Gods of the Plague
Götter der Pest
1970 — 88 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Supsense
Essential Fassbinder. Summary in one line.
Gods of the Plague is visually rich, dramatically understated, and completely engrossing; one of the best crime films I have seen. Also, Fassbinder considered it the fifth best picture he made. Not only does he pay homage to the tradition of film noir, he brings to it his unique perspective, even as he expands the themes, images, and emotional resonances of his debut feature, Love is Colder Than Death, which introduced the benighted character of Franz Walsch (a name which Fassbinder used as his frequent pseudonym).
Gods of the Plague picks up not long after Love is Colder Than Death. After being released from prison, small-time crook Franz Walsch (Harry Baer) returns to the underworld and seeks out old acquaintances. He briefly reunites with his prostitute-turned-singer mistress Joanna (Hanna Schygulla), then spends a night with his brother's girlfriend, Magdalena Fuller (Ingrid Caven), before hooking up with an enigmatic new lover, Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta). Franz tracks down the personable hit man named "Gorilla" (Günther Kaufmann), and even though he killed Franz's brother ("It was just business") they resume their intense friendship, sharing an apartment with Margarethe while they plan a robbery. Meanwhile, Joanna has fallen for the unscrupulous detective (Jan George) tailing Franz and Gorilla. The film climaxes when the two men hold up an all-night supermarket... but it turns out to be a trap.
This film is the centerpiece in a loose trilogy, of which each part has a distinct but related dramatic and visual style (all were brilliantly shot in black and white by Fassbinder's frequent early cinematographer, Dietrich Lohmann). What I call the Franz Walsch trilogy because he is the central character in the first two films and has an important role in the third begins with Fassbinder's debut feature, Love is Colder Than Death (1969), and concludes with The American Soldier (1970; based on Fassbinder's original 1968 play of the same title, which is not available in English, and which I have not read). Characters recur throughout the trilogy, usually with the same names as the actors playing them. But they are sometimes (perhaps confusingly) played by different actors. For instance, the character of Magdalena Fuller is played by Ingrid Caven in Gods of the Plague (though in Love is Colder Than Death, Caven portrayed an unnamed prostitute), but by Katrin Schaake in The American Soldier (in Love is Colder Than Death, she played the mysterious, beautiful young woman on the train who shades of Eve in the garden of Eden tempts Ulli Lommel with an apple). Ulli Lommel plays the co-starring role of Bruno in Love is Colder Than Death, but in The American Soldier he is cast as a gypsy. In Gods of the Plague, Margarethe von Trotta played the major role of Margarethe, but in The American Soldier she is cast as the hotel maid who, in a spellbinding monologue, recounts the basic story which Fassbinder would later film as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. On one level, this doubling of roles indicates Fassbinder's comfort in working with the members of his theatre collective. But it also adds to the overall sense of strange, almost uncanny, displacement in the series. The most extreme instance of this involves the trilogy's unifying character, Franz Walsch.
Fassbinder himself plays Franz in both Love is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier, but Harry Baer takes on the role in Gods of the Plague (although Fassbinder, wearing the same black leather jacket from the first film, has a droll walk-on as a man buying a pornographic magazine from Carla Aulaulu, who played the same role in the first film see the frame to the right). It is worth noting that Fassbinder took the name of Franz Walsch as his frequent pseudonym, and used it in the credits for the many films which he edited, as well as elsewhere. In The American Soldier, he even provided a witty contextual key to the pseudonym, when the title character, Ricky, spells out the name in a parade of political and cinematic references: "W as in war, A as in Alamo, L as in Lenin, S as in science fiction, C as in crime, and H as in Hell."
With the performer switch in Gods of the Plague, you can almost imagine, say, Mel Brooks doing a spoof interlude between the first two pictures, where Franz walks into Munich's Stadelheim Prison played by the stocky, insouciant Fassbinder, then dressed in the same grungy jacket walks out as the lean, pent-up Harry Baer (which is how this film begins). Baer's persona gives the entire film a markedly different inflection from its predecessor, both in the emotional interactions between him and the other characters (old and new) and even the picture's overall style. Baer brings a different kind of vulnerability to Franz; his is an even more internal portrayal than Fassbinder's, to the extent that he often seems to be and this is dramatically very effective sleepwalking. Also new is a kind of quiet, feral sexiness, which attracts both women and men. Perhaps the combination of his silence and lean handsomeness allows everyone to project onto Franz what it is they most want. Although I don't want to push any "dime store Freud" approach (to borrow Orson Welles's phrase), it is interesting to note that Fassbinder, who was reportedly self-conscious about often being overweight, here has his character played by the svelte and charismatic Mr. Baer; and that in Beware of a Holy Whore, the character which Fassbinder used to satirize himself the comically tyrannical director Jeff is played by Lou Castel, a devilishly handsome blond actor (although by the time of Satan's Brew, six years later, he makes 'the Fassbinder character,' played by his friend Kurt Raab, look and move like himself).
