The Stationmaster’s Wife
Premiere July 31, 1977 (TV Mini-Series in 2 episodes at 313 minutes, West Germany; also — as reviewed here — a posthumous 111-minute theatrical version, retitled Bolwieser, that premiered on June 10, 1983, West Germany), color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
Fassbinder’s 30th feature, a wickedly poignant, visually rich film about the extra-marital affairs of a bored and lusty small-town woman, and what happens when her husband finds out.
FILMS: Shorts “Little Chaos” and “City Tramp” | 1. Love is Colder Than Death | 2. Katzelmacher | 3. Gods of the Plague | 4. Coffeehouse | 5. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? | 6. American Soldier | 7. Niklashausen Journey | 8. Rio das Mortes | 9. Pioneers in Ingolstadt | 10. Whity | 11. Beware of a Holy Whore | 12. Merchant of Four Seasons | 13. Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant | 14. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day | 15. Bremen Freedom | 16. Jail Bait | 17. World on a Wire | 18. Nora Helmer | 19. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul | 20. Martha | 21. Effi Briest | 22. Like a Bird on a Wire | 23. Fox and His Friends | 24. Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven | 25. Fear of Fear | 26. I Only Want You to Love Me | 27. Satan’s Brew | 28. Chinese Roulette | 29. Women in New York | 30. Stationmaster’s Wife | 31. Germany in Autumn | 32. Despair | 33. In a Year With 13 Moons | 34. Marriage of Maria Braun | 35. Third Generation | 36. Berlin Alexanderplatz | 37. Lili Marleen | 38. Theater in Trance | 39. Lola | 40. Veronika Voss | 41. Querelle.
The Stationmaster’s Wife is one of Fassbinder’s most polarizing films, with opinions on it ranging from “garbage” to “masterpiece.” In a way, it’s both. On the surface he gives us the trashy fun of a soap operatic story (One Insatiable Woman and Her Three Lusty Lovers!), but through razor-sharp humor, brilliantly stylized acting, and visual mastery he digs far beneath the surface of these characters and their world. For all of its erotic hijinks, this is also a probing examination of the all-too-human origins of fascism.
The Stationmaster’s Wife, set in the Bavarian village of Werburg in late 1920s Germany, tells the tale of Xaver Ferdinand Maria Bolwieser (Kurt Raab), who at work is the town’s strict stationmaster and at home is a sexual slave to his lusty wife Hanni (Elisabeth Trissenaar). Bored with both her husband and life at the train station (their apartment is right above the office, providing a bevy of snoops with ample opportunity to get an earful), Hanni embarks on adulterous affairs. First she dallies with the beefy local butcher, Franz Merkl (Bernhard Helfrich), then she also picks up the languorous hairdresser, Schafftaler (Udo Kier). As Hanni tries to juggle her three lovers, the situation spirals out of control.
PLEASE NOTE: You may jump directly below to the analysis of the film, or read the following background information, which briefly covers: 1) the film’s two versions: The Stationmaster’s Wife, the original 3-1/2-hour TV mini-series, and Bolwieser, a 2-hour theatrical release reviewed here, 2) Oskar Maria Graf, the author of the source novel, 3) the film’s four principal actors, and 4) how this picture connects with Fassbinder’s overall body of work.
Review / Background
One of the unique features of this film is that it exists in two distinct versions, both dating from 1977. Fassbinder himself cut his original 201-minute mini-series, shot in 16mm and made for West German television, entitled Bolwieser (the same title as the novel it’s based on), into an alternate two-hour release, retitled The Stationmaster’s Wife, which was subsequently blown up to 35mm for international theatrical distribution. Fassbinder considered both versions legitimate in their own right. The processing, from 16mm to 35mm, explains why the image quality is not as vivid as that of a picture originally made with the larger and hence more detailed film stock; for economic reasons, Fassbinder made virtually all of his television productions in 16mm. To clear up any confusion with the title: at the start of the DVD we only see Bolwieser; although The Stationmaster’s Wife is the official name of this theatrical cut, that title appears solely on movie posters and the DVD packaging.
Although I have not yet been able to see Bolwieser (I will review it when it appears on disc, although it has not been announced), I understand that it differs from this film primarily in its expansion of the subplots which we tantalizingly see in brief. There are a half-dozen intriguing, if unsavory, characters in orbit around Hanni and her husband – you can spot most of them getting sloshed at the Greinbräu tavern, peering out its window as Hanni makes her way to a rendezvous, and gossiping – and I’d certainly like to see what Fassbinder does with them, having almost twice as much screen time. Since one of Fassbinder’s concerns in this film (as I discuss later) is to show the connections between small-town, and small-minded, life and the rise of fascism, the expansion of these subplots likely enrich that fundamental theme.
