Mar 27, 2014
I have never been much of a Volker Schlöndorff (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Handmaid’s Tale) fan nor his mostly superficial and obscenely sentimental quasi-communist consumer-geared films, but one of his films, Baal (1970)—a modern reworking of kraut commie Bertolt Brecht’s 1923 play of the same name set in late-1960s Munich and starring a rather young leather-clad Rainer Werner Fassbinder as the eponymous antihero—has been at the top of my mental list of most-wanted films for some time. Rather unfortunately, Baal had been out of circulation for over 40 years because Bertolt Brecht’s kosher cunt of a widow Helene Weigel, who owned the rights to her dead shegetz hubby’s work, found Fassbinder’s performance “dreadful” and had the film immediately banned. In fact, Weigel had the gall to state of Fassbinder's performance, “If he thinks that a leather jacket and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth makes him like Brecht…!,” as if her bolshy beau Bert was some sort of handsome rebel as opposed to an archetypical pencil-necked, four-eyed Dinaric dork. Indeed, catching the premiere of Baal when it was screened for the first (and ultimately last) time on April 21, 1970 on West German television, Weigel wasted no time in calling the proper authorities on the very same night and used her legal authority to have the film stashed away in a vault indefinitely, as if the film had been adapted by naughty National Socialist Veit Harlan. While Weigel dropped dead the next year, it would not be until her daughter Barbara Schall-Brecht, who took over the rights to father’s work, came to the conclusion that Fassbinder is probably now more popular than her father and sent an e-mail to Juliane Lorenz—head of the Fassbinder’s Foundation—in 2011 reading, “The reputation of W. Fassbinder is indeed very big. I would now allow the film to be released on DVD.” Flash forward to March 2014 and Baal—the virtual ‘Holy Grail of German New Cinema’—has finally been released to the general public, at least in Germany. Created when Fassbinder was only 24 and his first feature-length film Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) had just received a less than outstanding ovation at the Berlinale (sneering audience members accused Fassbinder and star Ulli Lommel of being “dilettantes”) Baal is, at least in my less than humble opinion, a true lost masterpiece and quite arguably the greatest and most artistically ambitious film Herr Schlöndorff ever directed. Indeed, shot for television on a meager budget of 160,000 German marks (which was less than half of what was typically spent on TV productions back then), Baal is a visceral vice-ridden piece of decidedly decadent avant-garde delirium where Brecht meets counter-culture meets anti-Heimat that demonstrates for once and all that Schlöndorff has more artistic integrity than most of his post-The Tin Drum (1969) works would indicate. A sort of artistic rebellion on Schlöndorff’s part, or as he described in Fassbinder's memorial essay It Doesn’t Pay To Be Nice: “I had just failed in MICHAEL KOHLHAAS with a large American production and wanted out of the structures of the movie industry. In protest, I filmed Baal with a 16mm handheld camera, almost entirely with nonprofessionals, without well-known actors,” Baal is a wildly poetic and even wicked work that manages to capture everything that was ‘great’ about the counter-culture generation, namely its supposed individualism and dedication to artistic experimentation. Starring Fassbinder as the eponymous lead in a role based on a play that his Danish filmmaker friend Christian Braad Thomsen summed up as being as follows, “Brecht’s portrait…is an astonishingly accurate picture of Fassbinder. Baal is a celebrated poet who does not feel at ease in polite society. He’s a loner, a wandering troubadour who prefers bars and the open sky to literary salons. He is strangely attractive to both men and women, who commit suicide because of him. His honesty can be brutal and cold and yet people like his company,” Baal is an eerily prophetic work featuring thee Teutonic wunderkind in a pre-fame performance as a sort of demonic dandy (hence the title of the film!) who, like the actor/auteur himself, died a lonely death that was nothing if not inevitable.
A late-expressionist work heavily influenced by the proto-Romantic Teutonic Sturm und Drang literary tradition, Brecht’s Baal (which was written in 1918 but did not make its theatrical debut until 1923) is notable for not only being the playwright’s first feature-length play but also a work created before the communist theatre practitioner developed the dramaturgical techniques of epic theatre that he is best known for, thus ultimately making for a more apolitical and intriguing work. Of course, Schlöndorff’s Baal is innately political as a penetrating piece of thematically and aesthetically subversive counter-culture iconoclasm that features everything from a mockery of Warhol’s Campbell's soup cans and proto-Nazisploitation elements (in one scene a topless stripper dances on stage while wearing a Nazi officer’s hat), but luckily it does not resort to the sentimental Hollywoodized leftist celluloid twaddle that would plague most of the director’s subsequent films. Shot by the director on a handheld 16mm camera with a foggy Maddin-esque lens (thus giving the film an ethereal and even otherworldly feel), Baal looks like no other Schlöndorff film that I have ever seen, as an avant-garde work with an ideally idiosyncratic aesthetic that falls somewhere between Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), and Fassbinder’s very own Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Despite Schlöndorff’s surprisingly raw and striking direction, Fassbinder is undoubtedly the ‘secondary auteur’ of Baal, as his absurdist Artaudian acting antics are just as an important ingredient as the spacey camera work and quasi-oneiric tableaux.
