Jarman

Fassbinder's Films

2 shorts

  1. "The City Tramp" (1966)
  2. "The Little Chaos" (1966)

41 features

  1. Love is Colder Than Death (1969)
  2. Katzelmacher (1969)
  3. Gods of the Plague (1970)
  4. The Coffeehouse (1970) (TV)
  5. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970)
  6. The American Soldier (1970)
  7. The Niklashausen Journey (1970) (TV)
  8. Rio das Mortes (1971) (TV)
  9. Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971) (TV)
  10. Whity (1971)
  11. Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)
  12. The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)
  13. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)
  14. Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972) (TV mini-series)
  15. Bremen Freedom (1972) (TV)
  16. Wild Game (Wildwechsel – aka Jail Bait) (1972) (TV)
  17. Nora Helmer (1973) (TV)
  18. Martha (1973) (TV)
  19. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
  20. Effi Briest (1974)
  21. World on a Wire (1974) (TV)
  22. Like a Bird on a Wire (1975) (TV)
  23. Fox and His Friends (1975)
  24. Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)
  25. Fear of Fear (1975) (TV)
  26. I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) (TV)
  27. Chinese Roulette (1976)
  28. Satan's Brew (1976)
  29. Women in New York (1977) (TV)
  30. The Stationmaster's Wife (aka Bolwieser) (1977) (TV)
  31. Despair (1978)
  32. In a Year With 13 Moons (1978)
  33. Germany in Autumn (1978)
  34. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
  35. The Third Generation (1979)
  36. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) (TV mini-series)
  37. Lili Marleen (1981)
  38. Theater in Trance (1981)
  39. Lola (1981)
  40. Veronika Voss (1982)
  41. Querelle (1982)

 

The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Merchant of Four Seasons
Der Händler der vier Jahreszeiten

Merchant of Four Seasons
1971 — 88 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama

Essential Fassbinder. Deeply moving tale of a fruit-peddler searching for love

Review

Disclosure: I have written the liner notes for the U.K.-based Arrow Film's Region 2 DVD release of this film. That essay draws on my review presented here.

ImageThe Merchant of Four Seasons is the deeply moving tale of a fruit-peddler searching for love and meaning in his life, during West Germany's "economic miracle" of the 1950s (a period which Fassbinder also explored in his late masterpiece, the BRD Trilogy). Not only was this Fassbinder's first major commercial success, it is also one of his greatest films, and marks a crucial turning point in his career. This is an ideal film to begin exploring – or re-exploring – Fassbinder. And Wellspring Media has created a superb "Masterworks Edition" DVD of the film, made from a gorgeously-restored print, and featuring two exceptional full-length documentaries about Fassbinder, an insightful optional commentary track by Fassbinder's friend director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas), and much more (discussed below).

Fassbinder's 12th feature in three years, The Merchant of Four Seasons was made in 1971, the only "quiet" year of Fassbinder's career. In 1970 he had directed six films and two major stage productions. In 1972, he made three features and five 90-minute television episodes. But in 1971, his focus was solely on this one work. Director Wim Wenders, in his commentary on the film, believes that Fassbinder lavished more care, and love, on this film – which he considers Fassbinder's masterpiece – than any of his other works. (Viewers and critics offer many different nominees for 'Fassbinder's greatest film,' including Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Berlin Alexanderplatz; here is Fassbinder's own list of his best films.)

ImageThe Merchant of Four Seasons stars Hans Hirschmüller (in a performance of quiet but enormous depth) as Hans Epp, a simple but likable young man who – we learn in a series of flashbacks throughout the film – has served in the Foreign Legion in 1947 (implying that earlier he was old enough to have served in the German/Nazi military), been fired from the police force for fooling around with a streetwalker in custody, and now is trying to make a living by hawking fruits and vegetables. This disgusts his middle-class family and the woman identified in the credits as The Merchant's Great Love (played by Fassbinder's then-wife, also the film's producer, Ingrid Caven).

ImageHans settles for a loveless marriage with Irmgard, a pert but manipulative and unfaithful wife (played by Fassbinder regular Irm Hermann). Although Hans comes to achieve considerable success in his new business – much to his family's and wife's delight – he falls into a downward spiral of depression, violence, and illness, until the film's unforgettable next-to-last scene, which is pure Fassbinder.

In the hands of a less extraordinary filmmaker, this story could have devolved into a tedious, and squalid, mess. But Fassbinder is brilliant at creating striking images, like the powerful opening shot, which sums up Hans in visual terms. The camera is locked into a close-up on him, while he spins around and around, calling, "Pears! Fresh pears!" And Fassbinder inspires performances of genuine depth in his entire cast, from Hirschmüller (who is in almost every scene) to the smallest bit parts (which includes Fassbinder's own mother, using her maiden name of Pempeit, as a kindly customer). There are also some very funny moments, including the tossaway – but incisive – line from a grimacing woman, "It's terrible when a short man [Hans] marries a tall woman. It must give him complexes."

I have seen the film three times now: Once fifteen years ago, and twice recently in preparation for this review. It moves me more deeply each time; and I continue to find new visual and emotional layers. For me, that's the sign of a very special – and haunting – work.