This is also one of Fassbinder’s relatively few films not made from his original screenplay, or adapted from one of his own stage plays. It is based on the 1931 novel by Oskar Maria Graf (1894–1967) entitled Bolwieser, sometimes described as a German version of Gustave Flaubert’s landmark 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. In fact, many people compare Fassbinder’s film not to Graf’s novel but to Flaubert’s, which is vastly better known. (Allow me to mention that Flaubert is one of my three or four favorite authors, and I enthusiastically recommend exploring all of his works.) Fassbinder, an omnivorous reader, would certainly have read Madame Bovary, yet in his desire to explore ‘adultery in the provinces’ (Effi Briest, of course, treats the same topic in an upscale setting) he may not have wanted to add to the already long list of directors who had adapted the work, including two of his favorite filmmakers: Jean Renoir in 1933 and Vincente Minnelli in 1949 (to date there are over a dozen film versions, including Claude Chabrol’s in 1991). By contrast, Fassbinder’s Bolwieser remains the novel’s only screen adaptation, and one of only two films yet made from Graf (the other is Hölleisengretl, a 1995 German TV movie). I can’t resist quoting Oscar Wilde’s famous comment on Madame Bovary, in his 1890 dialogue/essay “The Critic as Artist,” about that novel’s transcendent form, since it could also serve – if you change the plot details – as an apt comment on this Fassbinder film (Wilde would likely have enjoyed Rainer Werner’s company, and vice versa): “out of the sordid and sentimental amours of the silly wife of a small country doctor in the squalid village of Yonville-l’Abbaye, near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert was able to create a classic, and make a masterpiece of style…” Yes, it’s never just the story you tell, but the unique insight and artistry in how you tell it.
Fassbinder may also have chosen Bolwieser because of a connection he felt with the author. Although a half century separates the births of Graf and Fassbinder, they had much in common. Both grew up in small Bavarian towns, were primarily self-educated (Fassbinder prodigiously so), moved on to Munich in their teens where they held various jobs (although Graf joined the German army, Fassbinder did not), became intensely involved in both socialist/anarchist causes and theatre. Both men were also lifelong opponents of fascism. The most famous anecdote about Graf, who in the 1930s was a popular author of such regional (Bavarian) tales as Bolwieser, concerns his response to the Nazis after their infamous book burnings. When they hailed him for his patriotic “folk-ish” content, he said “Burn me!” – and then moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Although I have not yet found a copy of Graf’s Bolwieser, I was struck by the similarities between the illustrations, on the original edition’s dust jacket, and Fassbinder’s approach. While we all know that you can’t judge a book by its cover [wink], nonetheless similarities between it and the film are suggestive. Stylistically, both show the predominance of muted greens, brown and black, with a bright red accent (on the cover it’s the sofa, in the film it’s the red band around Bolwieser’s stationmaster’s cap). Also, the expressions, and overall feel, of the four principals are remarkably – and likely intentionally – comparable. Fassbinder replicates Merkl right down to the moustache and rigid but slightly-slouched posture. The book’s Schafftaler has light brown hair while Udo Kier’s is black, but both have the fey stance stereotypically associated with male hairdressers (despite their heterosexual prowess in the tale). The dusk jacket’s Hanni seems a bit more Betty Boop-ish than Fassbinder’s more nuanced take, but both incarnations stress her everyday yet sensual nature. The cover’s porcine Bolwieser fits Hanni’s frequent put-down of her husband as “Chubby” more than Kurt Raab (who at one point in the picture retorts, “I’m not fat!”), but both book and film emphasize Hanni’s dominance visually. Note that the stationmaster is angled behind his wife, a visual strategy which Fassbinder also uses.
In The Stationmaster’s Wife, the sultry title character is played unforgettably by Elisabeth Trissenaar (Andrzej Wajda’s A Love in Germany, Doris Dörrie’s Nobody Loves Me, and over 30 other films) in only her second screen appearance, although previously she had been hailed as a stage actress in Vienna. Later, she was in three other Fassbinder pictures: In a Year With 13 Moons (as Irene Weishaupt; that film’s star, Volker Spengler, here has the supporting role of the villager Mangst), The Marriage of Maria Braun (as Betti Klenze), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (as Lina). The role of her hapless husband inspired arguably the finest performance by Kurt Raab, one of Fassbinder’s most frequent and gifted collaborators – as actor, designer, co-writer, and/or assistant director. Of the two other leads, Bernhard Helfrich (Merkl) remains a steadily-employed actor (although this was his only picture with Fassbinder).
Udo Kier (Schafftaler) has appeared in over 150 films, including four more by Fassbinder (The Third Generation, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lili Marleen, and Lola; also, in a short movie directed by Kier entitled “The Last Trip to Harrisburg,” Fassbinder performed the voices of both the man and the woman on the train), all of Lars von Trier‘s films, and a memorable bit in My Own Private Idaho. Kier has also achieved cult status as the actor who has portrayed the widest range of vampires, from 1974’s Andy Warhol’s Dracula (aka Blood for Dracula – Fassbinder may have a tiny in-joke about this, since the first time we see Schaftaller he is bending over Hanni’s exposed neck) to 1998’s Blade (still the best adaptation I’ve seen of any comic book), and many more. Kier was also one of Fassbinder’s three assistant directors on this film.
