Rehearsals for Departure
Chris Wisniewski on The Merchant of Four Seasons

Though his robust filmography includes its share of long takes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder would not be the international filmmaker who most comes to mind in the context of “durational cinema.” And the relatively fleet melodrama The Merchant of Four Seasons would hardly serve as a key text for demonstrating Fassbinder’s brilliant ability to mount lengthy, unbroken sequences featuring a roving camera. Duration, though, is about expectation: something only “feels long” or “feels short” because we believe it could or should be otherwise. A morning commute marred by subway delays that stretches past 50 minutes is a slog; a miraculously brisk 45-minute episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is respite.

Shortly into The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fassbinder stages a sequence that seems at first ordinary and unravels under scrutiny, all because of duration, even though it’s over in under a minute. Hans (Hans Hirschmuller) has returned home from a stint with the French Foreign Legion to his awful, judgmental mother (Gusti Kreissl) and his less than enthusiastic wife, Irmgard (Irm Hermann). He has started selling fruit out of a cart, and after making a sale to his longtime love interest (Ingrid Caven), Irmgard harangues him. “You were gone for seven minutes,” she tells him, less than five minutes into the movie, “You can do more than shake her hand in seven minutes.” Hans abandons the cart and runs across the street to the local bar—the same place where he will drink himself to death later in the film—and is almost hit by a car. But the shot lasts too long, and the next one begins too early. He runs in front of the car, holds his hands out, and slows the vehicle down. Then Fassbinder cuts. In the reaction shot, Irmgard hasn’t even seen Hans stop the car yet. She begins to react, the camera zooms in on her face, and then she gasps. It’s all over in the space of a few seconds, but everything about it is “off.” The sequence feels wrong because of the length of the takes. These few seconds of screentime, fleeting though they are, take too long to unfold.

In the terms of continuity editing and the language of narrative cinema, this sequence does not work. One could argue that the people making it were ignorant (which we know to be incorrect) or incompetent (also, clearly not the case) or that this so-quick-you-could-miss-it violation of received wisdom regarding shots, their duration, and how the duration of one shot should relate to another was somehow intentional, part of the design of the film. If this is the case, though, this begs questions: what exactly is Fassbinder trying to accomplish with this sequence, and how do we, as viewers, make sense of it?

The glib response to these questions is both simple and obvious: Bertolt Brecht. It is clear that these shots create a Brechtian alienation effect, that they distanciate the viewer from the reality of what is depicted onscreen and invite an intellectual engagement (rather than a primarily emotional one) with what we are seeing. Being aware of his career in Munich’s Antiteater (anti-theater) and five decades of scholarly analysis of his life and work, we know enough about Fassbinder to confidently assert that this Brechtian impulse was more or less present throughout his career, even during the series of melodramas he made, beginning with Merchant of Four Seasons, after discovering the cinema of Douglas Sirk. However, if one takes Brecht or Fassbinder seriously, this leads to an additional complication: the argument that a stylistic choice has been made for Brechtian reasons should be a starting, not an end, point. What might come out of shifting the mode of response from something on a primarily emotional spectrum to an intellectual one? From this perspective, the sequence in discussion is all the more noteworthy, given how early it comes in the film and how perfectly positioned it is to disrupt our response to the movie’s central characters just as they are introduced.

The Merchant of Four Seasons tells a narrative of self-destruction, and it simultaneously unfolds as a tragedy about an ordinary man slowly killed by bourgeois expectations. It begins with Hans returning home from the French Legion to his mother, who complains that “the best die” and the others come back. “Once rotten, always rotten,” she says, dismissing her son like one of the spoiled pears he might try to sell out of his fruit cart. This curt repudiation is the most overt expression of the pervasive contempt Hans’s family seems to feel for him. After Hans runs to the bar in the early sequence in question, he drinks to excess, then comes home and beats Irmgard. This leads to a family summit, where Irmgard, appealing to her mother-in-law, her brother-in-law and his wife, and her sister-in-law, tells of Hans’s violence. Most of the family stands in judgment of Hans, and indeed, after watching the brutality Hans inflicts on his wife, their judgment is, to an extent, understandable. Only Hans’s sister, Anna (Fassbinder’s longtime muse Hanna Schygulla), questions their reaction. She notes that the family has always despised Hans and felt shame for him. In doing so, she makes an argument that Hans, whatever his failings, deserves a certain level of dignity—or at least sympathy—as a brother and son, and she suggests a counternarrative, in which Hans has been set up by the institutions that reared him (e.g., family, the state, and the economy) to fail. In taking this stand, Anna asserts his humanity in response to his failure as a husband.

