Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven
Mutter Küsters Fahrt zum Himmel
1975 — 112 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Comedy/Drama
Essential Fassbinder. At once a deeply compassionate portrait of a widowed housewife and a scathing satire of her exploitation by the media and political factions.
Like all of Fassbinder's best films, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is many things at once. It is simultaneously a deeply compassionate portrait of a working-class woman and a scathing satire of her exploitation; emotionally rich but politically and intellectually dense, filled with arguments and counter-arguments galore; psychologically astute yet highly stylized and visually lush. It is a comedy, a drama, and much more. It is also an excellent example of how Fassbinder uses image and sound, often in subtle ways, to develop and play with his themes.
Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven tells the story of a hard-working, kindly housewife, Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira), whose life is thrown into chaos when she learns that her husband has gone insane at his factory job and killed the boss's son, then himself. In the aftermath, she has to deal with her own dysfunctional family, including the arrival of conniving daughter Corinna (Ingrid Caven), who uses the tragedy to bolster her lagging career as a singer, and the departure of her beloved son Ernst (Armin Meier) and his scalding wife, Helene (Irm Hermann). Even worse are the media vultures and political activists who descend, including a gaggle of tabloid reporters, led by Niemeyer (Gottfried John); the Tillmanns, a wealthy Communist couple (Margit Carstensen and Karlheinz Böhm); and Horst Knab (Matthias Fuchs), a boyish anarchist with a hidden agenda. In her relentless efforts to clear her husband's name as "the factory murderer," Mother Küsters becomes an unwitting pawn between the right and the left, even as she instinctively begins to learn about the realities not only of politics, but of her own family and herself.
A unique feature of this film is that Fassbinder wrote and shot two strikingly different endings (both are included on the DVD). One is the original European version; the other a more hopeful final scene which he created for the U.S. release. Below I will discuss the two divergent ways in which the title character "goes to heaven."
When you look at Fassbinder's entire body of work, you see that it contains both themes and actors (who serve to embody certain ideas) which he returns to again and again, exploring them from many different perspectives. Although he cast his own mother, Lilo Pempeit, in over 20 of his films, arguably his central "mother figure" is Brigitte Mira [both are depicted in the frame, from the final scene of the European version]. Although Mira appeared in ten of his films, she starred in only two: As the female protagonist of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and as the archetypal Mother of this film. (After this film, Fassbinder considerably darkened his use of Mira, who next played the shrewish mother in Fear of Fear and the sinister housekeeper in Chinese Roulette.)
The character of Mother Küsters is remarkable for several reasons. Although Fassbinder often has a tendency to allegorize his characters (albeit in fascinating ways), even as he does in this film, Emma Küsters is both a potent symbol of The Mother and, simultaneously, an absolutely real, flesh and blood woman. It should also be noted that "Küsters" literally means 'church custodian.' And although she is not a saint and neither would she want to be Mother Küsters does fulfill a more down-to-earth, but equally important, function: Keeping things prepared and in good working order.
Fassbinder's writing and direction and Mira's performance combine to create a remarkable character of quiet but unshakeable strength, of unswerving love for her husband (despite what he did), and, perhaps most importantly, of flexibility. When so many of Fassbinder's characters, not to mention people in the real world, are destroyed by their rigidity, Mother Küsters's willingness to explore new ideas to incorporate an increasingly complex view of the social world, her family, and even herself seems a genuine form of optimism. If this "simple" woman, with her perpetually puzzled expression, can grow under such extreme circumstances, then there is hope that we can too.
Mother Küsters's literary and cinematic roots also connect with Fassbinder's aesthetic and political aims. Fassbinder attributed the film's inspiration to Heinrich Zille's story "Mother Krausen's Journey to Happiness" ("Mutter Krausens Fahrt Ins Glück"), and director Piel Jutzi's 1929 film version (Jutzi also filmed Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1931, a half century before Fassbinder's epic version). But perhaps the key cultural "mother" which he turned to is Gorky's in his 1906 novel, Mother. It is about an indomitable Russian peasant woman who, after having her political consciousness raised through a family tragedy, comes to join the Russian revolutionary movement. Freely adapted into a classic silent film of the same title by Pudovkin (1926), it was also dramatized by Brecht in his play, The Mother (1930), and served as an inspiration for his great Mother Courage and Her Children (1941). Brecht's theories of how to engage the audience's mind as well as emotions were a primary influence on Fassbinder's early films. But by the time he came to Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Fassbinder created a less overtly polemical work than he might have just three or four years earlier, when he was exploring the aesthetic/political theories of Brecht and his great cinematic disciple of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Week End).
