1976 — 82 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Suspense
Hypnotically stylish gothic thriller with a wicked twist of social satire.
A girl, a gun, and a game, disorientingly shot from underneath a glass chessboard. That image sums up Chinese Roulette, Fassbinder's hypnotically stylish, droll and puzzling Gothic thriller. Its several intertwined mysteries some of plot, all of character make it diabolically involving, even after multiple viewings. Yet while its ambiguities are a strength, some do nag a bit more than they resonate. After you see this film, you will understand why it remains one of Fassbinder's most controversial. To some people it is a virtual horror film, to others a delicious social satire; some consider it a failure, others a masterpiece.
In Chinese Roulette, industrial magnate Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson), convinced that his wife and daughter are elsewhere, takes his longtime French mistress Irene (Anna Karina) on a weekend tryst to his sprawling chateau. Upon arrival, he is shocked to find his wife Ariane (Margit Carstensen) on the floor with her lover, his assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). The uncomfortable situation becomes even more fraught when their crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who secretly planned the ménage à quatre, shows up with her mute governess, Traunitz (Macha Méril), and a small army of grotesque dolls. In the background hover a sinister housekeeper named Kast (Brigitte Mira) and her ambiguous, very blond son Gabriel (Volker Spengler). As the adulterous Christs come to terms with their respective infidelities, Angela tries to play them and their lovers off each other. In the film's final sequence, she orchestrates a psychologically vicious truth game, called Chinese Roulette, involving everyone in the chateau. Its revelations lead to a shocking climax.
After primarily focusing on films about individual characters in the previous three or four years (including Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven and Fear of Fear), Fassbinder here creates a striking ensemble piece. The eight lead actors are all exceptional. They include such Fassbinder stalwarts as Margit Carstensen (title roles in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha), who gives a performance of quiet desperation as the world-weary Ariane Christ; Brigitte Mira (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven) as the sinister housekeeper Kast, who might send chills up the spine of Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca; Ulli Lommel (Love is Colder Than Death, Effi Briest) as the mysterious Kolbe; and Volker Spengler (Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Satan's Brew) as Kast's enigmatic and twisted son, a would-be philosopher of the Nietzschean type. (Here are full credits for several actors who worked frequently with Fassbinder.) Joining the Fassbinder regulars are two actresses associated with French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who was a profound influence on Fassbinder's early pictures. Anna Karina (here playing Irene Cartisse) starred in seven of her husband Godard's films (before their divorce in 1967; she later had an affair with Ulli Lommel), including such seminal pictures as My Life to Live, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le fou. Macha Méril (Traunitz) played the title role in Godard's 1964 film, A Married Woman.
Although each of the actors gives a finely-etched performance, the screenplay is another matter. Several of the characters' names seem heavy with symbolic import. What else can you say when the two pivotal characters, Gerhard and Ariane, have the surname of Christ? As people familiar with Fassbinder know, although he dropped out of high school at the age of 16, he gave himself an extraordinarily comprehensive self-eduction not only in cinema but in literature, music, and all of the arts. So doing a "cultural" reading of Fassbinder is always a tantalizing possibility (despite his well-known scorn for highfalutin interpretations).
Fassbinder seems to be going for some kind of balance (or is it tension?) between names with a biblical resonance Christ, Angela (angel), Gabriel (the archangel who announced to Mary that she would give birth to Christ), and others with a Greco-Roman bent Ariane (Ariadne gave Theseus the thread with which he found his way out of the minotaur's labyrinth), Irene is the Greek word for peace. The implications behind each of those names can be forced into a reading of the film as a whole (together with elements I'll discuss below, mostly centering around Angela): Gabriel "announcing" a new spiritual/sexual world order; Ariane, in the final moments, helping lead Gerhard out of a sexual "labyrinth," Irene as the "peace bringer," Angela as the demonic opposite of an angel, etc. But let me cut to the chase: After three viewings, the film feels top-heavy with symbols, yet they never come together as clues to reading the film, either straightforwardly or ironically. And the film's final image of the ghostly throng (their banner looks vaguely Nazi) marching outside the chateau does not meaningfully help clarify, or even complexify, anything. The implications of the screenplay all feel a bit half-baked, as though they were coming from Gabriel's derivative imagination. Of course, that suggests yet another possible interpretation that the film is all from Gabriel's grotesque perspective (that would fit with the visual style) but ultimately that view also does not hold together. Let me add that Fassbinder is often dead-on in his screenwriting, including his use of subtle layers of meaning; but Chinese Roulette feels underdeveloped. (In contrast to the screenplay, some of Fassbinder's most evocative visual imagery is in this film, as we will see below.)
