Fassbinder Diary #4: From Death to Martha
Love is Colder Than Death
Love Is Colder Than Death (69) kicked off Fassbinder’s unparalleled creative deluge, with the 24-year-old directing his own script, editing under a pseudonym (Franz Walsch), and playing a key role without billing. Like many feature debuts, it reflects its author’s immersion in film culture and collection of its tropes. Fassbinder dedicates the work to (among others) French New Wavers Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, and he might well have added François Truffaut, whose Jules and Jim anticipates far more lyrically its doomed ménage à trois configuration, and especially Jean-Luc Godard, whose Band of Outsiders explores like themes of a postwar generation culling its identity from pop sources. But Fassbinder adds another layer of cynicism; his protagonists may too be the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, but with Germany just starting to grapple with the legacy of Nazism, they seem even blinder to morality, ever more eager to disavow social obligations and play out B-movie fantasies.
That’s not to say they uphold no code. Fassbinder’s character, Franz, is a two-bit pimp who refuses to ally himself with a crime syndicate despite detention, threats, and torture. Like so many gangland antiheroes, Franz balks at conformity but cherishes autonomy; he also prizes his newfound friendship with syndicate rep Bruno (Ulli Lommel), even after he inserts himself into Franz’s domestic arrangement with hooker Joanna (Hanna Schygulla, already exuding the mesmerizing opacity that would become central to her screen presence). Bruno and Franz follow a creed that makes sense to them, likely drawn from selectively understood crime fiction, emphasizing brotherhood and irreverence but showing little concern for bystanders like a waitress caught in their crossfire. Franz slaps Joanna for chiding Bruno’s seduction attempt, in turn flouting her professions of love as life itself mocks his own grand delusions; the film emerges as both a classic noir construction and a deconstruction of classic noir.
Love is Colder Than Death
Formally, Love Is Colder Than Death blends the dynamic tracks and jarring cuts of the Nouvelle Vague with the arid, artificial performance style of RWF’s own Anti-Theater. But the film is more than the sum of its appropriations. Unabashedly off-putting (like Fassbinder himself), it stakes out its creator’s motifs and techniques, the latter changing with time but the former comprising the thesis to his career.
Five years and nearly 20 films later, Fassbinder had shifted his predominant mode to that of Fifties Hollywood melodrama. He emulated the style of fellow German Douglas Sirk, who used a canvas of opulent colors and outsized emotions to critique repressive conformity. Sirk’s project, like Fassbinder’s, was to distill the brutality underlying life’s banality—a fact lost on many viewers who saw only soap opera plots and suffering-in-mink heroines. Fassbinder found he could cloak his themes of exploitation and betrayal in ironic plushness as ably as he’d stripped them down to sparse theatricality in his early years.
Martha (74) acknowledges this link at the outset when its protagonist (Margit Carstensen), a timid librarian who’s lived three decades under her parents’ rule, says she resides on “Douglas Sirk Street.” Adapting from Cornell Woolrich’s short story For the Rest of Her Life, Fassbinder establishes Martha as a perpetual victim, first of a domineering father, then an alcoholic mother, and finally a spiteful husband who uses Gaslight tactics to vanquish her modicum of selfhood. For a brief moment when we first meet Helmut (Karlheinz Böhm), we think we’re getting a tale of belated flowering—a Bette Davis ugly duckling narrative. But soon his sadistic nature emerges, and Fassbinder shoots Carstensen from extremely low angles to express her diminution. She’s frequently pictured at the foot of a staircase in the home that becomes her gilded cage, regarding Böhm on the landing above, overpowered.
With her ruby lipstick and strawberry blond hair, Martha resembles a classic Hollywood starlet, at once elegant and naïve. She natters nervously to Helmut on their honeymoon, determined to spin their dysfunctional entente into a portrait of domestic bliss, but her forced jollity is no match for his malevolence. Martha’s fragile but determined composure in the face of distress earns her membership in the sorority of Sirk’s afflicted heroines. In a late scene she hangs up the phone and rests her head on her arm, lonesome and perplexed; she might well be Lana Turner or Dorothy Malone, fearing her husband’s wrath on his return.
Martha, whose only crime is trying to please everyone, accepting what is handed to her with deference and gratitude, in the end finds her subjugation extended to actual paralysis. “When God makes a decision, no man can change it,” her doctor declares, contradicting the nurse’s affirmation of free will in The Merchant of Four Seasons (71). Carstensen’s guilelessness and Böhm’s cruelty make for one of Fassbinder’s most pessimistic statements.
“After seeing Douglas Sirk’s films I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression,” Fassbinder said. Or, put another way, love is colder than death.