Thursday, April 27, 2017

Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder on the set with actor Hilmar Thate

Fassbinder on the set with actress Rosel Zech

VERONIKA VOSS (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss)     A                    
Munich  (105 mi)  November – December 1981 d:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Everything I have belongs to you — all I have left to give you is my death.   
—Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech)

Early German cinema masterpieces such as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), NOSFERATU (1922), METROPOLIS (1927), and M (1931), with their themes of ruthless totalitarianism, sadistic violence, and extreme fanatacism, foretold the rise of fascism and the horrors of the Third Reich.  Half a century later Germany was still reeling from the ramifications of World War II, where the mixture of guilt, anger, and confusion, not surprisingly, led to denial.  No one was more sensitive to this subject and its effect on the national consciousness than young German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who in the late 70’s noted, “They can’t have forgotten [the Holocaust]; they must have had it in their minds when they were creating their new state.  If a thing of so much significance could be forgotten or repressed, then something must be pretty wrong with this democracy and this ‘German model.’”  Selective memory becomes the central theme of his BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy, offering humanist dramas that uniquely and effectively tell his and his nation’s story.  Winner of the Golden Bear (1st Prize) at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival, the only one of his films to ever do so, Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss followed Hanna Schygulla in THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979) and Barbara Sukowa in LOLA (1981) in the third of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, one of the most imaginative critiques of the German economic model in any medium, a flamboyant, metaphorical, and satiric response to Germany’s “economic miracle” of reconstruction in the 1950’s, suggesting rampant greed and capitalism survive by wiping away the historical past, where selective amnesia is a mandatory condition that allows the rest of German society to move forward.  Veronika’s connection to the country’s Nazi past is dismissed to the shadows of memory, coming to symbolize a relic of an unwanted past that must be swept aside to make way for the future.  
In a lurid melodrama and memory play about the past and its haunting effects on the present, VERONIKA VOSS is one of the better Fassbinder films, a perfectly conceived visual masterpiece in black and white, gorgeously photographed by Xaver Schwarzenberger, released 6 months after Fassbinder’s death, a grim reminder foreshadowing his own death.  Notes discovered after his death reveal this film set in 1955 was intended to be the 2nd of his German post-war trilogy films, chronologically taking place after MARIA BRAUN (40’s), and before LOLA (late 50’s).  The film is modeled after Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD. (1950), both featuring a gloomy old house, a fading film star, a relationship with a younger man, and a comeback attempt, not to mention a movie within a movie, where the pathologically self-deluding character of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) mirrors the long downfall of Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech), an aging Third Reich actress living in the obscurity of postwar Munich, where the film was shot, rumored to be the mistress of Goebbels, based on the real life of actress Sybille Schmitz (VAMPYR, DOES NOT ANSWER — both 1932), later blacklisted by Goebbels, and she committed suicide in 1955.  Fassbinder was reportedly looking for Schmitz to play the mother in PETRA VON KANT (1972), apparently unaware of her fate, and when discovered, decided to make her story into this film.  The film actually begins with Voss watching alone in a theater witnessing one of her old, lurid screen performances in an UFA wartime film entitled Insidious Poison (Schleichendes Gift), where her character is injected with drugs, signing over all her earthly belongings in a scene that foreshadows both her final days in the film and Fassbinder’s fate, as he is also in the same theater sitting behind her watching the film.  In real life, her own doctor, a diabolical, sado-masochistic lesbian Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer), mercilessly exploits her by feeding her morphine habit, forcing her to sign over what’s left of her life’s fortune as payment.  A prominent theme and certainly of interest is the use of the song, “Sixteen Tons,” sung by Fassbinder regular Günther Kaufmann (one of Fassbinder’s former lovers, appearing in all three trilogy films) which features the lyrics:  “I owe my soul to the company store,” eventually leading to Voss’s tragic suicide.     

