Tag Archives: Fassbinder

Germany in Autumn (1978)

 “When cruelty reaches a certain point, it’s no longer important who initiated it. It should only stop.”

germany-in-autumnGermany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst) is one of the most important political films to emerge from Germany in the wake of the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). This is a collaborative film made by 11 directors from New German Cinema, including Fassbinder and Schlondorff. The directors’ intent is to re-create the tense atmosphere in Germany during the autumn of 1977. At the time, members of the Red Army Faction (RAF) were serving life sentences in solitary confinement for murder in the high security prison, Stammheim. This was a period of extreme political unrest for West Germany. The founding organizers of the RAF were either locked up or dead, but the urban guerilla problem was not solved. It intensified–with the emergence of a much more violent ‘second generation’ RAF who subsequently conducted a wave of guerilla actions throughout Germany.

In September 1977, second generation Red Army Faction members, kidnapped industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, former SS officer and now President of the Employers’ Federation. The kidnappers demanded the release of several prisoners–including the RAF members in Stammheim. While the West German government played for time, in October a plane was hijacked and flown to Mogadishu. The crew and the passengers were held hostage while the hijackers demanded a hostage exchange, including the release of jailed RAF members: Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan Carl Raspe. The hijacking failed. The day after the failed hijacking, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells, and their deaths were officially ruled suicides. Schleyer was also later found dead. This period in Germany’s history–autumn of 1977–is considered an extremely volatile time for the new German Republic.

Framed by funerals, Germany in Autumn is part documentary, part fiction, and while the film shows the fallout following the deaths of Schleyer and members of the RAF, it also shows how people deal with state and individual terrorism on all levels of life. The film begins with footage of the state funeral of Schleyer, and includes scenes from Rommel’s state funeral, the assassination of the King of Serbia, and the film ends with the triple funeral of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. There is, of course, a strong, connective thread of violence that runs through the footage shown: Rommel committed suicide under duress but his death was officially announced as the result of a heart attack or the result of injuries. The King of Serbia, who was assassinated under the auspices of German Secret Service agents, was a victim of state terrorism. And then of course, this brings us to the deaths of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe, whose deaths were officially ruled suicides–a notion that Germany in Autumn treats as patently absurd. The film includes details of where and how the RAF members were buried, and horse-mounted police monitor the well-attended funeral with helicopters circling overhead. At one point, riot police enter the scene and start whacking mourners with batons.

Also included is a jail interview with Horst Mahler, co founder of the Red Army Faction. He refused to be included in the hostage exchange, and in his interview, Mahler presents strong condemnation for the kidnapping and murder of Schleyer, and this act he interprets to be evidence of the terrorists’ ultimate corruption by capitalism. He states, “a murderer departs from the moral value system. A revolutionary reinforces it.” Horst Mahler was already expelled from the Red Army Faction when he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years, so it’s not too surprising that he refused to be included in the prisoner for hostage exchange. I should add here that Mahler is (as of 12/07) alive and well but went off the deep end politically and now holds very right-wing views.

Other fictional sections of the film depict how German society is altered by the political situation in 1977. In one segment, for example, a film director attempts to release his version of Antigone for television–only to be told that the play depicts ‘terrorist women.’ Antigone, it seems, is too controversial and must be shelved until a time when acts of civil disobedience are not interpreted as condoning acts of terrorism. There’s a bitter amusement to this section of the film as the censors find Sophocles too controversial despite the painstaking efforts on the part of the director to include elaborate and lengthy disclaimers. And of course, the refusal to air Antigone is a sad reflection on how far German society has sunk.

Another chilling fictional section concerns a border guard on the hunt for stray members of the so-called Baader-Meinhoff gang. The border guard aches to fly an American plane full of Napalm, but instead his power is limited to harassing travelers and teasing them with the idea that they bear an uncanny resemblance to fugitive RAF members.

