiatic appearance.

-Ty E

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