Perhaps the most profoundly grim and melancholic view of petit-bourgeois values ever committed to celluloid, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early color masterpiece is the sinuous answer to the titular question. For roughly eighty minutes it is a seemingly buoyant comedy of manners and simultaneously a solemnly hyper-real character study. In the final minutes this carefully constructed narrative will appear to transmogrify into something so malignant that it forces one to reconsider the entire film. And this is the point: watching again with fresh eyes and new insights, which can be a rewarding experience indeed, but one that encumbers. Now, having turned the decisive corner in Fassbinder’s labyrinth, every moment becomes a highly charged and excruciating presentiment of death, every chuckle a renewed chagrin, every exclamation of contentment and certitude a bleak futility.
This was Fassbinder’s fourth film of 1969, shot entirely in Munich in thirteen days in December of that year. The grisly exclamation point to his first year as film director, a prodigious spurt of acitivity that saw the completion of four films and the premiere of two, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? exploited the same pool of resources Fassbinder would use for all of his films from this early period: Munich’s Anti-Theatre. Co-directed with Michael Fengler, lensed by nascent longtime collaborator Dietrich Lohmann, edited by Fassbinder himself, the film would be the only in a prolific career produced with a totally improvised screenplay. The fact of its extemporization speaks strongly to Fassbinder’s burgeoning talent as director and editor for the film feels nothing like improv-theatre but rather a tightly-wound chronicle.
Kurt Raab (played deftly by the eponymous actor) is a technical draftsman, wefting through his day making charts with his protractor. He is married to a lovely woman and has a beautiful son, though to Kurt it seems they are less lovely and beautiful than practical and proper. They are spokes in his patriarchal wheel, or lines on a graph. Kurt himself is the straightest line of all. Throughout the film we see him at home, in his office, with neighbors, friends, colleagues, at the school’s parents meeting. He has fulfilled all the expectations of an adult male in middle-class German society. He even has the nagging mother-in-law to boot. However, he suspects there is something seriously wrong with his condition. The spare, tender moments he shares with his son become more ominous than tender; helping him with his studies, Kurt becomes highly agitated when the boy cannot pronounce something properly and apparently has a lisp. Perhaps he realizes at this moment that his son will grow up to be just like him, mediocre.
In the film’s most lighthearted scene, Kurt’s naiveté clashes with youthful snobbery in a record shop. Straining to remember the title of a tune he wants to buy for his wife, he tries humming it for the shopgirls who can barely suppress their giggles. Despite his good cheer, he is the pathetic punch-line to every joke the girls have about uptight middle-class types. As the film progresses still more urgent signals of climactic violence emerge. The most memorable of which has to be Kurt’s work party where all of his coworkers and superiors are assembled to dine and imbibe. Kurt drinks enough courage to make a speech, prompted by his wife’s chronic insistence that he make a vital impression in order to seek a promotion. He makes a very daft, flattering toast to his boss, who returns his words of fellowship with incredulity and smirking resentment. The anxious Kurt is left red-faced before his red-nosed superiors.
Fassbinder chose a deliberate cinéma-vérité style for the look of this film; the photography is geared solely toward achieving a sense of documentary realism. However, and perhaps in spite of himself, Fassbinder lets certain thematic ideas be reinforced by the choices of camera angle, position and movement – for the wintry, outdoor sequences he uses hand-held shots (with tracks that recall his own Katzelmacher from the same year) and for the interiors long, static takes with sudden swings or pans (with Kurt often being panned away from) dominate the film. These sustained interior scenes can be oppressive and tedious for the viewer, as we imagine they are for Kurt. So much formal and chromatic weight occurs at the bottom of the frame in many scenes that the film achieves a physical heaviness and feeling of genuine desperation or suffocation that matches the indolence of its characters. And Kurt Raab’s acting is suitably naturalistic and, at times, unnerving.
The film’s climax is precipitated by nothing in particular, or so we’re led to believe, except the accumulated existential weight that Kurt has packed on to an already substantial frame. It is preceded by a physical exam during which his physician tells Kurt that his ailments, including weight gain, may mean he simply smokes a little much. Back at the Raab household, Kurt is having trouble getting the television set to work properly as his wife and her friend are discussing a ski trip. The box simply won’t work, so he is forced to listen to their frivolous gab. When his wife leaves the room, Kurt surreptitiously grabs a large candlestick and proceeds to show us how he runs amok.
Thus Fassbinder effectively suggests the answer to the riddle of Herr Raab without playing the pedantic anthropologist or the didactic filmmaker. Fulfilling its promise, the film does not ultimately answer its title; instead it forces its title to linger, as it should, with evasive fixity. Fassbinder later considered this one of the most disgusting films he ever made1, which suggests to this critic that Fassbinder perhaps erected such a title out of genuine astonishment at the results of his own thesis.
1 From R.W.F.‘s notes, “The Most Disgusting” films of the German cinema, written 1981. Reprinted in The Anarchy of the Imagination, 1992. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Pg. 110.