Fassbinder Diary #3: Querelle
Fassbinder died either on the evening of June 9 or the early morning of June 10 in 1982, just three weeks into the editing of Querelle. As has been well-documented elsewhere, his prodigious filmic output and drug abuse fed off each other: his body was discovered by Julie Lorenz, his editor and occasional lover, in the apartment of fellow director Wolf Gremm, next to notes for a film about German-Polish socialist agitator Rosa Luxemburg. (The television in his room was still on, a mundane detail which continues to move me.)
Despite this reputation, his untimely passing was shocking—Richard Roud initially thought BBC Radio Three’s announcement of the death of a “well-respected German filmmaker” was referring to Douglas Sirk—and was considered a loss to film culture worldwide. Querelle, on the other hand, has consistently received mixed reviews, when it’s received any attention, since its 1983 release, even among those who have written book-length appreciations of his work. In the initial reactions to the film, four main camps emerge: purists who believed Fassbinder fouled up the original, Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest; purists who believed Fassbinder was wrong to surrender his heartfelt naturalism for Genet’s brash thought experiment; people who find its portrayal of sexuality and theatricality abhorrent; and people attracted to its eroticism and frank depictions of gay sex. After putting off watching it for many years, I was surprised by how fresh and genuinely funny it is. More than anything, Querelle is a sui generis work that doesn’t clearly point toward “what could’ve been” had Fassbinder lived, but rather it’s yet another tantalizing one-off experiment, like so much of the director’s work, which plays upon themes and aesthetic strategies from Satan’s Brew, Effi Briest, and Veronika Voss (to name only a few).
The novel Querelle de Brest seems perfectly suited to Fassbinder, if nothing else for his affinity to its contradictory, inflammatory author. Genet was the son of a whore who was adopted by a stable family and did well in school; after his foster mother died, he was sent to a new family who were shocked by his shady habits, thievery, and fondness for wearing makeup. After living in a penal colony for three years and being discharged from the army for homosexuality, Genet began writing poems, plays, and novels, in and out of prison, that centered on (or celebrated) criminality. (For those of you drawing comparisons with John Waters’s Female Trouble: the protagonist of one of Genet’s most famous works, Our Lady of the Flowers, is a drag queen named Divine, from which Waters took the name.) With vibrant, florid prose, Genet used the coded slang of gay culture and radically extended it to situations and socially marginalized characters, bending sex, race, and morality along the way: his notes for The Maids state that the two sisters who murder their overbearing employer be played by middle-aged men, while the guiding conceit of The Blacks is a play-within-a-play in which black actors don whiteface (to say nothing of its detailed instructions for what additional elements are required for all-white or all-black audiences, respectively). More than just being adept at artful provocations of the right and left (sometimes simultaneously), the particular transgressive nature of Genet’s writing—inverting identities, or featuring those that get stuck halfway—shaped Fassbinder’s work just as much as Sirk’s use of space.
Querelle de Brest, like Our Lady of the Flowers, infuses explorations of homosexuality and duplicitousness with Christian iconography. Fassbinder’s adaptation is largely faithful, though occasionally interrupted either by voiceover narration or black-on-white intertitles, lengthy quotations from Genet or other (homoerotic-tinged) philosophers. Querelle (Brad Davis) is a sailor who deals drugs in whichever port he lands in. Arriving in Brest, he meets his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) at La Féria, a brother owned by Madame Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau) and her husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann). Robert became Lysiane’s lover after winning a game of dice against Nono; ordinarily, the rules of the game are that the loser has to be fucked by Nono. When Querelle meets his drug connection, they have a “hypothetical” exchange about which guy Robert would or wouldn’t be fucked by, and Querelle slices his throat. Unlike the character in the novel, this is Querelle’s first killing rather than a continuation of a well-established criminal life. But, truer to Genet’s work at large, the quasi-Rod Serling voiceover compares the events to The Visitation, Querelle’s physical charisma transfigured into something Christlike: “Little by little, we realize that Querelle, already inside our flesh, was growing, developing in our soul, feeding off the best within us. After discovering this about Querelle, we want him to become the very hero of those who are contemptuous.”
