Say all you want about Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders, but the undisputed frothing mad king of the New German Cinema will always be Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a director who matched Herzog for sheer raving asymmetry and bellicose rabies and equaled Wenders for unbridled empathy and quiet cinematic majesty. His deeply volatile, unsavory films rode horses inconstantly and threw caution to the wind, and they were dueling reflections of a mind that was itself in inconstant descent. Fassbinder, mercurial and never metronomic, barely passed the decade mark as a film director, but the singular impression he left on the cinematic landscape of the world remains indelible. No director could match him for entropic cinema that nonetheless attained its own sort of dissociative cohesion and snowballing sense of purpose.
For this reason, the “best” Fassbinder film is a misnomer and an impossibility; his films were defined by their rambunctious ambition and their reach exceeding their grasp, and even though he was one of the few directors (like Welles) whose grasp actually came close to matching his reach, the most “perfect” film of his canon does not necessarily equate to his most fascinating or necessary. His most essential film may be his biggest question mark, both in that it remains a Sisyphean task to choose his most essential film and in that his most essential film must, in itself, be a question mark of a motion picture, for Fassbinder was a question mark of a human. I cannot say that Despair, his first English-language picture, is his best or his most essential film, yet this, his most underrated film, may be the one that most perversely encapsulates the manically oppressive egomania and supercilious id-infested drunken stupor that was Rainer Werner Fassbinder the man. It is, without a doubt a war-zone of a motion picture, yet, perhaps because it is a film about messes, it throws us into the mindset of a nation at war with itself.
Driven by internal quivers and exotic, intoxicating, subfuscous pleasures that society best not speak about, Despair is Fassbinder’s most combative film, but the sheer kitsch-fried commitment thrives only because it is distilled into a sweaty, pungent brew of Fassbinder’s finest, most judicious craft. Despair, thus, is the rare film that manages to have its cake and eat it too. It is tonally literate yet entirely unhinged, lackadaisical and rambling yet brutally focused on its central themes of dissociation and internal fractures (in nations, in classes, in the human soul), eternally lively and shot through with hyperbolic mania yet undercut by a thick layer of festering melancholy and world weary desperation. Yet none of it grows gluttonous or overly-busy. In an accidental or intentional convulsion of genius, the film’s relentlessly clashing war of self-exacerbating, even self-defeating ambitions and modalities become a filmic refraction of the very themes of identities at war the film deals with. It is a film with warring tonal identities about a man with warring identities; the film’s jumbled-up nature becomes a cracked mirror into the human soul. The way the film barely holds itself together becomes a window into a man unable find anything to grasp onto.
It would all be for naught without such monomaniacal visual and aural craft, however. Fassbinder’s usual DP Michael Ballhaus is on hand refracting nearly every shot through a translucent lens of some sort. The demonic parade of unending mirrors and sub-frames within the camera frame transform the film into a veritable operatic gala that soon warps into a madhouse hall of mirrors, like the corpse of a Baroque dress ball engorged with the innards of a disco. Our grasp of what we are seeing in the frame – right down to the literal inability to tell where we are positioned relative to the characters – mimics the zombified disarray of the main character’s life. The wildly boozy, off-kilter film nonetheless coalesces every single odd and end, every Frankensteinian stitch and patchwork pixel of clutter in the background, into a looking glass through which to view a nation and a human tearing itself apart with dementia and madness. The sheer level of detail in the piece takes on a Wellesian aura, as if that auteur was on a cocaine-fueled lunatic fringe, dressed in Roman gladiatorial gear and driving around in a purple Cadillac.
The main character of the film, Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) grows weary and disconcerted upon seeing a man he believes to mimic his visage – a double of sorts, even though they do not look alike to us or anyone else. He remains convinced that the other man is a copy of him, and this turns into a garish murder-plot whereby murdering the copy can allow him to escape the country unnoticed – the half-jewish Hermann resides in Germany at the onset of the Nazi party in the 1930s. If Hermann murders his double, he supposes, everyone would simply assume the real Hermann had been murdered. Meanwhile, Hermann’s chocolate manufacturing empire grows bitter amidst his personal obsessions and the quite literally bitter taste of the once sweet and delicate chocolate. The film matches that confection in both decadent indulgence and malarial, serrated bitterness as Hermann’s life curdles into a destabilized shadow of its former self.
The relentless dry, acerbically absurdist screenplay by British playwright Tom Stoppard (adapted from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov) has ribald fun with everything from the way “bitter” mimics the German “bitte” for “please”, to the conspiratorial hinterlands of German politics during the post-Weimar era (where the socialists, the nationalists, and the nationalist-socialists all hate one another in a demented Monty Python piss-take). But it remains the scabrous visual wit that sells the subcutaneous humor of a piece that manages to match even Lynch’s Eraserhead for slantwise, diagonal visual comic riffery and sheer unsuppressed play with the idea of the human mind in descent. Ballhaus cannot get enough of the artificial world of Hermann’s life, and his cinematography openly dances with the hifalutin plastic air of bourgeois Germany and the class dissections of the time period, depicting a Germany of such opulent clutter that humans have no room to compete with the physical objects that always block and sever the frame into jagged bits and pieces.
That’s not all, nor could it be for such an endlessly unresolvable riddle of a motion picture, a work that feels like a slice of grand conjuration to match that of another cinematic warlock from almost a half century beforehand: Fritz Lang’s M, the only film to seriously usurp Fassbinder’s work as a commentary on the fractured mental state of the post-Weimar German society, still reeling from the casualties of WWI and desperately grasping onto any and all straws to retain a sense of its own choking sanity. Peer Raben’s psychotic Muzak which turns the kitschy and mundane into the unsettling and the abnormal isn’t quite a match for Lang’s usage of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (it has less to say about the identity and utility of sound in film than M does). But the music is nonetheless wonderfully disturbing in its own right, turning the most bougie of all genres into a festering wound of obsolescent, necrotic death. Meanwhile, the twitches and tinges of nighttime expressionism in Despair almost match M for depth-of-focus nuance and utilization of foreground-background contrast to explore a suffocating environment with leering eyes always staring back at you.
Despair even warps the proto-detective noir of M by perusing the halls of detective fiction for an alibi – an “in” for audience members who wouldn’t dare watch if they knew how anti-narrative the film really is. It occasionally pretends to be a sort of detective film to hide its true vexing fascinations, which have about as little interest in detective cinema as humanly possible. Bogarde, I concede, would make a wonderful murderer with his brutally disobedient acting style, but Fassbinder has far more interesting uses for his theatrical style; namely, crafting a theatrical study in malcontent artifice that plays with both the performative, plastic qualities of bourgeois life and of the mind in everyday disarray. He becomes a sort of demented clown, over-zealous and unnatural in all of his motions as a reflection of his inability to adopt a natural human persona ever again.
Despair is a thoroughly inexhaustible slice of cinema that seems, with the very core of its being, ready to stage a mutiny and pillage the historical halls of respectable visual storytelling. Very much like Fassbinder himself, at that. If the film’s tenuous grasp of reality was a reflection of Fassbinder’s own idiosyncrasies lying in wait under the nether of his leather jacket and pitch black sunglasses, it works because its story is as playfully macabre, disconcertingly melancholy, and sacrilegiously unholy as the man who shepherded it.