Mother Küsters goes to Heaven – Fassbinder and the the question of what comes after exploitation.

Mother Küsters goes to Heaven (1975) is another of those chilling Fassbinders.  Chilling, not just because of the subject matter, but also because it stars Armin Meier who will kill himself over his love for Fassbinder in three years after this film is made and about whom Fassbinder will make In a Year of Thirteen Moons. Typical of Fassbinder it also stars Irm Herman, the woman he battered and assaulted for years through their marriage and Ingrid Caven, a woman he would be married to for two years in the future. Oh – his mothers in there too, just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder. It seems only Fassbinder can get all these people to work coherently on a set together. Although, perhaps this explains why he worked so fast and why this film only took twenty days to make.

There are a few directors that can send a certain kind of thrill through me as soon as the opening credits start to roll. Godard can do it, Bergman can do it and the only other is Fassbinder. The thing in me that “knows” – that thing Kandinsky called the corresponding vibration in the human soul – begins to hum as if plucked as soon as I sit in front of a Fassbinder film. I can’t explain why.  Maybe its just because he’s a favourite? Maybe it’s because both Godard and Fassbinder loved Brecht and followed him avidly – Fassbinder including many homages to Godard in his films.   I can see too much of Fassbinder in a row, he’s a tough watch after all, but I am always rewarded, even when I am not so keen on the film itself. There was no danger of that this time. Easily one of Fassbinders best films this amazing portrayal of the deceit and exploitation human creatures will wield over each other left me astounded. And not just because it has two endings (both of which are portrayed on the DVD) but because of its unashamed fearlessness.  He is so remarkably good at using art to portray his own fears.

The moment Mother Kusters receives the news about her husband. Note the light.

Also, like all of Fasssbinders films, this is deceptively simple. The basic plot unfolds thus: a woman Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira) is at home preparing for the return of her husband from his day at work. He is late and she is speculating about where he is. She is bickering with her daughter-in-law while they make the dinner. They hear on the radio a factory worker has gone mad, murdered his supervisor and then used the machinery at the plant to kill himself. The man who did this terrible thing turns out to be her gentle husband, a man she has been married to for forty years. The rest of the film is many threads of the story at once, as Emma goes about the complicated task of trying to clear her husband’s name, for he has been labelled “The Factory Murderer” and is looked on as a villain.

Slowly, she will wake to discover she and her story will be horribly exploited as she is also abandoned by absolutely everyone in her world, including her children. First it will be journalists, then the bourgeois communist party (a fantastic idea of Fassbinders – I have only known communists like this) the factory her husband worked for and eventually anarchists. One child will use the notoriety of her father to further her singing career, and the other will use his unborn child as an excuse to avoid his mother and forget his father. Through it all Emma Küsters (Küsters literally means “church custodian) continues to be both the saintly mother figure and the christian-ized saint type a-la Bresson – thinking here of Mouchette or Balthazar.  Indeed the end Fassbinder made for the European audiences has a very Bresson saintly-ending (we know what happens to Bresson saints and it aint pretty).  One small piece of motherly loveliness – the final shot on the European version (the details of the end are done in captions against this shot) shows a side portrait of Mother Küsters with Fassbinders actual mother in the background.  Clever no?

As for the two endings, I won’t go into them here. You will have to watch the film to see what Fassbinder does here. It’s remarkably clever of course, each a play on the idea of going to heaven. One tragic, and in keeping with the theme, and one typically Americanised, clumsy and light.

One thing I did want to highlight that I think is terribly clever, is the way Fassbinder brings objects to the fore and places people behind. I have a few examples below. He is a director that is always intrigued by the object that makes us real, and looking at some stills in the face of this is exciting. (well to me it is anyway)

Make sure you get to and see this as soon as you can .

The objects behind come to the fore and the human is seen as just another object.

A wall divides the room, the couple, the screen.

Many images focus on Mother Kusters hands and the work she does making up the power points.

The microphone looks like the gun off a tank pointed at her face.


Distance and washed out colours. Alienation and lifelessness.