One of the RAF’s grievances was that German history very effectively glossed over the pasts of some of their affluent industrialists, and that as a result former Nazis still ran the country. This issue of the rewriting of history is alluded to early in the film through the deaths of the King of Serbia and the forced suicide of Rommel. But the film explores this at the individual level through another fictional section dealing with a history teacher in crisis who suddenly finds herself unable to teach history because she’s no longer sure what is true and what she should teach.

Director Fassbinder’s interpretation of the political and social climate of Germany in Autumn 1977 is a highly personal account. No doubt Fassbinder chose to present his section of the film this way as he knew many members of the RAF. Fassbinder is seen at home with his lover, actor Armin Meier, and they have vastly different opinions about the deaths of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. Armin is ready to blow up the plane and the terrorists in Mogadishu with the reasoning: “if they don’t obey the law, the state doesn’t have to either.” Fassbinder, however, cannot accept the justification that government is free to use violent tactics when dealing with terrorists. Bitter arguments ensue between Fassbinder and Armin, and Fassbinder, who was notoriously difficult in his personal relationships in real life, is depicted here as being rather hard with Armin. With the debate raging around the argument that the state has the monopoly on the use of physical force, Armin argues that the imprisoned RAF members should be “shot or hanged.” Fassbinder asks his lover “who’s going to do that for you?” And Armin answers: “the state.” These positions and these arguments are, of course, representative of two sides of the debate. Armin argues the idea that it’s open season on the RAF as laws need not apply because the RAF are the ones who started with illegal actions in the first place. Fassbinder argues the other side–that the State does not have the right to kill anyone simply because they have the power to do so and are not answerable to any other entity.

Subsequently, when Fassbinder hears the news of the deaths of the jailed RAF members, he is devastated, and he most certainly does not swallow the official story that Baader, Ensslin and Raspe kept some sort of suicide pact. Calling a friend in Paris, he points out the absurdity of the state’s claims that Baader and Raspe shot themselves, while supposedly Ensslin hung herself.

To Fassbinder the idea that an international commission will investigate the deaths is absolutely ludicrous. Noting that Stammheim is the “most secure prison in the world. With a law to prevent contacts. Where nobody is allowed in cells, the cells are searched twice daily,” and yet despite all this, the world is supposed to believe that the RAF members had “real guns hidden” inside their cells inside the prison.

Fassbinder, who dominates a large portion of the film, engages his mother, Lilo Eder, in an argument about various forms of government. As someone who has survived through Nazi times, she acknowledges that in the current political climate, it’s better not to discuss the RAF in case one is identified as some sort of sympathizer. She believes that democracy does not exist for the masses, and preferring the oxymoronic notion of a benign authoritarian leader, she’s content to leave certain issues to be decided by a hierarchy. Thus, it’s seen, that like Armin, she’s quite comfortable with rendering power over to government because they supposedly make decisions for the ‘good’ of those who dwell under their laws.

Germany in Autumn is not for the casually curious. The film is truly excellent, and the directors made a phenomenal film that recreates a crucial time in Germany’s history. However, a little background information on the political situation is mandatory for this film–otherwise you risk being hopelessly lost in this wonderful, engrossing and eclectic film.

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A Man Like Eva (1984)

“We’re on the edge of a volcano.”

How does a director even begin to approach a project as impossible as making a film about the life of the fascinatingly complex German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder? Fassbinder was an extremely prolific New German Cinema director, and he completed his films at an almost alarming rate before his untimely death in 1982 at age 37. Fassbinder remains an enigma, and his personality cannot be easily dissected and transferred to the screen. He was an intensely brilliant man capable of the most wanton cruelty, and yet full of passionate beliefs. Fassbinder’s personal life was notoriously difficult. He was a tortured soul with rather extreme personal and political beliefs (he knew some members of the Baader-Meinhof group). Of all the things I’ve read about Fassbinder, I don’t think anyone ever claimed he was easy to understand, easy to know or easy to like–although he did inspire great personal loyalty and love from many who knew him.

