Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?
Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?
1970 — 88 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 Drama
Essential Fassbinder. One of Fassbinder's best, and most provocative, early films is about a white-collar worker who goes on a murderous rampage.
Disclosure: I have written the liner notes for Fantoma's DVD release of this film. With a few changes, that essay appears below.
"You hear the one about the guy goes into a bakery, orders a loaf of bread? 'White or black?' the baker asks. 'Doesn't matter,' the guy says. 'It's for a blind person.'"
How do we move from these opening words of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? one of five rapid-fire jokes delivered by Herr R.'s co-workers to its climactic killing spree? Like the title, that's another gnawing, and resonant, question.
This is one of Fassbinder's most powerful and original works. Although he gave a co-writing and co-directing credit to his friend, Michael Fengler, its vision is pure Fassbinder. It grew directly out of his experimental theatre work and earlier films. It raises themes about the problematic connections of the individual to society and himself which he'll explore from many angles in his later features. In a way, it's an extension of his minimalist classic Katzelmacher, about a group of aimless young people whose lives alternate between stasis and violence (Herr R. could be one of them, ten years on and with a white-collar job). It also connects to an exceptional later film, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, about the effects on a family when the father goes on a killing rampage at work. But in style and feeling, this film, like Herr R. himself, stands alone.
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? was Fassbinder's fifth feature, and one of five films and three plays he did in 1970. That was a typically prodigious year for an artist who directed forty-one features and three-dozen theatrical productions in fourteen hyperactive years, before dying at age 36. This film was shot in 16mm by Dietrich Lohmann (who photographed most of Fassbinder's early pictures) in the winter of 1969/70 in Munich, premiered June 28, 1970 and went into general release the following February. Like many of Fassbinder's early films, it appealed to only a handful of adventurous cinephiles, but it was critically acclaimed, and won major prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival and the German Film Awards. Today, Fassbinder is cited as a major influence by many directors, including Almodóvar, Jarmusch, Kiarostami, Van Sant, and Von Trier, who owes a special debt to this film which anticipates by a quarter century virtually all of his Dogme 95 movement's ultra-naturalistic rules.
As Herr R., the mousy draftsman who finally reaches the breaking point, Kurt Raab gives one of his most unnerving performances. It seems more richly-layered with each viewing, as you search for more clues to his obscure nature. Raab worked on virtually all of Fassbinder's productions, usually as production designer, but sometimes as actor. He was unforgettable as the lead in Satan's Brew and The Stationmaster's Wife, and in many juicy featured parts, including an over-the-top Bishop in The Niklashausen Journey (the only other film which Fassbinder co-directed with Fengler).
[SPOILER ALERT — specifics about the film's climax are revealed below.]
Although there was scant clinical research on family murders, or familicides, in 1970, Fassbinder intuited much of what subsequent studies have found. Besides the acts themselves, these increasingly common homicides are so shocking because they are usually committed by ordinary men, out of the blue. That is exactly the effect Fassbinder achieves with his radical structure: for ninety-five percent of the film, we inhabit Herr R.'s excruciatingly uneventful life at work and home. When in the next-to-last scene he listlessly bludgeons to death his neighbor, wife, and sleeping son, it is all the more visceral, although the fatal blows are delivered outside of the frame and we see no blood. These astounding final minutes force us to reassess everything that’s come before, everything we thought we knew about this well-groomed, pleasant little man. It is no coincidence that this is Fassbinder’s only title in the form of a question: "Why...?"
He raises the most frequently cited clinical reasons for family killings, including jealousy. Herr R. kills the neighbor (Irm Herrmann) during her nattering monologue about a ski vacation when she worked her boyfriend into a jealous rage by flirting with an instructor. But there is no evidence that Herr R.’s wife (Lilith Ungerer) is unfaithful, unless you count the one time she sat next to a handsome neighbor (Hannes Gromball). Another common motive for such murders is a history of abuse, but Herr R.'s parents seem genuinely "nice," chatting with their daughter-in-law and doting on their grandson. At the firm's threadbare Christmas party, the boss (Franz Maron) embarrasses Herr R. by refusing to join him in a drunken toast to their (non-existent) friendship. Humiliation is another explanation for familicide, but again Fassbinder shrugs off a reductive explanation.
He shows us the human fallibility built into medical and psychological professionalism. The doctor who diagnoses Herr R.'s headaches is perfunctory and ineffectual: just quit smoking, he says, and the problem will go away. (With the cast constantly lighting up, cigarettes must have figured prominently in the microscopic DEM 135,000 budget.) More disturbing than the physician is the well-intentioned but by-the-book elementary school counselor, who calls in Herr and Frau R. to hear the litany of their son's academic and social problems. As Herr R. listens silently, his body slightly contorted, we and perhaps he can imagine that the son is already turning into the father.
