Love is Colder Than Death
Liebe ist kälter als der Tod
1969 — 85 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Suspense
Fassbinder's debut feature, in which he also stars, is a stark, powerful crime drama that introduces many of his major themes.
This is a prodigious debut film, a revisionist film noir as stark in its visual style as it is powerful in its seething, but repressed, emotions, and with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humor. Even as it draws on his work in theatre (Fassbinder had already written and/or directed over a dozen stage productions), Love is Colder Than Death points to the forty films which were to come in terms of its themes, aesthetic techniques, and psychological insights. But this is no mere warm-up for later triumphs (and tribulations); it seems more resonant with each subsequent viewing.
Love is Colder Than Death opens at the threadbare offices of a crime syndicate, where in between brutal interviews with the bosses small-time Munich pimp Franz Walsch (played by Fassbinder, although uncredited) strikes up a friendship with Bruno (Ulli Lommel), another young recruit. Relishing his independence, Franz refuses to join the mob, despite their promises of more money and security. He returns to his prostitute girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), and they continue their desultory relationship. Bruno tracks Franz down for enigmatic reasons: Is it because he already feels drawn to Franz, or has he been sent by the syndicate or both? Franz, Bruno, and Joanna go on a small wave of shoplifting and murder. But when Bruno begins planning a bank robbery, Joanna's distrust and jealousy of him cause her to make some arrangements of her own.
Here is the compositionally simple but highly evocative first shot. Fassbinder immediately throws us into a kind of limbo. We do not know where we are or why we are there. All we see are two men with Fassbinder (as Franz) turned toward us, reading a paper and smoking as they sit and wait... and wait... and wait. For what? The huge expanse of empty, pale wall seems to trap them like a prison cell without any bars as it sublminally increases our tension about what will happen next. Shot in harsh black and white by his frequent early cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, Fassbinder designed this film (with co-star Ulli Lommel) and edited it, using his frequent pseudonym of none other than Franz Walsch. With this first scene, he establishes the often slow, deliberate pacing, and almost hypnotic performance style, which he wants for this film. Although this opening is expository setting up the central characters and their violent, though often lethargic milieu as the picture unfolds, we will see that the many lengthy passages without dialogue can grip us through the force of unspoken desires, even as the severe images hold us at a distance.
We are very fortunate to have Fassbinder's own thoughts on this film (one of only a handful where that is the case); and I will draw on "The Kind of Rage I Feel: A Conversation with Joachim von Mengershausen about Love is Colder Than Death" (reprinted in The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Michael Tötenberg and Leo A. Lensing) throughout this review. When the interviewer asked Fassbinder, in May 1969, if the austere tone of this film "would seem to pretty much kill off any emotion," he replied: "You have a plot. Language. Sound and music, all of which create emotion. But the relationship between these three elements won't let the audience take the easy way out. In my opinion, it's really a film the audience won't have an easy time with, but actually quite a hard one. My film isn't supposed to let feelings people already have be neutralized or soaked up; instead, the film should create new feelings.... I'm concerned with having the audience ... examine its own innermost feelings.... To me that's more political, or politically more aggressive and active, than if I point out [a particular group] as the great oppressors."
Fassbinder has nailed many key aspects not only of this film, but of his entire body of work. Of course his style would change, sometimes radically (compare this film and, say, the ribald farce Satan's Brew), but the intention was always for us to use the film as a way of probing our society and ourselves.
One aspect of Fassbinder's genius, which you can see here and throughout all of his works, is the way he infuses even simple elements with many thematic and emotional layers. As you look more closely at those layers, they often seem more complex, even contradictory; yet they are almost always involving. Take the plot of this film, which I summarized above. On the one hand, it could hardly be more simple. Yet although the structure is clear, even classical in its construction (exposition, rising action, climax), it holds many genuine, and purposeful, mysteries of character. One example is the pivotal character of Joanna. Although Fassbinder discusses her in the interview, his own analysis still leaves room for our own interpretations. He says that Joanna is "the key to everything. [S]he... is totally bogged down in bourgeois values much, much worse than all the others. That's what she wants to preserve, and that's the reason she betrays [Bruno] to the police, because she'd rather be alone than be part of a threesome; that she just can't handle."
