Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Videophiled: ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’

BitterTearsThe Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted his own stage play for this modern twist on The Women, the great all-woman Hollywood classic of sex and social conventions in high society. Margit Carstensen is successful fashion designer Petra von Kant, who lives alone in her stark apartment with Marlene (Irm Hermann), her silent, obedient secretary / servant / girl Friday, whom she alternately abuses and ignores.

Once divorced—by her decision, as she proudly describes the experience to her friend the countess—and once widowed, leaving her a grown child (she at one point berates parents who don’t raise their children properly, then explains she hasn’t the time for her child but takes comfort in knowing she is at the best schools), she falls in lust with a callow, shallow, lazy young married woman, Karin (Hanna Schygulla) who left her husband in Australia to return to Germany. Petra treats the seemingly naïve blonde beauty as part protégé, part pet, but the calculating kitten takes Petra’s money and gifts and social introductions with a cold calculation.

It all plays out in Petra’s stark apartment—a bedroom/workroom with a bed on white shag and a work area below with naked dress dummies, an easel and a typewriter—and Michael Ballhaus’ prowling camera finds Marlene silently hovering on the borders of Petra’s dramas, looking on through doors and windows like an adoring lover from afar. Handsome with a touch of aloofness (the dress dummies sprawled through each scene add a note of alienation), it’s a quintessentially Fassbinder portrait of doomed love, jealousy, and social taboos, bouncing between catty melodrama and naked emotional need.

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus oversaw the digital restoration, mastered in 4K from the original camera negative and supervised by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. It’s a tremendous leap in quality from the previous DVD release a decade ago, with strong color (essential to appreciate the art direction and lighting) and a great level of detail and crispness. The Criterion debut of the film features a new video interviews with Ballhaus and the original featurette “Outsiders” featuring new interviews with actors Margit Carstensen, Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake, and Hanna Schygulla, plus a new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc about director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the film, and the 1992 documentary Role Play: Women on Fassbinder, originally made for German TV and featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schygulla, and actors Irm Hermann and Rosel Zech. It includes a foldout insert in place of a booklet with an essay by critic Peter Matthews.

More reviews of recent Criterion releases at Cinephiled

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Science Fiction

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘World on a Wire’

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, a TV mini-series shot during a break on Fassbinder’s biggest and most prestigious project to date, Effie Briest, and broadcast on German television in 1973, begins as a corporate conspiracy thriller by way of a psychodrama, a stylized piece of pulp fiction in a near-future world. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), a computer engineer working on the prize project of the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology (IKZ), is suddenly put in charge when his boss and mentor (Adrian Hoven) dies in a freak accident, right after confessing to Fred that he has come into information too fantastic to believe. It’s alarming enough that a scientific genius electrocutes himself on his own equipment in an act that is appears to be either suicide or assassination, but when Lause (Ivan Desny), Fred’s confidante and the company’s head of security, disappears without a trace days later, Fred’s world is all but turned inside out. And “without a trace” is an understatement: it’s as if he’s been erased (or, dare I say it, deleted?) from the records and memories of the entire company.

Plugged in to 'World on a Wire'

That’s when this corporate conspiracy thriller — complete with a CEO shadowed by silent bodyguards dressed like movie gangsters, a buxom secretary (Barbara Valentin) personally sent by the front office to “help out” the hero, and the gorgeous daughter (Mascha Rabben) of the dead inventor who slips into Fred’s life and takes on femme fatale dimensions — tips into something more cerebral.

World on a Wire is (to the best of knowledge) the first feature to take on the concept of virtual reality, an idea rare enough in science fiction literature in 1973. Scripted by Fritz Müller-Scherz and Fassbinder, from a novel by Daniel F. Galouye called “Simulacron-3” (which later became the basis for the 1999 American film The Thirteenth Floor), it traffics in the same paranoid anxieties and questions of identity and reality and perception that Philip K. Dick was exploring in his work since the 1950s (albeit with hardboiled attitude and Fassbinder’s satirical perspective). It anticipates films as diverse as Videodrome, Tron and The Matrix, to name just a few, only Fassbinder does it without special effects or cyber imagery. You might say that he does it all with mirrors.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

R. W. Fassbinder’s “I Only Want You to Love Me”

I Only Want You to Love Me (1975) could serve as the working title for most of the films in the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific German director who made 43 features between 1969 and his death of a drug overdose in 1982. Like so many of his films, it’s the story of a man so desperate to win the approval and love he has been denied through his childhood that he sabotages his health, his wealth and his happiness. Though inspired by a real-life crime recounted in the book “Life Sentence,” Fassbinder’s script is more personal than sociological.

Vitus Zeplichal, a new member to Fassbinder’s company of players in his first and only leading role for the director, plays Peter, a bricklayer from a small Bavarian town. His mother (Erni Mangold) is cold and disapproving and his father (Alexander Allerson) inattentive and unwilling to stand up to his wife, and even after single-handedly building them a house (on his days off from a full-time job) he fails to win their affection. He marries Erika (Elke Aberle), a young pharmacy assistant, and impulsively moves to Munich to start a new life in the booming economy of the big city. He’s the devoted son, the attentive husband and the dedicated worker, but he works himself to exhaustion and ill-health trying to prove his love to Erika with the trappings of middle-class affluence and spirals into crippling debt. “I’d rather work myself to death than beg,” he explains to Erika after she suggests he ask his father for money, which would be as good as admitting that he’s failure. The moment his confidence is shaken, he buys another present for his wife and spends himself back into debt, until the pressure is so great that he finally, inevitably cracks. Interspersed with his story are flashbacks to his childhood and his courtship with Erika and interviews between Peter and a social worker.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Posted in: Essays

When Herr R[ainer] Ran Amok

Whether or not Rainer Fassbinder was the most talented of the wave of West German directors who emerged during the 1970s, he was certainly the most prolific, protean and elusive. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death was released in 1969. Incredibly, the films discussed below, Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) were his 22nd and 23rd feature-length works; by the time he died in 1982 he had completed 14 more including the 16-hour television series that was his magnum (and grand) opus Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980].

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla

Fassbinder worked with frenzied urgency, pushing toward, and almost thriving on, excess—of stylization, melodrama, visual expressiveness, compositional precision, and pretty much everything else that defines the limits of film as a dramatic and expressive medium. His work could be wildly uneven and occasionally overwrought, clinically dissecting characters with the detached cruelty of a child pulling the wings off of flies. But it was seldom dull or pedestrian, and he seemed congenitally incapable of anything perfunctory or unengaged. Add in a personal life reportedly consisting of relationships that were a vipers’ pit of duplicity, jealousy and manipulation and a lifestyle Dionysian enough to give mere degeneracy a good name: he famously dismissed concerns that cocaine might ruin his health with the glib assertion “in Hollywood I can get a Teflon nose.” It’s enough to make you wonder how he got anything done, much less became one of the most productive film directors in history. (Of course, he did die at 37—well past his “sell by” date physically but not artistically: his penultimate film, Veronika Voss [1981], was among his best). He only dialed back his lifestyle—reportedly even abstaining from white powdery substances—and fully devoted himself to his craft once, for the year he spent laboriously realizing his dream project, a film adaptation of a novel he revered, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The resulting masterpiece runs 16 hours, enough screen time to imbue the characters and their milieus with a richness and depth not always evident in his other work. Sarris blurbed it “an Everest of modern cinema.” Its fullness suggests that the fierce urgency of the broad strokes he used to craft his other work may have sacrificed complexity and resonance for force and clarity.

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