ImageThe Merchant of Four Seasons explores, with power and sometimes great subtlety, many of Fassbinder's major themes, including the painful quest for love, emotional repression, the hollowness of financial success (the futile attempt to make money replace absent but yearned-for emotional fulfillment), the many forms of exploitation (and the complex psychological and social reaons for why people both tolerate and participate in it), and the impossibility of easily categorizing anyone. Part of Fassbinder's genius is his ability to dramatize, in profoundly human terms, his insights.

The Merchant of Four Seasons is also a pivotal work in his career. It has a few moments which reflect the abstract, theatricalized manner of his first films (such as Katzelmacher) with characters going into carefully posed tableaux, often against a solid-colored background. But other scenes look ahead to his later lush and melodramatic style. At this time Fassbinder was discovering his artistic soulmate, expatriate German director Douglas Sirk, whose 1950's Hollywood films – including All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind – became the major stylistic influence on Fassbinder's later films (much as Godard had inspired his earlier works). Fassbinder saw Sirk's melodramas as combining genuine emotional power, aesthetic beauty, and even space for the audience – possibly – to analyze and reflect on what they were feeling (clearly, this is a Brecht-influenced view of melodrama's potential). Fassbinder's deeply creative understanding of Sirk gave him a new vocabulary, at once emotional, visual, and even political.

I especially like The Merchant of Four Seasons's visual style, which Fassbinder created with director of photography Dietrich Lohmann (one of his two regular cinematographers: the other was Michael Ballhaus). The film is shot mostly in crisp deep focus, highlighting all the bright, inviting surfaces. But almost everything is too fresh, too clean... except for Hans and Irmgard's feet, which we see are filthy during their passionless lovemaking scene. One of Fassbinder's great insights – as we see in many of his films – is that beauty, when it is fetishized, can impoverish life. Not only does the cinematography, and design, add to the slightly off quality of the film, it provides a subtle ironic contrast to Hans' descent into despair.

Like Sirk, Fassbinder came to use "distancing" shots – through mirrors or windows – to reveal character and tone. Who can ever forget, late in the film, the images of Hans just staring out the window. And the zoom shots, which occur during emotional climaxes, are also both dramatically effective and a bit distancing in their artificiality; in other words, exactly right.

Fassbinder further emphasizes this off quality by purposefully holding some shots a bit too long before cutting. But his most overt distancing technique comes in the way he molds narrative structure to the emotional needs of his characters, by using non-chronological flashbacks. Sometimes the only clue that we are not in the film's present is that flashbacks are shot in a more diffused style. And they tend to present an even more intense contrast between Hans' violent but bottled-up emotions and his inability to express – for a variety of reasons (personal, familial, social) – what he feels.

Speaking of speech, Fassbinder also paid close attention to his characters' language. One of Wim Wenders most fascinating insights concerned the unique dialect which Fassbinder created especially for this film. He invented an artificial variant of Bavarian which, for native speakers, would sound just a little off and strange. Fassbinder knew what he needed for his films, and that is what he wrote and shot.

Fassbinder was a creative genius, but he often stated, proudly, that he was not an intellectual. He worked by instinct in all aspects of his filmmaking, from creating images to structuring narrative. And his actors and crew came to trust him by instinct.

But some of Fassbinder's insights come perhaps too much from instinct. Take the provocative idea that Hans' failure – and that of comparable characters in his other films – is also his most intense self-affirmation. That sounds good on paper and plays well in the theatre (let's recall that Fassbinder staged several Greek tragedies – with their glorification of tragic inevitability – at his Anti-Theatre), and it's undeniably poweful in this film... but in life?

ImageAs Wenders says, about the film's penultimate scene, "Doomed people. Helpless. Hopeless. No way out. You just want to shake them up and say, Do something! But they are transfixed." Yes, in Fassbinder's world their fates are sealed and they are transfixed. But we are not; we have the freedom to contemplate life through Fassbinder's eyes, and then leave that vision behind – drained emotionally, invigorated aesthetically, and ready to take the actions which will keep us from ending like Hans. Or Fassbinder.

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Crew

  • Written and Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • Produced by Ingrid Caven
  • Cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann
  • Edited by Thea Eymèsz
  • Production Design by Kurt Raab
  • Costume Design by Kurt Raab (uncredited) & Uta Wilhelm (uncredited)

Cast

  • Hans Hirschmüller as Hans Epp
  • Irm Hermann as Irmgard Epp
  • Hanna Schygulla as Anna
  • Andrea Schober as Renate Epp
  • Gusti Kreissl as Mother
  • Ingrid Caven as "the Merchant's Great Love"
  • Kurt Raab as Kurt
  • El Hedi ben Salem as the Arab

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DVD

Wellspring has created what can truly be called a "Masterworks Edition" for their DVD release of this film, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. Superb image and sound, from a restored print, personally supervised by filmmakers Wim Wenders and Juliane Lorenz. There are also two exceptional full-length documentaries about Fassbinder, an insightful optional commentary track by Fassbinder's friend Wim Wenders (director of 1976's Kings of the Road, 1988's Wings of Desire), and much more as described below.

DVD Details

Reviewed August 5, 2002

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