1976 — 112 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Comedy
Essential Fassbinder. Caustically hilarious, multi-layered farce about a womanizing writer who imagines himself the reincarnation of an actual nineteenth century gay German poet, Stefan George, and tries to live the role... with disastrous results.
Although Fassbinder uses humor in all of his pictures, Satan's Brew is arguably his only out-and-out, writhing-in-laughter comedy. Fassbinder turns the film into a veritable comic opera, composing the "score" not with notes but through dialogue, vocal inflections, visual style, and editorial rhythms. Extraordinarily, this is also one of his most probing looks at those frailties, and follies, of human nature which give rise to cults of personality and even, he argues, fascism. Hopefully this review will increase your enjoyment of and not irretrievably suck the fun out of this kinky, wickedly funny, and many-layered farce.
Satan's Brew is not for the faint of heart. It is about Walter Kranz (Kurt Raab), a womanizing would-be "great writer" who scrambles for every pfennig he can lay his greedy little hands on. He lives with a totally batty brother named Ernst (Volker Spengler), who is forever capturing and trying to fornicate with flies (yes, houseflies), and a dumpling of a wife, Luisa (Helen Vita), the only relatively sane character in the film, yet one who keeps scrupulous count of how many days Walter has not had sex with her. No wonder, since he is constantly getting it on with the wealthy masochist Irmgart von Witzleben (Katherina Buchhammer) whom he accidentally shoots while she is in the throes of passion writing Walter a huge check for his kinky services; his Marxist mistress Lisa (Ingrid Caven), whose husband Rolf (Marquard Bohm) collects the fee for each assignation; Lana von Meyerbeer (Y Sa Lo), a high-class hooker with shady connections and a penchant for knitting whom Walter is using, as he tells his wife, "for research on a book;" and a groveling groupie, Andrée (Margit Carstensen), who worships "the great poet" like a god. With so much turmoil, and nonstop sex, Walter's two-year stretch of writer's block is more than understandable: Where would he find the time? Suddenly one day, after unconsciously scribbling down a poem about an albatross, he imagines himself the reincarnation of its actual author, Stefan George, the nineteenth century gay German poet and aesthete. So taken with this "mystical" bond (which we see as an obvious case of unconscious plagiarism), the über-heterosexual Kranz acatually tries to become gay, like George. He even hires a circle of handsome young man costumed in nineteenth century garb to fawn over him, and a muscle-bound hustler to pose in a "classical" toga. Throughout the film, he is dogged by Lauf (Ulli Lommel), a detective investigating the murder of Irmgart von Witzleben (yet he is willing to stop his search when the Krantzes make him an offer he can't refuse: "I won't say no to a footbath!"), even as the wild bunch of characters surrounding Walter grows ever more manically out of control. The film climaxes with not one, not two, but three surprise endings, one of which is genuinely poignant, and the other two dead-on hilarious.
Satan's Brew, in its flawless and highly musical pacing, bears comparison with such masterpieces of screwball comedy as Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940). (I include both on my list of the 10 Best Films about Writing.) Although Fassbinder may not have used a metronome, as Hawks did, you can almost imagine him conducting, instead of directing, his brilliantly talented ensemble. There is music in the delivery the cadence of every line, in every gesture (most broad, some very subtle), in the blocking of actors as they cross and recross each other, even in the carefully choreographed opening and closing of every door, not to mention in every movement of the camera, and in every perfectly-timed cut. Rhythm has rarely been used to such devastatingly funny, and hair-raising, effect. To stretch the musical analogy a bit further, the film is almost a fugue, with Walter as the principal theme, and each of the women as a separate but interwoven melody. All come together, flow apart, then pile on top of each other in ever more deliriously decadent ways. It is all like a great Rossini comic opera say, 1816's The Barber of Seville or 1817's La Cenerentola if the composer had been an anarchist on acid and every line was spoken. (Rossini was one of Fassbinder's favorite composers: On his list of the 10 Best Operas, he was the only composer to rate a line entirely to himself; others were represented by a single title.)
Perhaps on one level, Fassbinder needed this extraordinary degree of aesthetic precision to counterbalance the chaos of the film's action and, especially, emotions. And those qualities are embodied by the uniformly brilliant cast, including many actors with whom he had been working continuously in theatre and film for over seven years. He combined a sharp focus on the central character of Walter, while employing the ensemble techniques used to great effect in his previous film, Chinese Roulette. Margit Carstensen stands out as the frantically masochistic Andrée; but she is virtually unrecognizable with eyeglass lenses as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles. Could this be the same actress who so recently played the title roles in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha? There is also a wonderful bit by Brigitte Mira and the actor who played the night watchman with whom she went home to have dinner in the U.S. ending of Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. They play Walter's mousy, elderly mother and father, who let him finagle them out of their funeral savings. But the star turn is multi-talented Kurt Raab, who worked with Fassbinder as designer, actor, co-writer, and more, on over 30 films. Raab is hysterical as Walter; his every inflection and gesture pure comic brilliance. In fact, every performance is razor-sharp and hilarious, because each actor completely inhabits their character.
