Rio das Mortes
1971 (TV) — 84 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Two friends try to raise money to go to South America's Rio das Mortes region in search of treasure.
Rio das Mortes is Fassbinder's strangely comic film about two young men, with no prospects for the future, who try to raise money to go to South America's Rio das Mortes region in search of hidden treasure, and presumably a more fulfilling life.
Fassbinder is one of the most extraordinary filmmakers of recent decades, and his pictures often become more compelling as we resee them. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. Astonishingly, Fassbinder made nine feature films between 1970 and 1971, and the strain shows in Rio das Mortes. Although its two final scenes are vintage Fassbinder, much of the first 80 minutes seem slapdash by comparison.
Fassbinder and his frequent cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann created countless striking images in a wide range of styles. But here their work is perfunctory, with most of the film done in long master shots. And although the DVD was made from the best surviving archival materials, it was originally filmed for television in 16mm and the resulting grain, especially evident in scenes shot in low light levels, is at times severe.
The credits name fellow New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff (1966's Young Törless, 1975's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1979's The Tin Drum) with the story idea. Since this meandering film often feels made up on the spot, that "idea" may have had to take the place of a crafted screenplay. Rio das Mortes is more of a character study than a fleshed-out narrative. But unfortunately the characters are not well-developed, although the actors are compelling.
Michael König (fresh from his crucifixion and immolation in Fassbinder's previous film, The Niklashausen Journey) and Günther Kaufmann (who would soon do the title role in Whity), play two ingratiating slackers with the same names as themselves. The filmic Mike lays tile for a living, and Günther briefly served in the navy. Günther is one of the most amiable figures in any Fassbinder film which is in striking contrast to his tumultuous off-screen behavior during his affair with Fassbinder, and notably in 2002 Kaufmann was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing his financial advisor. But enough dish.
Since they know they have no future, when Mike rediscovers a treasure map about a quarter through the film they are excited that at last have stumbled upon a goal. But this dramatic development begs several questions: How could Mike ever have misplaced such a map? Where did he get it in the first place? And why wasn't this pivotal scene dramatized, instead of being described during a blatantly expository telephone call? By pinching their pfennigs and borrowing the rest, the buddies plan to fly to South America, find the lost gold of the Rio das Mortes, and come back filthy rich.
The film's ill-conceived second half is basically a series of redundant scenes in which the guys alternately try to raise money (by a stroke of impossible luck, they stumble onto a wealthy patroness who bankrolls everything) and contact various "experts" on Peru, including a librarian and the Peruvian embassy. I realize that for some die-hard Fassbinder fans (and I am often one myself), this comes across as a satirical representation of the social and economic mechanisms of society, seen from his simultaneously harsh and sympathetic eye. But although I have enormous regard for Fassbinder, I disagree.
Not only are these authorities dramatically tedious, their command of geography is shockingly off. Fassbinder's screenplay is sending them to Peru's Rio das Mortes, but in fact that region is located almost two thousand miles away, in southeastern Brazil's state of Minas Gerais! And the film gives no clue how far off course they will be. Perhaps Fassbinder was thinking about Peru because at the time (1971) fellow German New Wave filmmaker Werner Herzog was on location filming his visionary masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about a doomed 16th century Spanish conquistador searching for treasure in the Peruvian jungle.
In any event, is the viewer supposed to know these fine points of geography? I would not, except for hours of trolling the Internet and reference books on my own "treasure hunt" for information. What I found out about the titular location was fascinating. The Rio das Mortes (literally, "river of deaths"), a tributary of the Araguaia River, was once a gold mining center opened by Portuguese settlers. It was reputed to contain the hidden treasures of Jose Maria dos Santos, a former slave and the last person in the area to strike it rich.
Its "deadly" name may derive from a long-ago massacre of either missionaries or Brazilian soldiers by the native people, or from the many piranha which infest the waters. Talk about dramatic possibilities! And unless Peru has an identically-named and -described area (which remains lost to the gazetteers, encyclopedias, and Web sites which I consulted), the one in Brazil sounds like what is described in Fassbinder's dialogue. But what was he thinking when he sent his two would-be adventurers to the wrong country, without even a wink to the audience?
Unfortunately, this geographical sloppiness reflects the dramatic sloppiness of much of the film. It often feels as if entire scenes were being made up on the spot, and as a result any potential emotional or thematic depth rarely has a chance to be realized. Improvisation can be a powerful dramatic tool and Fassbinder used it more effectively than most filmmakers but not here. However, there are a few bizarre moments, which give a jolt to the otherwise sluggish narrative.
