Michael Joshua Rowin on Despair

The plan of the powerful takes place in our casual thinking, which is always intent on setting up value systems, creating meaning. All history, all mythologies grow out of this notion of planned chains of causality. Now if we destroy the various cogs in this system, all the neatly ordered gravitational forces don’t work anymore, and everything collapses. And suddenly there’s movement, and that’s something. ­Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Of Despair, and the Courage to Recognize a Utopia and To Open Yourself Up to It”

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” George W. Bush infamously remarked following the September 11th attacks. But what if we don’t want to align ourselves with either? What if neither the disingenuous military-industrial complex, seeking to secure its monetary interests through multiple “wars without end,” nor the monstrously fascist “global jihad,” headed by religious fundamentalists, appeal to those few who still give a damn about old-fashioned ideas like freedom, a word that does actually mean something beyond its function as Newspeak on 9-11 bumper stickers and presidential backdrops? No, those in charge of the American media, whether on the right or the left (each have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, as long as it allows Their Guys to take positions of command), don’t care for individuals thinking of new ways of living beyond the tenuous, mediocre structures put in place by corporate capitalism. Such thinking is idealistic, romantic, anarchic, insane. While challenging systems of abuse and corruption, community and national leaders only counter with . . . more systems.

So these are difficult times for anybody fed up living with the existing social and political institutions that have largely failed us all. At the beginning of the 21st Century we are still being forced to use thought-altering, state-mandated rhetoric and obsolete Judeo-Christian moral values. Individuals exist only to stand for something external to their own physical and spiritual needs, and these externalities (America, Democracy, Islam) have by now ceased to bear any relation to the values they might have once embodied. In terms of present political crises, we find ourselves caught between the imperialist machinations of the Bush II Administration—as well as the useless American political system that has offered no genuine alternatives to the war-mongering impulses of an elitist plutocracy—and an equally extremist, reactionary terrorist web. These are the main players on the world stage right now, and they both want you and I to succumb to, or else die for, their insidious ideologies. The individual, as usual, is the one who pays the price, watching so-called rational adults leading the world again to the brink of annihilation.

Ironically, in trying to gauge the viciousness and eschatological scope of this very American-produced death game—not to mention the mainstream media outlets who would have us believe that only coddled millionaires like Bush, Kerry, and bin Laden can direct the course of history—I have found cinematic solace strictly in the works of European directors. American filmmakers, especially those of our contemporaries, seem too polite for me, too intent on setting up binaries to provide comfortable answers where none exist in reality. The number one culprit in this regard is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. For anyone too enraged by the utter disingenuousness and hypocrisy of partisan politicking to buy into the “anyone but Bush” whitewashing of social responsibility, watch Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Bresson’s The Devil Probably, Lars von Trier’s Dogville. All speak not only to a complete disillusionment with cynical, corporate—and primarily American—values but also to a seething frustration with a decaying capitalist system and its equally disastrous flipsides: all these films appropriately end with unsettling but also unsatisfactory paroxysms of violence.

These cinematic works are crucial, I feel, to understanding how existing, supposedly indestructible, sociopolitical structures force individuals into desperate situations. Strangely, Bush II’s incompetent handling of 9/11 and the occupation of Iraq should have awakened a slumbering populace into realizing just how desperate our situation has been during the last three years of entropy. But, for rare exceptions, it didn’t, and the resounding silence and apathy of the American people has been echoed in stolidly apolitical mainstream and pseudo-independent filmmaking. Which is why I find myself watching and thinking about, along with the above-mentioned films, more and more Fassbinder these days. On one hand, Fassbinder would seem to be the European art cinema director most incapable of bearing any relevance to the contemporary American sociopolitical situation. His films are too cold and methodical—how can they possibly correspond to an American culture that consistently verges on the chaotic and the frenzied? Watching Fassbinder is never a liberating, cathartic experience, but instead the opposite: suffocating, claustrophobic. The supposedly wide-open spaces and limitless possibilities of America, even in the face of self-disintegration, have, at a first glance, no relation to Fassbinder’s oppressive interior spaces and fatalistic behavior.