Of course, Fassbinder is an exceptional dramatist (both for film and theatre), and there are many details to admire here, not to mention the sly way he plays with our expectations. Instead of some hand-wringing melodrama about infidelilty, Fassbinder's four "adulterers" are remarkably sensitive to each other's foibles, and even flexible enough to accomodate themselves to the revelations about their private lives (which could hardly have come as a shock to any of them). Not only that, they are in committed, long-term infidelities (not a paradox in Fasbinder's world): Ariane and Kolbe have been together for seven years, Gerhard and Irene for eleven. And although we learn that Gerhard once "gave Irene 300,000," she shrewdly parlayed the money into a business now employing "thirty people full time and thirty more freelance;" plus she "paid it back years ago." Fassbinder uses their interrelationships to give Kolbe, and perhaps the audience, a simple but compassionate slant on these four people's unconventional lifestyle, when the assistant says, "Maybe getting used to someone is love." Of course, none of them is a saint. Angela, self-pityingly tells Gabriel, "They hate me because I'm crippled.... In their hearts they blame me for their messed up lives." Fassbinder drolly undercuts this revelation when he has Gabriel ask his mother if that is true, and Kast says, "Nonsense." Still, the range which Angela engenders is real; and one of the film's most chilling moments comes when a humiliated and enraged Ariane points a gun at the back of her own daughter's head.
It was a stroke of twited genius for Fassbinder to make sweet-faced, disabled little Angela, who loves to hug her dollies, the antagonist. Although we understand the possible motivation for her revenge on her parents, she is still a chilling creation. It is likely no accident that she resembles the possessed little girl in the recent The Exorcist (1973). Even the ghostly, grating sound she makes when dragginng her feet along the reverberant hallways is unnerving. She also embodies a key theme for Fassbinder in her manipulation of other people either directly as in her sadistic bossing of the sinister housekeeper Kast, or indirectly with her constant but unspoken provocation of her mother, or both, when she masterminds the climactic Chinese Roulette game. A clue to Angela's pivotal importance is that Fassbinder both opens and ends the film with her.
Angela's, and the film's, opening scene with the ever-silent Traunitz is so charged with tension that the slightest movement seems portentous. (Like Marlene in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Traunitz never utters a single world.) This scene, and all of their other moments together, makes you wonder about the full extent of their symbiotic relationship about what happened just minutes before the beginning of the scene we are now watching and whether perhaps it might even be sexual. Fassbinder both undercuts and intensifies the scene's tension both with image and sound. He shows us, through the central window, a scene of trees blowing gracefully in the wind (an eerie counterpoint to the women's unexplained stiffness, which recalls the performance style he favored in early films like Katzelmacher), and the only sound is the final minutes of Mahler's lush, ecstatic Eighth Symphony, for voices and orchestra. Goethe's words, taken from the end of the second part of his Faust, seem campily out of place in this series of tableaux; yet their theme of humanity's spiritual strivings resonates throughout the film (again, note the biblical and classical symbolism of the names), and may even be a clue to Fassbinder's larger meanings. "Look up, up to the redeeming gaze/ All creatures frail and contrite,/ That you may gratefully be translated/ To blissful fortune...." The chorus then continues, exalting the gender of the girl and governess, not to mention the unnerving row of dolls: "All things transitory/ Are but parable;.../ Here the indescribable/ Is accomplished;/ The always-womanly [Ewig-Weibliche]/ Draws us heavenward." There is always a lot going on in Fassbinder, with much of it happening 'between the frames,' but this scene feels exceptionally dense, and ambiguous.
