Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Liebe ist kälter als der Tod / Love is Colder than Death” (1969)
Gangster films might be an unusual choice for film-makers to explore questions of the nature of an individual’s relationship to society, the place of freedom and free will, and how people are thwarted by others and by their own desires and weaknesses from achieving what they need, yet a surprising number of such films has been made. R W Fassbinder’s debut full-length explores issues of freedom, desire, the place of outsiders in modern bourgeois society and the conflicts that arise when these intersect. A crime syndicate attempts to recruit a small-time pimp, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder himself), into its ranks but he refuses and prefers to go his own way. The syndicate sends stylishly dressed mobster Bruno (Ulli Trommel) after Franz and Bruno decides to throw in his lot with Franz and his prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla). The three live together in Franz and Johanna’s apartment and carry out various robberies and murders. The bonds among the three prove to be their breaking point: Johanna, jealous of Franz and Bruno’s growing closeness, informs the police of the men’s plan to rob a bank and her action leads to tragedy for Franz, Bruno and herself.
The plot and the look of the film are very minimal. Even the acting and the dialogue seem stripped right down. The entire world in which Franz, Bruno and Johanna live looks very artificial and formal: nothing, it appears, happens by accident and every action seems rather studied. The low budget allocated to the film is rather obvious: the gangsters’ weapons look like painted plastic models, indoor sets are very spartan and black-and-white film stock is used. Settings are stark and highly expressionistic. The main characters are stylishly dressed, Bruno’s sartorial style in particular based upon that of gangster Jef in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film “Le Samouraï” which had been released a year previously before Fassbinder’s debut. The deliberate decision to pare down the plot details to fragmentary and the dialogue to only the most essential to drive the plot on has the effect of highlighting the characters’ loneliness and the emptiness they feel in their lives to the extent that they care very little for mainstream society – and ultimately one another. They reject even the overtures of the criminal syndicate to form a business relationship with them. Long silences emphasise the underlying conflicts within the unusual love triangle. The film’s apparent amateurish quality as demonstrated by the way it is edited, the props used and the overall minimal style throw weight onto what is (or may be) unsaid, the characters’ feelings about one another and the pressures of modern life and social isolation bearing down on them.
Fassbinder pays homage to a great many influences: the French New Wave cinema of the 1960s is one influence as are also Hollywood gangster and film noir films, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and German Expressionism. Avant-garde film techniques are used: in one scene the camera slowly pans to the left, then back to the right, then left again, right again, back and forth as a minor character paces a room. Static shots are often emphasised and a two-dimensional painterly effect is often achieved. At times it seems that Fassbinder is in love with Bruno, or his clothes and fedora hat at any rate, as the camera sometimes freezes on Bruno and makes him appear as a sculpture and work of art. The music soundtrack is very distinct and out of the ordinary: wobbly vibrating violins in some parts of the film may draw viewers’ attention away from the slow action, and in a couple of scenes demented harpsichord-like music enhance the fantastical ambience and cynical mood of the film.
Characters express a nihilistic view of the universe in their ruthless behaviour towards one another and others, with devastating results for everyone. In the end, the main characters’ attempts to get what they want or need come to nothing and audiences are uncertain as to what will happen between Franz and Johanna after Bruno departs from their lives.
The film can be quite confusing to watch as the plot is so threadbare that viewers must work to pull all its pieces together. The important elements are the characters, their relationships, their attitudes to themselves and life generally. Through this film, Fassbinder expresses contempt for a society in which such characters with a cold, calculating approach to life can exist and thrive.