Traveling Blind
Max Nelson on Beware of a Holy Whore

The comedy in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies is disruptive, sour, mischievous, and, if you don’t get it, nearly impossible to detect. In a typical scene—all ten seconds of it—from late in the West German director’s tenth feature, Beware of a Holy Whore, two men, unkempt and downcast, face the camera from a hotel balcony, one sitting in the foreground, the other standing a foot or two behind him. “You know,” the younger one says disinterestedly, “the only thing I accept is despair.”

A detail changed, and the scene’s comic bite would disappear. The stretched-out “you know,” the pair’s noncommittally averted eyes, the sudden cut that ends the scene before it’s barely begun, the utter lack of response on the part of the character in the background, the way the two men seem uncomfortably penned inside the movie’s tight frame: what makes the scene work, like much of Beware of a Holy Whore, is the contrast between the high drama of the thought being expressed and the bored, diffident manner with which it’s conveyed. The speaker, a blonde, bratty film director, means what he says. But neither he nor his listener—the irritable, perpetually disheveled producer he’s brought with him to shoot a film in Spain—can get up the spirit to say it with feeling; their hearts aren’t in it. They are, simply stated, failures.

What’s often singled out about Fassbinder’s sensibility is its playful self-awareness. It’s a reduction to which many of his films—with their delirious profusions of light and color, their sound-and-fury performances, their polyandrous sexual dynamics, and their exaggerated, sometimes tongue-in-cheek borrowings from the Hollywood melodrama—are vulnerable. Fassbinder’s was, to quote one of Susan Sontag’s famous “notes on camp,” a “sensibility of failed seriousness.” Few filmmakers have ever insisted so emphatically on the failure people tend to suffer when they try to inhabit the world in utter earnest—to “become,” as Franz Bieberkopf states his goal in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, “honest souls.”

That description, however, doesn’t do justice to the kind of frenetic, throbbing life Fassbinder gives his failed characters: the freedom of movement he allows them, or the liberty with which he lets them disrupt and overturn the symmetry of his claustrophobic compositions. (In most of his first dozen films, the frame isn’t much longer than it is tall.) The most intriguing characters in Fassbinder’s movies are almost invariably the ones who ask something of the world, or demand something of it—an act that Fassbinder tends to associate with moral seriousness, earnestness, or loftiness of purpose. In Fassbinder’s world, those demands and petitions—call them expressions of a need, or a hope—are, as a rule, almost sure to go unanswered. Their petitions rejected, the characters in question tend to respond, depending on the film, with either violence or timid acquiescence. The physical, sexual, and emotional torments Martha suffers at the hands of her sadistic husband in the movie that bears her name; the abandonment of Petra von Kant by the servant she’s finally stopped abusing; the patterns of mistreatment Hans visits on his family in The Merchant of Four Seasons after being himself, as one of Fassbinder’s artistic fellow-spirits once put it, “suicided by society”—it’s a guiding thought of Fassbinder’s movies that to fail in one’s earnestness is to become either a beleaguered victim or a petty tyrant. What accounts for the humor and the pathos in Fassbinder’s films is the masochistic interest he takes in just those victims and tyrants. He has a compulsion to cede the cinematic space of his movies over to his least stable, most unreliable characters, to court danger with them, to request a share in their despair.

Just about every one of the dozen or so major characters in Beware of a Holy Whore is unstable in his or her own way. Fassbinder, in what by 1971 had become a pattern of his, shot and finished the movie extremely quickly. (His nine earlier features had been made, taken together, over the previous three years.) At the time, he and much of his crew were fresh from the experience on which Beware was based: the tumultuous filming of his psychotic western-melodrama Whity. That movie had been a stifled hothouse drama staged, for the most part, in a handful of fussy interiors not unlike the ornate, palatial mansion that provides the setting for the film-within-a-film in Beware of a Holy Whore. The first half of Beware takes place in a different sort of interior: the lobby of a Spanish hotel, where the cast and crew of the film-within-a-film in question are waiting for the arrival of the movie’s director, and, with him, the film stock they need to shoot.

This lobby is a kind of large-scale control chamber—the sort of orderly space, you feel, that Fassbinder’s characters are made to unsettle and disarrange. Beware of a Holy Whore was shot in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio standard, at the time, to the 4:3 frame of most TV displays, and it’s striking to see how many bodies Fassbinder manages to squeeze shot-by-shot into the somewhat awkward dimensions of the frame. Actors, crew members, makeup girls, aspiring bit players—“look at my musk-els!” a well-built Spanish man begs the movie’s hot-tempered producer in one brief scene—and their assorted lovers and courtiers drift from the bar, where they order only cuba libres, to the makeshift dance floor in the center of the room, hover around the jukebox, float in and out of conversations and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to seduce one another. (Everyone here, you grasp almost instantly, knows whom everyone else is sleeping with, and wants to be sleeping with someone he or she isn’t.)

The frame in which Fassbinder is working just wasn’t made for this density of movement. Michael Ballhaus, the movie’s young, ferociously skilled DP, would earn praise for a bravura 360-degree camera twirl in Fassbinder’s Martha several years later and go on to preside over even more virtuosic effects during his decades-long collaboration in Hollywood with Martin Scorsese, but it’s arguably more stunning to watch him make spatial sense of the way the indolent characters in the first half of Beware amble in and out of the camera’s field of vision. The tone of the movie’s early passages—the makeup girl’s hungry gazes at a sullen, bisexual actor; the irate outbursts that explode at random from Sascha (played by Fassbinder himself), the fictional movie’s producer; an occasional influx of tears from the melancholy Fred (Kurt Raab)—suggests the tense lead-up to a catastrophic meltdown. But when Jeff (Lou Castel), the director, finally arrives, he’s like a petulant child: incapable, despite all his efforts, of disrupting the spatial logic of the frame in any meaningful way.