Director Radu Gabrea attempts to tell the story of Fassbinder in the film A Man Like Eva by sensibly choosing to concentrate on a slice of Fassbinder’s life. In A Man Like Eva Fassbinder (Eva Mattes) is directing Camille. He coldly discards one lover, Ali, and attempts to secure another lover– actor, Walter (Werner Stocker). Walter shrugs off Fassbinder’s advances but seems interested in leading lady, Gudrun (Lisa Kreuzer). Fassbinder precipitously marries Gudrun but is consequently cuckolded by Walter.

One of the reasons Fassbinder was so prolific is that he surrounded himself with an entire crew of people who understood him. This is marvelously re-created in A Man Like Eva. Fassbinder holds court amongst his merry band like some sort of despot. He vacillates between cruelty and self-imposed isolation, and the film succeeds very well in creating Fassbinder’s character, intensity and death-obsessed world.

On the down side, actress Eva Mattes plays Fassbinder. And while she does an incredible job of imitatating Fassbinder’s mannerisms (and the fake beard helps), ultimately this casting does not work. It seems most preposterous during the masked ball scene when Fassbinder dances with Walter. Fassbinder was a bull of a man–domineering, vigourous and loud. When Eva Mattes portrays one of Fassbinder’s frequent tirades, she is shrill and shrewish. Her voice just doesn’t replace Fassbinder’s booming rants. Professional reviewers seemed to find the casting of a woman in a male role as some sort of coup, and while I can’t fault the performance–it’s extraordinary–the female voice cannot continue the deceit.

Also, the film is NOT strictly factual. I have a rather difficult time with the notion of altering facts about Fassbinder’s troubled, fascinating life. The truth is that there were suicides and stabbings etc. galore in real life, so it seems unnecessary to fabricate some aspects of the film’s plot, and it’s a shame that the plot is not closer to the truth. For Fassbinder’s biography, I recommend the book, Fassbinder: the Life and Work of a Provocative Genius by Christian Braad Thomsen.

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Despair (1978)

 “Intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality.”

despairOn 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….

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Why Does Herr R Run Amok? (1970)

 “He’s more the quiet type.”

why does herr-r run amokWhat makes a mild mannered, introverted man suddenly go berserk one day and bludgeon three people to death? German director, Rainer Fassbinder asks that question in his film Why Does Herr R Run Amok? The film records the mundane existence of Herr Raab (Kurt Raab) through a series of scenes. These scenes include Raab’s tedious mind-numbingly boring job, a social visit with Raab’s elderly parents, and a meeting with Raab’s son’s teacher.

In each scene, Raab appears trapped, alienated and disaffected. While Raab’s beautiful and engaging wife (Lilith Ungerer) attempts to entertain and charm her in-laws, Raab sits immobile amidst the superficial exchanges. He’s not participating, and he doesn’t even seem to be listening. He’s under a great deal of pressure–there’s talk of a promotion at work, and there are hints of financial constraints. Through it all, Raab acts like a zombie–with little display of emotion or interest in his surroundings. But he does suffer from headaches and is told by his doctor to take a holiday.

Fassbinder goes to incredibly intricate lengths to establish the sheer boredom and triviality of Raab’s bourgeois life. While this is achieved, the viewer must, by necessity experience the details of Raab’s life second hand. Raab’s boredom and frustration becomes our boredom and frustration. Fassbinder’s skill as a director is admirable, and the awful essence of Raab’s mediocre life is transmitted through the screen, but this does not create an enjoyable viewing experience. After watching Raab’s visit with his parents, I was ready to start smashing some furniture.

Fassbinder is a fascinating director–always provocative and controversial. His greatest films include The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Stationmaster’s Wife, & Veronica Voss. If you are new to Fassbinder, start with one of those three films. Why Does Herr R Run Amok? is recommended for hardcore Fassbinder fans. In German with English subtitles.