In a chance encounter, Voss runs into Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) on the street, offering her his umbrella in a downpour of rain, a kind gesture that she appreciates, describing him as her shelter in a storm.  What immediately surprises her is that he does not know who she is, as she’s a former UFA star still living in the delirious illusions of stardom, where she’s used to being catered to night and day while being treated like royalty, forever expecting a return to her former glory.  Robert is essentially an everyman, the personification of the postwar German, a man who drinks his beer, pursues his work and his private relations, yet in his life nothing dramatic or exciting ever happens, working a routine job for a newspaper as a sports reporter, but gets caught up in the whirlwind of her own delusions, finding her fascinating, allowing him to rub elbows with the upper class, company he rarely keeps, where he finds it hard to keep his eyes off of her.  Viewed largely through his supposedly impartial eyes, as he was unaware of her former fame, Robert already has a girlfriend, Henriette (Cornelia Froboess), a level-headed and attractive girl who finds his newfound romantic interest amusing, especially when Voss arrives at their door one evening ready for him to drive her to her lavish country estate and spend the night, a preposterous gesture that is sealed with a kiss on Henriette’s cheek as she brazenly steals her man, but doing so in such an openly alluring and irresistible manner.  Voss’s immense home is like a mausoleum, a lavish corpse with dead plants and white sheets covering all the furniture to keep the dust from accumulating, very much like its aging superstar, a relic from a forgotten era, where she murmurs to him, “I like to seduce ... helpless men.”  Unlike Zarah Leander and Marika Rökk, celebrated UFA stars who continued to be popular in Germany for many decades after World War II, Voss has no connection to the new Germany, but lives only in her memory, longing for a bygone past, separated from her ex-husband, the screenwriter Max Rehbein (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who left her because he could no longer bear her addiction and its consequences.  Only in these moments of memory and imagination is Veronika Voss allowed to show feelings or affection towards others.  After sleeping with Krohn, she wakes up horrified, ruled by a neverending emptiness and pain, once more requiring the services of Dr. Katz. 
But Voss is hiding even more personal secrets, as she doesn’t live at her given address, an old Jewish couple named Treibel live there instead, Johanna Hofer and Rudolf Platte, who both survived Treblinka, but are also patients of Dr. Katz, dependent on morphine to obliterate their memories, literally ghosts of the past whose age belies their wisdom, as they seem to be dark angels of death, both consumed by their own morbidity, with tattooed arms from the war, a haunting reminder of the death camps and all who lost their lives.  Voss is actually living in the home of Dr. Katz, though it feels more like an imprisonment, bearing a strange resemblance to the German Expressionism of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), expressed through a surreal dreamlike home that is oversaturated in white, creating a ghastly, unworldly presence, ironically playing American country music on the radio, like Johnny Horton’s Johnny Horton: The Battle of New Orleans - YouTube (2:33), and Sanford Clark’s SANFORD CLARK Run Boy Run - YouTube (2:14), representative, perhaps, of her warped state of mind, but it may also be a comment on the pervasive use of the radio during the Nazi era as a form of social control, with the wildly exaggerated artificiality of the home resembling a sterile medical lab where Katz plays ruthless psychological mind games with Voss, suggesting she, and by implication the nation, have never been able to overcome their Nazi past, as her wicked brand of authoritarianism closely resembles the brutal precision of the Nazi past, keeping her patient addicted to morphine while blatantly abusing her power to arbitrarily authorize needed treatment only as a means to bleed the actress of her wealth.  Robert and Henriette visit Dr. Edel (Erik Schumann), who heads the Health Department, but he is very noncommittal when it comes to questions about the distribution of narcotics, suggesting they are properly regulated, echoing the sentiments of the Third Reich, “The system of control is perfect.  It’s the people that aren’t perfect.”  Partnering together with Dr. Edel, Dr. Katz and her associates icily connive to become the big winners of the “economic miracle,” the unscrupulous beneficiaries of the postwar reconstruction, succeeding beyond their wildest dreams, while nobodies like Krohn and Voss haven’t got a chance against them.  Krohn wants to save Veronika, free her from the manipulative hold by Dr. Katz, but realizes this is impossible, ultimately paying a large price, losing his girlfriend in the process, who poses as a rich widow in need of Dr. Katz’s services in order to help expose her criminal behavior, becoming yet another victim in the process, murdered by Katz for coming too close and knowing too much, with Krohn remaining a fool throughout.  His efforts are pointless, as Veronika refuses to be saved, and actually protects her oppressor by cooperating with the sinister Dr. Katz, becoming slavishly submissive, a more than willing foil, performing one final scene in front of the authorities, lying to help prevent Dr. Katz’s exposure to the police.  Impotent to expose such deep-rooted and institutionalized corruption, Krohn returns to the banal life of a sports reporter. 