Fassbinder's refusal to diminish the complexity of lived experience is what keeps this film riveting from the start. Through his pitch-perfect cast, we have the voyeuristic thrill of eavesdropping on seemingly real people. In fact, virtually everyone uses their actual name, including Kurt Raab. He's referred to repeatedly as "Kurt" or "Mr. Raab" but never as an allegorical "Herr R." I use that form because it's the convention in writing about the film, but also because, for all of his authenticity, Herr R. is also a resonant symbol of alienated modern man, a pudgy Travis Bickle with a T-square.
Instead of reducing Herr R. to a case study, Fassbinder reveals him in a deeper, and more disturbing, way through his filmmaking. A man who could murder his own wife and son is a man who sees the world as a bleak, frozen, endlessly drab place, a prison without bars. Herr R.'s inner world, of too-quiet desperation, is what we see projected onscreen.
Although Fassbinder employs a documentary-like style, with many hand-held shots, the result is intensely subjective. The long static takes, interrupted by jerky pans into invasive, even leering close-ups (why are we staring at the secretary's face now?), encapsulate Herr R. Even when he's among co-workers or has neighbors visiting, the camera angles to isolate him. He sits alone, slightly hunched, against a flat background. He is often framed as he sees himself, relegated to the margins. This asymmetry is especially foreboding in light of his job as a draftsman; he’d be fired for such askew perspectives. For Herr R., this film is a repressive eternity crammed into eighty minutes. The murders are no less shocking for feeling horribly inevitable.
While that is an extraordinary visual and psychological achievement, especially for a 25-year-old filmmaker, there is more to this film than meets the eye.
The film's narrative technique, in twenty-two scenes, reinforces the visual design, and hence Herr R.’s character. Scenes are often lengthy, with largely improvised dialogue. Surprisingly (at least until the end), the film is punctuated with some violently abrupt cuts. By contrast, there is a lot of giggling. Around Herr R., most of the people are telling jokes, laughing and having a pretty good time. This is effective in different ways. It both tightens the screws on Herr R.’s alienation and, from the audience’s perspective, keeps the film (weirdly but credibly) buoyant. Who can forget those two giddy teenage girls in the record shop, who find the rigid Herr R. a total hoot? You can almost see why some people classify this film a comedy.
The laughter, like the dialogue, works because it feels spontaneous. But on a deeper level, Fassbinder uses all of the dramatic and visual elements to convey his theme. It’s no coincidence that the film's first words, the black and white bread joke (told by Harry Baer) quoted above, reference the colors of the funereal three-piece suit that Herr R. wears throughout. This was Fassbinder’s first film in color, yet ironically and aptly it’s as oppressively monochromatic as his earlier pictures, with revealing titles like Love is Colder Than Death.
Let's take a look at the opening scene's five jokes, which by the end we realize serve as a kind of thematic overture for the whole film. The bread joke is about blindness; the horse-seating-eight gag (Peter Moland) is about cluelessness; the mouse and elephant story (Lieselotte Eder, Fassbinder’s mother) is about inferiority; "swimming to America" is about futility (Harry Baer again); and the one about the man murdering his wife (Peter Moland again) is all too prophetic. Taken together, those themes delimit Herr R., although part of his tragedy is that he lacks the objectivity to see it. Also note Fassbinder's use of space and color, from the first shot, to suggest Herr R.'s inner world. The three laughing co-workers and the silently grinning Herr R. step out of their office building into a narrow, gray, frozen alley.
While this is perhaps Fassbinder's most hyper-real picture, it's also among his most richly ambiguous works, mysterious to the bone. The allegorical title suggests that he has symbolic intentions, but he never forces a narrow this-means-that interpretation. As in all of his films, there are no simplistic "heroes" or "villains," let alone "monsters." Herr R., like everyone else we meet, is just a person caught up in a system that pushes him over the edge, or that allows him to push himself over. In his later films Fassbinder will dissect what makes society tick, but here we see what happens when the ticking fatally stops for one man.
Why does Herr R. run amok?
Perhaps Fassbinder is really asking, under what circumstances might you?
Fantoma has released this DVD in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. In judging the image and sound quality, it should be remembered that the film was originally shot in 16mm; so graininess is to be expected.
- New digital transfer presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- German with optional English subtitles
- Never before seen 1992 interview with cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, who shot 18 of Fassbinder's films
- Booklet with an essay on the film (see above)
- Suggested retail price $19.98
Essay posted at this site on April 23, 2006
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