Beginning with Fassbinder as Baal strolling down a dirt trail with a sort of discernible defiant swag that tells you he does not give a shit about anyone as a The Doors-esque psychedelic rock song composed by Klaus Doldinger (Das Boot, The Neverending Story) with lyrics like, “To the bloated vultures Baal squints up, as they circle high above a corpse called Baal, sometimes Baal plays dead, vultures land to eat, Baal dines in silence on vulture meat” plays triumphantly in the background, Baal immediately lets the viewer know they are in store for unadulterated kraut counter-counter angst and anarchy. Baal is a born anarchist and sexual outlaw who proudly proclaims the following personal Weltanschauung, “You have to let out the beast, let him out into the sunlight.” In a scene that looks sort of like it could have been taken from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Baal goes to a bourgeois party at an art salon in tribute to his poetry, but he has nil interest in being published and is just there to eat the fine cuisine, even telling admirers that he lives on ’64 Sewer Street’ (he actually lives in an ancient attic that looks like something out of a Slavic horror film) and couldn't careless about being published. With kitschy modern art in the form of an Adolf Hitler stamp collage and crappy Warhol-esque Campbell's soup can paintings on the wall, Baal is not exactly digging the vibe of the place and when a rather rotund gentleman (Walter Sedlmayr) patronizingly remarks, “Ladies and gentlemen, I admit I am shocked to find such a man living in such modest circumstances. I discovered this maestro as an employee in my office. I’m not scared to say it’s a scandal for our town, to have such luminaries working for a daily wage." After being told by some young dork that his poetry is ‘Homeric’ and that he is a “precursor of the European poetry messiah,” Baal proceeds to hit on a chick named Emilie (Miriam Spoerri), who also happens to be the wife of Mech (Günther Neutze), the owner of the art salon and the man who planned to publish the impoverished poet's work. Needless to say Baal ruins his chances of getting published, but as tells the character played by Sedlmayr, “I can’t help it if you ply me with wine. Must I swallow your nonsense so I can fill my belly?” and at least Emilie comes to see him later that night at his favorite seedy bar where he reads degenerate scatological poetry to truckers. Indeed, with a certain deranged glee, Baal reads the following grotesque lines to his prole follows: “Orge said to me the dearest place on Earth for him was always the latrine. A place where one is content with stars above, and dung below. A place of humility, where you realize that you’re just a man who can’t keep anything. There you recognize what you are, a man who’s munching on the latrine.” A born sadist who worships sexual deviance, Baal tortures Emilie by forcing her to kiss a Negro trucker (played by Günther Kaufmann, whom Fassbinder first met on the set of Baal and with whom he soon started a torrid one-sided romance) and when his young friend Johannes (Marian Seidowsky) brings his 17-year-old virgin girlfriend Johanna (Irmgard Paulis) to the bar, the poet begins persecuting the unsuspecting young girl. Naturally, being a proud defiler, Baal, who previously told his friend to not take away the virginity of his young girlfriend, steals Johanna from Johannes and deflowers the naïve young girl. The next day Baal learns from two chicks that he is about to have a threesome with that Johanna committed suicide by jumping into a river. Not one to cry over spilt milk, Baal soon acquires a new sex object named Sophie (Margarethe von Trotta) who he actually professes his love to and soon impregnates. Of course, being a debauched bisexual, Baal eventually throws her away for a man.