While Fassbinder made this film (or rather, films) three-fourths through his career, it not only looks back to some of his most important earlier pictures, but ahead to the developments of his final period. For a revealing Fassbinder “double feature,” pair this work with its mirror image – and one of Fassbinder’s indisputable masterpieces – Effi Briest. There are so many parallels, not only in plot but in visual and symbolic design, that the two can be seen as flip sides of the same thematic coin. Both are historical films focused on a woman (as the titles indicate) and her adultery, while on deeper levels they both dissect the society which compels them to feel, and act, as they do. Yet on the surface, the two films are radically different: Effi Briest, set among Prussia’s nineteenth century elite, is a world of elegance (the omnipresent images of imprisonment reveal themselves only upon closer inspection), while The Stationmaster’s Wife, about the frustrations and follies of the petit bourgeoisie in the late 1920s, is set in a drab, dank world. In Effi Briest, Fassbinder brilliantly turns the elaborate decor of the world, through meticulous framing, into a virtual prison (of lace, pillars, and statuary), mirroring not only what the title character feels but of what everyone in the society (clearly anticipating the Nazi regime, two or three generations hence) unwittingly perpetuates: Audiences may intuitively feel this effect, even if they choose not to scrutinize the film’s visual metaphors.
Coming three years – and ten more (!) Fassbinder pictures – after that earlier film, The Stationmaster’s Wife is literally, and metaphorically, an even darker film. While the stylistics of the earlier picture, narrated by Fassbinder himself (often using direct quotations from Fontane’s classic novel), come to reveal not only layers of psychological and political lucidity, in the later film we are, in every way, living in a world of contradiction, tension, and (for the characters) inexpressible complexity. Fassbinder here literally makes us observe the action “through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12 – but the famously freethinking Fassbinder may have more in mind Ingmar Bergman’s astonishing 1961 film with that title), as he modifies the majority of his images by shooting through dirty windows, multiple-paned (hence fracturing) mirrors, glass objects (like the big cabinet in the Bolwiesers’ apartment), and even the shiny surface of a Victrola record. He uses such “glass shots” extensively in several other films from around this time, such as his adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House retitled Nora Helmer, Fear of Fear, and Chinese Roulette (trivia buffs may note that it seems that the prominent glass cabinet in that film is also used here), but never with the relentlessness, suggestive power, and sheer creepiness of The Stationmaster’s Wife. This visual strategy both embodies the perceptual confusion of the characters and incisively comments on it.
Even beyond Effi Briest, this film connects with many of Fassbinder’s other most important works. Like every one of his 41 pictures, The Stationmaster’s Wife is about the complex, and corrosive, relationship between sex and power, as we will see below. And like virtually all of his 30 films made after his early (yet at times stunning) abstract “Anti-Theater Period,” The Stationmaster’s Wife is firmly rooted in the melodramatic tradition, or more precisely, in Fassbinder’s revolutionary reimagining of both the conventional melodrama (at its most typical in, say, Mark Robson’s 1957 small-town exposé, Peyton Place) and Douglas Sirk’s beautifully subversive works in the genre, such as his 1957 masterpiece, All That Heaven Allows (which Fassbinder reworked into one of his greatest pictures, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). Fassbinder uses the emotional, and stylistic, excesses of melodrama simultaneously to reel us in (watching other people’s torment can be fun, at least at the movies) and to distance us from the action, so that at least in theory – with a nod to his intellectual heroes Bertolt Brecht (the play Mother Courage and Her Children) and Jean-Luc Godard (Week End) – we can contemplate the story’s social and political implications (and there are plenty of those in this picture).
Also, the theme of the psychological, and moral, disintegration of a working man, embodied in Bolwieser, can be seen in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (the other nominee for Kurt Raab’s greatest performance) and The Merchant of Four Seasons. The counterpoint of complex camera movement and psychological power dynamics recalls The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha (Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus even quote, while redefining, their classic 360 degree shot from that film: here in a pivotal late sequence Hanni stands in the street, paralyzed by her conflicted feelings for her extra-marital lovers Merkl and Schafftaler, while the camera swoops around her; also the long final ‘gray shot’ of the elevator door in Martha is strikingly recalled here in the painfully-held last shot of the empty prison corridor). After the over-the-top camp and manic energy of his recent Satan’s Brew, some viewers see this film as Fassbinder’s return to a more traditional cinematic form, but I don’t think that does justice to the many layers of this film. In a way, the twisted would-be poet played hilariously by Kurt Raab in Satan’s Brew here almost seems to be the guiding, and more than a little mad, implicit narrator who presents what we see and how we see it. That stylistic delirium also anticipates Fassbinder’s apocalyptic last film, Querelle. In other ways, The Stationmaster’s Wife looks ahead to both the BRD Trilogy, in its exploration of the nexus between women, business and desire (Hanni is the successful entrepreneur, not her husband who is content to be a “leading” civil servant), and Berlin Alexanderplatz, in its dissection of the roots of fascism. You will undoubtedly find many more such connections yourself between this film and Fassbinder’s body of work, since from early on he intended all of his films to delineate the various aspects of his complex worldview. Fassbinder once remarked, “I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope that in the end it will be a house.” If you’ll allow me to pick up on his metaphor, this film seems like ‘the stairs leading down to the cellar,’ in his deeply personal, and universal, vision.
Review / Analysis
Now let’s take a closer look at how Fassbinder uses a trenchant visual scheme to counterpoint, and deepen the emotional impact of, the ‘soap operatic’ plot in The Stationmaster’s Wife. For some casual viewers (just to be clear, I’m not putting anyone down), the bed-hopping melodrama may be enough. Although I wish I could have compared this picture to Fassbinder’s mini-series of Graf’s novel, which is almost twice the length, what we have here is a sharply-defined story with vivid (and brilliantly performed) characters, which moves at a brisk pace, while giving full shrift to the emotional valleys and peaks (with a predominance of the latter). I fully agree with the people who consider this one of Fassbinder’s most entertaining works: if I had a cutesy ‘popcorn bags’ rating system, I’d give it a nine out of ten.
