Jun 23, 2014
While best known, at least in the cinema world, as the screenwriter for various Wim Wenders films like Falsche Bewegung (1975) aka The Wrong Movie (which is itself a loose adaption of Goethe's 1795-1796 second novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) and especially Der Himmel über Berlin (1987) aka Wings of Desire (which was later loosely remade as the horrendous 1998 Hollywood movie City of Angels starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan), avant-garde Slovene-Austrian writer Peter Handke has directed four feature-length films of his own, with his second work, Die linkshändige Frau (1978) aka The Left–Handed Woman, being easily his greatest and most revered, if not predictably controversial, cinematic effort to date. Rather bizarrely, especially considering a man who is foremost a novelist directed it, The Left-Handed Woman was originally envisioned as a screenplay and although the writer first released it as a book, he directed the film only a year later. On top of that, Handke’s film is a work where the protagonist (or should I say ‘anti-heroine’), whose psychological motivations are never examined, rarely speaks and does not even open her mouth until well past the 20-minute mark, thereupon making for a largely visually poetic work that does not seem like it would translate well on paper. Lauded in a review entitled “She Vants to Be Alone” featured in the 7 April 1980 issue of the Village Voice written by J. Hoberman (co-author of the seminal work Midnight Movies) as, “that rare thing, a genuinely poetic movie,” Handke’s film may not be as immaculately assembled as his cinematic collaborations with Wenders (who produced the film), yet The Left-Handed Woman certainly has a more authentic and overbearing soul that bleeds mercilessly with much internal pain, abject misery, and impenetrable melancholy, albeit in a sort of hermetic fashion that demands total patience and attention from the viewer. The superlatively somber and potentially suicide-inspiring story of a young married German mother living abroad in Paris who abruptly has what she describes as an “epiphany” and kicks her husband out of their apartment and ultimately leaves him for good without rhyme or reason, Handke’s work has been described as everything from misogynistic to a rare true feminist film made by a man, yet if anything is for sure, it is that the lead character is an insufferable introvert who need not articulate her negation of society with words. Indeed, German actress Edith Clever, who previously played the eponymous role in Éric Rohmer’s Heinrich von Kleist adaptation The Marquise of O (1976) aka Die Marquise von O..., certainly deserves credit for playing what I have come to regard as one of the most innately intolerable female characters in cinema history, as a cold mother and wife who brings coldness and rejection to virtually every single important person in her life, including her own young son. Indeed, forget Liv Ullmann’s character in Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece Persona (1966) and the bisexual terrorist mother of Salvatore Samperi’s rather underrated work Cuore di mamma (1969) aka Mother’s Heart, The Left-Handed Woman features the most tension-stirring tongue-tied female character that I have had the distinguished delight of suffering watching. Arguably most influenced by the films of Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, Early Spring), whose portrait is featured prominently in the protagonist's apartment (not to mention the fact that she goes to a movie theater to watch one of his films), the work naturally features static camera work that underscores the eponymous character's sense of self-imposed isolation and intrinsic introversion. If you've ever wondered what was brewing in the seemingly dormant post-WWII Teutonic Volksgeist, Handke’s almost malevolently melancholy film might not give you a positive answer, but it will certainly demonstrate that some members of the German fairer sex might have benefited from being members of the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel) during their teenage years.