Fassbinder has retained the political trenchancy of Brecht/Godard, but grounded it in a character who is psychologically convincing, even as she is, on another level, mythically resonant. Sure to raise the hackles of his Leftist predecessors, Fassbinder takes some very funny jabs at Communists, not to mention right-wing journalists and anarchists, in the characters who surround Mother Küsters. In fact, there is so much humor in this film, from subtle character tics (like Corinna's unsubtle make-up and Ernst's taciturnity) to guffaws (the big hairy-chested man in a tutu rehearsing ballet at the sleazy nightclub), that many people consider it an outright comedy. But I think that, with its complex emotional range and many layers of ideas, it is as more than that.
Despite the film's considerable entertainment value, Fassbinder raises many serious, and still-relevant, social issues about the nature of mass media and politics even as he returns to one of his perennial themes, exploitation. As he once generalized about his body of work, "My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them." Some of his key earlier works on this theme are Whity, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and the film he made immediately prior to this one, Fox and His Friends. In her use as a pawn by both the right and the left, Mother Küsters is a sort of sweet flipside of the sociopathic Alex in Kubrick's satirical masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange (1971), which Fassbinder must have relished, and which might have been in mind as he wrote this picture.
The photographer/reporter Niemeyer serves as a witty emblem for his profession. He is a tall, lanky figure, who might bring to mind Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." He comes across as sincere and likeable, even as he wheedles the most intimate details out of Emma Küsters about her husband and family; and even beds the self-promoting daughter Corinna (clearly, a match made in heaven). [Corinna is at the center of the frame] His questions, in the early scenes, even help awaken Mother Küster's understanding of her husband: "We never asked much. My husband never complained. Maybe he'd said, It was tough today, but that was all. He accepted his superiors. We just lived our lives, day in, day out, without asking each other much. Maybe I should have asked him more. Perhaps he had troubles. He just bottled them up." But when his newspaper publishes the account of Hermann Küsters, the man is painted as "a bloodthirsty monster." Mother Küster's horror at this unfairness is what motivates her crusade to clear her husband's name there is a touching scene when, just after reuniting with Corinna, she insists that she say that her "father is a good man" even as she gradually comes to see him, and their life together, in an evolving series of contexts, both personal and societal.
Throughout the film Niemeyer, as with most of the characters, is presented in a more nuanced, and even sympathetic, light. Although "just doing my job" carries some horrific overtones for Fassbinder, who explored Germany and the Holocaust from many perspectives throughout his career, with Niemeyer, it is literally the case. The reporter did not set out to smear Hermann, and did not set his tabloid's editorial policy. As we see him in more contexts throughout the film, including his relationship with Corinna, he seems less a victimizer and more just a regular guy earning a living. His most eloquent defender is Mother Küsters herself, who at one point says, "It's his job to create sensations. Everybody has to make a living." Fassbinder is merciless, and hilarious, at condemning the institution; but he ekes out some sympathy for the employees.
By contrast, a far more chilling character is Mother Küster's rigid, humorless, and smug daughter-in-law, Helene. Corinna is crassly opportunistic and a lousy singer/songwriter to boot (her "big hit" is a Brecht/Weill pastiche entitled "Men? Who Cares About Them?," about a guy who leaves her for another guy) but at least she has vitality, and doesn't hurt anyone. But you can almost feel Helene vacuuming the joy out of the room when she enters. Yet there are always at least one or two qualifiers for every element in Fassbinder she seems genuinely to care about her forthcoming baby, and to want a better job and life for her husband. And yet (again), it seems that her motives are grounded in selfishness.
The same is true for how Fassbinder looks at politics, which ranges from the hysteria caused by the right-wing newspaper to the two shades of left-wing activism: Communists, as represented by the Tillmanns, and anarchists, embodied in Knab. Although the Communists are satirized as both self-promoting and wishy-washy, Fassbinder also gives them some depth. When we first meet the Tillmanns, they tell each other privately, and sincerely that they "want to find the true cause" of the murder/suicide.
