“Get me a woman.”
The American Soldier is an early film from German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and it is also the last of his gangster films. Set in Munich, the film begins in a cellar as three off-duty policemen play a tense game of cards. These three rogue policemen have arranged contracts with hired killer–German-American Ricky (Karl Scheydt). Ricky–a Vietnam veteran–arrives in Munich and cold-bloodedly executes his victims. Ricky makes a side trip from business to meet an old friend Franz Walsch (played by Fassbinder) and also visits his mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) and effete brother (Kurt Raab). German director Margarethe von Trotta plays a hotel maid (she recounts the plot of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in one scene), and the lead female role–the hollow-eyed Rosa–is played by Elga Sorbas.
The plot doesn’t concern itself much about the details, so it’s vague exactly why Ricky is hired to kill two seemingly unimportant victims who are involved in some unspecified crime. But what is stressed is the idea that the policemen are little different from the criminal element they are paid to supervise, so employing a hired killer for the extra dirty work seems an extension of the role of the police. Avoiding plot intricacies, the film’s emphasis is on style and cliche, and the film is loaded with both. This minimalist film doesn’t waste a prop or a line while presenting a story that emphasizes Ricky’s emotionless existence. Any emotion exhibited in the film is entirely inappropriate–Ricky’s reunion with his family for example. His relationship with his mother is fraught with sexual tension while his brother crushes a glass into his hand at the news that Ricky has returned.
Fassbinder had definite ideas about Hollywood, and it shows here in The American Soldier where his use of cliche underscores the action. Fassbinder deliberately overuses cliches–often in extended sequences–to emphasize his theories about Hollywood. According to author Christian Braad Thomsen in the book Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius, Fassbinder used cliches to emphasis the hollowness of the Hollywood film industry. There are some great scenes here in this moody gangster film–one of the best occurs when Ricky goes to find a man known as “the gypsy.” When Ricky finds the gypsy, he is in a bar drinking with his two bodyguards. One of the drunken bodyguards collapses on the table, knocking his drink onto the floor. The newly spilled alcohol joins a considerable stain that’s already evident. This is Fassbinder’s gangster world of worn-out women, grotty bars, and corrupt authorities, and for Fassbinder fans, The American Soldier is a delirious, nightmarish journey into the mind of one of the world’s most innovative filmmakers. Note: the lead female character’s name–Rosa von Praunheim is also the name of another German director–surely an ironic joke on the part of Fassbinder who must have been aware that the controversial Rosa von Praunheim received many death threats. With a soundtrack from Peer Raben (who also appears in a small role), the black and white film is in German with English subtitles.