The change in actor also signals other changes in the film. Paradoxically, while Franz has become even more indrawn than before, Fassbinder employs a notably more elaborate style than in Love is Colder Than Death (which, I hasten to add, has exactly the design which Fassbinder needed), even as he maintains much of the deliberate, almost meditative and hence genre-defying pace of the earlier film. On one level, the complex visuals and camera movements were made possible by the larger budget. The great critical and commercial success of his first two pictures, which firmly established Fassbinder as a rising star of the new German cinema, brought him DEM 180,000 (then US $45,000) to work with, which was twice that of his earlier films (although minuscule for Hollywood, which could have spent that much in a week just on snacks). But the looming shadows and twisted, baroque compositions in sharp contrast to the icy-cold, shadow-free lighting and minimalistic compositions of the first film also indicate the more complex world of this film. On another level, this use of more traditional, yet strikingly original, film noir style indicates Fassbinder's conscious homage he had an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history to some of the masterpieces of the genre, from say Walsh's White Heat (1949), Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Kubrick's The Killing (1956) to such brilliant, and particularly liberating for Fassbinder, revisionist works as Godard's Breathless (1959) and Band of Outsiders (1964).
On a larger level, Fassbinder uses this trilogy of which I believe Gods of the Plague is the most exceptional chapter to probe many of the hidden aspects of the crime film, including its not infrequent homoerotic subtext, even as he expands its scope both visually and psychologically. He does this not as some academic exercise, but because he deeply feels the genre and its complex, sometimes contradictory, undercurrents, and because he has the ability to express his unique vision through film.
Fassbinder uses the genre's conventions, whether the gangster picture/film noir here or melodrama in his later works, because he believes that their stylized, yet deeply human, form expresses a truer reality than so-called realism. In the process, he makes the form even more reflective of (at least his vision of) life. One of Fassbinder's supreme achievements, which you can see in every one of his films from his first short, "The Little Chaos", to his last feature, Querelle, is how he collides artifice and naked feeling to produce works which are both distancing yet deeply, sometimes shockingly, involving. But of course an artist as original, and passionate, as Fassbinder could never simply make one more genre picture. As we can see in Gods of the Plague (and in almost all of his films), he both revels in and subverts the tradition's conventions, sometimes rattling them with absurdist humor, other times radically slowing the pace, often ferreting out the raw emotions which they usually neatly contain, even pushing the genre to the breaking point (as in the final scene of The American Soldier, the shattering climax of this trilogy).
Even more than in his first two features, Fassbinder here concocts a wild interplay of opposites, or near opposites. In contrast to the heat of the film's intense but sublimated passions, Fassbinder shot this film in the fall and winter of 1969, and you can feel the cold not just in the exterior scenes, but seeping into the interiors as well. For every scene of violence, whether emotional or physical, there is another of humor, often dark. As you would expect in a crime drama, the climax contains multiple shootouts. But what you might not expect are the many strange comic touches throughout the film. Above I mentioned one of the most prominent, yet subtle, in the change of actor playing Franz. But there are many more humorous bits, such as Magdalena's young son playing on the floor with a black guinea pig (at least I hope that's what it is) which resembles a giant rat while she and Joanna argue over Franz before reconciling; or Gorilla chasing a sheep at Joe's farm (Joanna is with Franz); or Franz always fussing with his moustache (this not only helps humanize him, it reminds us that Fassbinder's Franz was clean-shaven). As with all of the film's in the trilogy, Fassbinder laces it with in-jokes, from famous films (Joanna sings at the Cafe Lola Montes, named for what Fassbinder considered the third best film ever made, Max Ophüls's Lola Montès; also Fassbinder's soon-to-be primary cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, was related to Ophüls) to friends (Franz finds his brother's corpse inside an apartment labeled "Schlondorff," named after Fassbinder's friend, fellow co-founder of the New German Cinema, and Margarethe von Trotta's husband and filmmaking collaborator, Volker Schlöndorff, who would go on to make such classic films as The Tin Drum).