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Chinese Roulette (1976)

 “Eavesdroppers often hear the false truth.”

chinese-rouletteWealthy businessman Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson) leaves his stiff emotionless wife, Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and sulky physically disabled daughter, Angela (Andrea Schober) for the weekend. Ostensibly, he’s traveling on business to Oslo, but in reality, he meets long-term mistress Irene Cartis (Anna Karina) at the airport, and together they drive to his country chateau for a dirty weekend. Meanwhile, his wife, Ariane, thinking her hubbie is safely off in Oslo, packs her bags and leaves for the chateau with her lover Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). When Angela catches on, and realizes that her father is lying about his whereabouts, she too heads for the chateau with her mute, serene governess, Traunitz (Macha Meril).

All the characters descend upon the chateau, destined for embarrassment and an ultimate showdown. Faithful–but unpleasant housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira) and her son–would-be author Gabriel (Volker Spengler)–maintain the chateau in the Christ family’s absence. Kast is a fascinating, repulsive character. Her face smacks disapproval of the Christs’ behaviour, but more than anything else, she loathes Angela. She’s not alone in this feeling. Angela’s mother loathes her daughter too, and Angela–not unaware of the total lack of maternal feeling, goads her mother constantly. It becomes apparent that the housekeeper has been aware for some time that both Mr. and Mrs. Christ have long-term lovers–and she’s juggled both adulterous couples separately at the chateau on weekends. So while each of the Christs have remained in ignorance about their spouse’s affair, Kast knew. Is she a faithful, close-mouthed retainer, or she is disloyal for keeping quiet? This paradox is just one of the puzzles in Chinese Roulette.

One of German director Werner Rainer Fassbinder’s favourite themes is the inherent exploitive nature of human relationships, and this theme is at work in Chinese Roulette–one of Fassbinder’s most stylized films. Obviously there’s a hierarchy of power in all the relationships–both of the Christs, for example, select extra-marital partners who are substantially socially and economically their ‘inferiors.’ The relationships between the characters are not connected by emotion–instead the relationships are glued together poorly by obligation, exploitation, or payment. The unloved and apparently unwanted Angela–who operates under the assumption that her parents’ adultery is connected to her disability–uses a game she calls Chinese Roulette to bring everyone together in what appears to be a socially acceptable setting, but in reality this nasty, spiteful game of truth reveals the underlying pathology in all their relationships. Fassbinder fans should enjoy this lesser-known title. In German with English subtitles.

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The American Soldier (1970)

 “Get me a woman.”

american-soldierThe 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.

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The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977)

“Women … 1 of them can ruin 10 men and still survive.”

Fassbinder’s masterpiece, The Stationmaster’s Wife is set in Bavaria in the 1920s and explores one of Fassbinder’s favourite themes–the exploitiveness of relationships. The stationmaster, Bolwieser (Kurt Rabb) is basically a good, but boring, man–he occupies a position of some importance in a small town. He bosses around his underlings who clearly have the stationmaster’s number. They scurry around when he shouts at them, but behind his back, they ridicule him. Bolwieser’s relationship with his wife, Hanni (Elisabeth Trissenaar) doesn’t exactly help matters. Hanni brings some family money to their relationship, so there’s an imbalance of power within the structure of the marriage. Bolwieser’s dog-like worship of Hanni does little more than grate on her nerves, and soon she takes a lover–Merkl, the town butcher.

Naturally, everyone in the town is well aware of Hanni’s relationship with Merkl, and the affair soon becomes a matter of gossip. And this is the fascinating aspect of this film–many would depict the cuckolded, spineless Bolwieser as an object of pity, or we might even expect him to exact revenge. In Fassbinder’s hands, Bolwieser becomes the object of humiliating, collective ridicule, and once he’s the town’s laughing stock, Hanni manipulates Bolwieser into suing the gossipmongers for perjury. Bolwieser’s weak character ensures that he will take the path of least resistance, and whatever Hanni dictates, Bolwieser does.