Joanna marks the first role played by the luminous Hanna Schygulla in a Fassbinder film; she would go on to appear and usually to star in half of his pictures, including several of his best (here is the complete list). Schygulla's performance is extraordinarily nuanced, bringing out all of the layers of the character which Fassbinder wrote for her. (Just think of the countless stereotyped "hookers" you have seen in movies, to appreciate their achievement.) There is never a moment that we do not feel Schygulla living the depths of her conflicted character, from her desire for a stable life with Franz (what Fassbinder calls her "bourgeois values") which forces her to tolerate being casually slapped in the face by "her man" to her knotted jealousy over the growing realization of Franz's desire for Bruno is greater than what he feels for her. What adds yet another level to the film is that Joanna's perceptions of Franz and Bruno's never-articulated desire seems greater than what the men themselves are capable of expressing.
Although Fassbinder admitted that "There's a homosexual component, much more obvious than with Hawks, for instance," he does not elaborate in his comments on this fundamental theme of his film. (For the record, some of the great Howard Hawks's most homosocial films would include 1928's A Girl in Every Port and 1948's Red River, not to mention his many pictures centering on all-male groups). The unspoken relationship the desire between Franz and Bruno is the core of Love is Colder Than Death.
The openly-gay Fassbinder focused on same-sex relationships in only a very few of his films: the lesbian and bisexual women in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a transsexual in In a Year of 13 Moons, and the gay men in Fox and His Friends (starring Fassbinder) and Querelle. But homoerotic undercurrents often very subtle play a crucial role in many of his films. To take just one instance, in the climactic supermarket scene in Gods of the Plague (the sequel to this film) note the body language and eye contact of Franz Walsch (the same character as here, but played by Harry Baer) and the store manager: It seems clear that they have had some kind of intimate relationship, and that that allows the manager to lower his guard, even as Franz and his new partner suddenly draw their guns for the holdup (I will discuss this scene more fully in my review of that film). In Love is Colder Than Death, much of the film's rich emotional subtext comes from the deep, unspoken feelings between Franz and Bruno. But before exploring that dimension of the film which I believe ties together many of its major thematic, stylistic, and emotional components let us look at the film in a broader context.
For his feature debut, Fassbinder set out to make a personal film on the limited budget of DEM 95,000 (then US $27,500) given to him by a wealthy admirer: "She gave [the money] to us and said, 'If the movie makes a profit, you can pay me back, and if it doesn't, never mind.'" The cast and crew, drawn largely from Fassbinder's Anti-Theater collective, worked for minimal salaries and profit participation. As with many of his later films, he would work within a clearly-defined genre: Here, he chose the gangster picture. As he said, "I enjoy seeing crime films, and I think other people enjoy seeing crime films, too. Besides, I meant to send a message [that the everyday oppression people experience is criminal]. I could always make a film that would have everything in it that this film has for me, but in a completely different form [NOTE: He may have been looking ahead to his next film, Katzelmacher].... I chose a crime plot because that kind of story is easy to tell. And I'm all for making simple things. But they have to be beautiful too." The interviewer, like many people seeing the film, pointed out that Love is Colder Than Death is not a simple film. Fassbinder admitted, "That does bother me.... One problem is, all those Hollywood movies are right smack in our way, and all we can do is react to them, primarily in terms of form. It so happens there really are a lot of beautiful films in the detective genre."
This film takes on added power if seen in the tradition of the crime film, including such landmark not to mention homoerotic works as Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930; the Edward G. Robinson character cannot shoot his partner Joe, despite the deadly consequences, saying, "This is what I get for liking a guy too much"), Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946; note the intimate bond between the Glenn Ford and George Macready characters), Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949; with enough Freudian subtext to fill a dozen analysts' coaches also the director may have inspired Fassbinder's "Walsch" pseudonym), and Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951; whose debonair psychopath Bruno, played by Robert Walker, may have given his name to Fassbinder's quite different character). Fassbinder was also drawn to the brilliant French New Wave revisionist crime films of Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless (1959) and Band of Outsiders (1964) are a major influence here, as they were on Fassbinder's second short film, "The Little Chaos", made just three years earlier (its essentially light-hearted tone is a far cry from what we have in this film).
While looking at the influences on this film, let us note Fassbinder's eclectic dedication to three well-known filmmakers and to two obscure characters: "To Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub, Linio and Cuncho."