And in a moment of classic Fassbinder irony, it turns out that the big score which Franz and Gorilla are planning is not some jewelry store or bank, but just a supermarket. Of course, that connects with the hilarious supermarket scene in Love is Colder Than Death when Joanna and Bruno walked up and down the endless aisles, stuffing their pockets with all of the items they can pilfer. On a more political level (which you will always find in Fassbinder), the supermarket is an emblem of a materialistic society which prizes packaging over content. The fact that this is where the climactic shootout takes place makes it a paradoxical, yet characteristic for Fassbinder, juxtaposition of the banal and the violent.
Gods of the Plague also contains much emotional complexity. Many of the interrelationships are tortured. Some are overt, such as that between Franz and Magdalena, whom he passively allows to strip him, while she says, "Your brother doesn't have such lovely skin as you do"; or Franz and Joanna. Others are more subtle, as with Magdalena and Franz's brother Marian; Franz and Marian; or Joanna and the unnamed detective played by Jan George. When she tips him off about Franz's supermarket holdup, she begs, "Can't you shoot him in the act? Please."
In addition, there are some surprisingly tender moments. There is a brief, almost wordless scene between Mrs. Walsch (Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder's own mother) and her two sons, which is very affecting, even as it veers from suspicion to affection and back again. There is also a quiet reconciliation between the two women who were both unsuccessful rivals for Franz's love: Joanna and Magdalena, Perhaps the most direct, yet mystifying, bond in the entire film is between Franz and Gorilla, who of course is the man who had been hired to murder Franz's brother. "It was just business," he says matter of factly.
The relationship of Franz, Gorilla, and Margarethe brings to mind the central ménage à trois of Love is Colder Than Death, where we had Franz, Bruno, and Joanna (played brilliantly, subtly in both films by the great Hanna Schygulla). But the differences between those two sets of three is telling. Here, the woman is much less (or perhaps not at all) jealous of Franz's deep bond with a man. In the earlier film, Joanna's jealousy was the primary factor in the bloody climax, which took care of her rival Bruno, but did nothing to cement her relationship with Franz. Here, Franz, Margarethe, and Gorilla have a sort of Jules and Jim-type arrangement. And although they are not together for a very long period of time and the air is thick with emotional subtext there at least seems like their ménage might have been feasible.
But there is more than meets the camera's eye in their grouping. As is often the case in Fassbinder's films, you have to listen closely not only to what is said but to what is not said; he demands that we read between the frames, that we become active participants in the film no matter how challenging the emotions, themes, or style. Take the scene when Franz, Margarethe, and Gorilla are driving to their friend Joe's farm. Franz asks, "Were you with Joanna while I was away?" But we are not sure whether he is addressing Margarethe (there are several, often subtle, lesbian relationships in Fassbinder's films) or Gorilla. When neither one says anything, Franz says, "Yes" (for at least one of them), then adds, "I love you." But he does not look specifically at either one of them. A little later, when they are back in Margarethe's apartment, Franz shares his pastoral pipe dream of their future together as a threesome: "We'll go to an island and live from fishing and hunting. The sun will always shine. It never rains. And we'll eat crabs. And drink wine." Later, Gorilla quietly says, from the heart, that he could earn money hustling "with men or whatever... for you, Franz." Margarethe makes a comment, and Franz slaps her without a second thought.
An enigmatic, yet exactly right, visual correlate for their relationship is the immense billboard-size poster which looms over Margarethe's and Franz and Gorilla's bed. The image is of a sphinx-like woman, with an impassive expression, who resembles Margarethe. The part of the ad copy which we see (presumably the lower portion was torn off to fit the wall) entices us to "Have a cool blonde Harp," which may have been a brand of beer. The mural is sexy, distancing, ironic (the consumerism theme again), fateful and invasive (could that woman be the eye of God or even the titular god of the plague watching our protagonists' every move), even as it reminds us of the use of similar posters in the films of Godard (one of Fassbinder's favorite writer/directors), not to mention how it looks ahead to Fassbinder's future use of such objects, notably the vast Poussin reproduction which dominates so many compositions in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. It is also a dramatic reminder of how brilliantly Fassbinder uses image in this film, which marks a substantial advance in the density of his visual design (although the minimalism of his first two films is striking and dead on).