Fassbinder’s film is based on the novel by Oskar Marie Graf. Originally, Fassbinder created Bolwieser as a 2-part television play. After concluding the play, Fassbinder cut down the material he had and created the film version. The Stationmaster’s Wife has an episodic feel to it–perhaps this is due to the fact that several scenes were cut for the film version.

Fassbinder’s depiction of the pathological aspects of the Bolwiesers’ marriage is a searing, brutal and brilliant portrayal of the subtle power structures within the marriage. There are moments when Bolwieser has the upper hand–temporarily, and then he lavishes his drooling and unwelcome attentions on Hanni–often humiliating her while he has the chance. The ugliness and pettiness of small time life is emphasized through the perversity and grotesqueness of most of the characters. There’s one scene, for example, when several characters read a newspaper story about a mother who tries to drown her child. The characters find this story immensely entertaining and amusing, and they all have a good laugh. In other scenes, the camera emphasizes the grotesque qualities of the characters–the only physically appealing characters are Hanni and her lovers. If you enjoy this film, I also recommend, The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronica Voss. Fassbinder is one of my favourite directors, and The Stationmaster’s Wife is one of his greatest films. In German with English subtitles.

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Lili Marleen (1981)

 “You are a shining light in this regime.”

lili-marleenLili Marleen from German director Fassbinder is very loosely based on the autobiography of WWII singer Lale Andersen. This is one of the three films Fassbinder made in English, and it tends towards the epic soap in its depiction of the love story between the German chanteuse Willie (Hanna Schygulla) and her Jewish lover, pianist and composer Robert Mendelsohn (Giancarlo Giannini). When the film begins, Willie and Robert live in Switzerland where Willie–a mediocre singer–has a nightclub engagement. Here she comes to the attention of some visiting Nazis who urge her to come back to Berlin so they can boost her career. Robert is involved in smuggling Jews from Germany to Switzerland, and when he leaves for Berlin on another mission, Willie accompanies him. Unfortunately, Robert’s father, who doesn’t approve of Willie, pulls strings to forbid her reentry to Switzerland, and so the lovers are parted.

Willie reconnects with the Nazi officers she met in Switzerland, and she records the song “Lili Marleen.” Willie’s singing ability leaves a lot to be desired, but the song is, by chance, picked up on the airwaves and rapidly becomes extremely popular with the soldiers at the front. While the soldiers identify with the song’s theme–a soldier who longs to return home from war to the woman who’s waiting–propaganda minister Goebbels hates it. To Goebbels, the song has “the stench of death” and isn’t patriotic enough, but Willie enjoys Hitler’s patronage, and so she remains a popular singer and entertainer until she crosses her Nazi masters and is blacklisted.

In a different film, Lili’s character could contain some depth and complexity–after all she’s swept up in a maelstrom of moral complexity and chooses to survive through Nazi patronage. But Fassbinder’s Lili isn’t depicted as a complex character–instead she’s portrayed as a woman caught up by circumstance who operates solely on a desire to survive and her love for Mendelsohn. Hanna Schygulla–one of Fassbinder’s greatest actresses–plays the role with a slightly distracted, naive air. Still the story raises some interesting moral questions regarding the price of survival. The plot is problematic and a bit muddled in some parts of the film. This may be due to the fact that Fassbinder did not work with his own script here–but one he revised that was originally written by one of his arch-enemies Manfred Purzer. Fassbinder also plays a small role as an underground operative involved in rescuing Jews.

But in spite of its flaws, Lili Marleen is a feast for Fassbinder fans. The film contains moments of pure power. Some very moving scenes depict Willie singing and her words are broadcast over the airwaves to soldiers–some in the trenches, some in open fields. Soldiers bow their heads and fall silent as they recall the bittersweet memories of all they’ve left behind. In one of the best scenes in the film, Willie performs to a packed house of Nazi elite, and scenes of huge bouquets of flowers are juxtaposed with the bodies of soldiers falling from explosions. If you’re new to Fassbinder, I recommend starting with The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronica Voss or The Stationmaster’s Wife.


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