Love is Colder Than Death

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March 22, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

“For Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Marie Straub” says the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1968 Love Is Colder Than Death, an early entry into the director’s canon. One can see the influence of all three directors. There’s certainly the Chabrol/French New Wave inspired ode to American crime and gangster cinema that constitutes the core “plot” of the film where Fassbinder himself plays Franz, a small-time crook who is recruited by a major crime syndicate, but prefers his freedom. He later hooks up with another crook named Bruno (Ulli Lommel) and, along with Franz’s prostitute girlfriend, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), the trio become a kind of German Bonnie and Clyde. From Straub, Fassbinder takes the Bresson inspired minimalism, including an artificiality that’s flaunted rather than hidden. The Rohmer connection is more subtle, but the love triangle between the three leads will certainly draw comparisons to Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales.

This was my fifth Fassbinder film after Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fox & His Friends, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, and all I can say is that I’ve yet to get a handle on Fassbinder as an artist. He once said (perhaps jokingly) that he wanted to be “what Shakespeare was to theater,” and he certainly managed the Bard’s prodigious output as well as his startling stylistic versatility; there is very little the films I’ve seen of his has in common. Any director that can go from the stark, dramatically restrained, asceticism of this film, to the Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama of Fear Eats the Soul, to the tragic social commentary of Fox & His Friends is going to be difficult to pin down.

Being such an early film, Fassbinder’s influences are more on display here than in his later, more subtle works. But even here there’s an originality, mostly present in the bare art design, idiosyncratic handling of character, and the slow-paced, strangely hypnotic rhythm—a rhythm that takes some time to slip into. The opening scene consists of three characters sitting around the table with Franz smoking. Seconds slip away in front of the static camera and bizarre framing that has the characters sitting to the far left of the screen with a blank wall behind. A minor scuffle ensues after a man asks Franz for a cigarette and he refuses. This section segues into the “recruitment” where Franz refuses to join the syndicate and is beaten. Even these scenes take place in front of a bare white wall or in a minimally decorated office that looks like a set built in the corner of a studio apartment.

There’s certainly a Godardian element here, which simultaneously seems to be parodying classic gangster films, exploiting the unrealistic nature of them, while still attempting to build a legitimate genre drama. Unlike Godard, Fassbinder’s less interested in subverting tropes. Instead of focusing on a couple cramped up in an apartment for long stretches of non-narrative related dialogue, Fassbinder does take his characters through the motions of committing crimes ranging from petty larceny to actual murder. One scene has the trio in a small apartment store bombarding the sales lady at the counter from three different sides while the others steal sunglasses while she’s not looking—more like a children’s game than a heist film with master thieves. Other examples are even more bizarre perhaps, culminating with Johanna and Bruno’s stroll through a department store shoplifting minor items along the way. Fassbinder films all that in a single long tracking shot that lasts for minutes, wholly unconcerned (perhaps oblivious) to the bevy of customers staring at the camera, with an operatic choral piece and screeching sound effect droning over the soundtrack.

Another French director that comes to mind for comparison is Jean-Pierre Melville, if only because of the narrative distance Fassbinder maintains (perhaps one overarching motif in his cinema). But for Fassbinder that distance serves to highlight the characters’ folly instead of just enhancing style. Unlike Rohmer, Fassbinder seems less concerned with the morality behind his characters, their actions and relationships, and more about bringing their foolishness to the forefront. One always got the sense that Rohmer’s mind was actively involved in his character studies, using them as the catalyst for exploring his thematic concerns. In comparison, Fassbinder never lets us into his characters. Franz, especially, remains a near-emotionless, stone-faced mystery, while Johanna and Bruno are little more explored.

Like the best minimalism, at the best moments, Fassbinder manages to say a lot with a little, like the subtle charge of erotic tension that runs throughout. In one scene, Johanna lies on the floor, as if sleeping, when Bruno walks into the small room where Franz is sitting on the bed in the background. Bruno lies on the floor next to Johanna and begins unbuttoning her blouse, gently kissing her. Eventually, Johanna lets out a giggle and stands up, buttoning her blouse back up, only for Franz to unexpectedly walk over and slap her, stating “that’s for laughing at my friend”. It’s tempting to read Fassbinder’s homosexuality as playing a role here, emphasizing male-male bonding/friendship over heterosexual relationships, but anyone who’s seen Fox and His Friends, which features Fassbinder’s naïve character being tragically used by a pair of older homosexual men, will realize that the director didn’t see male friendship or homosexuality as a mutual paradise either.

What these scenes, and indeed most of the film, point towards is an excruciatingly closed-off, claustrophobic world that negates the desire for freedom that Franz’s character explicitly wishes for and the other characters implicitly wish for. We never get the sense these characters have other options; every location Fassbinder takes us, mostly during Bruno’s search for Franz and Johanna, are populated by pimps, prostitutes, and thieves. Franz, Bruno, and Johanna may not be an ideal trio of partners, but they’re likely all each other has. As weak and foolish as they are, there’s still strength in numbers. Indeed, their mini crime streak seems to make them feel invincible, a genuine absurdity from Fassbinder’s narrative point of view, making their downfall all the more inevitable.

Like the other Fassbinders I’ve seen, Love Is Colder Than Death is a film easier to appreciate than to love. The combination of the cold, distant perspective, slow pacing, observed rather than engaging characters, and lack of overt narrative tension, conflict, and drama makes it a difficult film to get involved in. It also feels too much like a mishmash of French New Wave influences searching for an individualized identity. Fassbinder finds that identity in the best moments, like the last murder that Bruno commits, which finally brings handwringing drama and psychological substance to one of the characters. Or especially the final scene that has [SPOILER ALERT]Johanna and Franz dumping Bruno’s dead body on the side of the road after the failed bank heist[/SPOILER ALERT] only to find Fassbinder panning over to a harsh, barren desert, a truly potent visual symbol for the wasteland that these characters inhabit.

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