Veronika Voss is the first Fassbinder I've seen in black and white. I was intrigued to see how Fassbinder would work with black and white, especially since one of the most dynamic and interesting aspects of his films is the use of color -- Lola being the most extreme example, which is the film that directly preceded this one. I'll say more about the cinematography later. I believe Fassbinder decided to use black and white film stock in order to be faithful not only to his source material (Wilder's Sunset Blvd.), but also to films of the '30s and '40s, of which Veronika Voss, our anti-heroine former movie star, would have acted in. Fassbinder also impliments a title sequence reminiscent of that Hollywood era, which are rather plain credits in white against a gray background, as well as certain wipe transitions that would have been used then (though not as excessively as Fassbinder uses them).
Like Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond, Veronika Voss is a movie star no longer in the spotlight. She is played by Rosel Zech, who gives icy glares and constantly seems on the edge of hysteria like Swanson's character. But Veronika Voss is not as theatrically over-the-top as Norma Desmond, and not entirely as delusional; Veronika's demon is not so much her lack of work or her narcissism, but rather a very substantial addiction to heroin, making her wild fits of madness even more sympathetic.
Robert (played by Hilmar Thate, who looks like a humorless Walter Matthau) has a brief brush with Veronika on a rainy night, which begins a destructive and largely unbelievable obsession. I say unbelievable because for the most part Fassbinder refuses to allow Robert's P.O.V. to come through in the film. During moments of Veronika's seduction or Robert's increasing interest in her we are placed at a distance. For example: during their first dinner together they are shot in long shot and heavily shadowed (by Voss's insistance on candle light); when Robert goes home with Veronika we are denied scenes of seduction or lovemaking, only shown the cold, dark interior of Veronika's empty home. The close-ups we do get of Robert seem to always show him with a blank expression, refusing psychological probing. I believe Fassbinder does this on purpose, for his interest is not really Robert, though he is the main character, but those characters whom he plays foil to: Veronika and his girlfriend, Henriette.
Robert is like the two-dimensional Rock Hudson to the far more interesting split characters in Douglas Sirk's films. Veronika is frail and tortured, both repulsive and sympathetic. Henriette is beautiful, noble, smart, funny, and yet fails to leave Robert. It was Henriette I was most interested in, even more than Veronika, whose beauty I failed to grasp in comparison to Henriette. Her saintliness, and eventual martyrdom make the impact of Robert's stupid obsession even more drastic. Veronika's eventual rejection of Robert and consention of Henriette's murder for the sake of heroin makes her an anti-heroine, but more than anything she is a victim -- to the drug and the evil, bourgeoise circle of Nazi doctors who enslave her with it.
Both Lola and Veronika Voss were shot by the same DP, Xaver Schwarzenberger, who also shot Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz and Querelle. According to Jim's Film Website Fassbinder and Schwarzenberger referenced the work of the fantastic DP Gianni Di Venanzo (Fellini's 8 1/2, Antonioni's La Notte, Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano) and his high-contrast black and white work for Veronika Voss. The effect is phenomonal. The image is crisp and highly stylized. There are not many grays or any such variations between black and white, which ironically comments on the gray, murky morality of Robert's obsession and Veronika's own life. Actually, Fassbinder shoots the doctors' office, clearly the most evil characters in the film, a very sterile, in a blinding, sterile white. To contrast that, Veronika's home is mostly completely draped in black shadows. Thus, the appearance of sterile goodness, often associated with white, hides the sinister and evil of its inhabitants, while Veronika's home could be said to do the opposite, though not as absolutely. There is also a visual motif of brilliant sparkling lights. Veronika's jewelry, candle lights, studio lights, and disco balls are shot in a way that makes their dazzle pop in an almost surreal, cartoon way -- the shapes are given definite contours. The first shot of the film is almost flooded with these light shapes, though I haven't been able to understand their symbolism. Perhaps it speaks to Veronika's vanity, unsubstantiality, and transient star power; perhaps it's just pretty.
Veronika Voss ends, not surprisingly, quite sadly. The film opens with a date of 1955, though I could not discern as much about German society from the film apart from the prominence of the bourgeoise doctors and their attachment to the Nazi party (their evil is most clearly illustrated by their refusal to treat an ailing Jewish couple). I am sure there is more to be understood about postwar Germany through the film, but even as an outsider I can appreciate Fassbinder's Germany, which in this film seems like an almost alien world rendered in black and white. In any case, I can be certain to keep one message with me: don't fall in love with strange, older women you meet in the rain!
*Just a citing of funny coincidence: when I finished this post the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" came on shuffle on my Zune.