Blending Brechtian austerity with Sirkian melodrama, Fassbinder produced forty features in a thirteen year career, where in addition, he was largely responsible for screenplay, equipment, and editing, displaying fluid camerawork and astute color schemes while accentuating the social isolation of his fallen protagonists.  Despite tortured emotions and disintegrating psyches on display, Fassbinder not only identifies with outsiders and misfits, but exhibits compassion and even tenderness in their portrayals onscreen.  Shining a light on the marginalized, Fassbinder identifies with working class heroes, examining the root of their disenfranchisement, awakening us from our own self-induced complacency, providing intellectually stimulating and emotionally volatile works that demand empathy and personal investment.  A humanist at the core, Fassbinder’s films have a rare potency, achieved through extraordinary performances and superb craftsmanship, as the man simply knew how to make films, becoming one of cinema’s boldest enfant terrible.  Displaying a degree of sophistication in the latter stages of his career, among the most memorable recollections about this film are Fassbinder’s magnificent use of white coupled with Veronika Voss’s seductive and positively enchanting performance of the song “Memories Are Made of This,” Veronika Voss Memories are made of this - YouTube (2:32), a Marlene Dietrich-like spectacle that is among the director’s most technically accomplished sequences.  In two and a half minutes Fassbinder masterly interweaves many the director’s primary concerns, a blurring of reality, fiction and fantasy, a predominance of artifice, including candlelight, visual composition, spectator vs. spectacle, both physical and psychological imprisonment, celebrity, along with an intertwinement of desire and destiny in a multi-layered kaleidoscope of light and shadow.  The sequence perfectly casts the central figure ensnared in a spider’s web, surrounded by the leeches that would eventually devour her.  Broken dreams and shattered illusions are seen through a prism of rain-soaked, or tear-stained, windows.  This brilliant display of artistry expands and embellishes the joyless mood of helplessness and utter despair.

While the subject of drug abuse may mirror Fassbinder’s own personal descent into a fatal overdose in 1982, just 112 days after winning the Berlin award, suffering a stroke after two days of binging on cocaine and sleeping pills, but Voss’s addiction represents an indictment of German history, where drugs serve as an agent of commerce and a spiraling out of control capitalism, yet without accompanying safeguards and an understanding of its misuse and harmful effects, drug addiction can inevitably lead to ruin, becoming a symbol for the failings of modern society.  As Veronika, Zech portrays a drug-addicted screen idol in the twilight of her career, subsisting on memories of past grandeur, as if through a fog of hazy recollection, which would include the brief triumphs and ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany, its impact on the nation now laid to rest, where death and forgetfulness become synonymous with forgetting one’s past as a nation forges a new path towards the future.  When investigated, the real-life Schmitz had been living in her doctor’s house at the time of her suicide.  She seemed to be assisted by another doctor, an official working in the Munich Health Department, who issued the prescriptions, notably 723 instances of prescribed narcotics in less than three years.  The two supplied hard drugs in exchange for cash and property rights, specializing in celebrities from the Nazi period, covering for each other when their patients committed suicide, supposedly when they could no longer pay.  In the end, no one was guarding the guardians of the new age.  It has been suggested that rather than film noir, this is film blanc, not black and white, but black or white. The white in this film has never been so menacing, so evil, as it is in the apartment of Dr. Katz and in the room that eventually becomes both prison and grave to Veronika.  Here the unnatural white decor reflects the clinical presence of death, turning the home into its worst perversion, a test laboratory for unspeakably cruel human experiments.  The white eventually drives out the black, and with it, pushes into oblivion the person that was once Veronika Voss.  White is, in this context, the drugs she was addicted to, the whiteness of forgetting, another metaphor for Germany, the soft sleep of forgetting.

Take one fresh and tender kiss
Add one stolen night of bliss
One girl, one boy
Some grief, some joy
Memories are made of this

Don’t forget a small moonbeam
Fold in lightly with a dream
Your lips and mine
Two sips of wine
Memories are made of this

Then add the wedding bells
One house where lovers dwell
Three little kids for the flavor
Stir carefully through the days
See how the flavor stays
These are the dreams you’ll savor

With His blessings from above
Serve it generously with love
One man, one wife
One love through life
Memories are made of this
Memories are made of this

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