The picture's design is a perfect foil for the action. It was shot by Michael Ballhaus, who filmed many of Fassbinder's pictures, and Jürgen Jürges, who worked on five of his productions (including Effi Briest and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). The production design was credited to the pseudonymous "Curd Melber," who was in fact Kurt Raab, Helga Ballhaus and Peter Müller. This is both one of Fassbinder's most stylish pictures, with dozens of striking but subtle compositions, and most seamless, with all of the elements working together in harmony. Peer Raben has written yet another inspired score for Fassbinder (although the main title music here was initially heard, just a few months earlier, under the climactic truth game scene in Chinese Roulette). The music has a jaunty yet sinister quality which buoys the film, yet still allows Fassbinder complete freedom in "conducting" the cast, camera movements, and editing to his own rhythms. All of these elements help create a sort of skewed parallel universe, where people's tastes in house paint colors and fashions, not to mention romance, are – by our standards – off, and where sadomasochism, violence, and multiple forms of spewing are blithely accepted as the daily norm.
Fassbinder has fleshed out this grotesque world with more than a nod to Antonin Artaud, the surrealist French poet, stage director and theorist who became a major influence on such later avant-garde playwrights as Genet, Ionesco, and Beckett. (For trivia buffs, Artaud also played the handsome young priest who comforts Joan in Dreyer's sublime The Passion of Joan of Arc). Although Fassbinder is often associated with the marxist playwright/theoretician Bertolt Brecht, especially in his stage productions and early films, here he meshes Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty (articulated in his landmark 1938 book, The Theatre and Its Double) with his own darkly absurdist vision of life under anarchy, and of the flaws in human nature which allow fascism to arise. Fassbinder's abundant use of violent slapstick, outrageous sight gags, gross-out humor, and sexual debauchery are analogous to Artaud's goals – which are not so dissimilar from Brecht's – of replacing "bourgeois" entertainment with a primitive experience intended to liberate the subconscious and to reveal, through shock tactics, the baseness of human nature and society.
Satan's Brew? Although initially puzzling, the title can be seen as a key to the film, which is both diabolical – a self-indulgent hell on earth – and intoxicatingly funny. You can imagine Goethe's Mephistopheles, that most worldy of demons, chortling as mankind's traditional values of self-respect, cooperation, and restraint disintegrate with several whimpers and a few bangs. For an artist like Fassbinder, it should be noted that it is a "poet," Walter – with a free-range id – who is the prime mover behind all the chaos. As Walter tells his wife at one point, "True genius lies in madness." But is this picture primarily a cautionary tale about anarchy as hell, with the destructiveness of unbridled desire and the rampant infliction of pain (on both humans and flies), or is it a celebration of anarchy as utopia, a world utterly free from any government interference, not to mention internal restraint? It can be seen as both alluring, in its energy and colorfulness and freedom, but horrifying in its casual depiction of life in a society run amok, with people adrift in their own solipsism and where connection is only through kinky coupling, never honesty and caring.
A clear example of Fassbinder's dramatic technique comes early in the film, when the call girl Lana von Meyerbeer tells Walter, who is engaging her "services" for (ahem!) "research," the single-sentence version of her tragic life: "After my dad beat my mom to death and hanged himself, Uncle Edward became my guardian and raped me." We get the full horror of her experience, but it is so highly-condensed that it is absurd, or more precisely, Absurdist. But as he does throughout the film, Fassbinder tops this disturbing "gag" (in both senses of the word) by having the boyish, sweetly-smiling Ernst grab Lana's breasts. She screams in genuine disgust. Then Walter shouts at Ernst to stop, saying, "She's suffered enough." He does, but then Walter explains, matter of factly, to Lana that that is how Ernst treats all women. Then Fassbinder shocks us still further by having Lana become instantly assuaged, all thoughts of her own dignity evaporated. Rarely have so many dramatic twists and turns, emotional horrors, and profoundly disturbing "laughs" been pressurized into so few seconds. But it is the juxtaposition of all of those elements that, on one level, makes us contemplate not only their absurdity here but their painful truth in the world we live in, the one beyond this farce. Fassbinder, a genius at complexity and paradox, has created a world that is simultaneously wildly subversive and, by implication, profoundly conservative: For who could live in a world like the one in this film.
