It seems all the reviews of this film claim it as “interesting but not one of Fassbinder’s best”. I disagree. This is definitely one of his best as far as I’m concerned. Okay, maybe I’d take Fear Eats the Soul in a pinch but this film has so much to recommend it that I’d have to give it a genuine thinking over. Another review I happened across hailed this as Fassbinder’s “most political work”. Again I’ll disagree but that’s only because Die Nicklaushausen Fart is so ‘heart on sleeve’ political that it’s hard for anything else to match up to it. This film is rife with ideologically-driven characters, yet it satirizes them while refusing to cleave to any polemic itself.
The story centres, unsurprisingly, on Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira). An elderly woman, she lives in an apartment with her husband, her son Ernst (Armin Meier) and his wife Helene (Irm Hermann). They’re not rich but all seems quite fine until one day, in a seeming fit of rage, Herr Küsters, never to be seen in the film (except in a photograph at the zoo that a reporter has Emma pose with), kills a foreman at the tire factory where he works before hurling himself to his death on one of the factory’s machines. The media goes wild and suddenly the Küsters family is harassed endlessly by reporters. The depiction of those reporters couldn’t be more nasty. As they gather in the family’s living room, snapping photos and asking leading questions, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a vampire film. But their attitudes, wanting the details to paint a story of the man as a vile, drunk sociopath, are a core point of the film. Fassbinder’s keen to let us know, “it’s all politics”.
Perhaps more disturbing than the crass manipulations of the mass media are the attitudes of the Küsters children, Corinna (Ingrid Caven) and Ernst and daughter-in-law Helene. Corinna is self-centered, a nightclub singer who relishes the attention from the media, thinking her mere presence is enough to console her poor mother. Ernst and Helene take their vacation in the midst of all this because they’ve already paid for it and they have a child on the way; her womb could be irreparably harmed by all of the gloomy vibes. Like anyone else, they’re selfish. Their mother, on the other hand, can only think of her husband whose sudden ignominy she feels partially responsible for while she remains adamant about clearing it up.
The narrative is more than a little picaresque as Mother Küsters is a character who is frequently puzzled (it’s written on her face), yet constantly striving to widen her range of perception as she bounces like a pinball between colorful, yet exploitative and ideologically narrow characters. Fassbinder’s tendency to draw his characters allegorically actually works to good effect here, all of those characters being abstracted for satirical aims, except, of course, our protagonist who comes across as both a tragic archetype and, more importantly, a feeling, flesh and blood woman.
Emma is seduced by the communists and their sexy, wealthy spokes-couple, the Thälmanns (Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstensen), and led to believe that both she and her husband are political victims, but Fassbinder prepares us for it from the beginning. The opening scene establishes that the Küsters family have a sort of domestic assembly line in their kitchen, Emma and Ernst busily screwing circular fuses into square sockets (god knows what they’re for) as we’re introduced to them. The rigidity of this routine prepares us to understand what Herr Küsters must be confronted with at the factory without ever seeing him.
Fassbinder amusingly contrasts doctrinal propaganda with the character of Knab, an anarchist who is meant to stand in for the then-active Baader-Meinhof gang, who convinces Emma that the communists, too interested in the “truth”, will never accomplish anything and that if she wants to help her defamed husband postmortem she’d be better off coming with him and engaging in some real “action”. She does. The action is either meant to emulate Herr Küsters’ bold acts, or else, as we soon learn, use the newspaper’s branding of “the factory murderer” as a leveraging tool to secure the release of political prisoners throughout West Germany.
The reporters and their sensationalism are despicable but it’s repeatedly highlighted that their work is entirely disposable too. Meanwhile the communists, who see the man as a revolutionary who went about things the wrong way, initially court Mother Küsters’ favour until she sees they are weighed down by their own bureaucracy and really only need her as a symbol. Finally the anarchists again see her as a symbol but see her husband’s actions as justified and they are willing to just jump to action with little thought given to forward planning. So there’s plenty to enjoy in the discourses that make up the main body of the film but what really makes it all fascinating is the ending because, well, there’s two of them.
As the film wears on Mother Küsters eventually finds herself confronting the magazine that defamed her husband with backup from an anarchist group. Then, all of a sudden, the anarchists pull out guns and things take a turn Frau Küsters never could have foreseen. The final gun battle between the anarchists and the police is never shown; it is instead announced using captions on screen. It is basically ‘reported’. But there’s more to it than that. With those captions gone another intertitle lets us know that that was Fassbinder’s original ending, intended for an American market, but that he made another one instead. This time around a completely different ending plays out, resetting the scene in the magazine HQ and obviously having been shot later (or perhaps the continuity was consciously altered to give that effect). The anarchists are shown as useless losers leaving with their tails between their legs and Emma instead finds happiness and perhaps romance with a kindly janitor.
So what to make of this dual-pronged ending? Many of the complaints about the film seem to centre on the faux-happiness of the second ending but they seem to miss questioning why the other ending is still included. The DVD runs through both as part of the film, neither is featured only as a backup supplement. So we can only assume that Fassbinder intended this, at least to some degree, even if he perhaps did only intend one ending originally. After all, the film is being presented here by none other than “The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation”, so surely what’s on my disc is an accepted final form of the film.
In any case the effect of this ending is obvious within the context of the film as a whole. It forces the audience into the film’s politics. Where the shootout is reported in small bullets of text the happy ending also rings out as disjointed and bizarre. It highlights beautifully the multitude of possibilities that the various parties within the film represent. Fassbinder’s satire of raised political consciousness has no answers, but it certainly sees shortcomings and knows questions have to be asked and the director knows the audience should think so too. It’s all quite brilliant really.