So the film begins with those two "always-womanly" characters, but it ends with Angela and the "partly-womanly" Gabriel, the sexually ambiguous and deeply conflicted philosopher manqué. Angela and Gabriel are arguably the most "outside" of all the outsiders: Angela because of her disability, and diabolical machinations; Gabriel because he does not fit his body, with his overgrown, paunchy Hitler Youth look and that too-blond, ultra-Aryan hair, and even more because of his whacked-out ideas, lifted and grossly distorted primarily from Nietzsche (the "superman" concept) and Plato (man's innate androgyny). In a nutshell, Gabriel sees himself as a divine, united-yet-divided man/woman, not to mention an avatar of anarchy. Here is a selection from his manuscript, which he reads to the bemused Gerhard (hoping he will help get the book published!) and his friends. He prefaces his reading with the fabulously unselfaware line, "Thinking sometimes strains me so much that I feel exhausted." Then he proceeds: "If Christ is God become man, he nevertheless died as man and not God. So why should I not regard myself, then, as God become man?.... If I love anarchy, if I function as the firmament, that accelerates a latent state of anarchy, then anarchy is first of all within me. It ravages my organism and plunges my mind into a kind of precocious madness which has a special name in modern medical terminology. [NOTE: He does not name the term.] I am man and woman, and sun worship is the religion of the man who, neverthless, without woman, his double, in whom I am reflected, is capable of nothing. It is the religion of the single being who divides himself in two to act and to be.... The duality united in the first androgynous being [which combines both male and female] simultaneously united in a single whole. A dual struggle wages within me. First the unity that divides itself and yet remains a unity. Second, that of the Sun King, the man in whom is unable to reconcile himself to being a human ego that spits on man and finally hurls him into the cesspool."
(Another reason that I quoted this monologue at such length is that it reflects several of Fassbinder's recurring themes albeit from the point of view of a particularly twisted character such as the complexity of man's spiritual dimension, gender roles, sexual and other forms of power dynamics, the nature of anarchy, and the immense pain of internal conflict.)
We see Gabriel express his inner conflicts, often in spite of himself, throughout the film. He seems torn between palpable desire for the handsome gas station attendant (Armin Meier, Fassbinder's own lover), who asks if he wants "anything more" Gabriel hesitates, at least this time and his clumsy, unconvincing pouncing on Traunitz. His greatest conflict is over his own intellectual inauthenticity. In the shocking aftermath of the Chinese Roulette game, he accusingly tells Angela, "You knew this would happen." She stares at him and says, "I've known for two years that you don't write anything. You steal it all." That line brings Gabriel's pent-up rage to a head, and leads to the film's second climax. (On another level, Gabriel paves the way for Satan's Brew, Fassbinder's next film, about another self-deluding writer; Spengler plays that character's batty brother).
Although Angela and Gabriel both help to keep the narrative momentum up, and they are a fascinating creations, like the other characters they never seem to gel either as metaphors (too murky) or as people (too vaguely drawn). It should be noted that one of Fassbinder's many strengths as an artist is his ability, in many other films, to create characters who are simultaneously symbolic and real; just think of Petra von Kant, Effi Briest, "Fox" Biberkopf, Mother Küsters, and dozens of others. More precisely, they are such powerful symbols because we believe in them as complex, developed, real people.
These problems of character also affect the overall dramatic scheme. Perhaps Fassbinder thought that in a film filled with so much ambiguity, he needed an especially clear narrative structure, which he modeled on a traditional three-act format. The brief first act set ups the characters, the extended second act complicates their relationships, and the taut third act the game of Chinese Roulette contains the explosive climax. Within this structure, Fassbinder creates many fine, small moments. One example is the small talk (symbolically-charged, of course) of Ariane telling Gerhard about the Syrian restaurant where you can't order anything because the chef uses his intuition to select your meal; he responds, "Anyway, everyone got the right things." Yes, this is a good example of foreshadowing (that tried and true dramatic technique), and it does provide one interpretation for how Fassbinder resolves his film. But by the end, you feel that this highlighted moment should resonate even more.