Yet there is much more to this film than its sensational story. I think it represents a high point of Fassbinder’s visual genius in making his themes more complex and resonant, even as it helps delineate the narrative structure.
While the first two-thirds of the film focus largely on Hanni, the final third zeroes in on Bolwieser. With clockwork precision, right at the mid-point Fassbinder gives the action yet another jolt by introducing the fourth of the quartet of main characters, the unctuous hairdresser Schafftaler. Note how the most typical framing of the Bolwiesers changes in parallel to the structure. For the first two-thirds, we often see the emotionally dominant Hanni in close-up in the foreground, while behind her stands Bolwieser with his head cocked at a 90 degree angle to hers. Just when we think we have Fassbinder’s scheme pegged visually and psychologically, at the beginning of what screenwriters call “Act III” (the two-thirds point) he shifts the film onto the sagging shoulders of the benighted stationmaster. Now the most common framing of the couple has Bolwieser in the foreground and Hanni (you guessed it) at a 90 degree angle to him.
[SPOILER ALERT — specifics about the film’s climax are revealed below.]
Of course, not even his compositional promotion can save Bolwieser from descending to his bathetic end in a prison cell.
One of the strengths of this film is that Fassbinder never tries to make more of these characters than they are – and that’s a major part of his theme, as we’ll see below. Hanni is no demon of adultery; she’s just a bored housewife looking for a few thrills in the very few places she can go. She lies, at least insofar as she does not tell her husband about her affairs, but she never means to hurt anyone. Bolwieser is just an ordinary schmuck who takes a whole lot of pleasure in three things: (1) as a husband, having sex with his wife at every possible opportunity (as Hanni gasps at one point, “You rooster! You’re wearing me out!” – their apartment is right above the train station, so “nooners” are a regular occurrence), (2) as a regular joe, getting regularly soused with his buddies, the other burghers of this Bavarian Peyton Place, and (3) as the no-nonsense Stationmaster, in bossing around his two feckless underlings (who, without comment, sport Nazi armbands in the final scenes: so while the boss is headed to jail, they’re going places with the ascendant political party). Although neither Hanni nor Bolwieser are any kind of role models, I was able to empathize with the passive “yin” of his vulnerability and the active “yang” of her energy (Fassbinder would certainly have enjoyed reversing the traditional gender associations of those concepts).
Also I like that Fassbinder cast his four leads not with Hollywood glamor-bots, but as essentially real people who have just crossed to the other side of 30 (at one point Hanni admits to Schafftaler that she is 32). Their ages are significant because they partly motivate their quietly (and sometimes histrionically) desperate perceptions of themselves – and perhaps even Fassbinder’s image of himself at age 31. Significantly, one of Hanni’s first lines to Bolwieser is “We don’t need a baby for the moment:” not only does she long for what she perceives as sexual freedom, but having a child would make her seem “older” to herself and the world.
Is this film misogynistic? Some people think so. But looked at more closely, Hanni can be viewed as her own woman. She does what she wants to – while, by contrast, her husband hugs, or rather clutches, his stationmaster’s rule book to guide his life, and as a result becomes rigid (in all the wrong ways), blinded, and ultimately – à la the sexually-enslaved professor in The Blue Angel (which Fassbinder effectively “remade” as Lola) – destroyed. By contrast, Hanni may be a “nymphomaniac” to some, but to others she is living a life more fulfilling to herself than that which her moralistic, rather than truly moral, social world dictates. I certainly am not condoning her lying, and by extension her adultery, but from some points of view her liberation (or to add some ironizing quotation marks, “liberation”) puts her ahead of the social curve. There is also the remarkable, and ambiguous, fact that her lovemaking with her husband is always presented as much more sensual, intense, and fulfilling than any of her extra-marital relations.
Yet there are darker aspects to her character. Note Hanni’s running “joke,” of putting her husband down by calling him “Chubby” (although Raab looks svelter here than in other films). That nickname not only defines part of their twisted power dynamic (she insults him in the living room then, after arguing, gives him what he wants in the bedroom) but underscores the theme of flesh turning from youthful vigor to middle age, which is part of the larger concern of these characters, as well as Fassbinder himself (who fought a lifelong battle with being overweight). Of course, these are all manifestations of his larger theme, both aesthetic and personal, of approaching mortality: In 1979/80, a German high school class sent Fassbinder a “Personal Questionnaire” – when asked “How do you picture your old age?”, he responded (two years before his possibly-suicidal death) “I don’t expect to experience it.”