Marianne (Edith Clever) is a German former writer/translator living in Paris who has given up her career to take care of her young nerdy son Stefan (Markus Mühleisen) and be a wife to her husband Bruno (Bruno Ganz). When Marianne meets up with her husband, who she has not seen in some time, at Roissy airport, she shows virtually nil love or joy for Bruno, who complains on the car drive back that he spent most of his trip to Finland drunk and that he hates the Finnish because, unlike other European languages, he could not understand a single word of the language. Bruno also does not seem to understand a single word his wife says either. After spending the night drinking wine in a metaphorical scene at a fancy restaurant where a flower wilts and Bruno discusses reading an English-language novel on the joys of feudal servitude, the somewhat odd couple subsequently have passionless sex that same night that concludes with the introverted wife looking dead with a totally expressionless stare that tells the viewer that something is not quite right with her. The next day, Marianne drops a bomb on her hubby as they stroll through a dreary park that will change both of their lives forever. Indeed, out of nowhere, Marianne reveals that she has had an “epiphany” and tells Bruno to “Go away. Leave me alone.” With no real reason given, Marianne throws Bruno out of her life and takes control of their poor son, even though she seems almost as resentful of him as her spouse. When Bruno comes to visit his wife shortly after being kicked out of their apartment, he calls her a “mystic” (notably, Handke once wrote in his work that, “The mystical is the mind's beginning and at the same time hinders its further development.”) and tells her that a couple of electroshocks would make her “reasonable again,” though he also gives her money and supplies for work and then leaves, but not before warning her that she will die of loneliness. Indeed, despite claiming that typing gives her carpal tunnel syndrome, Marianne decides to take on a job as a translator. While staring at herself in the mirror (though she is right-handed, she becomes left-handed upon staring at her reflection), Marianne venomously declares to her imaginary adversaries (assumedly, her non-present husband): “You think what you will! The more you think you know about me, the freer from you I become!”
Despite being a prepubescent grade school boy, little Stefan realizes that there is something cold and impenetrable about his mother, complaining to her while they eat dinner together one night: “You laugh like Philip. He always tries hard to laugh. You’re never really delighted. Just one time you were really delighted with me.” Indeed, even Marianne cannot deny she is a lousy mother, as she cannot even try to deny what Stefan says. When Marianne is visited by her elderly publisher (German actor/filmmaker Bernhard Wicki of The Bridge (1959) aka Die Brücke and The Longest Day (1962)), her lack of maternal qualities are once again reinforced, as her friend remarks, “You are only concerning yourself with the child now…to avoid responding to me. Why are you playing the mother-child game?” To Marianne’s credit, she retorts to her publisher’s remarks, “Maybe you’re right.” After giving her a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart to translate, the publisher leaves Marianne with the remark: “Now begins the longtime of your solitude.” When Marianne begins translating, she becomes even less tolerant of her son and even gets so mad at him at one point that she literally wrings his neck in a seemingly homicidal fashion. Of course, Bruno eventually pays another visit to Marianne and tells her that one day that she will hang herself and makes the following marvelous misogynistic rant: “You women with your puny reason. With your brutal understanding for everything and everybody. And you’re never bored, you good-for nothing. All excited you sit around and let time pass. You know why nothing can ever become of you? Because you never get drunk alone. Like vain photographs of yourselves, you slouch in your tidy apartments. Machines of incapacitation for everything alive. Sniffing the ground, you crawl every which way, until death tears your mouth wide open. You and your new life. I never saw a woman who changed her life for good.” Bruno also confesses that he walked on foot to the apartment with the intention of “destroying” his estranged wife and when Marianne attempts to comfort him by touching him, he warns her by hostilely saying, “Don’t touch me. Please. Don’t touch me.” Indeed, at this point, it seems that any love that Bruno previously had for Marianne has now transformed into visceral hatred. Of course, aside from her fear that her husband might hurt her, Marianne seems totally unmoved by Bruno's hatred. While Marianne demonstrates nothing but rejection and negation to all the important men in her life, she also turns down her female best friend Franziska (Angela Winkler) when she attempts to get her to join some feminist group.
When Marianne’s elderly father (played by German veteran actor Bernhard Minetti who starred in Leni Riefenstahl’s troubled 1954 film Tiefland) pays her a visit and she asks him if he still writes, he gives her the following somber spiel: “You’re saying I’m at life’s end and still writing. I think I have lived in the wrong direction. I’m not blaming it on the war or other circumstances, but on myself. Sometimes now my writing seems like an excuse to me. Sometimes of course it doesn’t. Before falling asleep at night often I don’t have anybody to think about. For the simple fact that I haven’t met with anybody all day. Even though I know how good it feels to fall asleep thinking of someone. On the other hand I meet with people mainly to…make sure I’d be found in time if worst came to worst. Not by lying around for so long.” After he confesses that he rarely cries (a major theme of much of post-WWII German cinema/literature is the ‘inability to mourn’), Marianne’s father warns his seemingly metaphysically dead daughter: “And you’re going to end up just like me, Marianne. A remark that concludes the point of my mission.” After they have their big talk, Marianne and her father go to a photobooth where they bump into a goofy out-of-work film actor (played by Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler). After the father remarks to the actor that he is a poser who tries to act like a Hollywood star and refuses to put his true self into his roles, Marianne finds herself with a new love interest of sorts. Indeed, the actor bumps into Marianne a couple days later and confesses that he has never pursued a woman in his life, but he has looked for her for days. In the end, Marianne goes on a ‘sentimental’ camping trip with her son in what seems to be a junkyard and later Bruno stops by and confesses he is doing rather well despite the divorce, yet when the protagonist has a party with all her best friends and loved ones, she still has to admit her best friend Franziska, “even now I want to be alone,” thus demonstrating her radical love of isolation. The film ultimately concludes with the following quote from artist/filmmaker Vlado Kristl: “Have you noticed there’s only room for those who make room for themselves?”
