Love is Colder than Death – Fassbinder starts out with a bang.

The above scene gives a strong indication of the power of Fassbinders full length feature, Love is Colder than Death.  I felt this was a wonderful debut although I have read it got him little love at the time. He was seen as an arrogant upstart – which, lets face it, he probably was –  and people were turned off by his cleverness rather than turned on by his technique. Decades later we are in the gratifying position of being able to appreciate that Fassbinder was an enormous talent squashed into a small amount of time. HIs arrogance is forgiven and for the most part we are left with a slew of wonderful films to enjoy.

Love is colder than death open in a strange sort of prison cell.  It’s really a sparsely furnished office of a crime syndicate where small time Munich Pimp Franz Walsch (played by an uncredited Fassbinder himself) strikes up an intimately portrayed friendship with Bruno (Ulli Lommel), another young hood the syndicate are trying to recruit.  The mob promises Walsch more money and security if he joins them, however relishing his independence, Walsch refuses to join them.  Walsch leaves before we really know what Bruno has decided.  Walsch returns to his prostitute girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) to carry on a fairly meaningless existence as before.  Bruno tracks Franz down  – but we never really know why.  Her he been recruited and sent by the syndicate or is he attracted to Franz, or is he simply encased in existential malaise and has nothing better to do? Franz, Bruno, and Joanna go on a small wave of shoplifting and murder. But when Bruno begins planning a bank robbery, Joanna’s distrust and jealousy of him cause her to make some arrangements of her own.

The above may appear to be a basic plot structure but Fassbinder has typically woven several diverse elements into the very fabric of the film. There is no doubt that this is a homage film.  Not to spoil it for you, but it ends with a nod to Breathless, and Bruno is a twisted version of a Melville study – complete with trench coat. While looking at the influences on this film, let us note Fassbinder’s eclectic dedication – to three well-known filmmakers and to two obscure characters: “To Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub, Linio and Cuncho.”

Although Fassbinder tellingly omitted Godard (who may have been uncomfortably – and with his exalted reputation, intimidatingly – close to his own vision at this point), he dedicated this film to two other New Wave auteurs, Claude Chabrol (Le Beau SergeLes Bonnes Femmes), who makes virtually nothing but crime films, and Eric Rohmer (La CollectionneuseMy Night at Maud’s), whose pictures explore the intricacies of human relationships. But perhaps their dedication was as much in deference to their pioneering 1957 study, Hitchcock – which elevated him, and by extension the crime genre, from pop culture to Art (capital “A”) – as to their films; although elements of their styles can be seen here. The other of this film’s five dedicatees were his mentor, stage and film director Jean-Marie Straub (The Diary of Anna Magdalena BachMoses und Aron – which was one of Fassbinder’s 10 favorite operas), and two movie characters (misidentified) as “Cuncho” and “Linio.” They appear in Quien sabe? (literally “Who knows?”; the U.S. title is A Bullet for the General), a 1967 spaghetti Western directed by Damiano Damiani featuring the gun-running bandit El Chuncho [the name refers to savage native tribes in South America’s eastern Andes region; note the spelling] and the young “gringo” he affectionately nicknames El Niño (because of his boyish looks, which of course mask treachery; this would be Fassbinder’s “Linio”), played by none other than Lou Castel, who would soon portray the petulant Fassbinder-like director in Beware of a Holy Whore, which itself is Fassbinder’s self-satire on the making of Whity, his own Western. How’s that for “footnoting”?) (Thanks to Jim’s Reviews for this reference)

Then there is the theme of the unspoken that runs through many of Fassbinders films. The opening scene in the office of the syndicate sets the film up for this. The unspoken here is primarily regarding the homoerotic relationship between Franz and Bruno,  (Fassbinder uses the name Franz Walsch – a pseudonym he will go back to repeatedly throughout his career)  and their mutual use of a woman as a buffer to desire. There is also the unspoken of existentialist malaise and the dystopian loneliness of a warned of future that has arrived.  That is a capitalist nanny state cleansing us all of the filth and defilement of desire (in its many forms).  This is a film about stark naked betrayal. Franz betrays Joanna by never loving her honestly and using her as a conduit to that which is beyond her.  Bruno uses Franz as a plaything, ultimately showing little care and concern when he has gone to jail. Joanna uses Bruno to get back at Franz. Franz uses Bruno as a promise of something he won’t articulate or commit to.  Joanna uses Franz as protection.  Bruno uses Joanna as a moral compass, and it goes on and on, the circular abuse the three who love each other for different reasons will heap over their feelings in order to cope with the separateness caused by lack in a world where more and more materialism is valued over the deeper qualities of the psyche.

