Pioneers in Ingolstadt
Pioniere in Ingolstadt
1971 (TV) — 87 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Young German recruits ("pioneers") arrive in a village to build a small bridge by day and to carouse by night, changing the lives of several locals.
Although made for German TV, Pioneers in Ingolstadt also expanded the reach of Fassbinder's growing reputation as his first film to be invited to Cannes and the New York Film Festival. It also inspired the influential New York Times critic Vincent Canby to hail Fassbinder as the most original new talent since Jean-Luc Godard, who had debuted a decade and a half earlier.
The film depicts the exploits of a group of German "pioneers" (soldiers sent to work on public projects) who are assigned to build a wooden bridge in the out-of-the-way town of Ingolstadt. They seek relief from the boredom of their project, and lives, through alcohol, sexual adventures with local women, and intermittent acts of violence. These types of characters, and their pursuits, will sound familiar to viewers of Fassbinder's other early pictures, including his extraordinary second feature, Katzelmacher. But just two years into his career as a feature filmmaker, Fassbinder has already greatly expanded his aesthetic and political ambitions.
The central metaphor of the film, the bridge, is not only ironic but complex. It is one of the tiniest bridges you have ever seen, the size of a splinter from the one in, say, Bridge on the River Kwai. In other words, it matches the men's self-esteem, and ambitions. Even more ironic is the fact that the story revolves around building this structure, when the film explores and sometimes feels a bit like it wallows in alienation, disconnection, the unbridgeable (pun intended) gap between people.
The film's structure revolves around a complex intertangled web of connections between the (profoundly disconnected) characters. Although the film explores a static world, with performances which sometimes border on the somnambulistic, it derives much of its energy from Fassbinder's eclectic tone. He pointedly veers between perverse comedy, melancholy, and violence. The film's explosive climaxes are made all the more shattering by the lethargic pacing of earlier scenes.
But throughout the film there are several times when Fassbinder resorts to tableaux, some of which are quite striking. This "drama in stasis" was a favorite technique during his first eleven feature films (19691971), which were heavily influenced by the stage work he did with his Antitheatre group. The connection between two of his cultural and political icons the playwright Brecht, whose works he staged, and filmmaker Godard come together in fascinating ways in the films of this period.
In fact, Fassbinder may have chosen Pioneers in Ingolstadt, in part, because he knew that Marieluise Fleisser was a favorite playwright of Brecht's. Although Fassbinder may have felt uncharacteristically intimidated by filming an actual play by the great Brecht (or more likely the film rights were simpy unavailable), with Fleissser's work he had the next best thing. Here was a sort of proto-Brechtian play – that may even have influenced Brecht's own developmen – in which the characters and situations mirror, and by extension criticize, society. Fassbinder ups the ante by setting it in a sort of time-warped world which combines elements of the nineteenth century (when the play was set), the Weimar period (when it was written), and 1971 (the cars in the distance whose cacophony give the film a sort of anti-musical bass line).
The themes that he draws from Pioneers in Ingolstadt are, as you would expect, vintage Fassbinder. His fascination with class and power are given full shrift. We see this dramatized in the relationships between the "pioneers" and their arrogant commanding officer, a sadistic sergeant (played by Klaus Löwitsch who later plays the small but pivotal role of the husband in The Marriage of Maria Braun) who would have given even Captain Queeg a run for his money. Of course, these soldiers are not the virtuous warriors depicted by Hollywood. Fassbinder's view of soldiers inarticulate, bored, lazy, and prone to violence which would not endear him to patriots in any country.
An even more tangled mess of relationships come about when sex, and one-sided love, are thrown into the mix with class and power. The scenes between the soldiers and the women in town provide the dramatic spine for the film, even as they allow Fassbinder to explores the connections between love and war (or at least the men who practice it). The focus is on two (symbolically, of course) contrasting women, both superbly played by arguably the two greatest actresses he worked with (between them, they appeared in most of his pictures). There is Alma (Irm Hermann), who all too easily falls into a life of love for pay. And then there is the romantic Berta (Hanna Schygulla) who, from Fassbinder's point of view, makes the fatal mistake of actually falling in love with the one of the soldiers.
To compound her mistake, she goes head over heels for an archetypal Mr. Wrong: The strikingly handsome but narcissistic and disaffected Karl. He is played with uncanny perfection by Harry Baer, who acted in many Fassbinder films and served as assistant director on many others (also, Fassbinder was reportedly smitten with Herr Baer). Baer stands as an icon of narcissistic, unattainable male beauty.
Berta's and Alma's relationships provide Fassbinder with a choice opportunity to experiment with grafting the emotionally, and sometimes visually, lush melodrama of his beloved Douglas Sirk (the expatriate German intellectual filmmaker who scored big at the 1950s Hollywood box office with such superb, and subtextually complex, "women's pictures" as All That Heaven Allows which Fassbinder reimagined as his great Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life). Throughout the rest of his career, Fassbinder experimented with using, in original and powerful ways, a combination of Brecht and Godard's political/aesthetic techniques with Sirk's melodramatic plots and visual flair (and sometimes Max Ophül's fluid camera movements). Pioneers in Ingolstadt is nowhere near the most developed, or resonant, joining of those illustrious, and eclectic, influences, but it does clearly point the way towards his future masterpieces, even as it looks back on his earlier triumphs in the theatre and his early films.
Pioneers in Ingolstadt is most successful in creating a feeling of supercharged lethargy. Fassbinder also employs a static visual style (as he does in the more than one dozen films he made with cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann). However, when the camera does move, it does so in sinister ways. There is the obsessive yet robot-like slow pan back and forth, back and forth as the rich father demeans his grown son. Then there is a disturbing extended tracking shot over the bodies the dozens of sleeping recruits as if a vampire were slowly deciding on its prey which finally ends when the camera finds the good-natured soldier Max (played by Fassbinder stalwart Günther Kaufmann).
Visually and psychologically, this a-historical world always seems as if it is about to rupture, as if something terrible were about to burst forth at any moment (as veteran Fassbinder viewers can guess, during climactic scenes that is exactly what happens).
When the characters arrive at their fated impasses, the resulting frustration leads to violence. It is interesting to compare the extended beating of the rich and twisted son in this film to the final scene of The American Soldier, which Fassbinder had made the previous year.
Although much quieter than that climactic moment, there is an extraordinarily haunting murder on a lake at the end of Pioneers in Ingolstadt. Telling you who is involved would spoil the moment. But the sudden nature of the homicide is contrasted with the serene, even poetic, beauty of the images. Moments like this rank among Fassbinder's most original, unforgettable, and unnerving.
Fantoma, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a very good DVD release of this film. The image is usually crisp (from a restored print; although made for German TV it was shot in 35 mm) and the sound is very good. There are no special features on the disc, but the booklet includes an incisive and witty essay on the film.
- In the original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 12 chapters
- Essay on the film in a printed booklet
- $29.98 suggested retail
Reviewed May 15, 2003
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