Reasonably impoverished, Baal ironically begins working as a woodcutter, going from a man whose words could have been printed on paper derived from the very same wood he cuts down had he not intentionally burned all his bridges and screwed up his publishing deal with Mech. One day while reasonably drunk on Schnapps (which is the dipsomaniac antihero’s drug of choice) and a nasty dose of narcissism, Baal rather rudely plays with the corpse of a man named Teddy who was killed after a tree ostensibly fell on him, though the other woodcutters have their suspicions and the pernicious poet is soon out of his job. Now joined by his Jesus-like comrade Ekart (played by Sigi Graue, who previously starred in films directed by Kluge and Syberberg), Baal ditches pregnant Sophie, who is still in love with the sadistic scribbler despite his physically and emotionally abusive behavior against her. Ekart offers to help Sophie, but Baal ultimately rules, thus leaving the little lady in the lurch. Like two drunk pervert prophets, Ekart and Baal, who are a sort of a Teutonic Rimbaud and Verlaine, roam the countryside, with the latter eventually raping the girlfriend (played by Werner Schroeter superstar Carla Egerer). Later, when Baal and Ekart go back to their favorite bar where Sophie now works as a waitress, things take a terribly tragic turn for the worst. After catching Ekart and Sophie kissing, Baal attacks his comrade as he declares his quasi-homoerotic love (with Ekart proclaiming, “am I not your lover?”). Needless to say, jealous Baal kills Ekart by cowardly stabbing him in the gut just before Sophie attempts to break the two men apart. A fugitive murderer with his best friend’s blood covering his clothes, Baal once again heads to the woods where he falls ill from what seems to be a metaphysical affliction. While dying a dubious and pathetic death, Baal is mocked by the prole woodcutters he once worked with. When the woodcutters find Baal’s corpse in a bush outside, one states, “Gone to the dogs. That’s really something. Going out to die like that. Hats off!,” in a scene of pure tragicomedy.
In his Fassbinder memorial essay It Doesn’t Pay to Be Nice, Volker Schlöndorff wrote regarding the star of Baal: “It isn’t easy for me to write about RWF, because he always was a challenge to me. Even physically. I eat and drink in moderation, never took drugs, and before writing this, I climbed over the fence of a sports field to run my 4000 meters. We could not have been more different from one another.” Indeed, while watching Baal, you can easily see that Fassbinder’s domineering attitude and brazen persona have hijacked Herr Schlöndorff’s production. Ironically, despite Fassbinder’s clear physical and spiritual dominance over Baal, the actor/director partly agreed to star in the film as a means to learn how to direct, as well as to teach the members of his Anti-Theater (antiteater) to learn how to work on a film set, or as Schlöndorff wrote: “Almost all the supporting parts were played by people of his group. I took over his cameraman, Dietrich Lohmann, and even a few members of his crew. He wanted to turn them into professionals and asked me to hire them. As paid help, so to speak. Now I understood much better what he had in mind, for most of them didn’t have a clue, not about acting or about filmmaking.” Although Fassbinder would later have a small role in Schlöndorff’s made-for-TV anti-Heimat film Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach (1971) aka The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach, the two would not work together again until nearly ten years later when they both collaborated on the omnibus film Deutschland im Herbst (1978) aka Germany in Autumn, with the elder director stating of his experience working with real-life Baal on the terrorism-themed film: “Together with Margarethe, I had been the one who had visited prisons, joined Red Help and committees on solitary confinement, etc. But it was he who felt persecuted and acted it out in the movie. At the time, I found this rather unpolitical and egocentric. Later I understood that having spent ten years living on the edge of German law, he knew more about persecution and antisocial behavior in the sense of Genet than I did with my highly respectable protest attitude.” Indeed, despite the ostensibly ‘edgy’ and ‘revolutionary’ nature of most of Schlöndorff’s German films, I have always found most of them rather tame, conspicuously contrived, and calculatingly formulaic, hence why he went on to work in Hollywood. As a hopeless hater of dork Bolshevik Brecht and a sometimes detractor of Schlöndorff, I can say without the slightest bit of hesitation that I think Baal is a lost masterpiece that is actually deserving of its reputation, but I must admit that I think Fassbinder is owed the greatest debt in terms of the spirit and overall integrity of the work. A film that makes the perfect double feature along with Kamikaze 1989 (1982), which featured the auteur in his last screen appearance in which he put on more than a little bit of weight, Baal is a sort of announcement of Fassbinder’s belligerent blitzkrieg-like arrival in the cinema world and just like the eponymous antihero, the filmmaker would leave this world just as abruptly as he arrived, but not without leaving a couple bodies behind (to Fassbinder’s credit, while Baal only inspired one suicide, he inspired at least two). Featuring countless highly quotable lines like, “Jesus loved evil” and “I see the world in a mild light. It is the excrement of dear God,” as spoken by Fassbinder’s girlish lips, Baal is Brecht with an actual soul, which is certainly no small achievement. Indeed, compare Fassbinder’s performance to that of David Bowie in Alan Clarke’s BBC-produced Baal (1982) and you will witness the difference between visceral untamed genius and carefully choreographed neo-dandy dilettantism. While Fassbinder might be long dead, the world is just catching up with his work and there is probably no better introduction to the auteur's marvelous and seductive, if not unflattering, persona than in Baal—the greatest film you have never seen and easily one of the most important works of German New Cinema.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:56 PM
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