The American Soldier – Fassbinder does Godard

It can be difficult with Fassbinder films over and over again. I’ve said on this blog in the past that he is one of my favourite directors and yet I can only take him in certain doses. If I were locked on an island with nothing but a screen and Godard films I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven. If I were the same with Bergman films, I’d assume somewhere in my wicked childhood i must have done something good. If I were locked away with Fassbinder, I’d probably write better than I ever have in my life and turn into the basketball that saved Tom Hanks. It’s never quite clearer to me how good his films were for me, even if I stare with wonder at every one of them.

I will say that immediately clear from this film is the homage to Goadard. Not the clumsy homage Tarentino performs with pulp Fiction, (Sorry folks – for me that film is overrated) which results in little more than a commercial appropriation of Godard.  Fassbinder brings his own genius and his own madness and he has a remarkable talent for infiltrating Godard.  So many want to pay homage to Godard – who can blame them I want to myself some day – but Fassbinder can bring a chill that Godard never quite anticipated with all his philosophising.

For those of you unfamiliar (and I get little hits for my Fassbinder reviews so I can only assume that is many of you) Here is a nice outline of the plot:

It tells the story of Ricky (Karl Scheydt), a professional killer, who returns to his German home town from America, where he fought for the US in Viet Nam. Three renegade detectives, unknown to their chief, hire Ricky to kill the people behind a crime wave which, humiliatingly, the police have been unable to stop. During his mission, Ricky visits family, meets up with friends, and drops by old haunts, all the while murdering his targets with stone-cold resolve. After finishing his kills, including a final one caused by the lead detective’s jealousy, Ricky finds himself in a shoot-out with his illicit employers. Some people consider the climax the most startling of any Fassbinder picture.

This is a film in passionately in love with Godard, film noire, early American Gangster films and Fassbinders own work.  References to all of the above abound and like Godard and Brecht, Fassbinder wants to keep us conscious – aware of our own place as viewer of the film. We are never allowed to forget we are watching a Fassbinder film as it watches us.  What I mean by that, is like all Fassbinder films, the genre film he is seeking to represent (or deconstruct) becomes subtext to his deeper messages. Fassbinder is a bi-sexual man who beat his wives mercilessly early in his life. Of all the films I have seen, this one best confronts the connection between homoeroticism and hatred of women. Fassbinder is too smart, too troubled and too tortured by his own demons to make any mistakes with the subliminal messages of this film. The camaraderie that exists between men is palpable. It is woman as outsider that is the intolerable force. Whether she is the beaten whore, the murdered lover or the strangely dominating mother, one cannot ignore the way women are treated by Fassbinder in this film. Godard moved differently – but Godard was a philosopher. Godard paints his “women as outsider” series, one of which is Vivre Sa Vie, one of my favourite films. Fassbinder doesn’t paint woman as the outsider.  She is the refused other, the scandalous hole reminding every extended male of his inadequacies. If Godard is a philosopher, Fassbinder is the psychoanalyst, exposing what lies in the subconscious with all its teeth bared.

Of course homoeroticism and hatred of women are the basis of film noire and Fassbinder brings this realisation to the fore.  The final scene is a case in point.  I won’t mention it here because of spoilers but needless to say it is one of the most extraordinary and shocking scenes in a Fassbinder film, let alone anyone else’s film. Fassbinder plays unrelentingly with time throughout The American Soldier, and at no point more powerfully than in this five-minute long final scene. The time theme enters in early however.  The opening scene of the men sitting together playing cards, ignoring the real woman, and looking at girlie cards (a classic homoerotic bonding session) are surrounding a ticking clock. This heralds things to come as the film almost seems to drag at times, despite the length and breadth of its action. With all the waiting, the staring at unringing telephones with the sound of the ticking clock overriding all the sounds in the room speaks to an inertia reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Housing is unit blocks that face each other, claustrophobic and suffocating. Even the camera work by long time cinematography collaborator Dietrich Lohmann has a dark creepy feel shot on a very low-budget, with a blurred out frame, in high contrast black and white.

In the end, Fassbinder himself described this film as “in the minds of the German people who see a lot of American gangster films.” I can’t be sure what that means – I guess in some ways he has taken the remnants of film noir and scraped them up off the floor.  However, in doing so, he fond the heart and soul of film noire.


The incredible chilling final scene.