“Intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality.”
On the surface, Hermann Hermann, a well-to-do chocolate factory owner, appears to lead an envious life. He lives in a beautiful Berlin apartment, drives around in a chauffeur driven car, dresses immaculately and expensively, and tastes chocolate samples all day long. However, the reality of the situation shows that the factory is close to bankruptcy, and his vulgar wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferreol), is chronically unfaithful to Hermann with her appalling cousin (Volker Spengler), a talentless artist who bleeds Hermann for money every chance he gets. Hermann appears to cope with his depressing life, but when he meets a total stranger who resembles Freud (in reality, he’s an insurance salesman), Hermann confides an interest in “disassociation” (“the man who stands outside himself”) and even muses whether or not he’ll write a book “or two” on the subject. The fact that Hermann considers writing two books is crucial to his mental state, for Hermann has created an alter ego. While Hermann is engaged in various activities, his voyeuristic alter ego observes, so Hermann becomes the audience for his own life. As Hermann descends into madness, his life spirals out of control. Ironically, he imagines he has control of his life by scripting it a certain way. He’s coped for years by scripting his marriage as happy, and ignoring his wife’s blatant affair, and now he imagines he can think his life into a new creation. Hermann devises a plan to defraud his insurance company by murdering a destitute man named Felix (Klaus Lowitsch). Hermann imagines that Felix could be his identical twin–when in reality the two men do not look alike at all.
The story of Hermann’s descent into madness is juxtaposed against the rise of National Socialism in Germany of the 1930s. Hermann witnesses the increase of brown shirts, swastikas, and the flagrant persecution of the Jews. Hermann is obviously disturbed by these events, and his madness and denial deepens to tragic levels.
Despair (Eine Reise ins Licht) is a lesser known Fassbinder film based on a novel by Nabokov (hence the prevalent theme of identity). The film is, oddly enough, in English–although some of the actors have thick, German accents. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for the film, and the incredibly talented Dirk Bogarde stars as Hermann Hermann, the beleaguered owner of a Berlin chocolate factory. Despair is a must-see for Fassbinder fans. Despair is not as emotionally powerful as The Marriage of Maria Braun or The Stationmaster’s Wife, but it’s an excellent study of madness that perhaps only Dirk Bogarde and Fassbinder can deliver. Fassbinder aficionados will notice the director’s ever-present death-obsession in this brilliant study of one man’s decline. Fassbinder, Nabokov, Bogarde, and Stoppard: what an incredible combination….