First Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) which is the earliest of his films available from Lovefilm. The film stars Michel Simon as Boudu, a tramp whom bookseller Lestingois saves from drowning and adopts into his household; there the anarchic Boudu causes great disturbance before he wins the lottery; having married the maid the whole household embarks on a boating trip, but when the boat capsizes Boudu swims away and the film ends with him resuming his existence as a tramp. It cannot be said of Renoir (unlike Welles and Godard) that his early films immediately reveal cinematic genius. There are some fascinating examples of his famous deep-focus here, which would be developed to such stunning effect in his masterpieces, but much of the film is jerky and visually uninteresting. The film’s fascination lies in the way in which Renoir develops and uses the character Boudu. It should immediately be said that there is no adulation of the Noble Savage; Boudu is ignorant and brutish. The fact that some of his remarks and comments strike home as effective satire are almost accidental. Most disturbing and unpleasant is the fact that Boudu rapes the wife whose reaction is to be entranced ; this condoning of rape and re-establishment of the appalling myth that women enjoy rape disfigured the whole film for me. No doubt defenders of Renoir would argue that this is merely intended as one aspect of his juxtaposition of forces of nature and appetite against bourgeois morality but this is not a position which stands up for a moment with me. The film and Simon’s performance are memorable but partly for wrong reasons. Renoir we can conclude was a film-maker who developed rather than one who was instantly born. The Baader Meinhof Complex directed by Uli Edel is an account of the rise and fall of the Baader Meinhof group based on a book by Stefan Aust which apparently gives a massive docu-historical account of the group. The accompanying DVD material gave accounts of the enormous efforts that the makers went to in search of pictorial accuracy. The story as told here is very simple – a group of young people radicalised by the events of the sixties, and the brutality of the German state in responding to peaceful protest, move over into terrorism under the leadership of the charismatic Andreas Baader; their acts become more and more extreme and they are eventually hunted down by the state and imprisoned; ‘second-generation’ members of the group then stage further terrorist acts in an attempt to gain their release. The early parts of the film, particularly those showing the crucial demonstration against the Shah of Iran which the riot police brutally suppress and where a demonstrator is shot dead are reasonably effective, but as the movie progresses the lack of a real intellectual analysis becomes apparent – when all is showing rather than telling the film becomes a succession of events rather than analysis or understanding. In particular we never gain any real understanding of the characters (Baader and Meinhof themselves, Ensslin) or of the reasons why the radicalisation of the sixties took this particular direction in West Germany or how this was connected to the Nazi past. The film was essentially a docu-drama with all the limitations, both cinematic (there was little of any interest visually) and intellectual, which that form entails; it was well done docu-drama but docu-drama nonetheless. The film made me very much want to re-watch the superb and fascinating Marianne and Julianne (1981) by Margarethe Von Trotta which was a riveting and brilliant account of the life of Gudrun Ensslin and her sister Christiane. However this is unavailable on Lovefilm or indeed in Britain at all as are the vast majority of Von Trotta’s films, including tragically Rosa Luxemborg (1986). This is the woman of whom one web-site says…”Born in Berlin in 1942, Margarethe von Trotta is two things: the most important woman director to emerge from the New German Cinema, and narrative cinema’s foremost feminist filmmaker.” (http://www.archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/von_trotta.html) ; yet virtually none of her movies are available on DVD in the UK! A pretty radical demonstration of how women’s (and especially socialist/feminist women’s) creativity is still marginalised or eradicated. Anyway if you want to watch a movie about the Baader Meinhof Group the one to go for, especially in the US where Von Trotta’s work is available, is undoubtedly Marianne and Julianne which has all the visual brilliance and intellectual weight which The Baader Meinhof Complex lacks.