Stylistically, the opulence of Gods of the Plague is the opposite of the extreme austerity of Love is Colder Than Death, while The American Soldier is a synthesis of the two earlier films' designs. And as people familiar with his entire body of work know, he was extraordinarily flexible in creating the style best suited for each picture, ranging from the stark design of Katzelmacher to the dizzying and psychologically astute camera moves of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to the Gothic visual extravagance of Chinese Roulette.
To illustrate the stylistic differences between this film and Lover is Colder Than Death, let's look at two shots of cars. The first frame, from the earlier film, comes during the early sequence when Bruno is searching Munich for Franz. This shot is the most traditionally film noir-like image in the film, which is otherwise composed of icy-cold visuals with a genre-defying absence of shadows. Note the symmetry of the image, divided right down the middle, with the vintage 40s car (an icon of traditional films noir, but out of place in 1969 Munich) on the left, and the balanced diagonals on the right, radiating out from the streetwalker in that shaft of light (some are overt, like the oblique shadows in the lower right of the frame; others are implied, like the diagonals from the woman which extend to the top and bottom of the column). The second frame, from Gods of the Plague, occurs in the early scene when Franz and Joanna are leaving the night club (Cafe Lola Montes). See how much more disorienting and visually extreme it is than the other frame, as Fassbinder plays with perspective and ominous shadows. The car here is even more fragmented and alien, the huge circle (headlight) is queasily off-center; and notice the tension between the horizontal line running across the frame and the vertical pull extending from the headlight. It brings out the creepiness, wit, and dark beauty of film noir in original ways.
Almost every shot in Gods of the Plague can be looked at closely, with new resonances and associations to other images both in this film and to the rest of the trilogy emerging each time. Fassbinder's use of image always precise yet immensely suggestive embodies, and even comments on, the tortured subtext of the film, as well as its genre.
Fassbinder is also a master, even at this early point, of combining drama and image carefully balanced between realism and stylization to create an effect far greater than the sum of its parts. By twisting a scene's expected dramatic progress, Fassbinder raises our expectations (from our exposure to other films of the genre, we implicitly sense the direction a scene should take) and holds our attention, even as he subtly redefines the emotional, and even thematic, potential of the genre. For example, look at the brief roulette scene (Chapter 4 on the DVD); Fassbinder brings his unique artistry even to an expository segment like this. He makes the scene strange and involving on many levels. Visually, it is quite simple, with a scalding key light on the gaming table and almost everything else in deep shadows. The darknesss is both ominous, as you would expect, but also beautiful; and it challenges us to imagine what is lurking in the creepy, obscure recesses. And that turns out to be a lot, since we do not even see Franz until well into the scene, although he has been there throughout. He combines visual design with dramatic technique in a highly evocative manner. As throughout the film, Fassbinder here reveals the tense underlying emotions partly through the slow, even pacing which acts as a counterpoint to the pent-up feelings and confusions and through the elliptical dialogue, but primarily through furtive body language and darting glances. Franz and his brother Marian keep their distance; Magdalena hangs all over Marian but he ignores her betting advice; Joanna checks out Marian while he is peeing at an open urinal, then smiles. The most important point made in dialogue, namely that Franz is very interested in finding his friend Gorilla, will not pay off dramatically for another half hour. Fassbinder has constructed this scene so that between the frames you can read, or at least sense, volumes about the characters' respective desires, frustrations, and calculations.
This scene is also important for what it reveals about Fassbinder's use of gay characters. Not only is this a prominent theme because of Franz's intimate relationship with Gorilla (which parallels his unspoken desire for Bruno in Love is Colder Than Death, which is arguably the dramatic crux of that film), but it allows Fassbinder who was openly gay to foreground the latent homoerotic subtext which runs throughout so many crime dramas and films noir, from LeRoy's Little Caesar (1930) to Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) and so many more (as I discussed in my reviews of the first and third films in this trilogy). Compositionally, Fassbinder makes nothing special out of the two guys: Their two-shots are on the same stylistic plane as the scene's others The cocky kid has a dirty, and stereotypically lisping, mouth: When he hears that Bruno (from Love is Colder Than Death) is dead, he punningly purrs (in English), "Oh, he's stiff. Marrrrrrr-velous!"; but he also comes across as just a kid. The man he is with goes against cliché: He is big and muscular in his white t-shirt, yet gentle, with a playful sense of humor. Ironically, gay equality is only possible in the criminal underworld (of course, that is a theme in the writings of criminal/literary artist Jean Genet, whose Querelle would be the source of Fassbinder's last film).