By far the film's strangest scene is a throwback to Fassbinder's previous picture, The Niklashausen Journey. In Rio das Mortes, a half-dozen women shuffle round and round in a loose circle, spouting vaguely Marxist and feminist lines, such as "The repression of women is seen in the way they act." They do this in front of a chalkboard on which someone has drawn an enormous penis beneath the acronym USSA, which conflates the USA with the USSR, and in which the "SS" is done in the same angular script used by the Nazi SS ("Schutzstaffel") unit. This all comes across as ill-conceived rather than pregnant with any deeper meaning; only Fassbinder at his best or his early idol, Godard could have pulled it off. Dramatically, the scene stops the action flat, and in a film so lacking in narrative momentum, that is disastrous.
Another problem is that the characters are vague, not richly ambiguous as in many other Fassbinder films. For instance, there is an intriguingly subtle relationship between Mike's girlfriend Hanna (played by the wonderful Hanna Schygulla, who appeared in half of Fassbinder's films) and her unnamed friend, the soon-to-be ex-wife of a pompous scholar named Joachim. Although this remains ill-defined, it does add some dimension to the pivotal, but underwritten, character of Hanna, who stands between the film's two male leads.
And with the focus on Mike and Günther, you might expect the openly gay filmmaker, with his penchant for digging beneath the surface of genres (this is Fassbinder's "buddy movie"), to explore the men's relationship. But he does not. And that is in spite of Mike's extended monologue, in which he tells his envious girlfriend Hanna about how he and Günther, as boys, swore "blood brotherhood." And after the intensely homoeroticized climax of his recent picture, The American Soldier, not to mention the connection between Hanna and Joachim's wife. (The durable "buddy" tradition extends from, say, Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port (1928; Hawks said it was "really a love story between two men") and Red River (1948) to a movie which could hardly be more different, the Farrelly Brothers' Dumb and Dumber (1994).) Fassbinder gives no indication that, at the film's end, Mike and Günther will be happily walking or flying off into the sunrise for a life together.
This lack of any deep connection between her fiancé and Günther makes Hanna's climactic jealousy all the more mystifying. For the viewers who regard Hanna as the central character, her emotional disintegration, caused by Mike's increasingly ignoring her in favor of his upcoming treasure hunt, is the film's dramatic core. Although I do not see Hanna as the picture's reason for being, in its last few minutes her crazed passion at long last opens up the film in several compelling ways.
First we have the most affecting shot in entire picture, when the camera, from Hanna's point of view, slowly pans around the empty apartment, eloquently revealing her loneliness. A few moments later we see Hanna at the airport tower, wearing a fox stole (head attached) and a black veil. She is literally dressed to kill, as she pulls out a gun and catches Mike and Günther, headed for their plane, in the crosshairs. (Günther was her platonic bedmate of the night before, spending over seven minutes nearly one-tenth of film's length merely reminiscing about his stint in the navy.)
Where does Hanna's violent impulse come from? Is it simply frustration because she believes her fiancé is ditching her, although he promised to be back in six months? On some level, does Hanna believe that he may be leaving her for a happier future, albeit with a man?
And does this possibly 'gay dimension' connect with Hanna and her tentative relationship with Joachim's wife, whose series of advances, throughout the film, she never rebuffs? Does Hanna's narrowly-averted violence, perhaps in part, spring from her own frustration at not being able to do what the men are doing namely, escaping from their constrained life with someone of the same sex?
Of course that is a lot of emotional and thematic freight for the brief final scene to bear. And Fassbinder gives us no clear answers to those questions. Although a tantalizing use of ambiguity is one of Fassbinder's strengths throughout his body of work, in this film it feels more vague and unsatisfying than resonant.
At least this visually undistinguished film ends with a powerful image: An extreme closeup of Hanna putting on a fresh coat of flame red lipstick. Could this be a hint that she realizes that Mike's leaving could be as freeing for her as for him? Again, who can say.
On a very tentatively optimisitc note, it should be noted that Mike and Günther are virtually the only characters, in any of Fassbinder's plays or films, who manage to break away from their old lives. On the other hand, they are in for a rude awakening when they learn that they are headed to the wrong country, hundreds of miles away from any hidden treasure which the Rio das Mortes might hold.
As Fassbinder said in an interview, in the revealing documentary Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977 (included on the DVD of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), he learned from all of his films, even the ones which he considered failures. While I do not know what he thought of Rio das Mortes, even after two viewings and despite its intriguing final scenes it seems one of his weakest efforts. But this eighth Fassbinder feature does toss out, in rough form, ideas and emotional resonances which will be powerfully developed in the 33 films he was still to make.
For some people interested in Fassbinder and Schygulla, the film's most memorable scene may be their rock and roll dance duet at the bar, with the writer/director playing an unidentified character but sporting his trademark black leather jacket and Schygulla dressed to the nines in a red silky dress. This unforgettable bit has nothing to do with the plot, but it breathes much-needed life into the film. And as Schygulla has said in later interviews (including the one on the BRD trilogy), it is among her fondest memories of Rainer, who could dance up a storm.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a release with fair image quality (the grain 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
- 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"
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed December 7, 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.