1971 — 95 minutes, color, aspect ratio 2.35:1 — Drama
A wildly iconoclastic Western, at once entertaining and deeply disturbing.
Perhaps the most iconoclastic Western ever made, Whity is simultaneously entertaining and deeply disturbing. Set in April 1878, it tells the story of the title character, who is the illegitimate son and de facto slave of the dissolute and "dying" patriarch Ben Nicholson and his African-American servant. But Ben is only faking his illness to test the loyalty of his wife and two demented sons. Each monumentally dysfunctional family member tries to bribe and/or seduce the bisexual Whity into murdering the others in order to claim what they think is the imminent inheritance. Talk about melodrama!
Clearly Fassbinder was taking on a genre and exposing it from the inside out, as his idol Jean-Luc Godard had done in recent years (deconstructing science fiction in Alphaville and the romantic thriller in Pierrot le Fou, to take just two examples). In the two years before Whity, Fassbinder had done his own genre blasting but of film noir, in the trilogy featuring his alter ego character of Franz Walsch: Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier; in many of his later films he would break apart and remake what became his primary genre melodrama in such masterworks as Ali: Fears Eats the Soul and the BRD Trilogy. (Here is my round-up of 10 GLBT-themed Westerns, which of course includes Whity, as does my list of the 10 best Westerns.)
Although Fassbinder is aware of, and uses, the iconography of the Western cowboys, horses, wide open plains, frontier towns, saloon girls, and lots of guns his heart is clearly with the genre's subversive tradition. Openly gay, Fassbinder likely appreciated the homoerotic subtexts of two landmark Westerns, Hawks's homoerotic Red River (1948) and Ray's iconically lesbian Johnny Guitar (1954). Whity was also influenced by such other unsettling masterpieces as Ford's The Searchers (1956), with its emphasis on racism, and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), with its apocalyptically violent finale.
Fassbinder has taken these sources, and more, to produce his own well-fermented "sauerkraut Western" (my term to contrast with Sergio Leone's well-known "spaghetti Westerns"). Leone's recent reimaginings of the genre in his Man With No Name Trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood, which climaxed with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), were likely foremost in the wunderkind's mind. Fassbinder even rented Whity's shooting locations from Leone, who had cost-effectively recreated the American West, for his own pictures, in Almería, Andalucía, Spain.
Delving into the darkest emotional recesses of the Western, Fassbinder knew that he was pushing the boundaries of the genre far beyond the breaking point, not to mention the tolerance of many audience members. Some moments in the film are so disturbing that his own cast, with whom he had been working for several years, threatened to quit. (Of course, Fassbinder's sometimes dictatorial manner on the set also may have been a contributing factor.) Luckily for Fassbinder, they were a long way from home.
What is so disturbing about Whity without spoiling the major plot twists?
Fassbinder explores, not only openly but sometimes with grotesque comedy, such hot button themes as racism, gender identity, homoeroticism of the self-loathing variety, incest, bestiality, sado-masochism (there are several painfully protracted flogging scenes), prostitution and other forms of economic exploitation. Add to that over-the-top makeup effects which might have given even Brecht pause, as we see the (brave) actors, eyebrows bleached, smeared with cakey, greenish- or bluish-white greasepaint. The first time we see the assembled Nicholson clan they resemble a convocation of the undead. Of course that is the point: They are vampires, although of the emotional, not supernatural kind.
Perhaps the most stunning makeup effect is reserved for Whity's mother Marpessa, the "mammy" character who does little more than shake her head, bedecked in an African-American fright wig, and repeat, "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!" As if we needed any further aesthetic distance, in the film's second shot, Fassbinder clearly shows the line where her blackface makeup was applied. If we did not know of Fassbinder's passionate and lifelong fight against racism, Marpessa would be a runner up for the most politically incorrect element in any of his films.
So, why bother with Whity at all?
If you are a Fassbinder fan, the answer is obvious: Because it is one of his films, and has been almost impossible to see (before this strikingly restored, widescreen DVD release). Not only that, Fassbinder claimed that Whity was, at least up to that point, his most deeply personal film. So much so, that he wished that he could keep the completed film entirely to himself. Although, for different reasons, many people share his sentiment, I am not one of them.
Whity has many obvious strengths, perhaps first among them is that it is a ravishingly beautiful film, superbly designed (Kurt Raab won a German Academy Award for his art direction) and shot. The compositions, sometimes recalling and other times trumping Sergio Leone's, are often breathtaking, as is the use of camera movement, which looks ahead to such later masterpieces as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. It also marks the first of fourteen collaborations between Fassbinder and perhaps his greatest cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus (who, since 1985, has shot virtually all of Scorsese's films).
Whity also boasts an ecelctic musical score by lifelong Fassbinder collaborator Peer Raben (who also co-produced this film, using the pseudonym of "Wilhelm Rabenbauer"). Raben sometimes evokes Ennio Morricone's classic scores for the Sergio Leone Westerns (although Raben uses none of Morricone's patented whip cracks maybe because Whity already contains enough flogging). But at other times, Raben employs quiet, strangely lyrical themes. Not only that, but the film boasts seven original songs in a style reminiscent of the Brecht/Weill musicals like The Three Penny Opera, but all with (slightly mispronounced) English lyrics. Five songs are performed by the great Hanna Schygulla (who won the German Academy Award for Best Actress for her work here, and who appeared in half of Fassbinder's films), as the prostitute with whom Whity is in love, and two are sung by a man, under the opening and closing credits.
Whity also shows Fassbinder growing assurance in wresting complex performances from his actors (even if he refused, pointed blank, ever to discuss "motivation" with them). We see him continue to refine his trademark blending of weirdly hypnotic acting style with enormous emotional impact. The sometimes excruciatingly slow pace, coupled with the onscreen grotesquerie, allows Fassbinder to ratchet up the tension, until the film literally explodes in a series of climaxes.
Also of note is that Whity's offscreen misadventures provided Fassbinder with the grist for his next picture, Beware of a Holy Whore, which is still one of the most incisive, and hilarious, films ever made about filmmaking.
Most importantly, I believe that Whity is one of the most fascinating, and essential, Westerns ever made. It exposes almost every ugly latent assumption contained in the genre since its birth a century ago in dime novels and early silent films. And in these days when so many people, including politicians, wrap themselves in the myth of the cowboy, it is important to follow Fassbinder's lead in digging beneath the genre's surface. In all of his films Fassbinder wanted to create a dynamic space in which his audience could think about both his film and its implicit comment on society. Of course, Fassbinder like Godard and Brecht did not always succeed in this lofty aim. But with Whity, Fassbinder forces you, at gunpoint, to deconstruct the Western's subtext social, political and sexual now... or git outta town.
- In the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1
- Choice of a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack or the original stereo
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 12 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed May 14, 2003
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.