It is no accident that Fassbinder made Walter an avatar of the gay German romantic author, Stefan George (1868–1933; his surname is pronounced 'gay OR guh'). George was a highly-cultured symbolist poet who revived German verse in the late nineteenth century. As we know from Satan's Brew, he founded his own influential literary school, the "George Circle" (George-Kreis), which was held together by the force of his authoritarian personality (but unlike Walter, he did not need to pay his disciples). George strove to impose a new classicism on German poetry; he used symbolic imagery and precisely arranged "harmonious" vowels and consonants to produce aesthetic intoxication. (One cannot help noting a comparison with Fassbinder's meticulous care in arranging the images, sounds, and rhythms in this film.) These poetic ideals were a protest against both the debasement of the language and society's materialistic bent, to which George opposed an austerity of life and a standard of poetic excellence, preaching a classical humanism which he hoped would be realized in a new society. Of course, his personal affectations, obsession with power, and sexual hypocrisy undercut his utopian goals – a paradox which fascinated Fassbinder. (It should be noted that George was strongly opposed to the rise of Nazism, which his ideas are sometimes thought to reflect, and that he not only snubbed them but went into exile to protest their regime.)
Fassbinder uses George in several fascinating ways. He is one of the iconic gay cultural figures with which Fassbinder, himself gay, filled the margins of his films – although such references are often subtle and require a knowledge of the ever-contentious topic of 'who was gay' in history (for instance, in Chinese Roulette we have the sexually ambiguous Gabriel concocting his philosophical treatise by stealing snippets from such gay or bisexual titans as Plato and Nietzsche). The historically flamboyant, though closeted, George also allows Fassbinder one of his rare opportunities to address directly the "issue" of homosexuality, which is the central theme of only a handful of his forty-three films: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and His Friends, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Querelle. (Of course, Fassbinder's complex conception of sexual orientation runs throughout his body of work, from his first film, Love is Colder Than Death centered on the unspoken love of petty crook Franz Walsch, played by Fassbinder himself, for a fellow gangster to his last picture, the deliriously homoerotic Querelle.) But here, it is inverted and done for laughs, as the insatiably heterosexual Walter (played by openly-gay actor/designer Kurt Raab) decides that in order to be more like his muse, he must become "a homo." So he makes a beeline for a public toilet, where he immediately finds a willing, well-endowed hustler [shown in the frame above]. This guy is a far cry from the angelic young man, Maximilian Kronberger, with whom George was in love – especially after the youth's tragic early death, which allowed George to poeticize him as his muse, "Maximin" (there is a fleeting reference to him in the film).
Despite all of the jibes at everything from George's tacky theatricalism to sexual hypocrisy to his demand to be worshipped, he still emerges as a strangely powerful figure, perhaps as authoritative as he is authoritarian. His poetry is beautiful not only in its imagery but in its musical sound (even if, like me, you are not fluent in German) however satirical the context Fassbinder creates for its recitation. And George's desire for a utopian not to mention homoeroticized world, achieved through a spiritualized yet sensual form of art, is one which Fassbinder could certainly relate to, even if this film satirically depicts its inverse. As Walter tells the fawning Andrée, upon her arrival when all she can recall about Stefan George is the "hullabaloo" he caused in his day (and of course, this film is very much another type of "hullabaloo"): "What you call 'hullabaloo' is really something very serious, something very true. Stefan George wanted his poems to be presented in a certain ambience, not torn from their context. His language is the most limpid German ever written, comparable only with that of Nietzsche. Pure, true art. Art that needs the proper setting. It's not something one can feel in the bathroom or on a tram.... It requires an inner receptiveness in people.... And few people can open their hearts to something great.... He didn't want his poem's purity sullied."
But as we see, all too clearly, Walter does not share the depth of George's vision, let alone his talent, but only its veneer. What the power-hungry, and of course insecure, Walter wants is a cult, with himself as the head. And that is exactly what he gets after paying a half-dozen young men, dressing them in period clothing which he designs himself, and arranging them at his feet. In fact, it all looks authentically nineteenth century Aesthetic, that is, until Walter's wife flips on the light and we see everything for the sham that it is. For people who consider this film misogynistic with its depiction of women as masochistic, sexually insatiable, and deceitful note that none of the men are any better, and that Walter is much worse; and the only relatively sane character is Luisa, who here literally shines a light on her husband's ludicrous posturing [note the paired frames above], even as she brings in some sandwiches tangible nourishment for the hungry, not to mention greedy, boys. She also inspires the only moment of genuine tenderness in the entire film, when she tells, of all people, her demented brother-in-law Ernst that her "belly [is] done in."