But this is exactly why Fassbinder is relevant, why his work is crucial for critiquing the heart of institutionalized hypocrisy and inhumanity. His films are mirrors, and they reflect a harsh reality that cannot be dissipated by recourse to ideological safe havens. For Fassbinder, the entire logic and movement of late capitalism is irredeemably corrupt. Society is structured so that the only role for the individual is conformity, death, or madness. But instead of relying on this theme to forego the complexities of political reality, Fassbinder uses it to explore sundry examples of social maladjustment. In film after film, sometimes to the point of parody, Fassbinder’s individuals get dragged through the muck of exploitation, patriarchy, consumerism, exhibitionism, bigotry, addiction, and existential angst, arriving at one of the three destinations listed above. These are cautionary tales instructing the viewer on the downward spiral of compromises brought about from having to bend the will in accordance to others’ watchful eyes, how society’s disapproving restrictions and biases as supported by its silent majorities inevitably bring about the solitary man or woman’s destruction. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and Fear of Fear locate the slow-burn and then breaking point of the self among the hidden injustices of daily, petit-bourgeois life; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Katzelmacher capture the perpetual, self-defeating cycles of racism among a disenfranchised working-class; The Niklashausen Journey and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven implicate the intellectual hypocrisy of ideological dogmatism (making the self-congratulatory left, upon the latter’s release in 1975, hysterical); Effi Briest and Fox and His Friends relate the undoing of the innocent by way of sexual exploitation and caste blackmail. In all cases, Fassbinder’s protagonists find themselves unable to cope with or adhere to a world intent on forcing the individual to acquiesce to its designs.

In terms of explicit politics, however, the most important films in Fassbinder’s career are those that deal with the legacy of the Third Reich on the collective unconscious of Germany. The BRD Trilogy, consisting of The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss, all make further cases for the debilitating effect of up-and-at-‘em optimism after a traumatic, mass delusional belief in totalitarianism, the nadir in blind obedience to authority. Disavowing reflection and examination, the heroines of the BRD Trilogy take refuge in false appearances and societal-approved roles that fit in snugly with the capitalist slight-of-hand “Economic Miracle.” Anton Kaes writes in The Oxford History of World Cinema, “The period that fascinated Fassbinder most was the period of his own lifetime, i.e., the postwar era after the rupture of 1945, the time in which a new beginning seemed possible, even necessary. The Federal Republic was not yet firmly established, and in Fassbinder’s view utopian hopes could be nurtured.” In the BRD Trilogy Fassbinder enters the unrealized utopia of his formative years through its opposite, shedding light on the German people’s refusal to build their own realities and instead rely on worn-out dreams and hand-me-down ideologies. While lacking the visceral force and dry humor of Fassbinder’s portraits of contemporary German society (as in In a Year of Thirteen Moons), the BRD Trilogy also provides the key to understanding its director’s radical vision of society as an innately rotten enterprise. An individual’s worth becomes dependent on his or her resistance to that enterprise. Looking at these films in the light of a post-September 11th America—what might have been an awakening from the false bourgeois fantasies of the Nineties and the emergence of a radical political consciousness—we can see that there’s a little Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss in all of us, repressing the trauma of the attacks (don’t let the terrorists win—shop!), running into the arms of authority and buying into the Bush Administration’s hawkish bedtime story (you’re either with us or against us; unending war against terror), and allowing America to once again sacrifice its young in foreign misadventures.

In a strange way, though, Fassbinder’s most important film is Despair. Despair, it might be said, is not even close to his best film. In fact, it might even be called a disaster. It is smarmily acted, awkwardly paced, bombastically filmed, and garishly conceived from Nabokov’s novel and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay. But Despair also emerges as Fassbinder’s defining statement on the individual’s loss of agency, identity, and sanity amidst a world of political extremism and mass conformity. Significantly, its protagonist is the opposite of the three anti-heroines of the BRD Trilogy. Hermann Hermann, Russian émigré in Germany and the owner of a struggling chocolate factory, begins to undergo a derangement similar to schizophrenia. His despair is brought on by a tremendous sense of existential nausea—with his success, with the false person he has become in his marriage and in his work—as well as the growing climate of fear generated by the nascent Nazi party. His ego gradually splitting (Fassbinder films Hermann’s bouts of insanity through his trademark brilliant deployment of mirrors and sinuous tracking shots), Hermann decides to get a virtual doppelgänger to take his place—Hermann will then kill him, and then collect on the insurance money. Meanwhile, the beginning stages of Nazi terror have begun. And the doppelgänger isn’t exactly what Hermann sees in him.

