Jul 23, 2013

The Merchant of Four Seasons

German New Cinema wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first big domestic commercial and critical success, and a work almost unanimously praised by everyone who saw it—be they uncultivated members of the proletariat or pompous bourgeois snobs—The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) aka Händler der vier Jahreszeiten was also an extremely personal film for the director who based the soul-stinging work on his own cold family and what he witnessed personally as a mere kindergartener. Centering around a likeable yet superlatively slob-like “born loser” based on the director’s own favorite uncle, The Merchant of Four Seasons was described by Fassbinder himself as “a story familiar to almost everyone I know. A man wishes that he had made something other of his life than he did. His education, his surroundings, and circumstances frustrate the fulfillment of his dream.” In fact, Fassbinder’s uncle was such an important influence on the director at an early age that he was a father figure (his own father, an abortion doctor, had little interest in him) of sorts or as the director’s mother Lilo Pempeit described after bringing her troubled grade school son to a child psychologist, “Rainer was supposed to draw a picture of his family. Where the father belonged, he drew his uncle, my brother. This uncle become the model for the protagonist of The Merchant of Four Seasons.” The first film Fassbinder made after being melodramatically moved and totally transformed by the kaleidoscopic Hollywood melodramas of Danish-German auteur Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind), The Merchant of Four Seasons confirmed that the filmmaker was not merely a pretentious dilettante who had watched one too many American film noir movies and Marxist Godard flicks, but an audacious auteur who had a downright nasty knack for cinematic emotional range and expressing the darker aspects of the (in)human condition, especially in regard to those things that cannot merely be expressed with words, mundane existentialist meanderings, and pretentious psychobabble. A positively perturbing yet ingeniously simplistic post-WWII kraut tragedy about a seeming ‘everyman’ who discovers he no longer has the will to live due to his unbearable longing for love and warmth that neither his friends nor family seem decent enough to provide him with, The Merchant of Four Seasons is like a virtual celluloid suicide letter/epitaph written posthumously by Fassbinder, who inevitably suffered a similar cataclysmic fate himself, in tribute to an uncle only he seemed to understand, but being a wee and ultimately impotent lad, was totally incapable of helping. A brutally beauteous film about emotionally ugly members of the Bavarian bourgeois, The Merchant of Four Seasons is an absolutely engulfing warning to family members everywhere why love (or more like lack thereof) is colder than death. Made on an absurdly meager budget of 178,000 marks (less than $120,000) over an eleven day period, The Merchant of Four Seasons is just another reason why Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one of the most prolific filmmakers who ever lived of not just German cinema history, but cinema history in general. 

 In the opening of The Merchant of Four Seasons, one is introduced to unpleasantly plump philistine protagonist Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller) and the root of his internal sickness and perennial longing for love, warmth, and acceptance. Returning from his stint in the French Foreign Legion, Hans hopes that his mother (Gusti Kreissl), an apparently devout Catholic who has not seen her son in a year, will embrace him with warm and tender arms, but instead she callously complains “It’s just like you to arrive in the middle of the night” and “The good die young and people like you come back.” Of course, Hans will also inevitably die young and ultimately have the 'last laugh' in a warped sort of way, but it will not be from being penetrated by untermensch bullets nor an Arab sword, but due to his decidedly deleterious weakness for alcohol, which will eventually culminate in his prolonged suicide via intentional alcohol overdose while drinking with his friends and family, who watch on passively, at a local bar. In love with a woman who rejected him due to his undignified profession as a fruit-peddler and married to a patronizing and philandering woman named Irmgard (Irm Hermann) who he does not love but made the mistake of having a young daughter with, Hans—a rather tiny yet unflatteringly pudgy individual with a discernibly swarthy appearance—is stuck in a less than ideal domestic situation that makes him all the more bitter and depressed with each passing day. After an alcohol binge one night where he tells his friends at the bar how he was fired from his previous job as a police officer after a co-employee walked on him receiving a blowjob from a hooker looking to get out of a bad situation, Hans comes home to his angry wife Irmgard, who calls him a “rat,” which enrages the boorish born loser to the point where he irrationally physically assaults her in front of the couple’s young daughter Renate (Andrea Schober). Rather absurdly, Irmgard seeks shelter with Hans’ family, who all take turns trashing their blood relative in a remarkably vile manner in support of a genetic outsider. Only Hans’ sister Anna Epp (Hanna Schygulla) shows her brother support and points out the innate hypocrisy and seething hatred of the Epp family, especially in regard to the protagonist’s journalist brother-in-law Kurt (Kurt Raab), second sister Heide (Heide Simon), and sermonizing mother. When Hans arrives to makeup with his wife and to plead with her to come home, Irmgard calls her lawyer and asks for a divorce, which causes her husband to suffer a major heart attack, while a good portion of his family look on without lifting a finger to help him. Bedridden from the heart attack, Hans stews in melancholy while his wanton and witchlike wife begins an affair with a random stranger named Anzell (Karl Scheydt), which leads to daughter Renate walking in on her mother engaging in carnal knowledge with the mysterious fellow. Despite her extramarital excursions, Irmgard decides to makeup with Hans and comes up with the seemingly bright idea to hire an employee to peddle fruit for them since her hubby can no longer risk overexerting himself as it might result in another, and very possibly fatal, heart attack. By happenstance, Hans ultimately hires Anzell—the man that gave his wife the sexual satisfaction he never could—for the job, which naturally stuns Irmgard, who conspires to get him fired. Luckily, Hans runs into an old friend from the legion named Harry Radeck (Klaus Löwitsch) and hires him for the job, which temporarily makes for a bright light in the failed family man’s life, but all seemingly good things must come to end when you're an eternal failure. 