Although Fassbinder tellingly omitted Godard (who may have been uncomfortably and with his exalted reputation, intimidatingly close to his own vision at this point), he dedicated this film to two other New Wave auteurs, Claude Chabrol (Le Beau Serge, Les Bonnes Femmes), who makes virtually nothing but crime films, and Eric Rohmer (La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud's), whose pictures explore the intricacies of human relationships. But perhaps their dedication was as much in deference to their pioneering 1957 study, Hitchcock which elevated him, and by extension the crime genre, from pop culture to Art (capital "A") as to their films; although elements of their styles can be seen here. The other of this film's five dedicatees were his mentor, stage and film director Jean-Marie Straub (The Diary of Anna Magdalena Bach, Moses und Aron which was one of Fassbinder's 10 favorite operas), and two movie characters (misidentified) as "Cuncho" and "Linio." They appear in Quien sabe? (literally "Who knows?"; the U.S. title is A Bullet for the General), a 1967 spaghetti Western directed by Damiano Damiani featuring the gun-running bandit El Chuncho [the name refers to savage native tribes in South America's eastern Andes region; note the spelling] and the young "gringo" he affectionately nicknames El Niño (because of his boyish looks, which of course mask treachery; this would be Fassbinder's "Linio"), played by none other than Lou Castel, who would soon portray the petulant Fassbinder-like director in Beware of a Holy Whore, which itself is Fassbinder's self-satire on the making of Whity, his own what I've dubbed 'sauerkraut Western.' How's that for "footnoting"?)
Fassbinder turns the crime film on its ear, as only an original artist who knew a genre inside out could. Although he created arguably one of the most visually stunning "traditional" films noir in Gods of the Plague, here he eschews all of the familiar stylistic cues. Instead of ominous shadows, everything is hit with icy-cold light, so there is nowhere to hide. Instead of the baroque, sometimes dizzying, deep-focus compositions of such 1950s masterpieces as Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Kubrick's The Killing, and Welles's Touch of Evil, Fassbinder puts us in a world of intense flatness, with rarely more than two or three planes of action. Ironically, the only places where you can find depth of space are the centers of consumerism, such as the sunglasses shop (presided over by another of Fassbinder's best actresses, Irm Hermann, who was also this film's assistant producer), the department store, and especially the supermarket all of which provide Franz, Bruno, and Joanna with no impediments to their pilfering everything they want.
Despite its mood of existential urban angst, the film is all the stronger for its not infrequent ironic humor. Some of the wit takes the form of in-jokes, such as naming a sweet-faced murder victim Erika Rohmer (after the brilliant French New Wave filmmaker, and dedicatee, Eric Rohmer), or having Franz demand a pair of sunglasses "just like the ones the cop wore in Psycho" (that gag is compounded when the cop they kill, later in the film, bears a close resemblance to the one in Hitchcock's film). Perhaps funniest scene and it is very, very funny occurs as Joanna, in her mini-skirt, and Bruno, in his trenchcoat and noirish fedora, glide up and down the aisles of a cavernous supermarket, stealing everything that catches their eye all to the strains of an electronic version of what sounds like Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier. To top the scene, when they have lifted all they possibly can, they proceed to the checkout counter and buy just one item: A package of toilet paper!
Despite those few scenes of literal spatial depth and sometimes humor the film's world is mostly one of crushing emptiness, from the lengthy sequence of Bruno's night drive along Munich's creepy, almost-deserted streets (accompanied only by Peer Raben's haunting score) to the sprawling, yet spatially constricted, garbage dump where Bruno takes one of Joanna's johns to kill him. Combined with the measured pacing and almost-hypnotic stylization of the performances, this sometimes feels like a ghostly if not exactly a 'ghost' picture; as if these characters were haunting the same scenes, repeating the same actions again and again, stuck in a kind of purgatory. And although the almost uncanny mood of the opening scene might lend a bit of credence to what I admit is a pretty far-fetched interpretation, let me note that Fassbinder went on to make several other "ghostly pictures" throughout his career, including to name just those titles released on DVD up through July 2003 The American Soldier (but not Gods of the Plague), Whity (in which the entire doomed Nicholson family wears ghostly white makeup throughout the film), Effi Briest, Fear of Fear, Chinese Roulette (which may end with a procession of literal Nazi ghosts), and to an extent, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
Pseudo-supernaturalism aside, Fassbinder brilliantly (and economically) uses these stark settings of which the most oppressively sterile environment is Franz's barely furnished apartment, where much of the film is set to convey not only the social status of his characters, but their emotional states too. That design parallels the many silences which punctuate the film: The glances, the gestures, and the surface stillness masking the inner turmoil of the characters. Few films so resolutely demand that we enter into characters, to "hear" what they are thinking and feeling, when they are saying literally nothing. Fassbinder achieves that by uniting empathy and distance in ways that are complex, involving, and disturbing since we can never forget that these are petty thieves and casual murderers.
