Jan 13, 2014
Undoubtedly, if I were to name my least favorite Rainer Werner Fassbinder flick, it would most certainly be the superlatively sorry made-for-television celluloid abortion Rio das Mortes (1971), which has the distinction of being the director's eighth feature and borrowing its name from the Brazilian 'cinema novo' period piece Antônio das Mortes aka O Dragão da Maldade Contra o Santo Guerreiro (1969) directed by Glauber Rocha. A miserable mess of a movie that feels like a proto-mumblecore flick starring a bunch of exceedingly effeminate lower-middleclass longhaired dirty hippie bastards, the film would probably be considered a quirky comedy if it was actually funny, but it ultimately falls in almost every regard. Apparently based on an idea by kraut Francophile Volker Schlöndorff, Rio das Mortes is also slightly notable for being a semi-autobiographical work for Fassbinder. Like the pathetic protagonists of the film, who attempt to obtain funds for an extravagant journey to Peru to search for purported Mayan treasures, Fassbinder left no stone unturned in his attempt to get funding for his first feature Love is Colder Than Death (1969), which he eventually found in the rather unconventional form of an eccentric old widow named Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, who also played the woman that provides the hapless heroes of Rio das Mortes with the monetary means to fund their adventure in what is indubitably a true depiction of life reflecting art and vice versa. Ultimately, Rio das Mortes is a stupid movie about stupid people who are so severely stupid that they do not realize that Rio das Mortes is actually in Brazil and not Peru, despite the fact they manage to secure the funds to go there in the end. Notable only for an ultimately random and irrelevant scene where micro-diva Hanna Schygulla dances ecstatically to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” while a flabby leather-jacket-clad Fassbinder oafishly admires her provocative dance moves in a scene the actress would later describe in the documentary Fassbinder in Hollywood (2002) as the closest she ever came to sharing mutual love with the auteur, Rio das Mortes is an excellent example of the sort bad film that every great auteur directs, as a work that seems to fall apart at the seams yet features a number of the signature ingredients the filmmaker is best known for. Undoubtedly a mostly intrinsically worthless cinematic work that I could only recommend to Fassbinder completists and the handful of people that are into kraut counter-culture crap, Rio das Mortes is, if nothing else, a testament to the fact that West Germans of the late-1960s/early-1970s were just as idiotically idealistic as their American counterparts.
Little blond Aryaness Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) is being hassled on the phone by her overbearing mother, who wants her young daughter to quit smoking on an empty stomach and to get marriage ASAP. Of course, The problem is that the little lady’s boyfriend Michael (Michael König) is a hopeless dreamer of the hippie philistine sort and he has nil interest in bourgeois traditions, let alone being tied down by a woman who wants to squash dreams and aspirations. When Michael shows up at Hanna’s apartments and discovers his black Bavarian friend Günther (Günther Kaufmann) there who has not seen in some time, he gives the Teutonic jigaboo an impassioned pussy punch to the face and two men begin to brawl in what is easily one of the most poorly choreographed and patently pathetic fight scenes of film history. The reason Michael attacked Günther is that he long ago betrayed his best friend and joined the navy, thereupon breaking a promise the two made together on agreeing to never join the military. Of course, after the fight, Michael and Günther get their bromance back on and soon begin plotting a dubious trip to Peru to hunt for Mayan gold. In between complaining to her boyfriend, Hanna attends feminist workshops where a gigantic cock with letters USSA is scrawled on the wall and where German dandy auteur Werner Schroeter's muse Magdalena Montezuma makes the silly declaration, “The repression of women can be best recognized in women’s own behavior.” Of course, the only person attempting to repress people in Rio das Mortes is high-strung Hanna. Naturally, Hanna becomes jealous of Günther almost instantly as she is a mixed-up and feminist-brainwashed college student who wants to get married and live a respectable life, yet at the same time she wants to pretend that she is an 'independent woman.' Of course, that does not stop Hanna from cheating on her braindead boy toy by having sex with the Bavarian black buck in a rather desperate and debauched attempt destroy his plans to go to Peru with Michael. Among other things, Michael sells his prized sports car for a meager sum to a sleazy used car salesman (played by an extra sleazy and creepy Ulli Lommel) to help fund the trip, but it is only a small fraction of the amount that he and Günther need to pay for the rather pricey adventure. When Michael meets a pretentious beatnik bastard (played by prolific producer Joachim von Mengershausen, who produced Edgar Reitz’s Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), among countless other important German films)—a effortlessly effete student of Central America history—he becomes enraged, as the THC-addled fellow wants to bring girls along on the trip, which is a big no-no when it comes to big boyish dreams. As Rio das Mortes makes quite clear from essentially the get go, Michael and Günther are interested in going on a real pre-pubescent little boys’ adventure and that does not include girl as they have kuddies. Eventually, an eccentric yet wealthy old lady (played Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, who gave Fassbinder 20,000 marks to make his feature Love is Colder Than Death (1969)) gives Michael and Günther the money they need to make their pilgrimage to Peru. As the two friends board the plane, Hanna watches from a distance and pulls a revolver out, but she ultimately decides not to shoot. Instead, she pulls out a tube of lipsticks and applies it to her sensual lips to prepare herself for her quest to find a new man.
As Fassbinder’s Danish filmmaker friend Christian Braad Thomsen (Kære Irene aka Dear Irene, Koks i kulissen aka Ladies on the Rocks) once wrote, “Rio das Mortes does not succeed as a film and is probably the only one of Fassbinder’s early avant-garde films that is uninteresting. The light comedy form did not suit him…,” which is certainly an apt description of the failed Fass-bande flick After all, Fassbinder’s greatest excursion in comedy, Satan's Brew (1976) aka Satansbraten, utilizes sardonic slapstick of the innately anarchistic sort and can hardly be described as a being ‘light.’ Despite being an abject artistic failure, Rio das Mortes was a happy experience for Fassbinder's right-hand man and assistant director Harry Baer, who stated of the production’s importance in an interview featured in the book Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder (2000): “In Rio das Mortes, I realized for the first time that Rainer was fully in charge as director. He stylized Hanna and Günther Kaufmann not just on film but right there in real life. The way those to acted—nobody talks that way and nobody walks that way. If finally understood that he used this artificiality as a tool. That was something special.” Naturally, Fassbinder fans (myself included!) will find a thing or two to like about Rio das Mortes, but that does not change the fact that it is a painful celluloid abortion that leaves much to be desired. Of course, the image of Fassbinder dancing retardedly like a pseudo-hipster hack to Elvis Presley’s "Jailhouse Rock" while admiring Hanna Schygulla's idiosyncratic grace will forever be burnt into my mind. Of course, I have to admit that I would love to see a sequel to Rio das Mortes directed by Werner Herzog featuring the two protagonists of the film slowly but surely going mad during their adventure in Peru as a result of starvation and pernicious practical jokes played by cannibalistic brown Indian men, but it is probably a little too late for that.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:46 PM
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