But like all of the ideologically-driven characters in the film whether "artists" like Corinna or activists like Knab the Tillmanns, despite their best intentions ("We uncover the abuses in the system"), are blinded by seeing events through one narrow perspective.
By contrast, Mother Küster's growth, although she is far too modest to put it in these terms, comes from her instinctual ability to see people with increasing breadth, and compassion. In two key scenes, each with one of her children, she quietly reveals her expanding range of perception. She tells Corinna how much she likes the Tillmanns: "They have a lovely place, full of precious things. Really posh. I thought they were millionaires. When they said they were Communists I was flabbergasted. I always thought Communists were dirt poor.... They're educated but not snobbish." In a scene with her visiting son Ernst, while both of them are once again assembling small electronics devices for some extra cash, she says about the Tillmanns, "Everybody's out for something. Once you realize that, everything is simple. I want them to be nice to me, and to talk to me. If they want something, that's fair.... Just try to understand it. They give me strength when I sit here all alone."
She has a major turning point when, for the first time in her life, she addresses a group. Speaking from the heart, she tells the assembled Communists that: "I think I can make you understand why I joined this party at my age.... not because of politics, but because of people.... I believe [the Tillmanns], and that's why I'm here.... There's a reason for all the terrible things in the world.... [Married for 40 years] I did what was expected of me. Is that really life? In the way others wanted us to live? In the valley, all you see is the mountains.... Forty years... I thought I knew him, and that there was no reason to talk.... But that's not true. I had no idea. How my husband must have suffered to have done what he did. And I knew nothing about it. Is that life?... But we never really learned how to live together.... How desperate he must have been, not knowing which way to turn. He had nobodly like you to talk to.... Things would have been different.... My husband is no murderer. And he's not crazy either. He's a man who hit back because he was beaten all his life.... I, Emma Küsters, will join you in your struggle for justice."
Fassbinder now darkens the tone, as he introduces the anarchist Knab, who approaches Mother Küsters immediately after her speech. At first he seems all boyish enthusiasm, and penetrating intellect, but in the final minutes of the European version of the film as distinct from the U.S. version (which I will discuss below) we come to see the catastrophic effect of his ideological rigidity. Knab represents the then-topical, and hugely controversial, Baader-Meinhof anarchist gang, who were involved in a handful of political murders. Simultaneously, the tabloid press, led by the Bild-Zeitung, fanned mass hysteria with their coverage, and this allowed the German government to pass laws which increasingly restricted personal freedoms (compare this to the aftermath of 9/11 today), which Fassbinder and many others saw as totalitarian. Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll fictionalized those contemporary events and excoriated exploitative journalistic ethics in his 1974 novel, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which was instantly, and brilliantly, filmed by co-directors Volker Schlöndorff (who cast Fassbinder as the lead in his 1970 TV film of Brecht's Baal and wrote the scenario for Fassbinder's Rio das Mortes) and Margarethe von Trotta (who appeared in some of Fassbinder's early pictures; in The American Soldier, she delivered the monologue recounting the basic plot of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.) Fassbinder had previously scrutinized the ambiguities of anarchism, both political and psychological, in his experimental The Niklashausen Journey (1970), and he would return to it some would say definitively in The Third Generation (1979). But in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, as in all of his pictures, he uses cinematic techniques to create additional layers of meaning, even as he achieves a unique sense of beauty.
Arguably Fassbinder's most underappreciated strength is his use of image composition, color, camera movement (or stillness), and of course the rich language of human gestures to reinforce, and sometimes to undercut in strategic ways, his themes. Let's take a close look at the opening minutes of the film, since it indicate Fassbinder's approach to the entire picture.
Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is intriguing from its first shot. Fassbinder begins the credits with a montage of views of Frankfurt, where the film is set; but immediately we sense that something is off. The skies look painted over, and everything is garish colors and frozen action; like lifeless postcards which no one would buy. This unsettling effect is even enhanced by the stark yellow titles whose words do not quite line up. (Filmmaker François Ozon imitates this opening in his notable recent film, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, based on an unproduced play by 19-year-old Fassbinder.) As an aural counterpoint, we hear Peer Raben's perky but tense overture of various themes, which moves in stages from a sweetly plaintive melody to stridently discordant noise. As the unnerving credits end, the music segues into a jaunty Big Band piece on the radio (subtly reminding us of who lost the war, since the Nazis would never have allowed such "degenerate" music) as we see the Küsters in their kitchen. The brief first scene economically and imaginatively sets up not only the characters, plot, and themes, but the evocative visual and aural style.
