Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a director who has interested me for quite some time. His admiration and emulation of Douglas Sirk, a favorite of mine, paired with his prolific output in cinema/theater and his death at a young age make him an enigma that I want to try to understand. My first glimpse of Fassbinder was with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a remake of sorts of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. From what I've read, Fassbinder's career can be divided into three phases: the anti-theater stage; the Sirk phase; and the Hollywood film phase. The films I watched this past week, Chinese Roulette and In a Year With 13 Moons (as well as Ali), fit into the second phase, which are reworkings of the Sirkian melodrama.
Chinese Roulette starts with with Sirkian images of a woman looking out of a large bedroom window, with high, brightly colored (yellow in this case) walls squeezing her from both sides. The use of glass is very important for Sirk films for it underlies the thematic ideas of false surface images vs. reality as well as the ability to see outside but be trapped inside. Fassbinder makes use of this by having characters constantly shot through, looking through, or touching glass.
"There is a wonderful expression: seeing through a glass darkly. Everything, even life, is inevitably removed from you. You can't reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections." - Sirk
Fassbinder also has a wonderful way of shooting within domestic spaces, making full use of compositional framing and camera movement to emphasize the claustrophobic nature of homes. In Chinese Roulette he starts in a roomy apartment and then moves to a mansion in the country, both managing to reflect the same sense of claustrophobia by shooting characters between door frames or objects such as liquor cabinets and furniture. Many times a character's face will be obstructed by a door frame, by someone else's face, by a bottle of Cognac, suggesting both a sense of crowding as well as emotional isolation.
The story is centered around a crippled girl's plan to confront her parents simultaneously about both of their affairs by managing to have them unexpectedly meet at the same summer mansion. The father and his lover, played by a slightly aged Anna Karina, enter the parlor to find his wife and her lover on the floor in the primary stages of love-making. The couple get up from the floor and then the husband and wife laugh while the men shake hands and the women kiss. The girl's plan almost seems to have failed as her parents seem to be the least bit shamed, which evokes a strange emotional reaction. When the daughter arrives at the house she is loathed by everyone - from both her parents, their lovers, and the hired help - which seems understandable as Fassbinder makes her completely unattractive, spiteful and malicious, despite her handicap.
This lack of emotional connection lasts throughout the film as no one is identifiable as completely sympathetic. This is further pushed by the stilted, unrealistic acting and stylistic diversion of Fassbinder's camera and art direction. All of this results with an incredibly cold, isolating film. I suppose this could be considered part of Fassbinder's stage and anti-theater education, though I can't really comment on that. The Brechtian isolation through mise-en-scene is something that Sirk constantly employed. During scenes of emotional intensity there would be some incredibly obtrusive object or color that would draw your attention away from the character's emotion towards that object. For example, during the finale of Written On the Wind in which Marylee (Dorothy Malone) tearfully admits that Mitch did not kill her brother, the emotional intensity is undercut by the ridiculous, huge black hat she wears. The effect is one of removal from the screen world and a forced consciousness of the film's construction; we notice style and are reminded that everything we are watching is fake.
The problem I had with Fassbinder's implement of Brechtian isolation was that the emotional content of the film never feels that genuine. Unlike Sirk's films, Fassbinder does not even seem to pretend that there is something worth weeping about. Everything is stilted and sterile. Thus, the isolation through style is not really detracting from emotional content but from itself, making for a less interesting contradiction. The performances were never engaging in the first place and none of the emotions believable. In any case, the film was still incredibly interesting and visually fantastic (this film was shot by Michael Ballhaus, who shot many of Scorsese's films). I suppose this just isn't the best place to start for Fassbinder.