Anna may set herself apart as Hans’s principal apologist, but even as the rest of the family coalesces in opposition, she remains passive, her protestations serving more as an intellectual critique of their behavior than an active intervention. Hans comes to his mother’s house to retrieve Irmgard. When Irmgard attempts to call a divorce lawyer, Hans suffers a heart attack. But this sequence, like the earlier one with the car, is characterized by delayed reaction. Hans grabs his chest and falls to the ground. Irmgard again gasps, as Fassbinder’s camera zooms toward her face, too long after Hans has already fallen to the ground. This reaction shot explicitly echoes the previous one. Anna, meanwhile, moves to the phone with dispassionate deliberateness and calls for an ambulance with disarming calm. So once again, she positions herself as Hans’s advocate, unlike the rest of the family, but her advocacy is detached. In a sense, she embodies the Brechtian remove that characterizes the film’s approach to its subject. If the rest of the family occupies an overheated melodrama in which an adulterous wife-beater kills himself with booze, Schygulla’s Anna functions as something of a Greek chorus, explaining to us how and why everyone onscreen shares responsibility for Hans’s demise, without ever taking an emotional stance or making anything resembling an emotional plea on behalf of her brother.

As soon as Hans has his heart attack, the movie pivots and begins to lurch towards Hans’s death. This plays out not through his physical deterioration but rather via a process through which Hans is made—socially and economically—unnecessary. Thus, when Hans is in prison, Irmgard takes a lover, whom she and Hans later hire to sell fruit from their cart after Hans’s condition leaves him unfit to do so. Over time, a friend of Hans’s takes his place, first with the fruit cart and, eventually, with his wife and child. It becomes clear that to most of the family, Hans performs a function more than he serves as an object of love and attachment. The movie reduces familial attachment to something transactional—people playing roles.

This bleak and cynical vision comes through in the early scene in which Hans averts the car accident. There are at least two senses in which Irmgard’s awkwardly timed reaction shot underscores Fassbinder’s depiction of this dysfunctional family and the emotional and transactional bonds that tie it together—or fail to do so. In one sense, Irmgard’s delayed reaction is just what it seems: a failure to act. When her husband confronts mortal danger, she expresses only belated concern. And in another sense, the reaction shot emphasizes the performativity of Irmgard’s gasp. She plays the role of the distressed wife. Except that she plays the role badly, her affect brought to the fore by the length of Fassbinder’s takes.

In The Merchant of Four Seasons, Hans pays with his life for failing in the part of the middle class husband and father, but each member of his family is guilty of filling her or his role inadequately: Irmgard, who fails to acknowledge Hans’s physical distress and commits adultery just hours after his heart attack; Hans’s brother and sister-in-law, blinded by their bourgeois preoccupations and contemptuous of their working-class relative; Hans’s mother, who treats him like detritus; and even Anna, who stands by to condemn the rest of the family with her intellectual remove, while never doing anything to help. One might argue that this film exists at the nexus of melodrama and distanciation—somewhere between the operatic grandeur of lives squandered and destroyed and the cold diagnosis of a social malady played out through familial relations. But Fassbinder’s Brechtian impulses do nothing to undercut the movie’s emotional force. On the contrary: though Hans avoids that early car accident, from that point on, we know we are watching a man die a little more with each passing frame, and it’s practically unendurable.