Fassbinder Diary #1: Love Is Colder Than Death
Love Is Colder Than Death is a striking title—dour and grandiose in a way that invites thoughts of black-clad chain-smoking art students. Fassbinder’s 1969 debut feature lives up to its name—which isn’t a bad thing—as it bounces among Franz, a hoodlum (played by the director) who refuses to join a crime syndicate; his girlfriend/prostitute, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla); and Bruno (Ulli Lommel), a thug sent by the syndicate to follow Franz. The 24-year-old filmmaker makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience, and it’s fascinating to spot the solid foundations of his aesthetic apparent throughout.
The stylishly laconic film recycles bits and pieces of pop-movie imagery into a time capsule that is self-aware in a way far more aggressive than the cutesy “postmodernism” we are inundated with today. The most striking scenes are its long tracking shots without dialogue. In one sequence, Johanna, in minidress and ruffled collar, and Bruno, in a gangster’s uniform of overcoat and sharp fedora, meander through a grocery store as something resembling a creepy space-age synth opera plays over the PA speakers. Johanna sneakily tucks some groceries into her purse—a petty crime and a relatively likable one, compared to most of the nasty behavior on screen—and the camera continuously tracks them, swerving as they move through this arena of consumerism. The grocery store is essential to the film’s mission: it’s something that could be mundane, but which Fassbinder very consciously chooses to mine for maximum strangeness. The looping camera movements offer a palpable contrast to earlier scenes in which the characters are presented in severe minimalist (yet equally stylized and defamiliarized) tableaus.
If the film’s Fassbinder-esque elements are noticeable, his influences are also apparent. There are shades of the French New Wave throughout the film, starting with its dedication to Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. In the face of violence and nihilism, the grocery-store jaunt brings to mind “The children of Marx and Coca-Cola” that prefaced Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin. These characters were raised on corruption and pop culture in equal amounts. You can see it in the way they move and in the way they speak, more likely to look directly at us than at each other. At one point, the three go to a department store to shoplift sunglasses. Franz asks for a pair “like the cop in Psycho had”—he wants a piece of oddly specific film iconography for himself. As they slip the sunglasses into their pockets and smoke cigarettes, the group seem more like bratty suburban kids than harbingers of a new film movement, and that is a big part of Love Is Colder Than Death’s tricky appeal: Franz, Bruno, and Johanna are all acting roles. Franz is the unsavory lowlife, Bruno is the more debonair lowlife, and Johanna is the “bad girl,” but her soft look and ultimate betrayal of Franz give her away as a more complex figure. We are always aware of their performances, and this state of slight remove will persist throughout much of Fassbinder’s oeuvre.
The film’s final moments recall Breathless: after a shooting, Franz calls Johanna a whore after she admits to notifying the police. It’s a bold final word for a first movie—blunt but without any lasting meaning outside of a momentary shock. Will the lives of these characters change? Probably not. They aren’t driving off to somewhere better, which is just how Fassbinder wants it.