That matter-of-fact gay couple is in contrast to what we see in the climactic scene at the supermarket between Franz and the store manager (in another of Fassbinder's casting twists, he is played by the very blond Hannes Gromball, who was Joanna's ill-fated john in the earlier film). Watch closely for their body language and eye contact. It seems clear that Franz and the manager have had some kind of intimate relationship. Of course, that allows the manager to lower his guard, even as Franz and Gorilla suddenly draw their guns for the ill-fated holdup. These two scenes show Fassbinder presenting both open and closeted same-sex relationships, both of which reflect on the central intriguingly ambiguous yet moving relationship between Franz and Gorilla ("with men or whatever... for you, Franz").
[UPDATE June 16, 2011: I want to THANK Ulrich U. of Berlin for giving permission to share his insights into aspects of this film:
Ulrich notes: "Recently, I again viewed Gods of the Plague. and after that I read your article on this great movie, I think I noticed some errors which occured due to the English translation of the subtitles:
— In the scene with Franz, Margarethe and Gorilla driving to their friend Joe, Franz asks Gorilla: "Were you with Joanna while I was away?". Gorilla says "Yes" and Franz answers him or maybe Margarethe "I love you" – but I think he says this to Gorilla, because their affection for each other goes far beyond their affection for women. In your article Franz says "Yes" while neither of the others is saying anything, and that is wrong, maybe it's a printing error.
— More importantly, in the same paragraph you describe a later scene with the 3 people sharing a pipedream about living together somewhere else. Here, you write that Gorilla says he could earn money by hustling "with men or whatever...". Margarete makes a comment on that and gets slapped for it. This is totally wrong, I think because of wrong subtitles or dubbing. In the German version Margarete speaks of hustling with men and therefore gets slapped by Franz. Gorilla in this scene is busy eating and saying nothing to all this. I think this is a very important difference for the interpretation of this scene and also the characters, isn't it? In the paragraph dealing with the supermarket robbery, you are again quoting "with men or whatever" in relation to Gorilla. Of course, you are right about their ambiguous relationship, but this is a wrong clue, I think.
— Finally, let me tell you a last aspect of this film that might help elucidate the title: in the German movie trailer, an off-screen speaker announces: "Capitalism is the pest [plague], Criminals are its gods". The German DVD includes that trailer [but the Region 1 DVD does not]."
Again, THANK YOU, Ulrich, for sharing your insights!]
In Gods of the Plague, Fassbinder draws on the gangster/film noir tradition, exposing some of its long-unspoken assumptions and tensions, even as he viscerally draws on experiences from his own life. His cast and crew were friends, familiy, and sometimes lovers: He was briefly married to Ingrid Caven, who remained the person with whom he claimed the closest "elective affinitiy" (in a phrase borrowed from Goethe), and Günther Kaufmann always so affable on-screen provided one of the most tempestuous relationships of his life. Perhaps this tangled net of connections with both cinema and life are why he considered this one of his most personal films. And although his vision could hardly be more pessimistic, and some would say morbid (love is colder, not to mention less frequent, than death; and perhaps the only gods looking down on us are those who make life a plague), it has a real value in crystallizing those dark, profoundly unsettling experiences for us, even - or perhaps especially if we are more fortunate than the characters here. Finding a soothing message of uplift is easy; just turn on your TV or walk into almost any screen at your local multiplex. What Fassbinder does is very different: He not only gives voice to but explores, probing further as his body of work evolves, the most frightening places of repressed wishes, of the desperate longing for love and connection, of frustration and violent rage. At his darkest, which can also sometimes be his most sardonic (and, yes, hilarious there is a rich vein of humor throughout his films), Fassbinder shows us the extreme difficulty of leading an authentic, fulfilling life whether we are petty crooks on the mean streets of contemporary Munich or a child bride like Effi Briest in the upper echelons of Prussian society a century ago.
But if you look beyond the darkness beyond the fear of fear (to borrow one of his later titles) in this film, and his other works, Fassbinder's view can also be seen as strangely yet suggestively affirmative. His works, which he wanted us to view as one vast canvas, show us a world in which many different characters are each on a unique quest for personal liberation. More often than not, they fail on society's terms; but we can see through Fassbinder's vision the nobility of their efforts. And even as we are deeply moved by their benighted experiences, perhaps we can show ourselves how to avoid the traps into which they so often fall. That may seem like cold comfort to some, but it strikes me as more honest, and even hopeful, than the narcotizing feel-good effect of so much consumer-oriented entertainment.
- Superb transfer from a newly-restored print, using the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 24 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's 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 28, 2003
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