Fassbinder Diary #1: Rio das Mortes
Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist (Part 2) continues at Film Society of Lincoln Center through November 26.
“I couldn’t relate to the characters.” That statement is probably the fastest way to get me to stop reading a review with interest and switch to hatefully skimming it. Why not save yourself and everyone else a couple hundred words and simply write: “I am unwilling or unable to step outside of my limited, lived experience for 90 minutes”? (It reminds me of Louis CK’s response when his daughters complain about being bored: “You live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of.”) I’ve found complaints about “relating” crop up most often in writing about movies, but besides being a critical cop-out, the notion has very little to do with some of the films I love most.
Fassbinder’s films give me life precisely because they don’t reflect my beliefs or experiences but make me feel so much more intensely—so much more—in a way that brings the universe into sharper focus. One of the things that make film (and theater) so remarkable is when a director can express complex psychology and deep truths in purely visual terms, whether through gestures, color, mise en scène, or an actor’s physicality. And Fassbinder’s style is pretty hard to beat at bringing us into a character’s world. (Taking in the full range of his films—as Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist at the Film Society helps make possible—it’s exciting to see how he gradually figured out how to most dramatically employ a mobile camera: I watched Chinese Roulette  last week and was pleasantly surprised to see a mulligan of Martha’s 720-degree shot two years earlier, in both cases centered on Margit Carstensen.)
I find some of these truths to be evident even of his “minor” works: there’s always some impassioned camera movement, or line of argument, worth considering. Made for German television, Rio das Mortes—one of the seven films Fassbinder made in 1970, the year before his Sirk conversion—is rarely screened, and hard to come by outside of BitTorrent. Like many of Fassbinder’s films, it’s a multivalent work that makes for uneven viewing. But as former Antitheater actor and assistant director Harry Baer says in Chaos as Usual: Conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it was “the first time that Rainer was fully in charge as director. He stylized Hanna [Schygulla] and Günther Kaufmann not just on film but right there in real life. The way those two acted—nobody talks that way and talks that way. I finally understood that he used this artificiality as a tool.”
I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Baer, but not simply for the film’s promising performances or the foreshadowing of elements Fassbinder used in subsequent projects. (This is the first Hanna Schygulla dance scene (to Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock”), and, like Herr R. from the same year, the story flirts with rousing submerged homosexual desires between “old school chums.”) In Rio das Mortes Fassbinder pursues a feminist-Marxist critique of marriage: it opens with Münchnerin Hanna (Schygulla) getting dressed as her mother rants at her over the telephone. The receiver lies on the bed, and the audio of her mother’s droning voice is heard played in reverse; when Hanna does pick up the phone, her mother becomes intelligible, accusing her of not listening. Hanna patiently assures her: “I already told you, Mom. We’re going to get married soon . . . Whenever we speak, you always bring up marriage.” It’s hard to know what arguments her mother was making in favor of traditional mores, though we can probably imagine them, and the one-sided Peanuts-like treatment of the conversation portrays them as nonsense. But the reasons Hanna so doggedly values marriage and truly believes it’s imminent also remain a mystery.
That small detail foreshadows the entire film’s ambivalence about ideology and its discontents: Hanna’s groovy furs and go-go boots conceal a Forties-era black-lace garter belt, even as she undertakes a program of undoing society’s indoctrination. While she’s applying her makeup, she attempts to recite from memory a passage from a book about childhood learning mounted next to her mirror. She’s a member of the USSA feminist collective, the acronym a meaningless mashup of USA, USSR, and Nazi SS (the group uses the same lightning-bolt “S” typography); their well-intentioned meetings consist of milling around a chalkboard with a giant phallus drawn on it while vaguely discussing the future. After Hanna calmly explains that she just wants to be there for her husband and children, the camera zooms in on a pale, broad-faced woman who states: “The repression of women can best be recognized in women’s own behavior.”
But then, that’s clear in the film long before it’s explicitly stated. Hanna’s yippie, tile-layer boyfriend Mike (Michael König) is uncharismatic and boring, but he’s an arm for her to hold onto—all the way to the altar. That may be all Hanna wants, but her trajectory illustrates how such mediocrity in mates is toxic, and why it takes more than a little sloganeering with your girlfriends to undo. (This inability to change such core values so quickly could also be understood as critique of German disarmament, reparations, and social reforms in the Sixities.) Whereas lesser narrative would’ve made Mike physically abusive, as an argument against marriage; here, they’re both just dumb. Mike’s not terribly interested in her to begin with, and after he meets up with an old friend, Günther (Günther Kaufmann), and gets into a fight—a lengthy grappling match that’s only missing the oil—Hanna’s basically out of the picture. The two men become obsessed with traveling to Peru in search of buried treasure, after finding a map that looks like it was drawn in crayon. The homoeroticism of their dedication perhaps comes into sharpest focus when Hanna asks Günther to join her in bed as part of her flirtation with liberation (or perhaps as old-fashioned, vengeful cuckoldry), and, as they lie together naked, he tells her a long story about when he was in the navy.
Of course, take away the feminist and Marxist critiques of marriage (and Latin American economies), and you’ve got your typical man-child comedy from the past 10 years: two childhood friends abandon their jobs and ignore their girlfriends in order to follow some dunderheaded macho scheme. (Though it’s never explicitly stated, “Rio das Mortes” means River of Death, and the real thing is actually located in Brazil, not Peru.) One sells his beloved sports car for the journey, while the other makes his mom pony up money she was saving for his wedding. (They’re so doggedly obsessed with Peru that they forget their change at a gas station run by Kurt Raab.) After those schemes fall far short of generating enough cash, they throw together an idiotic business plan using business “research” from a book published in 1871 that’s clearly about slavery; along the way, they make a payphone call to the Peruvian embassy, during which they’re constantly grabbing the receiver out of the other’s hand and trying to shout over each other. In the end, the idiots realize their dream—without any chicks tagging along—thanks to kismet: they overhear some other longhairs talking about this older woman who’s willing to give money to just about anyone without guarantee of repayment. (She also happens to be a Catherine Keener–level fox.)
This oddly prescient vein of humor in Rio das Mortes is inseparable from its critique: these people are being exploited by how silly they’re acting, but they’re still proving a point. There are several instances in which a valuable, beloved possession gets sold for substantially less than what it’s worth. (Right after Mike humbly walks off of the lot, we see the used-car dealer write a price on the windshield that’s 1,400 more marks than what he offered Mike.) Capitalism exploits the poor and the emotionally foolhardy, and you come away feeling one thing clearly: never sell yourself short for what you think is love, or what you think you ought to do.