The theme of aging also may be why Fassbinder cast Bernhard Helfrich as Merkl, which is clearly a ‘Harry Baer part’ or an ‘Ulli Lommel part’ (traditionally masculine but in a darkly brooding and sensual mode: examples are Baer in Gods of the Plague and Lommel, as the adulterer, in Effi Briest). With no disrespect intended, Helfrich gives the impression of a Baer or Lommel just past his prime – exactly what Fassbinder needed for the role. For some viewers, the absence of his best-known performer, Hanna Schygulla (with whom he made 20 films, including Effi Briest), as Hanni – a role to which she was born – is a flaw: but I don’t think so. Although Schygulla did not appear because of a professional feud with Fassbinder, lasting from 1974 through 1979 (their triumphant return together was The Marriage of Maria Brown), Trissenaar consistently strikes exactly the right notes, both harmonies and dissonances, in the part. And as with Helfrich, Trissenaar’s lack of obvious star power (again, no disrespect) makes her Hanni all the more real, even earthy, than if we had had Schygulla. Fassbinder’s casting such empathetic, and gifted, actors provides a compelling emotional foundation, which is exactly what it – and we in the audience – need, especially with his unusually dense aesthetic and political layerings.
If only the characters’ lives were as emotionally well-grounded as Fassbinder’s schema (of course, their failures are a key part of his theme). The Bolwiesers are defined by their ravenous appetites, both for the pleasures of the table and toe-curling sex, but even more so by their inability ever to know real satisfaction. Bolwieser (who would laugh at an offer of Viagra) performs his husbandly role at every opportunity, yet it’s never enough. Hanni wants more out of life than being a stationmaster’s wife, but she makes all the wrong choices. Tired of sex with her husband, what does she do? She takes on not one but two lovers, who in most regards seem indistinguishable from her spouse. We never see her get any joy out of the lovemaking, and only a few groans of pleasure from the butcher and hairdresser (at least we see Bolwieser making passionate and sweaty love to her, but he’s the low man on her totem pole).
The Bolwiesers’ lack of satisfaction is even more obvious in his increasing use of booze; and at the end we see the frist fatal signs of Hanni also hitting the bottle. The more they want and the more they take, the emptier they feel – each one cut off from an authentic and fulfilling nature. Fassbinder makes the even larger point that their larger social world also give them no support for trying to discover who they are and what they need for true sustenance. And although some viewers may think that Hanni has ‘gotten away with it’ at the end, when she chugs off on the train with Schafftaler (cross-cut with Bolwieser on his way to the hoosegow), how long do you think the new couple will last? And once Hitler comes fully to power, which is not long after this tale ends around 1930, Schafftaler’s “girly man” profession and unmistakably “queer” appearance may earn him a pink triangle and a lower berth in a concentration camp – and something tells me Hanni won’t be around to defend her lover.
So what do the Bolwiesers do for their fullest release? It isn’t sex. Instead, it’s emotional fireworks – histrionics on a decidely sado-masochistic note. Their periodic shouting, weeping, and outright shrieking – near the climax Bolwieser pierces Hanni’s, and our, eardrums with: “You belong to me! ME!! You’re mine!! MINE!!!” – put even Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? to shame. Isn’t that how spoiled brats behave? Fassbinder gets not only dark laughs out of these outbursts (with Bolwieser’s blubbering achieving the highest yuck quotient), but he reveals how emotionally stunted – childish in the worst way – both halves of the couple are (later we’ll see how they reflect the twisted values of the entire town). He shrewdly underscores this theme in the second scene, set the morning after the Bolwiesers’ nocturnal passion of the opening. Bolwieser still can’t get his collar and tie on right. Hanni sighs, “You men are like children. You can’t even dress yourselves.” That line not only touches on the terminal immaturity of adults in this world, but the necktie offers a suggestion of conventional social restraint (as does another of the film’s key symbols, Bolwieser’s stationmaster’s cap, which we’ll try on for size look at below).
Ingeniously, and wickedly, Fassbinder finds a dead-on metaphor for the Bolwiesers’ torturous relationship, right in their own claustrophobic living: their caged pet bird – for me, the most godawful annoying animal in any film (where’s Sylvester the cartoon cat when you need him?). That neurotic little thing’s ceaseless chirp-screaming, worse than fingernails on any blackboard, perfectly voices its owners’ emotional state: sometimes it’s a barely audible drone make your flesh crawl, other times it’s so shrill it has you wishing for cotton to stuff in your ears. Early on, Fassbinder visually highlights the connection between these three caged beings through a perfectly balanced composition (shot through a French door, of course) of the literally caged bird on the left with the metaphorically caged Bolwiesers, playfully but tensely dancing in circles around each other, in the center and right. With a lesser talent, such obvious symbolism would be cheap; but by giving the bird such a noisily obnoxious personality, Fassbinder not only enriches the metaphor but gives us the film’s most hilariously twisted running gag.
At the opposite extreme, the most subtle strategy Fassbinder uses to distance us from the characters – at least Bolwieser and Schafftaler – is what I call the Rock Hudson Effect, that is, having well-known (even then) gay actors like Kurt Raab and Udo Kier play characters defined by their heterosexual prowess. This is obviously not a criticism of Raab and Kier as either human beings or performers, but rather acknowledgment of Fassbinder’s sly distancing technique. The slight but palpable disconnection of desire is a subliminal effect, but one which becomes apparent when noted. In a similarly subtle way, Fassbinder uses Merkl’s fake moustache – you keep waiting for it to fall off – to suggest the falsity of this world: it’s supposed to be “real,” but we know better. Fassbinder further underscores this playful strategy by introducing Merkl at the polka party at the tavern, where all of the men sport bushy moustaches (maybe it’s a traditional Bavarian thing), some like Bolwieser’s obviously fake (he’s clean-shaven throughout the rest of the film).