Also this film, running just over 80 minutes, is one of Fassbinder's briefest. More time might have allowed him to develop both his characters and themes more fully. There is plenty of ambiguity, but it often feels more atmospheric than integral. (It should also be remembered that the year he made Chinese Roulette, 1976, he wrote and directed three feature films, plus staged a major production of Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 play, The Women, even as he prepared to film it for the following year.) Unlike Fassbinder's use of classical structure in many films, here it does not allow the characters enough freedom to become flesh and blood.
The film's dramatic problems reveal themselves most clearly in the brief third act, which primarily consists of the Chinese Roulette game (which was reputedly one of Fassbinder's favorite pastimes). The characters were simply not developed enough to give this climax the force it needs. However, Fassbinder masterfully builds up to the game. At the long dinner table, he strategically places the four "adulterers" on one side (the Christs, Irene, and Kolbe), with the "outsiders" on the other (Angela, Traunitz, Kast and her son). More intriguingly, he then has the machiavellian Angela split the eight people into two unexpected divisions. On the first team we have Ariane, Kast, Kolbe, and Irene; on the second, Gerhard, Traunitz, Gabriel, and Angela. Earlier, the Christs and their partners were trying to decide on what game to play. Now, Angela is all too eager to nudge them into playing Chinese Roulette. In it, Gerhard's team selects a person (we do not know who until the end), then the other team gets to ask nine questions to determine the chosen one's identity. The metaphorical questions take the basic form of "If this person were X, what kind would they be?" That "X" accelerates in tension from coins and animals to pictures and writers to what kind of death would be appropriate for that person; would they "make a good mother, whore, or saint;" if attacked by a death squad who of the eight people present would that person pick to survive; and the final question, who would that person have been in the Third Reich.
Since I belabored the name symbolism above, I will leave you to ponder the implications of each character's questions and responses, and what they reveal about the individual, the group, and the film as a whole. (My interpretations shift a bit each time I rewatch this sequence.) But ultimately, it seemed that there was simply too much dramatic and psychological weight for the game to bear. After waiting almost the entire length of the film for this titular scene, the expectation is that it would reveal something momentous not only about the characters but about the picture's meanings. Yes, the scene crackles with tension and energy. But is it truly revelatory? Not for me; although many people would disagree.
Throughout, Fassbinder seemed to use his eight characters to create a microcosm but of what? A critique of the upper crust and/or upwardly mobile; of materialism? A satire on the foibles of desire, romantic habit, matrimony (at the end Fassbinder prints the marriage vows over that final eerie long shot of the possibly-Nazi ghosts)? Or, more darkly, does this group represent the profound failures of self-understanding which lead to fascism (the recurrent Nazi motif)? This film needed more of the psychological and thematic fullness of, say, Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939) or Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which may have inspired it.
The film is much more successful in the mysteries which it suggests through sound and image. Fassbinder employs one of his most elaborate, and eclectic, soundtracks. Besides the weirdly celestial symphonic vocals of Mahler mentioned above, he brings in the contemporary electronic sound of Kraftwerk, generic thriller music and, somewhat helping to tie the film together, a haunting central motif.
In its visual design, the film contains some extraordinary, even deep, ambiguities, which resonate long after memories of the story fade. Although for me this does not compensate for the many vague elements in the screenplay, it does make this film like virtually all of Fassbinder's worth re-seeing.
Unlike many of his films, in which he favors a shallow visual field, Fassbinder here emphasizes the cavernous depth of the chateau. He and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (with whom he shot some of his most visually adventurous films here are their complete credits together) make extensive use of deep focus shots (reminiscent of, say, Rules of the Game), and Fassbinder often stages scenes with the actors at oblique angles to the camera. There are also some breathtaking set pieces involving camera movement, such as the initial surprise meeting between the Christs and their respective paramours. There the camera circles them all vertiginously, again and again, like a spider wrapping them in its web so that they can be devoured later at leisure. Adding to the unreal feeling of the symbolically-charged mansion are the stark blank walls and deep, almost expressionistic, shadows in the corners.
