Appreciations: The Merchant of the Four Seasons (1971)

Features, FILM

In the ’70s and early ’80s, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a leading figure of New German Cinema and one of the most revered filmmakers in the world. He started as a theatre actor, and in the late ’60s established a troupe known as the Anti-Theatre. After being turned down by the West Berlin Film School, Fassbinder simply started making films. Over a period of 14 years (until his death in 1982), he wrote and directed more than 40 productions: four films in 1969; six in 1970; a five-part TV series and four more features in 1972; and an average of three productions a year for the remainder of his career! It would be an understatement to say he was driven, and his private life was (by all accounts) equally intense. Much has been written about his self-destructive lifestyle and the extent to which it informed his work—acting as a kind of counterbalance to his private excesses. The early films were all Anti-Theatre collaborations, but following the chaotic production of Whity (1970), an experience mirrored in Beware the Holy Whore (1970), the troupe began to implode. Their last project was the relatively modest Pioneers of Ingoldstadt (1970), after which Fassbinder slowed the pace down to concentrate on one film: The Merchant of the Four Seasons (1971). He took more care over the production of this one film than any other to date. It was the only film he made in 1971, and it was to be a major critical and artistic breakthrough.

Born in 1945, Fassbinder grew up in a country barely coming to terms with the psychic damage of World War Two and the effects of the post-war economic miracle of the Adenauer Era. In less than 20-years Germany went from having a completely ruined economy to being a model of democratic affluence. Fassbinder’s work was strongly informed by the moral and psychological consequences of this period, and by the questions it raised about personal and national identity and guilt—what he called the “amnesia that permeates Germany.” In the ’50s and ’60s, American music and films were attractive and hypnotic diversions that filled some of the cultural, emotional and spiritual void. That these were the cultural Trojan-horses of American imperialism was hardly apparent, but the “Coca-colonisation” of Germany (as Wim Wenders neatly put it) was pervasive. This was a major theme in New German Cinema, not only in the work of Wenders and Fassbinder but also Jean-Marie Straub, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog and others. Fassbinder was also of the opinion that mankind is a necessary destructive presence in the world, and that real freedom is impossible without facing this fact. He was fascinated by enmity and the sadomasochistic proclivity for victimisation, and all of his films were, by and large, examinations of existential pain: guilt, intolerance, fear, humiliation, envy, jealousy, rejection, shame, etc. Put simply: the need for love, which in Fassbinder’s work is often withheld and/or used as a weapon.

The Merchant of the Four Seasons is the story of Hans Epp, a simple fruit-vendor despised by his family and rejected by the object of his love (a woman who disdains his lowly profession). Instead he marries Irm, a woman of “lower social standing” with whom he has a child. As the business grows, his family extends a begrudging modicum of self-interested regard towards him, but Epp’s deep-seated sense of futility gradually draws him into a morose downward spiral. Epp is the embodiment of existential pain, and a metaphor for the condition of post-war Germany. Many who knew Fassbinder indicated that there was more than a hint of autobiography in Epp (that he mirrors Fassbinder’s insecurities about being unloved, unlovable and unable to love), and in Irm (Epp’s wife) there are traces of his legendary tyranny. In any event, Fassbinder’s films were unmistakably personal, and reveal a singular and persistent vision.

In 1970, Fassbinder wrote an essay about German émigré Douglas Sirk (a Hollywood director renowned in the ’50s for his so-called “women’s pictures”), in which he spoke about the isolationist xenophobia and middle-class hypocrisy beneath the beautifully manicured surfaces of Sirk’s ostensibly innocuous (but quietly incisive) melodramas. Sirk’s films were superficially revered by the mainstream, but sub-textually they were scathingly critical. He was able to ‘attack from within’ because his films were primarily inclusive—they captivated the viewer with engaging stories and characters, while the critical sub-texts percolated away in the background. However, Fassbinder sought a participatory engagement from his audience. “The American method of filmmaking,” he said, “leaves the audience with emotions and little else. I want them to reflect…” He was inspired by Sirk’s calculated use of inauthenticity (through heightened production values such as colour and set-design), and his equally emphatic depiction of American idealism and spiritual nostalgia. Fassbinder emulated the highly developed syntax of Hollywood in order to subvert its ideology: “to reveal truth through melodramatic cliché,” as he put it. He wanted audiences to enjoy his films, but to also consider them (active rather than passive viewing). To this end he employed Brechtian distanciation to create a deliberate schism between film and viewer. Characters and objects are carefully (sometimes obviously) framed within doorways and windows or reflected in mirrors and glass to stress objectivity and artificiality. Performances are sometimes stripped of emotion or saturated with it, and at times purposely stilted and awkward or directed so as to accentuate silences, dead-time, and the spaces between sentences. Cutting between scenes was often delayed, again drawing attention to dead-time and to the ‘empty screen’, creating self-awareness in the viewer as they anticipate the eventual ‘safety’ of the cut. This anti-inclusive technique was intended to push the viewer out of the film, to force them to reflect on (and question) what they’re watching, how they feel about it, and why.