Fortunately these two disappointments were succeeded by one good and one great movie which we watched in a single day. Taking the good first Sunshine Cleaning (2008) directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt is an enjoyable tale of two sisters in New Mexico who start up a business cleaning up after deaths of one kind or another. This apparently is a profitable business, presumably because it is so unpleasant. The business however is only a McGuffin as the movie is really concerned with a portrait of the lives of the sister and particularly the elder one, Rose. Rose was a cheerleading sensation at school, the most popular girl etc..; she seemed destined for greatness. However everything has gone wrong in her life, and she is now a single mother working as a maid when the movie opens. She is in a dead-end relationship with a married cop, her mother committed suicide when she was young, her dad is endlessly involving himself in commercial schemes which inevitably fail, and her sister Norah is a slacker Goth. A key scene in the movie occurs when Rose encounters one of her old school companions in one of her maid cleaning jobs; the school companion lives in some luxury and is in ‘real estate’ and has done well. Later Rose makes a terrible mistake by going to visit this friend’s baby shower ; she wants to validate herself in their eyes by showing herself as a successful business-woman, but of course these women, shown as vacuous and status-obsessed, are unimpressed by her somewhat gruesome and very real line of work (it is a disaster because in the meantime Norah is left to attempt a clean-up job on her own and allows the house to burn down). The cop’s wife is also an old-school companion and she spits venom at her when they encounter each other. Now it has to be observed that the film is something of a cheat here; we are never shown Rose as the head cheerleader/most popular girl, nor those whom she very probably scorned and excluded at the time of her glory; so the other women’s Schadenfreude seems like wholly unjustified spite, where it may be that it some cases it had substantial adolescent justification. On the other hand where the film scores most heavily is in terms of Rose’s journey of discovery that the world of those who live outside the power/status network is where her destiny and happiness, and the best of humanity, lies : the movie is one of self-discovery that she does not need the absurd clichéd self-help mantras which she chants early in the film, nor the approval of her old school friends. The people who matter and are good for her are her imaginative son (excluded from school for being difficult), her sister, her father and the one-armed model aircraft obsessive who owns the shop which sells the cleaning supplies needed for her business. It is with the marginalised and excluded that Rose’s happiness and future lies and if she can help them – as she realises her business does – then her life has justification and purpose enough. The movie ends with Norah heading off into the unknown and Rose setting up in the death cleaning business with her father.
Sunshine Cleaning is a well-observed, interesting film of the Hollywood independent type. It says much for it that I found it very watchable even though I was viewing it almost immediately after seeing a truly great movie; it is true that its cinematic weakness (there is nothing of visual interest) was exposed but the story held the attention. Fassbinder’s Lola (1981) however sees a very great director working at the very height of his power; this is cinema in all its majesty and glory. Lola is actually the second, though last chronologically, in Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ in which he examines the Germany of the 1950’s, the others being Maria Braun and Veronika Voss. It is no accident that the three movies centre on women; Fassbinder delighted in the use of muses, but in addition he believed, as Barbara Sukowa who plays Lola reveals in the accompanying material, that women allowed a greater expressive range of emotions. While the trilogy may be linked by certain themes, above all an examination of Germany reacting to the Nazi past, each film is strongly individual. In Lola the eponymous central character is a singer and prostitute in a club/brothel owned by Shuckert who is also the leading businessman in the town and at the heart of a web of corruption; all the ruling class of the town frequent his brothel and avail themselves of the services. Then a new Building Commissioner, Von Bohm (a wonderful performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl) arrives; Von Bohm is puritanical and high-minded. When Lola is told that he would never have anything to do with her, she re-invents herself as a ‘pure’ young woman and seduces him, but when he asks her to marry him and then plans to introduce her at a dinner party where Shuckert and his wife together with the Mayor will be present, she sends a telegram breaking off their relationship. Meanwhile Esslin (surely no co-incidence that the name is so close to Ensslin), an idealistic young man who works in the Building Commissioner’s office and is himself in love with Lola is becoming increasingly desperate to expose Shuckert, and indeed finally Lola when she rejects him. He takes Von Bohm to the club/brothel. Von Bohm is shattered and embarks on a crusade which will bring Shuckert and all his cronies to their knees; however in the end his love and desire for Lola is too much – he goes to the brothel and buys her services for the night; but even then he cannot bring himself to use her as a prostitute but instead they marry. The film ends with Lola, still in her wedding dress, discussing things with Shuckert – he makes over the deeds of the club/brothel to her (she has previously expressed a wish to buy it) to be held in trust until her daughter reaches her 21st Birthday; Shuckert then pays her for sex, as he has been doing since the film’s opening, saying ‘Leave the veil on’. Then we turn to Von Braun who is strolling in the woods with Esslin and Lola’s daughter; they end up at the same barn where he and Lola first had sex ; Esslin asks Von Braun if he is happy and he says he is. This plot summary fails to scratch the surface of the film’s complexities and depth even in purely narrative terms. For instance Lola’s mother is Von Braun’s housekeeper and there are a number of important mother/daughter confrontations. In political and sociological terms there are numerous discussions about what the nature of a post-Nazi Germany should be. Esslin, who by night is a drummer at the club, is also a leading member of the town’s socialist group who discuss Bakunin and demonstrate against militarism.