Despite being nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, as well as winning the German Film Award in Gold for “Best Editing” (Peter Przygodda) in 1978 and the Guild Film Award in Gold at the Guild of German Art House Cinemas festival in 1980, The Left-Handed Woman seemed to completely go over the head of certain less sophisticated viewers like Hebraic hack film critic Leonard Maltin, who complained regarding the work, “Time passes... and the audience falls asleep.” Indeed, if you’re looking for uplifting mindless entertainment of the conspicuously contrived Hollywood sort, Handke’s work might inspire you to blow your brains out, but if you’re looking for a totally engulfing work with a distinctive mood that claws at the soul without mercy yet also picks at the brain with equal severity, The Left-Handed Woman is certainly a singular work that makes most of Wenders’ films seem like the counterfeit celluloid swill directed by an emotional retard by comparison. An anti-melodramatic malady of a movie revolving around an emotionally constipated woman who desires some sort of intangible freedom but is mostly a slave of her own stubbornness, isolation, and intolerance of other people, including her own loved ones, Handke’s film is certainly a work that manages to express the essence of its particular glacial zeitgeist via a fiercely frigid Fräulein, which is certainly no small accomplishment, especially considering it was directed by a member of the less hysterical sex. Compared to Volker Schlöndorff’s similarly themed yet overtly feminist-driven work A Free Woman (1972) aka Strohfeuer—a film starring the director’s then-wife Margarethe von Trotta, whose real-life divorce heavily inspired the film—The Left-Handed Woman seems like pernicious poetry that (quite unlike Schlöndorff’s film!) never makes the mistake of attempting to make some sort of silly post-68er-Bewegung socio-political statement. As for Handke’s aesthetic intent with the film, he once confessed, “What I am really striving to attain is monotony in its most intensive form.” Indeed, The Left-Handed Woman is a work that turns banality into a sort of high celluloid art, as a film where nothing really goes on, yet every single scene is layered with a sort of nerve-racking intensity that never gives the viewer a chance to breath. Unlike the typical Hollywood film, Handke offers no insights into the lead character’s psychological motivations, thus it is up to the viewer to enter the seemingly half-loony lady’s little head to see what makes her do the rather deleterious things she does. While I somewhat doubt it was the director’s intent in terms of the film’s title, the protagonist of the work is, spiritually speaking, certainly a follower of the Left-Hand Path, as a woman who has decided to break all the taboos of her bourgeois life and becomes her own god(dess), even if a rather weak and ineffective one whose greatest demonstration of personal sovereignty is walking around her neighborhood wearing a fancy (and rather aesthetically displeasing!) fur-coat. Made during a period of a so-called ‘literaturverfilmungskrise’ (literature adaptation crisis) in West Germany (Ronald Holloway once noted that, “Literature is the backbone of German cinema…Remove that backbone from the history of New German Cinema, and it appears to be a jelly-fish,” The Left-Handed Woman is arguably most important because it proved German filmmakers could do more than just recycle played-out 19th century literary classics, as Handke’s film is a truly modern avant-garde work that arguably managed to capture the spirit of its zeitgeist better than anything ever directed by Wenders or Schlöndorff. A sort of contra A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Handke's film ultimately expresses more its lack of drama than any sort of histrionic acting ever could. Indeed, for those looking to ‘understand’ the seemingly inexplicable behavior of innately introverted women, you probably can do no better than The Left-Handed Women.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 8:13 PM
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