A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

Brigitte Mira and Gottfried John in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven
Emma Küsters: Brigitte Mira
Corinna: Ingrid Caven
Thälmann: Karlheinz Böhm
Frau Thälmann: Margit Carstensen
Helene: Irm Hermann
Niemeyer: Gottfried John
Ernst: Armin Meyer
Knab: Matthias Fuchs
Nightclub Owner: Peter Kern
Bar Owner: Kurt Raab

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kurt Raab
Based on a story by Heinrich Zille
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Production design: Kurt Raab
Music: Peer Raben

It's a too-familiar story in the United States: A disgruntled employee attacks his place of work and then kills himself. It may have had a more ripped-from-the-headlines feeling in West Germany during the recessionary times of the 1970s, which is my way of saying that Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven feels a little more stuck in time and place than Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films usually do. The setup is familiar: A man goes berserk at his workplace and commits suicide, leaving his family to face the aftermath. The follow-through is predictable: People -- tabloid reporters and politicians -- flock to milk what they can from the family's pain. But Fassbinder being the satirist that he was couldn't simply play the story for conventional domestic drama. He treats the family from the outset with a sardonic tone: The soon-to-be widow does piecework, assembling electric sockets on her kitchen table, as her son and his wife squabble over their coming vacation. Helene, Emma Küsters's pregnant daughter-in-law, is given to putting on airs about healthy living, preparing salads for dinner when Emma's husband and son want meat. Ernst, the son, works as a butcher, but he is so under his wife's thumb that he submits to her every wish, including a vacation in Finland when he would really prefer to go somewhere warmer. When news comes of the crime committed by Herr Küsters, we meet the daughter, Corinna, who fancies herself a singer, but really is just sleeping with the owner of the bar where she works. When the whole family gathers, the reporters flock to get the dirt, which is immediately swept up by Niemeyer, a writer and photographer, who starts sleeping with Corinna. In the background, their initial presence never quite explained, are a well-dressed couple, the Thälmanns, who turn out to be members of the Communist Party, eager to find a recruit in Frau Küsters, who becomes "Mother Küsters" for them. And so the unsavory game of exploitation begins. The problem comes when it has to end: Fassbinder provided two endings, in both of which Mother Küsters becomes a pawn in a game between the Communists, who are really just bourgeois radical-chic types, more interested in election victories than revolution, and the anarchists, who want headline-grabbing action. But one ending, the one shown in Germany and Europe, culminates in the death of Mother Küsters -- though the bloodshed isn't acted out, but just narrated in end titles. In the other ending, shown only in the United States, the action, a sit-in in the offices of the newsmagazine for which Niemeyer works, fizzles out because nobody really cares that much. Mother Küsters goes home with a janitor who has to close up the place and invites her to join him in a dinner of "Himmel und Erde" -- apples and potatoes with blood sausage. Both endings make the point, the first by refusing to dramatize the outcome of the protest, the second more directly: There's no real political conviction anymore. I rather like that both endings are available together now, not only because they reinforce one nicely, but also because there is nothing definitive to be said about the plight of Mother Küsters in a post-ideological context. Fassbinder, that great admirer of Douglas Sirk, seems to be saying that life itself has been reduced to melodrama, and the choice of a bloody ending or a happy one is completely arbitrary. 

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

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