Jeff and Sascha, among others, keep failing to make a physical impression on the space in which they’ve been stranded. There’s barely a group shot in Beware of a Holy Whore that doesn’t include a handful of characters milling around in the background goofing off or killing time, indifferent to what’s going on nearer the front of the frame. During a lengthy scene in which Jeff publicly spurns, then physically assaults a former lover, the camera occasionally reveals a handful of anonymous hangers-on engaged in a lazy threesome on a couch in the corner; in a much later scene, the director collapses from a punch in the gut while Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), the object of many of the movie’s male characters’ affections, dances alone and unmoved to Ray Charles’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”

What makes Beware of a Holy Whore one of Fassbinder’s greatest disquisitions on failure is that its major characters usually fail even to express their failure with anything like a genuine disruption or a meaningful abuse of power. The space in which they’re floating cocoons them, swaddles them, and, in the end, refuses to take the blows they try to deal it. Fifty minutes into the movie, Jeff, perched at the lobby bar, turns around to survey the territory in which he’s just tried—and failed—to bend the rest of the crew to his will. The camera moves with his eyes around the room, taking in the sleeping concierge slumped over his desk, passing over the bodies still entangled on the couch, then slowly curving around one of the space’s central columns, which slowly encroaches on the side of the frame until the movie’s tight visual field is, essentially, reduced to a 1:1 square. Emerging without a cut from the other side of the column, the camera rejoins the group at the bar, who start reciting stock English lines from Hollywood movies—“What did he say?” one of the actors asks indignantly after another member of the group recites, in French, the title of Fassbinder’s debut feature Love Is Colder Than Death—before launching into a melancholy German choral number. We could just as well be in some Teutonic folk narrative, lingering with the remnants of a scattered army as they camp out on the battlefield and mourn their dead. Or, to use a more accurate metaphor, we could be watching a handful of explorers hovering despondently on the edge of a territory from which they’ve been repulsed.

“I’m just a station on your way,” Leonard Cohen once sang to the unnamed “winter lady” who gave one of the best songs on his debut record its title. “I know I’m not your lover.” In a particularly lethargic passage in Beware of a Holy Whore, most of the movie’s key characters find themselves listening to “Winter Lady,” one of the four Leonard Cohen songs that float out of the lobby’s jukebox throughout the movie’s first half. (It undergirds the wordless seduction scene between Hanna and the film-within-a-film’s lead actor, played by Eddie Constantine in a sustained, quietly brilliant act of self-parody.) But few of them—save, tellingly, for Hanna and Eddie—enter into its spirit of worldly, lonerish romantic indifference. They want to be one another’s lovers, in part because it’s primarily when he’s filming couples together in bed—Hanna and Eddie, or Jeff and Babs, the production assistant played by Margarethe von Trotta—that Fassbinder deigns here to arrange his actors on the same visual plane. The bedroom, in Beware of a Holy Whore, is one of the few spaces in which there’s not an indifferent crowd in the background ready to shrug off one’s demonstrations of failure. It’s a space where couples go to have their grievances heard.

One of the running jokes of Beware of a Holy Whore is that the people whose failures of expression we’re observing are gathered together in one big act of creative expression—a big attempt to be heard.
As the group starts to reckon with the prospect of actually shooting a movie, the gaps between the film’s scenes widen, one mental breakdown or violent verbal exchange choppily giving way to another. Eventually, the crew gets a take: a needlessly labyrinthine tracking shot of Constantine’s character, against the actor’s better wishes, ascending a staircase and karate-chopping a woman in the back of the neck. The next shot is a dizzying 360-degree pan around the decorative wall moldings of one of the palace’s rooms. At the end of the rotation, the camera careens drunkenly downward to reveal three of the film-within-the-film’s players lazily entangled on a bed—one in the process of giving another a second, halfhearted karate chop. A curdled parody of the movie’s earlier scenes of post-coital tranquility, it hints that the mini-film to which it belongs won’t amount, any more than did Jeff’s earlier outbursts, to more than a cry in the dark.

What, exactly, is the “holy whore” of which the film’s title is telling its viewers to beware? “False piety” might be one answer, “two-facedness,” another. (A third, if you were to assume the perspective of the disgruntled, rejected male lovers that fill the movie, might be “women,” or, for that matter, “sex.”) Fassbinder had a high tolerance for the shrill, the whiny, the self-pitying, the masochistic, and the patently cruel. He had an extremely low tolerance for the conciliatory, the hypocritical, and the self-censoring—for anyone who, like the diminutive gangster who pretends to be a little girl in the fairy tale Werner Schroeter’s character tells during the opening scene of the film, refuses to expose themselves, to mean what they say. If it’s this outlook that gave Fassbinder his great ability to write—and film—characters who fail in everything, including their failure, it also made him uneasy about the idea of working in a group.

And yet it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker identifying so strongly with a touring company of actors, composers and visual technicians. (Many of Fassbinder’s collaborators on Beware had been working with him since his time in Berlin’s action-theater.) There is a shot late in the film of the cast and crew piled in a heap on a dock, serenely stroking one another’s heads and limbs as the sea comes in underneath them. The director stands off to the side, surveying his handiwork, marveling—you imagine—that he managed to fit them all inside such a narrow frame.