Fassbinder begins not with an expected establishing shot, to show us where we are and who we are watching, but by holding on a closeup of Mother Küsters hands, as she repetitively screws a round brown part into a small white plastic box, one after another after another [see frame]. Eventually he reveals that both she and her grown son, Ernst, are both assembling the same components at the kitchen table. The routine is efficient, even graceful, yet dehumanizing. Mother Küsters laments that she has "only done 1,500" as opposed to 1,600 the previous week: "I'm getting slower." In the shadowy background stands Helene, Ernst's quietly harsh, pregnant wife.
The ever-dutiful Mother Küsters soon must turn to preparing dinner, but not without bringing up the tension between her and Helene. This little tiff over the menu with her vegetarian daughter-in-law subtly reveals much not only about who they are, and what their cramped life together is like, but about the film's larger themes of the clash between rigidity and personal freedom, and of people's fundamental lack of understanding. Helene, watching in disgust as Mother Küsters opens a large red can of sausages, smugly remarks that it is all chemicals, and that "People don't know what's good for them. But go ahead. It's yourselves you're harming." Mother Küsters shrugs and says, "One man's meat is another man's poison. Dad wants what he's always been used to. You can't change him. And why should you? He's healthy. Dad likes meat, Helene, and he works for what he likes." Ernst sits there passively, tuning out their conversation as he mechanically continues assembling the parts.
During this same quick interchange, Fassbinder adds resonance to his themes by employing a remarkable visual counterpoint between the people and the objects they use. He and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who did 16 of his films, and who now shoots all of Martin Scorses's pictures) give us flat-looking medium shots of the actors, either head-on or at right angles to each other and the camera. Fassbinder ironically intersperses those images with a series of tight close-ups of the everyday objects they use the electronics components, sausage can, bright red stew pot, vegetable grater, Finland travel brochure, clock [see frame] all of which are more brightly-lit, visually dynamic, and alive than the humans, who often recede into the shadows in this slightly film noirish kitchen
But the shots of objects are disturbing in other ways in their disproportionate size, strange angles, and looming quality, as you can see in the image of the clock. Fassbinder subtly compounds the irony of this visual/thematic device with the first camera movement in the film. As Helene argues that "Everyone must be able to change their life," we zoom in from a closeup to an ultra-tight closeup not of a human face, but of the radio. It informs us about the murder and suicide at the "chemical plant" (Mother Küsters, always worried, wonders if a "tire factory [where her husband works] is a chemical plant"). A little later, there is a knock on the door and one of the now-late Mr. Küster's fellow workers arrives [see the frame at the top of this review; note the shadows]. When he says, "Hermann must have heard something about mass layoffs and he just blew a fuse," we feel the connection between his mechanized and repressed life, and his violence ("blew a fuse"). We never saw him at work in the factory (in fact, we never see Hermann at all), but we have seen vividly what it is like to live (in your own kitchen, no less) life on the assembly line.
Throughout the film, Fassbinder makes yet more connections between the constricted lives of his characters and its visual embodiment. He contrasts unfulfilled, workaday lives with bright primary colors, including blues, yellows, and especially reds. These eyepopping color accents also help give this comedy/drama little bursts of visual wit. Just in the opening scene we have the brilliant crimson of the grater, stewpot, tomatoes, screwdriver handle, towel, and checkered pattern on the tablecloth, all of which contrast with the pale bilious green of the walls. Fassbinder makes a subliminal point of connection between the impoverished family and the wealthy Tillmanns by giving the "Communist millionaires" moldings of the same distasteful green as the Küsters' kitchen.
