God’s of the Plague – Fassbinder and the haunted power of the image (film review)

God’s of the Plague is a very underrated film (so many of Fassbinder’s are) and one of Fassbinder’s favorite that he made. It has a thin plot, and is the second in the gangster trilogy, coming in An American Soldier and after Love is Colder than Death. We are following Fanz Walsch now that he is out of prison, and his plans to join forces with his brothers killer to rob a supermarket. (Like Godard I ADORE Fassbinder’s use of Supermarkets. He can make them look like the creepiest places on earth – which, lets face it, they are).

But this is really a film about the much forgotten aspect of the gangster noir thriller – the women. When I watched The Wire on DVD a coupe of years ago, I couldn’t get past the second series because of the appalling stereotype of the female characters and their simply missing from the criminals narrative. It felt like only half the story was being told. Every time there was any filming in the ghettos, immediately the plot looked thin because women weren’t questioned as witnesses and their movements were of no interest to the police unless they became overtly involved and the police simply could not avoid dealing with them. It made every plot line weak and simpering in my view.  When anything happened, I’d be thinking “yeah – but they only have to talk to blah blah’s girlfriend and they can work that out”. Or, “but what about his grandmother?  She would know where he is” …. etc.

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As usual, Fassbinder is way ahead of the curve here and in 1970 was aware this was a huge problem. Women are key to the plot in God’s of the plague, being the key’s to success and failure for both sides of the law. They are not perfect angels, and they are mistreated by their men, but they remain firmly under the cameras gaze and powerfully in the body of the narrative. There are consequences when they are betrayed, and there is a perverse camaraderie between them that strikes fear in the hearts of men. In the many scenes that take place in Margarethe’s (Margarethe von Trotta) apartment, an enormous picture of her takes up the entire wall of her bedroom and dominates the visuals of the scene. It stands imposing over the men A figure of beauty, but also commercially emblematic reminding everyone that sex is a transaction and nothing is for free.

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For this reason, and because of the beauty of so many of the shots in the film, it is an underrated great of Fassbinder’s. It maintains the deliberate and meditative pace of Love is Colder than death, while changing the actors around who play certain roles. (I won’t go into this because a wonderful essay was written on this over at Jim’s Reviews – check it out.) Fassbinder has a larger budget to work with here, after he had been recognized as a rising star of the new German cinema. In fact it is twice what it was in his earlier films, and he’s used it to add shadowy depth to the visuals so that where Love is Colder than Death is a cold film – icy and pale in its appearance, God’s of the Plague is claustrophobic and heated, dark ,shadowy – until of course we get to the famous supermarket scene at the end when everything becomes overexposed under the flickering neon. It’s the supermarket scene in particular that evokes some of the films Fassbinder is paying homage to in this noir tribute – particularly Godard’s Breathless (1959) and A band Apart (1964).  Also, however he recognises Walsh’s White Heat (1949), Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).

4. Gods of the Plague

The other great unspoken that Fassbinder evokes is homo-eroticism in the noir gangster thriller, something he explored deeply in the other two films as well. Fassbinder is able to highlight this and many other subtexts of noir through his ability to bring artifice and naked feeling to a collision to produce works which are both distancing yet deeply, sometimes shockingly, involving. The perfect example of this is the final, devastating scene of The American Soldier, and therefore this trilogy: one of the most shocking and confronting scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema.

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Chillingly comedy is used to great effect here, another Fassbinder stamp.  every violent scene, physical or emotional contains comedy or irony or both. The film is also laced with in jokes: from famous films (Joanna sings at the Cafe Lola Montes, named for what Fassbinder considered the third best film ever made, Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès; also Fassbinder’s soon-to-be primary cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, was related to Ophüls) to friends (Franz finds his brother’s corpse inside an apartment labeled “Schlondorff,” named after Fassbinder’s friend, fellow co-founder of the New German Cinema, and Margarethe von Trotta’s husband and filmmaking collaborator, Volker Schlöndorff, who would go on to make such classic films as The Tin Drum). The funniest moment in the film is when we find out the great heist being planed is simply that of a supermarket.

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I can always be relied upon to speak about Fassbinder in hushed tones, but as usual, seeing all the Gangster trilogy is a must for any cinema fan. I saw them out of order and separate.  Its worth seeing them in order and on the same weekend, if you can make it happen.

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