However, Querelle doesn’t become that hero. The murder marks his moral decline, and he goes on to betray everyone around him. He also slowly begins to accept his homosexual desires, but in fits and starts: he intentionally loses a game of dice with Nono, but also frames fellow murderer Gil (played, like Robert, by Pöschl) for the murder he committed by orchestrating a robbery. [That’s what happens! Lotsa kisses.] The dual casting, along with much of the narration, suggests that at the root of his attraction to men is narcissism. Querelle is continually compared to his brother, and at times he’s almost inseparable from him: in one of the film’s most exhilarating scenes, the pair engage in a West Side Story–style knife fight, mirroring each other’s movements, their threats dubbed over their unmoving mouths. (These are interrupted by the voiceover, which intones: “The combat in which they were engaged was more like a lovers’ quarrel.”) Querelle only fully allows himself to love Gil after giving him Robert’s clothing and a fake mustache, a finishing touch that fully transforms him into Robert.
Writing in 1994 about the VHS release in Sight & Sound, Monika Treut sagaciously noted: “Being male is something we don’t know much about. But in Querelle we can study maleness by watching the protagonists act like members of an unknown—and at the same time familiar—tribe.” What consists of femininity has always been very obvious: its signifiers (like makeup) and behaviors (like cleaning) have been beaten into us through the wonders of consumer advertising. Codes of maleness, straight or gay, are all too often reduced to how heavily one’s hands are held or as a struggle to become the alpha male. Querelle probes deeply into the collective male psyche, portraying it as grotesquely twisted by the necessity to be strong and silent. (The perfunctory dialogue—this was Fassbinder’s third film in English—is dubbed in clipped, manly tones, and shuttles between G-man banter and porno confab.) As the director put it, Genet’s imaginary, all-male Brest is quasi-fascistic, a place where “if you don’t function perfectly . . . you have to become a traitor, a murderer, you have to become violent.”
The lone (speaking) woman of Brest, Lysiane, slowly recedes further and further into the background as the film goes on. In several scenes she’s reduced to crooning a line from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “Each man kills the thing he loves.” Querelle, miserably drunk, intends to make love to her in a final fuck-you to Robert, but can’t perform because he’s not attracted to women anymore—an anti-climax. In the film’s ambiguous ending, Lysiane performs a second tarot reading of an also drunk Robert, and cackles: “I was wrong! You don’t have a brother!” The bar erupts into laughter as Querelle boards his ship, presumably to sail away again. Is Lysiane just insulating herself from his rejection, or was Querelle a figment of Robert’s homosexual desire that she has now safely stuffed back into the closet?
For all of its suggestive narrative interplay, Querelle has a clear-cut visual aesthetic. Although the flattened-out sets are anachronistic and fake-looking, the frame is always active, with extras moving in the background, or color gels highlighting a face or a section of space, in a more controlled manner than in Lola but equally dazzling. In one instance, one of Querelle’s lusting admirers, a navy lieutenant played fantastically by Franco Nero, has a harsh exchange with the police, and a slice of red light? appears on his neck like a slash mark, as if telegraphing what the officers would like to do to him. Every scene takes place in the yellow-orange glow of a rising (or sinking) sun, and that light extends to even to the darkest, underground interiors. Peer Raben’s score, particularly the all-male choral drone that recurs during the intertitles, imparts a religious solemnity to the text.
There often seems to be more anxiety about a “last film” than a first: both Ingmar Bergman and Steven Soderbergh, separated by 31 years, opted to mark their retirement with a final cinematic offering, before continuing to work in television. Of course, making such a proclamation is a luxury: even if you didn’t have a fatal disease (like Jarman), get murdered (like Pasolini), or just grow old (like Huston or Renoir or Ray), there are plenty of directors (like Welles) who died amid multiple, decade-plus struggles to realize projects. There are strong arguments to be made that the announcement of a “last film” is either an attempt at savvy PR or an admission of declining creativity; it’s clear that Fassbinder wouldn’t have fallen into either camp. An unexpected stopping point, Querelle contains more than enough material for us to keep dreaming on.