On a much larger scale, Fassbinder reveals disconnection on every level – among the inhabitants as well as in his visual and aural scheme – in this superficially quaint village of Werburg which harbors a toxic heart. To achieve exactly the right look for the fictional town, Fassbinder shot bits and piece of it – a tavern here, a train depot there – all over Bavaria, including Bayreuth, Förmitzsee, Hof, Munich, and Naila’s Marxgrün Train Station. The result, of course, is seamless… unlike the quietly desperate lives of the townspeople.
Fassbinder’s Werburg is, sad to say, a reflection of its petty, gossipy, frustrated – not to mention polka-loving – people. These are the symbolic grandparents of the aimless youths of Fassbinder’s brilliant second film, Katzelmacher – overgrown kids who live – jobless, switching sexual partners, and sometimes erupting in violence – in a sterile modern housing project. The “Old World charm” of Werburg is, on the surface, notably dissimilar to the earlier film’s setting (as architecturally vacuous as its inhabitants), but we are still in the realm of symbolic geography. Fassbinder uses his cinematically-created town, both in the particular buildings he chose (from all over the region) and in the oppressive angles with which he shot them, to show a world where the buildings are squat and solid, you might even say too solid, with great slabs of ancient stone. It is also a literally and metaphorically dark world, not only because so many scenes are set at night but because the interiors are purposely kept obscure with plenty of noirish shadows everywhere (whether it’s the Bolwiesers’ apartment or the tavern). Everything in Werburg is as drab as the gray cityscape of Katzelmacher: virtually the only hues are bilious green, gray, brown, and black. Here those are not the colors of nature but of personal and societal rot.
Those dull monochromes make the most eye-popping bit of color in the film all the more outstanding and strange: the narrow scarlet band around Bolwieser’s official stationmaster’s cap. How telling that the most vibrant object is actually constricting, and utterly conventional – a symbol of authority (so dear to fascists, both small and great). Fassbinder also uses the cap to underscore the power dynamics between the Bolwiesers. Hanni dons it in the early scene when she wants to persuade her husband to let her lend 50,000 marks, which she has inherited from her father, to her “friend from school” Merkl so that he can buy the Torbräu tavern. She cranks up the Victrola while wearing only a silky negligee and the cap – which she sports at a more rakish angle than her husband would dare in his official capacity. Guess who gets the loan.
The most typical structure is the Greinbräu tavern – low-hung, dark, and dank – where the petty petit bourgeoisie hang out, and Bolwieser descends deeper into alcoholism: of course, after he leaves, the dozen assembled citizens cackle over what a fool he is to not know that his wife’s screwing the butcher (“AHHHH… HA HA HA HA HA!”). As with the Greinbräu, all of the interiors are claustrophobic, whether the narrow streets, the Bolweisers’ apartment, the train station, courthouse, or the climactic prison, which sums up the spatial feeling of the entire film.
In one of the film’s most remarkable shots, in the late scene with Hanni running off to join Schafftaler, she boards a moving train: Fassbinder uses a breakaway set, as the camera follows her by “magically” gliding through the left side of the car into the interior. But while the move is unexpected, and briefly delightful, we soon realize that she has “escaped” into one of the most confined spaces in the film. She soon joins the hairdresser, but Fassbinder includes a visual prediction about their future: they are shot through a train window which reflects a massive telegraph pole separating them.
This is also a world with no privacy. No matter how solid the walls seem, there’s always a narrow window to peer out of, or a staircase where a few eavesdroppers can huddle, or a jailer’s peephole in a cell door. Perhaps the most notable instance involves the demonic snoop, Frau Käser (literally ‘Mrs. Cheese’ or ‘Cheesemaker’), played by Fassbinder’s own mother, Lilo Pempeit (a lauded translator and actress who appeared in most of her son’s films; she played a similar role in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). Frau Käser suggests her, and the town’s, religious hypocrisy by gasping with a toxic sneer, as the disgraced Bolwiese vacates his apartment for prison, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he won’t kill himself, will he?”
Were it not for all of the peeping appurtenances that Werburg provides, how would the good burghers be able to keep so well informed on their neighbors? Of course, Fassbinder is paralleling their addiction to snooping and backstabbing (which is also creepily funny) with Bolweiser and Hanni’s sins of the flesh – all of which again highlights the theme of the emotional and intellectual bankruptcy of this traditional small-town lifestyle, in which the bored people are disconnected from each other, and even worse disconnected from themselves. At first, this film may seem like a cautionary tale about the evils of adultery, but Fassbinder casts his moral net much further, as we will soon see, and does so with remarkable artistry.
Fassbinder further tightens the dramatic screws through his visual compositions, which are remarkably evocative, especially for television. Then as now, TV thrives on master shots interspersed with close-ups and a few two-shots and three-shots. But look at how Fassbinder uses the medium’s conventions, including its then-boxlike form (before today’s widescreen sets).