He also makes effective use of shape to give the film both visual coherence and thematic resonance. In contrast to the often comic tone, the dominant visual motif is oppressive, of narrow openings (in doorways, halls, corridors) between stark walls, often shot from twisted angles and in shadow; for examples see the first frame given at the top of this review and the establishing shot of the Tillmanns' home directly above. Even more pervasive is the always-present motif of circles/ovals and squares/rectangles. On the level of visual dynamics, the tension between those two similar yet divergent shapes between rigid, constricting rectangles (especially door frames, hallways, railings) and the more organic circles (seen in fans, pots, umbrellas, even Helene's globular head and pregnant belly, and more) underscores the film's many thematic, and political/philosophical, conflicts. The motif is set up in the very first shot not only by the 'circle in a square' pattern on Mother Küsters' dress, which she wears throughout the film, but by the shape of the components which she is assembling (a round part screwed into a square box); it is even in the design on her red checkered tablecloth. For just one large-scale, and evocative, example of this motif, look at the design of the establishing shot in the Chinese restaurant. That interplay of shape and color (round, upside-down yellow umbrella contrasted with the red railing, square black table, rectangular white columns), together with the off-kilter composition, sharpens the emotionally complex dynamics of the scene. Here Mother Küsters, her daughter and the reporter each wants something from the others, yet none of them are willing, or perhaps able, to articulate fully what that is.
As mentioned above, Fassbinder despite the sometimes purposefully shallow visual field which he employs for emotional and thematic effect (his detractors dismiss this style as "stagy," and point to his extensive, and very successful, career as a theatrical director uses image in ways which are enormously creative, and flexible. Look again at that shot in the restaurant. In addition to the complex interplay of image, emotion, and idea which it embodies, it also gives a wonderful little burst of playful yet slightly menacing energy to this comedy/drama, even as it creates an image of genuine beauty.
This film is filled with many more fascinating visual/psychological/thematic connections of this kind; you may find that more of them are revealed with each subsequent viewing. But since this review is already so lengthy, I will now turn to the feature which is unique in Fassbinder's body of work: Its two radically different endings.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE FOLLOWING SECTION REVEALS BOTH ENDINGS in case you would prefer not to have this information before seeing the film.
In both endings it can be said that Mother Küsters "goes to heaven." In both versions she comes to realize, at the last minute, Knab's extremism, as he and his gang of anarchists (including the unwitting Mother Küsters) holds hostage the staff of the newspaper which branded Hermann Küster's "the factory murderer" in exchange for the "immediate release of all political prisoners" in Germany. Needless to say, his demands are never met. In the dark European version, Mother Küsters "goes to heaven" when she is cut down (off-screen) by policemen's guns. In an inspired, not to mention cost-effective, ending worthy of Brecht at the height of his "alienation effect," Fassbinder does not show us the inevitable slaughter [see frame to left]. Instead, he superimposes the written screenplay over a frozen image of Mother Küsters (suggesting the frozen images in the opening credits); thus he simultaneously distances us from act even as he forces us to imagine it in all of its horror.
But in the upbeat U.S. version (with a completely different set and several different actors, not to mention a new hairdo for Mother Küsters), via a droll pun on the title's "heaven," she goes off for a lovely dinner of "heaven and earth" an old favorite made from liver, apples/"heaven" and potatoes/"earth" (here is the recipe) at the invitation of a kindly night watchman she has met at the newspaper [see frame above right]. All of the other anarchists had left, tired of waiting for their demands to be met, leaving her on the floor, the sole survivor of the aborted "sit in." There is a heartfelt quality in the tender, funny scene between her and the gentle watchman; and we can only hope that beyond the "heaven" of her forthcoming dinner she is able now many months after Hermann's death to find happiness.
Surprisingly, both endings work well with the film, giving its characters and themes closure, albeit in dramatically or comically different ways. For me, the violent (albeit unseen) ending of the European version resonates with the optimistic U.S. ending, to produce a fade-out which is not cloying but deeply moving. That qualified optimism is also embodied in a key line given to the dead "factory murderer" whom we never see: As Mother Küsters tells Mrs. Tillmann: "As my Hermann used to say, you have to see the good in all people."
Fassbinder understands that simple, but difficult, maxim too, as he explores the emotional complexity of his characters and their lives, in a film without any villains, but with one extraordinary woman at its heart.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- SPECIAL FEATURE includes both of Fassbinder's alternate endings: the original European final scene and the more hopeful version that he shot for the U.S. version.
- Dolby digital stereo
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 23 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's incisive essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- Trailer for another Fassbinder film, Beware of a Holy Whore
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed July 10, 2003
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