Despair contains, along with countless errors and miscalculations in style and tone, flashes of Fassbinder’s insights into what sort of mentality produces fascism and what sort of mentality resists it. In this regard he makes Nabokov and Stoppard’s Despair (and despair) his own. Fascism is simply a natural outgrowth, if the most extreme one, of man’s dependency on political and social systems. Such systems not only stunt and deform individual will but also create needs and values that exist as harbingers of comfort and security. People existing under the conditions society imposes on them become lonely, often pathetically childish; categories and rituals, no matter how destructive, function to relieve the individual of the harrowing realization of the void at the center of this loneliness, plugging the chasm with slogans and vague appeals to leader and nation. Hermann Hermann, though, isn’t exactly conscious of this situation. The rise of the Third Reich is shown from his point of view, peripherally, and his reaction is of frozen disbelief. A crumbling bourgeois, he accepts his role of abetting onlooker and victim by proxy. He is as much of an outsider in Berlin as the Jews have now become, only his persecution is of an extremely different variety. Hermann persecutes himself, but it is not the product of liberal guilt or pointless self-destruction. It is, as the subtitle of Despair makes clear, a “journey into light.” It is the inevitable path of a too-little-too-late life, of an escape plan executed in the middle of the night, of a ferocious desire to free oneself from not so much responsibility but identity altogether. Hermann, after all, is so bent out of shape by society’s pliers—and newly aware of its ascendant genocidal impulses—he cannot recognize himself enough to notice that he and the man he wishes to portray him look barely alike.

Hermann Hermann should be an exemplar to us all. The split ego is just as dangerous to the established order as the split atom is to humankind, and Fassbinder’s Hermann stands at the crossroads between revolution and madness like a mysterious apparition. What does this apparition have to tell us? We should have the courage, during this election year of phony appeals to “optimism,” to recognize that despair is the honest rebuttal. On the micro-level despair allows the individual a “journey into the light”; on the macro-level despair throws a monkey wrench into the entire works and remodels society on the anarchic freedom Fassbinder so desperately strove for. So why do we—in the face of human and environmental devastation, the spiritual vacuity brought about from “efficient warfare” and efficient workplaces—either stay silent, comfortable in our conveniences, or lose ourselves confronting the world’s insanities? Why do we continually allow madmen and/or the opulent to determine our destinies? Fassbinder never has easy answers, and he recognizes that no one here gets out alive. Despair, despite all its flaws, awkward distractions, and incoherencies—or perhaps due to those very qualities—makes a compelling case for despair as the catalyst for freedom, however incomplete and maybe even impossible.

Fassbinder’s own written addendum to the film is perhaps the most astute essay by a director on his own film, and it will be a revelation for those left miffed by Despair. At the end of his “Of Despair . . .” he makes the case not for the destruction of the self but for the destruction of the existing structures by which we enslave ourselves: “Destruction isn’t the opposite of what exists. Destruction is when this concept no longer exists, when it doesn’t have any meaning anymore, when it has a reality that makes it disappear. What people invent then—that would be exciting.” The word “despair” comes from a Latin verb that means “to hope.” A hopeful destruction, rising out of despair can only be possible once we accept the destruction of our selves under the current American mediocrity that creates the conditions for our moral and political complacency. So now another question: Do we choose to see despair and destruction—this inevitable shedding of the old system-skin—as exciting, like Fassbinder did, especially in Despair, or do we choose to see it as the guardians of society do, as something to be avoided at the cost of our true emancipation?