He takes the square-ish aspect ratio of 1:33:1 and makes it even more constricting for his characters by often shooting them against door frames or through windows, hence further cramping their space. There is also a consistent sense of something being not quite right with the composition; there is always a minute but disturbing imbalance to the shots (with Fassbinder and world-class cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, you can be sure that these are no accidents). The television screen itself comes to seem yet another manifestation of the crushing, off-balanced world of Werburg.
The film’s most prevalent visual metaphor, however, is distortion. Almost everything is shot through a type of glass (windows, mirrors, French doors, transparent cabinets and most dramatically the heavily-rippled glass in the back room at Merkl’s butcher shop), and sometimes Fassbinder further distorts the image by photographing it through a sheer bit of fabric, as we see in the Bolwiesers’ apartment, beginning with the film’s first frame, and at Schafftaler’s (who, at one point, slowly draws a series of curtains around himself and Hanni). This literal distortion, between lens and object, parallels the emotional distortion and disconnection between the characters and themselves and each other and their world. Here Fassbinder is at his visual best, creating an effect which is paradoxically both sublminal at first and enormously evocative when looked at more closely. He brillantly shows us not only this society but its hidden, disjointed and unsettling, nature.
This film has also inspired one of the most eclectic scores from Peer Raben, who composed the music for 28 of Fassbinder’s films, from his first picture to his last, and many of his stage productions It is no exaggeration to call Raben Fassbinder’s musical voice. Here his score parallels the film’s contrapuntal thematic techniques, that is, Raben writes music which simultaneously plays off of the surface action of a scene while actually expressing to the characters’ inner natures. Raben gives the Bolwiesers a schmaltzy theme, often heard right before they head for their bed: it’s conventionally romantic but also a bit too over-the-top. While we, unlike Bolwieser, see his home life unraveling as Merkl at the Greinbräu tavern picks up Hanni right under his nose, we’re treated to a lusty yet (you guessed it) slightly “off” polka during a shindig. For the several Bolwieser and Hanni ‘fight scenes,’ with their histrionic excess and shattering rawness, Raben punctuates the rapid fades to black with a little “sting” which you might hear on an actual soap opera (to requote and elide Oscar Wilde, from above, “out of the sordid and sentimental … a masterpiece of style”). Raben also employs a good deal of avant-garde music, perhaps most effectively during Bolwieser’s two court appearances: the yoking together of atonal “outer space movie music” with the oaken solidity of a village courtroom is an inspired aural way to reflect the yawning chasm within Bolwieser.
The pulse of Raben’s music also fits well with the sharp editing, by Fassbinder (using his frequent pseudonym of “Franz Walsch”), Juliane Lorenz (who cut virtually all of Fassbinder’s late flms; and who now heads the Fassbinder Foundation), and Ila von Hasperg. The propulsive editing, swift but never rushed, is undoubtedly a reason that some people consider The Stationmaster’s Wife one of Fassbinder’s most entertaining films – it’s that, and a lot more.
We have now seen – dramatically, visually, and even musically – how Fassbinder has exposed the lack of self-awareness (could anything be more pathetic than the terminally clueless Bolwieser, locked in his prison cell, still screaming out for his wife while he rubs his groin against the stone wall?), emptiness, disconnection, and simmering frustration of this world. A shrewd dramatist, Fassbinder focuses on Bolwieser and Hanni, but he gradually implicates the rest of the town. As the film evolves, Fassbinder makes the larger point that the Bolwiesers and the rest of Werburg are a microcosm of the broader, and increasingly dangerous, disconnections which run throughout the nation. (Although I don’t want to reduce Fassbinder’s film to a bibliographic reference, his multi-layered analysis of the rise of fascism also provides an illuminating – and aesthetic – complement to such indispensable historical studies as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996).)
Fassbinder’s implication is that these conditions in the late ’20s – people’s screamingly unmet emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs – provide all-too-fertile soil for the seeds of fascism; with Oskar Maria Graf’s loathing of the Nazis, it’s likely that he would have appreciated how Fassbinder enriched his 1931 novel with alater, and more comprehensive, perspective of the Nazis, who were just coming to ascendancy when Bolwieser was published. Fassbinder acknowledges the extent of fascism’s roots, briefly and mordantly, as he shows the connection between ego, economics, and the business-based allure of fascism through Merkl. The most passionate we see the butcher is not when he’s making love to Hanni but when he gleefully recounts for Bolwieser (while Hanni, the woman, listens quietly in the background), how the government shafted the striking railway workers, whom he calls “agitators” and “troublemakers” who “should be glad to have any job these days.” (In a typically sly bit of humor, Fassbinder has Merkl brandishing a big – dare I say phallic – pool cue, during the scene.) Bolwieser adoringly tells Merkl – even as Fassbinder shows us how disturbingly easy it is to provide simplistic “explanations” which are sufficient the uncritical – “You make it all so easy to understand.” Merkl adds, “These days a businessman has to know about politics.” (He’s going to love Hitler’s labor policies – well, for a few years anyway.)
Near the film’s end – with a total absence of melodrama – the Nazi armbands begin to appear, even on the “cute” bumpkins who work for the now-disgraced stationmaster: the bigger of the two (who bears a distinct resemblance to the character Dim in A Clockwork Orange) seems poised to don the official stationmaster’s cap. Into such a vacuum, is it any surprise that the infantilized people (pouting, shouting, peeping through keyholes in search of naughtiness but with no genuine self-awareness) will embrace the biggest baddest daddy figure of all, the ultimate patriarch and self-proclaimed exemplar of traditional values (i.e., no more sluts or drunks or queers – except behind securely closed doors when they give pleasure to the party’s faithful). Is Fassbinder’s analysis any less applicable to comparable nation’s in today’s world?