These themes are all revealed in the opening scene in the office of the syndicate. I’ve seen enough Fassbinder films now to start to make some connections – this setting of an empty gangster office that controls everything is one I have seen in several Fassbinder films before. Capitalism of often represented by thieves and criminals in Fassbinders films.  Thieves and criminals sitting in empty offices, surrounded by bored security guards doing nothing but projecting power over the unsuspecting who are locked outside the room.  In this first scene, he establishes the often slow, deliberate pacing, and almost hypnotic performance style, which he wants for this film. Although this opening is expository – setting up the central characters and their violent, though often lethargic milieu – as the picture unfolds, we will see that the many lengthy passages without dialogue can grip us through the force of unspoken desires, even as the severe images hold us at a distance.

We are very fortunate to have Fassbinder’s own thoughts on this film (one of only a handful where that is the case); and I will draw on “The Kind of Rage I Feel: A Conversation with Joachim von Mengershausen about Love is Colder Than Death” (reprinted in The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Michael Tötenberg and Leo A. Lensing) throughout this review. When the interviewer asked Fassbinder, in May 1969, if the austere tone of this film “would seem to pretty much kill off any emotion,” he replied: “You have a plot. Language. Sound and music, all of which create emotion. But the relationship between these three elements won’t let the audience take the easy way out. In my opinion, it’s really a film the audience won’t have an easy time with, but actually quite a hard one. My film isn’t supposed to let feelings people already have be neutralized or soaked up; instead, the film should create new feelings…. I’m concerned with having the audience … examine its own innermost feelings…. To me that’s more political, or politically more aggressive and active, than if I point out [a particular group] as the great oppressors.”  (thanks to Jim’s reviews for this great passage)

One of my personal favourite aspects of Fassbinders films is his cleverness with characterisation. Perhaps this comes from his being bi-sexual, perhaps this deep probing into the human heart was the source of a great deal of his frustrated anger. Who knows.  But Fassbinders women are always more complex and interesting than many women revealed on the screen, and certainly than were appearing at the time. One example is the pivotal character of Joanna. Although Fassbinder discusses her in the interview, his own analysis still leaves room for our own interpretations. He says that Joanna is “the key to everything. [S]he… is totally bogged down in bourgeois values – much, much worse than all the others. That’s what she wants to preserve, and that’s the reason she betrays [Bruno] to the police, because she’d rather be alone than be part of a threesome; that she just can’t handle.”  Fassbinder sees the clinging to bourgeois fantasy in a woman as a fleeing from her own existentialist desires – rather than some clichéd desire to be a housewife.  This is brought out in the brilliant clip I’ve posted at the start of this piece. Joanna and Bruno couldn’t look more out-of-place walking around a giant supermarket packed with available items. And yet the scene goes on and on and on with its scratchy unsettling soundtrack and its perverse over exposed lighting. These people don’t belong here, but they will spend their entire life telling themselves they do.

For his feature debut, Fassbinder set out to make a personal film on the limited budget of DEM 95,000 (then US $27,500) given to him by a wealthy admirer: “She gave [the money] to us and said, ‘If the movie makes a profit, you can pay me back, and if it doesn’t, never mind.'” The cast and crew, drawn largely from Fassbinder’s Anti-Theater collective, worked for minimal salaries and profit participation. As with many of his later films, he would work within a clearly defined genre: Here, he chose the gangster picture. As he said, “I enjoy seeing crime films, and I think other people enjoy seeing crime films, too. Besides, I meant to send a message [that the everyday oppression people experience is criminal]. I could always make a film that would have everything in it that this film has for me, but in a completely different form …. I chose a crime plot because that kind of story is easy to tell. And I’m all for making simple things. But they have to be beautiful too.” The interviewer, like many people seeing the film, pointed out thatLove is Colder Than Death is not a simple film. Fassbinder admitted, “That does bother me…. One problem is, all those Hollywood movies are right smack in our way, and all we can do is react to them, primarily in terms of form. It so happens there really are a lot of beautiful films in the detective genre.”
AS usual, I can go on and on here, but I will have to stop – as I have many more Fassbinders to review over the next week or so and if you have made it this far in the reading even one as dedicated as you will get bored!  🙂  Needless to say, as with all Fassbinder films, grab a peek at this brilliant one as soon as you can.

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