Above all however Lola is a visual miracle. Fassbinder shoots the film with an extraordinary, often garish, always attention-grabbing palette using every kind of colour clash and combination with dazzling and brilliant control. Obviously he was very influenced by the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind was the first film he told his cinematographer to study, according to the accompanying material) but he takes even Sirk’s use of technicolour into a whole other realm. Spaces are delineated by colour – red for the club, green for Von Bohm’s office, yellow and blue for Von Bohm’s home. But there will often be a dazzling effect for no reason other than pure cinematic joy – so when Lola and Von Bohm emerge from a church in which they have been singing together, the light coming from a window in the church is solid red (which could have no realistic reason); Fassbinder plays and experiments with colour sometimes for a strong didactic or dramatic reason (as in the extraordinary sequence where Von Bohm is shot in blue, Lola in pink in the same shot!), sometimes for the sheer joy and beauty of it.
The virtuoso use of colour is not the only thing Fassbiner borrows from Sirk. While references are made to Sternberg’s The Blue Angel it is Sirk’s use of women to examine social and political hypocrisies and contradictions, and his use of melodrama which in many ways appear more relevant. But I was also struck by something Ibsenesque about Lola: the small town corruption, the hypocrisies, the ‘good’ man tempted, the complex woman seeking independence – all seemed like themes which might well appear, albeit in very different guises, in Ibsen. At the film’s narrative heart is, of course, the story of Lola and Von Bohm. Both are complex characters and with both do we in part sympathise while in part are distanced from (as is also true of Shuckert and Esslin). Lola is fighting for her survival in a world stacked against her as both a woman and working-class. She certainly has a moral sense, but she still acts amorally as is very clearly shown by the ending. Von Bohm is politically incorruptible to start with but his attitude to women is a classic virgin/whore one which is always founded on a certain degree of misogyny (not to mention sexual repression); his anger following the revelation of Lola’s identity is very unattractive. One of the more extraordinary aspects of the film is the ending: are we to call this happy? Von Bohm and Lola are married and he declares his happiness; at the same time she is continuing her career as a prostitute, albeit only with Shuckert, and indeed graduating to brothel Madam. Von Bohm’s happiness may be seen as a fool’s paradise, but Lola now has both respectability and assurance of an independent income. Meanwhile the corrupt building project which Von Bohm had been delaying is given the go-ahead and Von Bohm himself digs the first turf. New Germany’s regeneration will continue, but its foundations are hypocrisy and corruption which the ruling class join in a conspiracy to cover-up; now Von Bohm is part of that. The complexities of the ending reflect Fassbinder’s attitude to the reconstruction of the 1950’s – he both recognises that it was in some ways essential and certainly highly rewarded some, but also that it excluded and marginalised others and was built on a false foundation. The movie opens with a sentimental song being played over an image of Konrad Adenauer (Chancellor of West Germany 1949-63); this sets the tone for the movie’s subject. Lola is a political and social examination of the Adenauer era of great significance; it is also a visual marvel, a moving love story, a brilliant character study, a social satire, a riveting drama. I am only starting to scratch the surface of the film’s depths and complexities here. Lola is yet further proof for me of Fassbinder’s genius.