The most striking visual motif, used throughout the film, involves seeing people in or through glass. Fassbinder makes extensive use of mirrors, as he does in several other films (notably Effi Briest and Fear of Fear); and he favors the tense interplay of external and internal by showing us crucial moments through windows with an inviting outside world contrasting with the often rigid figures stuck indoors. But his most resonant motif involves characters, or parts of characters' bodies, shot at angles through glass. Perhaps the most dramatic example is given at the top of this review Angela and a gun, photographed at an extreme angle from underneath the glass chess board. Most often Fassbinder uses the column-like glass cases in the main hall (one for an elaborate stereo system, another well-stocked with liquor). Here we are seeing through glass, obscurely, often with a Cubist-like effect of fragmentation and reduplication. (This also connects with Plato from whose Symposium Gabriel borrowed liberally for his "androgyny" metaphor and his famous metaphor of the cave, where people confuse shadows for reality.) Fassbinder reminds us that not only are we not seeing the actual person, we are seeing a distanced, or even a distorted, image of them. This is a vivid, but subtle, way to develop, through purely visual means, the enigmatic character of the film. And yet on a dramatic level, I kept waiting for the glass to be shattered on the old theory that if you show a gun in the first act you have to fire it in the final one (a lesson which Fassbinder embodied brilliantly in his next film, Satan's Brew) but it never is. All of the glass remains unbroken, much as the themes ultimately remain unfulfilled.
The Gothic atmosphere in this film makes it feel like it is one of what I call Fassbinder's "ghostly pictures," including (of the films released to DVD by July 2003) "The City Tramp," Love is Colder Than Death (but not Gods of the Plague), The American Soldier, Whity (in which the entire doomed Nicholson family wears ghostly white makeup throughout the picture), Effi Briest, Fear of Fear, this film, and to an extent, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. That is a sizeable percentage of his work through 1976. I do not mean that any of these pictures are supernatural per se, but they bring to mind a work like Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), or perhaps plays by Strindberg (and his cinematic avatar, Ingmar Bergman), producing an effect that is uncanny, dreamlike, vaguely sinister, beyond the specifics of the story at hand. In each of these films, it feels like the protagonists many of whom die at the end have gone through these same motions many, many times before, and will do so again and again; like they are purgatorial hamsters spinning around in the same revolving cage. Some people will certainly disagree with that characterization, but since this is my most "feelings-oriented" review to date (yes, I do use "feels" a lot in talking about this allusive, elusive, slippery picture), it seemed liked the appropriate time to make the observation. This comment also brings me to my highest praise for Chinese Roulette.
Where it succeeds profoundly is in its use of strange, hauntingly poetic images, which seem to erupt periodically throughout the film. There are Angela's diabolical dolls, a shot of a forest reflected onto a window and all of that reflected yet again in a mirror, the decaying head of a stag in the forest, and several more which will leap out at you. Fassbinder uses them sparingly, but that creates all the more impact. Those images feel like a gloss on the macabre nature of Gothicism itself (this is Fassbinder's most overtly Gothic picture) which is more than a bit in love with death, decay, and doppelgängers (and other mirror images) as much as on the particulars of this film.
Those fleeting images seem to have bubbled up from some dark recess of Fassbinder's fantastically rich imagination, and that instinctively he put them in where they felt right. They do not feel like they have a pat meaning, which you can easily put into words. And they often contradict themselves, with nature sometimes being seen as verdant, beautiful, inviting (the landscape shots, or the glen where Gerhard and Irene go to tryst after arriving at the chateau), while at other times it is a stark, even horrific reminder of mortality (the stag's skull crawling with maggots).
Sometimes Fassbinder adds even more layers of genuine mystery by combining the imagery with text. For example, Angela is reading Rimbaud, that poet who raised teenage angst to the sublime, in voice over ("I partake in the exploration of my mind....") as we pan from a still rural landscape to a grave topped with a huge crucified Christ. Then we abruptly cut to that shot of the horned skull at the very moment that Angela/Rimbaud says, "The ego is something other." Some people will find this hopelessly vague, but this image, combined with the text, continues to haunt me.
Of course, that kind of provocation, leading to reflection, is exactly what Fassbinder wants from all of his films. Perhaps he did not achieve it in the characters and narrative of Chinese Roulette (although some would argue that he did), but it is there with striking, haunting force in some of the images on the margins of the film.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (NOTE: the box incorrectly states 1.66:1)
- Dolby Digital Stereo
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 20 chapters for easy scene access
- 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 July 17, 2003
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