The six killings are shot in the same flat, uninflected style as the decor. Although when a character dies there is always a sense of playacting as they crumple to the ground a technique well-known from Breathless Fassbinder significantly eschews the jazzy energy of Godard. As Fassbinder noted, "I made... the murder scenes as conventional as possible.... That's supposed to show that criminality isn't muggings and murders, but rather people being raised in such a way that they have the kinds of relationships these people have, that they're simply incapable of getting their relationships straightened out.... [that they] simply don't have any options."
That comment brings us back to something else suggested by all of those blank walls: Repression, specifically that of 'the love that dare not speak its name.' One can only speculate how differently these characters would have lived if Franz and Bruno could have expressed their feelings for each other; or if Joanna and the men could have found a workable living arrangement (such as the one depicted in Gods of the Plague between Franz, his friend Gorilla, and Margarethe). Instead, these people are trapped in a silent hell, not only of society's making (although clearly Fassbinder places most of the blame there) but of their own fear. The final image encapsulates the contradictory nature of the film, and its characters: Dynamic, with the composition's powerful lines converging in the left of the frame (where Franz's car has driven off), yet static, as the camera holds for a long time and the image slowly fades to a ghostly white (Fassbinder also brilliantly employed this device throughout Effi Briest).
While rewatching this film (several times), I wondered why I cared so much about these posturing petty thieves and casual murderers. Then I realized that I was responding to their vulnerability, which was unique for each character yet also a common quality. Though they never talk about their frustrated desires and dreams and of course that silence adds to the film's power we see that these are terribly wounded people, with no idea of how to heal themselves. So they act out their own pain through robbing and killing using generic criminal identities provided by Hollywood (not to mention Godard) even as these victims of society victimize each other, and of course themselves. Fassbinder does not excuse these characters, but he does bring them to life as complex, humanly contradictory people.
There is even greater poignancy because they are all so young, yet already incapable of expressing emotion over the murders they commit. In a strange yet brilliantly insightful way, all of those blank walls echoing their emptiness and pain made me care about them even more. When Franz frisks Bruno [see the first frame at the top of this review], I was rooting for it to turn into an embrace. When Franz slaps Joanna after she turns away from Bruno, whom Franz had sent to her he says he did it, "Because you laughed at Bruno and Bruno's my friend": But I wish he could have understood the knotted, frustrated emotions which led to his brutality, that he could have explained to Joanna, and himself, what he was feeling and what he wished he could feel openly and genuinely begged for her forgiveness. But part of the power of Fassbinder's characters, both here and in his later films, comes precisely from their inability to articulate what it is they want. I realize that these comments make me sound like a bleeding-heart sentimentalist; but I believe that, at heart, so was Fassbinder, at least in terms of one key aspect of his work. Beneath all the tension, frustration, anger and violence (he made this film, he said, because "I want [people] to experience the kind of rage I feel" [at social injustice]), this film is the vision of a utopian dreamer, an idealist who hopes that by clearing away the crushing detritus of our culture, we can find our way out of a self-lacerating condition where "love is colder than death," and one day achieve a genuinely humane world.
Fassbinder set out to make a film about the social and personal conditions which give rise to crime, even as he tried to compel the audience to "examine [our] innermost feelings." I think he has succeeded, not only sociologically but artistically, capturing - through narrative, performance, and design the blank poetry of oppression, and repression. And in the other two films featuring Franz Walsch, Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier, he will explore the even darker sides of the phenomenon. Of course, with this feature debut he also wanted to astonish the world with a striking new vision of a well-established genre; so he must have been delighted with the near-riot between his already-polarized champions and detractors it caused at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival.
Today, a third of a century after that fateful premiere, Love is Colder Than Death still feels fresh, strange, and resonant in its chillingly casual violence and unspoken, sometimes heartbreaking, passion.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.85:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 24 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's incisive essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- Trailer for another Fassbinder film, Beware of a Holy Whore
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed July 25, 2003
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