The Niklashausen Journey
1970 (TV) — 86 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Ambitious but uneven experimental film which collides medieval with modern Germany.
In The Niklashausen Journey, Fassbinder co-writes and co-directs with Michael Fengler an avant-garde and stridently anachronistic film about Hans Boehm, an historical shepherd who in 1476 claimed that the Virgin Mary called him to foment a holy war against the "decadent" church and upper classes. Despite a temporary success, his followers were eventually massacred and he was burned at the stake.
To compare the political and sexual turmoil of feudal Germany with that of the modern world, Fassbinder freely, and jarringly, mixes medieval elements (including some costumes, settings, and music) with those from other time periods, including the Russian Revolution (Boehm sings a hymn about Lenin to his followers) and postwar Germany. Fassbinder himself dons jeans and a hip leather jacket to play the Socialism-spouting "Black Monk," who nudges Boehm towards revolution. Although some people find this film a witty and acerbic critique of the Sixties' revolt against the status quo, I found it only sporadically effective, despite a handful of extraordinary scenes.
I admire Fassbinder's audacity in making this film, for German TV no less (can you imagine a comparable work on US television), but too often a scene would make its political and ironic point, then continue on, and on, in the same vein. An imaginative use of anachronism was a strategy recommended by Brecht whose plays and theories greatly influenced early Fassbinder to create aesthetic/political distance in order to analyze current society. But instead of regularly achieving that lofty aim, The Niklashausen Journey made me reflect on comparable films which were more effective, including Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Oedipus Rex (1967). Some of the diverse later examples which came to mind were Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Derek Jarman's riveting Edward II (1991), and even Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001). When it comes to deconstructing the lives which make up a revolutionary cell one of The Niklashausen Journey's primary goals there are few more successful or visually striking works than La Chinoise (1967); Godard was one of Fassbinder's favorite filmmakers.
Fortunately, there are some exceptional moments among the 30 or so scenes which comprise The Niklashausen Journey, especially those which explore a character in isolation. Look at how Fassbinder presents the Black Monk, his own character (although he is not listed in the film's credits). Sometimes the monk eggs on Boehm and his followers with incendiary screeds about The Revolution. But when we see him alone, or talking with just one or two other characters, he is deflated, like a puppet whose strings can only be jerked into life by rhetoric and an audience. This is a portrait which might have delighted Dostoyevsky, whose novel The Possessed (1871) is a trenchant critique of nihilists of all stripes.
Fassbinder and his frequent cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann create some striking visual effects. (Although filmed in 16mm, the DVD's restored image and sound are fairly good, despite the grain inherent in the original.) Among the most effective images which serve as a running motif are those which have characters blending into ominous, expressionistic shadows, even as they spout slogans from Socialism 101. Here Fassbinder states ideology while simultaneously undercutting it, both with the dissonance between the medieval characters and modern references and with his highly theatrical visual design. Unfortunately, he uses this same strategy repeatedly. The first few times it is compelling; subsequently I felt more "alienation" than "effect."
Three of the film's most powerful images involve women, although none of them acquits Fassbinder of the overly simplistic charge that he is a misogynist. (A worthwhile overview of this topic is the hour-long documentary "The Many Women of Fassbinder" included on the DVD of The Merchant of Four Seasons). I will never forget the Countess Magarethe (Margit Carstensen, who soon went on to play the title roles in two of Fassbinder's best films, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha), writhing and falling all over her bedroom, screaming with desire for Boehm, who has created a "fire in my womb!" Or a medieval German peasant woman walking along a modern highway straining under the load of one child on each arm while surrounded by several more tugging at her dress, as she follows meekly behind her tight-lipped farmer husband (who wants to join Boehm because he has heard that he will get some good farmland after they all win revolution).
Then there are three latter-day Maenads covered in blood, faces painted, with fists faised to the skies screaming out for Ares, the God of War, to bring vengeance on the land. As they stand in the middle of a garbage dump. They are a horrific reminder of the dark forces unleashed by Boehm's holy war.
A too-vivid image is the epicene Bishop (Kurt Raab), surrounded by a bevy of shirtless boys lounging about in a state of zombie-like torpor. This is an over-the-top, and self-conscious for gay director Fassbinder (and gay actor Raab), parody of the 'diabolical sissy' a stereotype dear to authoritarians on both the left (Joseph Stalin) and right (Jerry Falwell). Despite all of his squealing in terror about the approaching revolution, the Bishop and the ruling elite which he represents wins the day. He presides over Boehm's and his followers' fiery crucifixions, even as he weeps copious crocodile tears.
A more complex use of gender typing involves Boehm (Michael König, co-star of Fassbinder's next film, Rio das Mortes), whose luxuriant, shoulder-length blond hair gives him a distinctly and to some, I'm sure, a disturbing feminine persona. Yet while Boehm is the ostensible "hero" of the film, the voice of reason calmly and wisely extolling the values of humanism is his "enemy," a local pastor. I found this one of the richer instances of complexity, and contradiction, in the film. Their scenes alone, in a cavernous, dark chapel, were among the most resonant, and eerily beautiful, in the film.
Despite its imaginative flourishes, the film becomes tedious as it repeats, over and over, the same points about the deep flaws in human nature, both past and present, which engender revolution but which ultimately lead to disenchantment and defeat. Even with a running time of 90 minutes, it feels padded. Fassbinder showed a mastery of duration the sheer length of scenes for both emotional and thematic effect as early as his second film, Katzelmacher. And few films are as richly ironic, and emotionally overwhelming, as The Merchant of Four Seasons.
Perhaps The Niklashausen Journey's greatest interest lies in its recreation on film of what Fassbinder's Action-Theater must have been like in its heyday. While "stagey" films like Katzelmacher and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (both based on his original plays) are vitally cinematic in their resonant use of the framed image The Niklashausen Journey's use of real locations feels more expedient than meaningful (although its budget of DEM 550,000, then US $165,000, was greater than the combined budgets of three or four typical Fassbinder films from that time).
The Niklashausen Journey is a good example of Fassbinder's early themes and narrative structures, what critic Thomas Elsaesser has called a "Cinema of Vicious Circles" (in a revealing essay included with the DVD). Fassbinder's evolving ideas about the complex, tortured interplay of love and money are in full, and sometimes intriguing, play. Boehm wants to be a saint, and "cleanse" society of all the people he hates (the wealthy and powerful, both secular and church), but he needs the Black Monk to help him. The Black Monk wants a social(ist) uprising, but he needs money. Countess Magarethe does not need money so she gives it to the monk, but what she does want is Boehm, for his body. Fassbinder shows the reach, and dangers, of "supply and demand" in its many human and political forms.
Despite my reservations, this ambitious but uneven film is worth seeing for people interested in Fassbinder and political cinema. And it should spark many lively debates about the too many topics it tries to encompass, from religion to revolution, socialism to cinema, and gender roles to the limits of art and society.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a release with fairly good image quality (the grain, especially evident in darker scenes, is inherent in the 16mm original, which was originally shot for German television) and sound. Restoration and subtitling by TaurusfilmMunich in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder FoundationBerlin.
- In the original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Original mono soundtrack
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 18 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"
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed November 12, 2002
This search engine covers the entire website (GLBT literature, film, and all other pages) — results will open in a new window. You can also use the site map.