In one of his boldest, yet most subtle, strategies, Fassbinder here uses the gay George as the embodiment of the societal repression and self-destructive inauthenticity which Artaud fought against, and which inspired his Theatre of Cruelty (itself an outgrowth of the work of gay wunderkind Alfred Jarry, whose 1896 play King Ubu which Fassbinder adapted and staged in 1968 effectively invented Theatre of the Absurd). George's own closetedness makes the repression all the more oppressive, not to mention ludicrous, since his homosexuality was a universally-known, but unspoken, "secret." Although this film never created a furor like that over The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant with groups picketing what they saw as a grossly-limiting, negative view of lesbian relationships it would be easy to see gay groups similarly outraged by this film: Except that it is a knock-down, drag-out farce; that Walter is ridiculed for his self-deluding attempt to "go gay" as a sort of publicity stunt (which is the opposite of truly coming out); and that Fassbinder allows at least a bit of the poignancy of George's life, as reflected in his verse, to seep into the film.
And let us not forget that Fassbinder also intended Walter as a wicked self-satire, both in his aesthetic ambitions (of course, there is no comparison between an artist like Fassbinder and a hack like Walter) and in the way he treated the people around him (one hopes that Fassbinder, unlike Walter, was not prone to pounding his fists when he didn't get his way). Fassbinder certainly had his own "circle" of crew, friends, and/or lovers; and he was the first (though not the last) to admit that he sometimes treated them in ways which would have had Walter smirking in approval. In terms of Fassbinder's self-portraits, Walter is an even more scathing, and hilarious, one than the manic director, Jeff, in Beware of a Holy Whore.
On perhaps its most evocative level, this film clarifies one of the major themes of Fassbinder's body of work, about the terrible price of self-deception. That deadly serious vision, which lurks just below the gut-bustingly funny surface, shows us a society where self-delusion not only rules but strips away people's authentic identities. Look at the climactic scene when Andrée turns on her "master" Walter for showing emotion after he has been beaten half to death and who enjoyed it. As she remarks in utter disgust, "You're like me!" To which he replies, "That is the finest humiliation: To expose oneself to an inferior." We are left not with persons but impersonators from Walter to his fawning groupies and beyond whose emptiness (emotional, creative, even spiritual) demands subjugation and humiliation an acting out of their own self-loathing, itself a product of their emotional wounds which they refuse to confront, and hence can never heal. From that debasement to fascism, Fassbinder implies, is only a small step. Here, The Master is the comically diminished Walter, and nascent totalitarianism is represented by only a small cell. But history, and not only in Germany, shows where else those tendencies can lead.
If you are so inclined, you can read even deeper resonances into this film, which extend from the political into the spiritual realm and then back again. Fassbinder uses the same Artaud quotation both to begin (in French) and end (in German) his film: "What differentiates the heathens from us is the great resolve underlying all forms of belief not to think in human terms. In this way, they are able to retain the link with the whole of creation, in other words, with the godhead." Some people may think that Fassbinder already bit off quite enough to chew, in his exploration of self-delusion, anarchy and fascism, but it is intriguing that he not only chose such a radically spiritual epigraph, but repeated it.
It could be argued that behind the film's surface decadence and chaos lies a spiritual vision, akin to those of Artaud and Brecht and even George, for a remaking of society but in a pattern antithetical to that in Satan's Brew. It would be a kind of negativism so extreme that it transmutes into something wildly affirmative, even healing: A utopian vision as only Fassbinder could have presented it. The film ends on an especially ebullient note with riotous dancing (to the thumping strains of the "Beer Barrel Polka"!), not to mention spirited coupling on the floor. But since the only sane character is now dead, we could speculate that this world is now revving itself up for a final apocalyptic meltdown. Or, now that the anarchy is total and Walter has plenty of money (his brand-new book, No Celebration for the Führer's Dead Dog, seems destined for bestsellerdom) could we expect the opposite: Some new kind of transformative liberation?
All of Fassbinder's films exist on many levels, with fascinatingly complex contradictions, paradoxes and weirdnesses. But Satan's Brew seems one of his most audacious creations. It is simultaneously his most deliriously effervescent romp an entirely-spoken comic opera and a pitch-black satire on self-deception, anarchy, and the allure of fascism. In that regard, it is a comically distorting yet psychologically clarifying mirror which can be held up to any society at any time, even our own. And, from a certain perhaps optimistically twisted point of view, it might even inspire some people to imagine a better world than our own, although it would be the complete negation of the one here.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a first-rate DVD, from a new telecine transfer made under the supervision of the Fasbinder Foundation and filmmakers Juliane Lorenz and Wim Wenders.
- In the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Dolby Digital Stereo
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 24 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed July 21, 2003
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