Two scenes in Merchant illustrate this. In the first, Hans and Irm laugh over their business success, and in the second Hans laughs with an old army buddy. In both cases the laughter borders on hysterical, almost to the point of unbalancing the scenes. This makes it difficult for the viewer to engage with the film or identify with the characters in a conventional sense. Fassbinder also liked to eschew the signalling of flashbacks or shifts in time, and it may not be until well into a scene (or until it’s over) before the viewer realises a shift has occurred. Again, temporal suspension and dislocation was intended to compel the viewer to work with the film rather than be led by it. He would also diminish the primacy of story, characters and dialogue in order to draw attention to (among other things) the political, social and spiritual vacuity of a world in which ‘value’ and ‘worth’ are often defined by commercial imperatives. By amplifying feel-good tropes, Fassbinder criticises ‘corporate cinema’ for its cynical use of aspirational values and beliefs primarily for commercial and/or propagandistic ends.

Of course, distanciation is risky. Viewers unfamiliar with it can find the experience too jarring, and might come away thinking the film was bad. (Interestingly, Fassbinder’s films are more prone to being misunderstood today than when they were made, which might point to a shift in terms of the kind of film the ‘art-house’ audience is willing to engage with today.) Characters, settings and themes were far from stereotypical in Fassbinder’s work, and provocation was also very important. He distrusted constructs designed to subscribe fixed meanings to existence, and loathed moral superiority and hypocrisy. He described his work as “the cinema of vicious cycles,” in which he sought to examine the dynamics and co-dependence between authority and rebellion, power and complicity, victim and victimiser. The exits are usually blocked for Fassbinder’s characters. Mostly outsiders, they live on the margins of bourgeois society, barely able to comprehend the forces that constrain them. Their stories reflect the frustration and violence of having to suffer the pernicious toxicity of middle-class hypocrisy. Few of them escape the perpetual cycles of longing, betrayal and humiliation, and they despise themselves (and each other) for being the failures they have been manipulated into believing they are. Epp is the embodiment of all of this, and we see this most strikingly in the scene where he drinks himself to death: a failure that is paradoxically a moment of profound self-affirmation for him, where he at last obtains a kind of dignity. Irm looks on with tears streaming down her face, exaggerated to suggest a double mockery: a feigning of grief, and a mimicking of religious piety (the ‘suffering saint’, an example of Fassbinder’s wry iconoclasm). Hans’s mute and benumbed drinking buddies look on in hopeless incomprehension, alluding to a dispossessed nation with either nothing to say or no voice to say it with. Instead they submit to spiritual, emotional and moral apathy. Incapable of giving or receiving love, Hans has enough will for one final act of defiance, to reject a world that, even in death, mercilessly mocks him.

The Merchant of the Four Seasons reveals what Fassbinder called his preference for “truth-telling over story-telling.” Like Hans Epp, Fassbinder knew that without love we perish. Despite the use of distanciation and other formal discontinuities, his films are invariably compassionate, searching and honest. They may often be pessimistic, but they are rarely (if ever) insincere—always empathetic and insightful. His characters were never ridiculed, even at their most despicable. They are repeatedly caught up in fictions that demand tragic melodrama to satisfactorily resolve their inner conflicts, and in this respect they speak to a society in denial, one in which the proliferation and acceptance of undemanding anti-intellectual escapism reflects an increasingly escapist culture. Some 35 years on, a fascination with the sweat-marks of celebrity dominates the popular media. ‘Popcorn movies’ rule, and by telling viewers what to think and feel (not only in terms of stories and characters, but also [more importantly] the ideas and attitudes behind them) they function as a form of social engineering, pedaling subtly influential and often spurious notions that mostly go unchallenged. Fassbinder’s art contrasts the ‘normality’ of popular movies with a cinema of dysfunction: non-conformity; sexual and racial otherness; political and social disenfranchisement; and formal discontinuity, among many other things. His life and early death (at only 37), and the sheer volume of his output was very much in concert with the tone and trajectory of his subject matter—and as articulate a howl as anything he put on film. It is said that art can only be justified by life, but Fassbinder may have preferred the opposite view, that life can only be justified by cinema.

Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Germany, 1971; 88 minutes
Featuring: Hans Hirschmuller, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, Andrea Schober, Gusti Kreissl.