As I’ve just shown, it’s ever so easy making moral judgments about these characters: but one of the things which makes Fassbinder a great artist is the richness with which he not only realizes his moral vision through a mastery of all of cinema’s elements, but forces us to confront the very artificiality of his approach: the complex symbolic visual scheme against the popcorn-worthy melodramatic story, the actors’ empathetic performances against the histrionic characters they play. The posters promised a sexy soap opera about adultery – and Fassbinder delivered the goods, but he then took us on a deeper exploration of human nature, of how and why the boring everyday disconnections which so many people take for granted, while they/we try to fill up the gaps with distractions (be it booze, bed-hopping, money-grubbing, or, dare I add, film-going), open the way for totalitarianism, what Hannah Arendt, with shocking lucidity, described as “the banality of evil.”
I’ve heard some people denigrate this film as being “bleak.” Well, on the one hand, what else can an analysis of fascism be? On the other hand, Fassbinder brings not only a probing analytical mind (you can parse out the strands for psychology, sociology, ethics, among others) but an artist’s eye and ear to this film. That’s what raises it so high above the level of some tawdry conventional melodrama – and makes this one of his best films. If you’ll allow me to bring up a “third hand,” when an artist presents us with a bleak worldview, it’s neither fair nor productive to leave the criticism at that. As with all of Fassbinder’s films, he expects each of us to take his profoundly unsettling yet incisively expressed vision of life and use it in forming our own responses to the real world. You can almost hear Fassbinder saying, So you think my films are bleak? All right, then what are you going to do about it, both for yourself and to make the world a more liveable place? It will come as no surprise that beneath the dark surfaces of his films, with their twisted characters, you can sense Fassbinder’s struggling but heartfelt idealism.
The Stationmaster’s Wife presents a world seen “through a glass darkly” in every sense, from the psychological to the political, even the spiritual. Fassbinder points us – but not his characters, and ultimately not even himself – towards the way out of the abyss, if we want to find it.
- Written and Directed by Fassbinder
- Based on Oskar Maria Graf’s 1931 book, Bolwieser: The Novel of a Husband
- Produced by Herbert Knopp, Willi Segler, and Harry R. Sokal
- Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus
- Edited by Fassbinder (as “Franz Walsch”), Juliane Lorenz, and Ila von Hasperg
- Production Design by Kurt Raab, Nico Hehrhan, Peter Müller, & Jochen Schumacher
- Costume Design by Monika Altmann-Kriger
- Assistant Directors: Christian Hohoff, Udo Kier, & Ila von Hasperg
- Sound by Milan Bor, Werner Böhm, Klaus Maier, & Hans Joachim Richter
- Original Music by Peer Raben
- Elisabeth Trissenaar as Hanni Bolwieser
- Kurt Raab as Xaver Ferdinand Maria Bolwieser, Station Master
- Bernhard Helfrich as Franz Merkl
- Udo Kier as Schafftaler
- Karl-Heinz von Hassel as Windegger
- Volker Spengler as Mangst
- Gustl Bayrhammer as Neidhard (Hanni’s Father)
- Armin Meier as Scherber
- Peter Kern as Treuberger
- Willi Harlander as Stempflinger
- Hannes Kaetner as Lederer
- Doris Mattes as a Witness
- Lilo Pempeit as Frau Käser
- Elma Karlowa as a Nurse
- Gerhard Zwerenz as a Ferryman
Rest of cast listed alphabetically
- Isolde Barth as the 1st Nightclub Hostess
- Katherina Buchhammer as a Barmaid
- Adolph Gruber as the Accused Peasant
- Monica Gruber as a Waitress
- Manfred Günther as a Defendant
- Margot Mahler as 2nd Nightclub Hostess
- Renate Muhri as a Prostitute
- Ulrich Radke as Judge Schneider
- Karl Scheydt as an Attendant
- Reinhard Weiser as Sailer
There are currently many Fassbinder video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Fassbinder link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
New Yorker Films, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has released a DVD with good image and sound, considering that the mini-series Bolwieser was originally shot in 16mm (as were most of Fassbinder’s TV films) and then, for the re-edited theatrical release version The Stationmaster’s Wife (reviewed here), blown up to 35m. Some scenes, especially those photographed in low light conditions, are very grainy (which is due more to the limitations of 1977’s 16mm film stock and lenses than to the transfer); by contrast, a few shots (mostly close-ups of Hanni) are pristine. There are no special features, and there is no accompanying booklet. Ideally this film would have been released in a set also containing the complete mini-series, Bolwieser. It’s likely that the home video rights to it, as with many of Fassbinder’s TV project, are currently unavailable, at least for Region 1 distribution. New Yorker Films, which encompasses both theatrical and DVD releases, has an exceptional catalog with dozens of classic and contemporary pictures from Europe, Asia, and the Americas
- In the original release aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Optional English subtitles
- Trailers for four other New Yorker Films releases
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed October 25, 2005 / Revised October12, 2020