 Essentially, the final third of The Merchant of Four Seasons depicts Hans as he slowly but surely wastes away via depression and alcohol, while his friend Harry replaces him as a father, husband, and business man. While Hans’ fruit business is now a monetary success and has even inspired his mother to give him the backhanded compliment, “I always felt ashamed when people asked what my son did. I got all hot under the collar. But now I’m really proud of him. You have a proper business now,” he remains apathetic and continues to stew in his miserable and seemingly misanthropic melancholy. In fact, Hans no longer enjoys the all the things that made his life worth living, including his favorite music LP, which he smashes into bits, as well as his “great love” (Ingrid Caven), who he rebuffs after she undresses and approaches him for sex.  Although he cannot articulate why, Hans wants to die and will use the rest of his short life to achieve this task, which ironically makes for his greatest accomplishment during his brief existence. During Hans’ last night alive, he takes a shot of liquor for every single person/institution he loved/hated but was ultimately rejected by, as if accusing them all for contributing to his demise. Hans tells his best friend Harry “you’re the only real human being…but you’re a swine, too.” Apparently, even Harry screwed over Hans during their time fighting for the legion in Morocco in 1947 when his friends voyeuristically watched him be tortured via whip by an Arab soldier (played by Fassbinder’s ‘second great love’ El Hedi ben Salem) in a fetishistic S&M fashion and only helped him when it was apparent that the savage soldier was going to execute him. While Harry ultimately saved Hans from the Islamic savage, the born loser proclaimed to his compatriot that “You should have let me die,” as if accusing him of the misery he would subsequently incur after leaving the legion. At Hans’s funeral, only his “great love” seems to truly mourn him and the always-conspiring Irmgard makes Harry the inevitable offer, “You know the business. I can’t manage on my own. And you get on well with Renate. You like her. I don’t know what you feel for me, whether you like me but I like having you around. If we were to team up it’d be the best for everyone, I think…for you…for me…and especially for Renate.” Of course, Harry, who already became the man of the Epp household by proxy long before Hans committed suicide, receives an offer from Irmgard that he cannot refuse and he assumedly lives happily ever after with his chubby chums' unhappy family. Everything seems to work out in the end for the better, as if Hans knew all along that he was preordained to be sacrificed.

 Undoubtedly, the production of The Merchant of Four Seasons was almost just as much a family feud as the film itself. Ingrid Caven (as ‘Ingrid Fassbinder’)—Fassbinder’s then-wife and rival of virtually every other Fass-bande Superstar, be they male or female—not only played the role of ‘the Merchant’s Great Love,’ but also acted as the production manager for The Merchant of Four Seasons. Apparently, Caven infuriated Fassbinder’s perennial ‘artistic consultant/assistant director’ Harry Baer so much that he decided to throw her out of a ground-floor window, but Mrs. Fassbinder was not the only one that inflamed the hotheaded homo because he also apparently chased around Irm Hermann, who played Hans’ bitchy and unfaithful wife, with a knife. Apparently reduced to tears a number of times by Fassbinder during The Merchant of Four Seasons in what was probably the greatest performance of her acting career, Hermann—who despite the filmmaker's homosexuality, deeply loved and financially supported him during his early poverty years—later stated of the production that she “was treated like filth.” Of course, all of this makes for the greatest irony as Fassbinder once told an interviewer regarding his films, “When I show people, on the screen, the ways that things can go wrong…my aim is to warn them that that’s the way things will go if they don’t change their lives,” yet he inevitably managed to push everyone out of his life, including The Merchant of Four Seasons stars Irm Hermann and Kurt Raab before his premature death in 1982. 

 An emotionally crippling tale of a chubby and somewhat cherubic cuckold who deracinates himself from his unloving family in spirit and emotion before his seemingly preordained death by drink, The Merchant of Four Seasons singlehandedly confirmed that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a rare filmmaker of German New Cinema who could not only appeal to the stunted feelings of the bloated Bavarian bourgeois, but also poor ‘plebeians’ and philistines who had nil interest in the counterfeit intellectualism of directors like Alexander Kluge, Jean-Marie Straub and Wim Wenders, whose films only tended to interest those lounging in the far-left Ivory Tower. Incidentally, Wenders, who was also born in 1945 and had a doctor for a father like Fassbinder, would describe The Merchant of Four Seasons as his favorite film directed by his deceased cinematic compatriot in an audio commentary he did for a somewhat recent DVD release of the film. Fassbinder himself regarded the film highly among his oeuvre as well, citing The Merchant of Four Seasons as among “The Best” among German New Cinema, as well his tenth favorite film among his own “Top Ten of My Own Films” in a “Hitlist of German Films” he wrote in 1981.  A Teutonic masterpiece of the melodramatically macabre, it is no surprise that The Merchant of Four Seasons was described by more than one film critic as the greatest and most important films of German New Cinema, even if Fassbinder would go on to direct a number of superior works.  Ultimately, The Merchant of Four Seasons is an emotionally trying yet sensitively assembled tribute to everyone who has ever had a loser uncle (mine had the (mis)fortune of dying before I was born) or a familial black sheep who was never given their due.

-Ty E

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