Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes.

THINK OF EARLY FASSBINDER: ECLIPSE SERIES 39—the Criterion Collection DVD set of five of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first eleven feature-length films, made whirlwind-fashion between 1969 and 1970—as a portable cross between an art installation and a German delicatessen. The lean, piquant cold cuts of his 1969 debut Love Is Colder Than Death are like a black-and-white platter of blood sausage, gorgeously splayed out in razor-sharp slices. Katzelmacher (1969) is spotty weisswurst, marinated in bile; Gods of the Plague (1969) is raw gangland ham on rye; The American Soldier, pulpy headcheese slathered in nouvelle French dressing. And for the piece de resistance, Beware of a Holy Whore (1970): a big lip-smacking, full-color film-about-a-film club sandwich of the bad, the beautiful, and the borderline psychotic.

Three of these are variations on a genre: Love Is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier are a vaguely interconnected trilogy of homages to the Hollywood tough-guy films of the Sam Fuller-Raoul Walsh kind. (Recurring characters include a “Magdalena Fuller” and “Franz Walsch,” the latter played by Fassbinder in two of the three pictures.) They bring this type of what Manny Farber first championed (circa 1957) as “underground film” together with the Godard-Warhol-Straub mode (that Farber championed as well). Love Is Colder Than Death luxuriates in the head-on geometry of amazing precisionist compositions, accompanied by hypnotic blasts of incongruous music, like an anti-fashion layout for a nihilist Vogue: Fassbinder’s pudgy, poxy leather-jacketed pimp Franz, Ulli Lommel parading like a kid dressed up as Alain Delon’s dapper Le Samourai for Halloween, an equally baby-faced Hanna Schygulla immediately grabbing the audience by casually removing her stockings. These three are always posing, playing at Bonnie-und-Clyde charades (“I’m looking for round glasses like the cop in Psycho had”), moving in synchronized patterns and rivetingly silhouetted against whitewashed walls.

Before Schygulla, no one in movies ever balanced life-grinding routine and poeticized glamour quite so easily—the embodiment of double (and redoubled) life, she would deservedly become the emblem for Fassbinder’s mash-ups of unsparing reality and acute artifice. In Katzelmacher, the one detour into socially-conscious didacticism in our program, she deftly disappears into the ensemble, playing the least rotten of a pack of craven, good-for-nothing bourgeois friends who socialize, gossip, abuse each other out of boredom but band together to kick the crap out of a poor immigrant who moves onto their turf. This production is the most blatant carryover from Fassbinder’s theater work, everything as pointedly unambiguous as a sitcom devised by a juvenile-delinquent Brecht. Fassbinder plays the foreign man—Yorgo the Greek—as a childlike Forrest Gimp, exacerbating the sense of the film as a one-act sketch that’s been padded out by forty-five or so minutes of redundant if heartfelt malice. The moral being: Life is like a box of Fassbinder films, so you never know what you’ll get—a poisoned bon-bon or a solid smack in the teeth with a rusty monkeywrench.

Gods of the Plague loosely recapitulates his first movie, with some of the same characters (this time Harry Baer plays Franz, with a glassy eye toward the Warhol limp-stud paradigm) and similar plotting, as a way of conducting some fresh experiments, working out new spatial and emotional compositions. With Schygulla doing her first Dietrich turn at “Club Lola Montez,” while being framed backstage in a dirty mirror that lends a distinct Robert Frank–ness to the lowlife vantage point, the movie has all the infectiously bleak cunning of a romantic-triangle opera filtered through the Rolling Stones at their most downbeat and strung-out. Alienation never felt so valiantly bittersweet as when a wounded robber’s Odd Man Out stagger down a deserted boulevard by night segues into an a cappella rendition of “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” staged in yet another mirror. Fassbinder reconnoiters the tension between distance and rapture like a private eye photographing a cheating spouse: businesslike, cynical, mesmerized.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Katzelmacher, 1969, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes. Jorgos and Marie (Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla).

With a dame indolently painting her toenails in the foreground of a poker game among crooked cops (using a deck of pornographic cards to up the seediness quotient), The American Soldier’s opening couldn’t be brusquer if a manhole cover were lifted up and the camera dove in. Inside of ten minutes, the title character (Karl Scheydt) has taken a hapless hooker on a night drive through Alphaville and dumped her like a sack of dirty laundry in Kiss Me Deadly territory, laughing maniacally as he shoots her with blanks. (I think there’s a mocking Mike Hammer/Lemmy Caution metaphor—or several—floating around in this movie-movie fishtank.) He’s trying to get ahold of his old buddy: “Walsch—‘W’ as in war, ‘A’ as in Alamo, ‘L’ as in Lenin, ‘S’ as in science fiction, ‘C’ as in crime, ‘H’ as in hell.” When he tracks Franz down, they have an equally droll post-hardboiled conversation:

“How was it in Vietnam?”


“Oh, yeah? Nothing happened here.”

“Nothing ever happens in Germany.”

This film is a prime example of how Fassbinder learned organization from Godard and vertical integration from Warhol’s Factory: combining prefabricated and/or abstracted elements with unprocessed, randomized ones. But even at eighty minutes, it feels like Fassbinder tires of the procedural repaint-by-numbers course en route, that he’s made his point and completed his studies in positioning figures in phone booths or alongside jukeboxes or putting pinball machines in parlors. The climactic shootout drags out the cliché of the slow-motion death scene in a manner so ludicrously clumsy it means to purge the macho convention once and for all—a ballet of dry heaves.

If Love Is Colder Than Death is Fassbinder’s most underrated film—at once too gnomic and too precociously ruthless—then Beware of a Holy Whore is where Fassbinder incontrovertibly graduates from being a dazzling student of filmmaking to working on a level commensurate with the high masters. Shot for shot, scene for magnificently mortifying scene, this goes proudly toe-to-toe with the insider-straits of Wilder, Minnelli, and Godard; it also makes Johnny-come-latelys like Day for Night, Nashville, or Boogie Nights look like postcards from the edgeless. Could anyone ever order a “cuba libre” again after seeing this? A sardonic monster movie—well, a primer on how filmmaking can serve as permission slip for otherwise semi-decent, halfway sane people to behave as monsters, tyrants, frauds, cheaters, and infantile aggressors/victims—Beware packs a layered wallop of scorn, moral squalor, delicious absurdity, and flickering humanity. Playing the Fassbinder-ish director, Lou Castel’s Jeff is a wonderfully appalling self-projection, both as wish-fulfillment (a blond Adonis, he looks like he should be starring opposite Sandra Dee in a 1950s romance) and worst-nightmare-scenario (he acts like a bitter Caligula who fears he’s about to lose his throne and be forced to turn tricks on the street). It is a grand, sweeping indictment of the pettiness and rancor that can fester inside “art,” and yet it has one of the most perversely transcendental moments the movies have ever supplied. Schygulla dances slowly, this time à la Marilyn Monroe, to Ray Charles’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” while chaos reigns around her. Fassbinder wrapped up his first creative period with a suitable bang. This was no end-of-cinema lamentation, but a beguiling epitaph scrawled in ruby red lipstick on the medium’s grave: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Howard Hampton

Early Fassbinder: Eclipse Series 39 is now available from the Criterion Collection.