R. W. Fassbinder's Chinese Roulette
Last night I watched Chinese Roulette, which I own, but haven't watched in quite some time. Actually, I haven't watched any Fassbinder in a while, at least not since my Heaven-a-thon (All That Heaven Allows(Sirk), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul(Fassbinder) and Far From Heaven(Haynes), the last two are continuations on the same theme as Sirk's original film). It's kind of difficult to explain Fassbinder to people. I learned his canon in an extraordinary way. When I was living in Portland, Oregon and attending Pacific Northwest College of Art, my school ID got me into the Northwest Film Center for free. My last summer there coincided with the arrival of the traveling Fassbinder retrospective. So, in a span of one month, I saw Beware of a Holy Whore(which, coincidentally, is a fantastic film to start out with), The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Fox and his Friends, Mother Kuster's Goes to Heaven , The Stationmaster's Wife, Lili Marlene and Lola all as restored prints. This is also ideal in the sense that it is the manner (albeit, a slightly more condensed version) in which Fassbinder made his films. Between the years of 1969 and 1982, he made 40 films, television plays and miniseries (the most famous of which is his 15 and 1/2 hour adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz). Watching them in a similar fashion, I was able to glean from them the serial quality that only aids in the understanding of his films.
Fassbinder was interested in Hollywood cinema, and, more particularly, the fifties' melodramas of Douglas Sirk. His were Women's films. In Sirk, he saw women who entertained independent thought. Never before had Fassbinder seen women actually think unaided in any cinema, particularly that of Hollywood. So he modeled his films, in many ways, after Sirk's. As Fassbinder originally came from a theatrical background, the repeated use of actors and dependence on an ensemble cast would thematically echo the general tropes of the melodrama and its natural evolution into the soap opera. In his films, we see the same actors return, time and time again, generally bearing the same characterizations or roles(though, never the same names). In Chinese Roulette, Margit Carstensen plays Ariane Christ. Fassbinder typically used Carstensen to portray the classy and composed woman who, through the course of the narrative, succumbs to her hysteria(think, Petra, Fear of Fear and, or course, Martha!). This characterization is quite true to the film in question. That Fassbinder created his own troupe, from which to cull when necessary character types arose is quite illustrative of his marriage to the melodrama (and its distilled form - the Soap Opera, with its cardboard character types).
This is one of the elements of his practice that makes Chinese Roulette such a delight. The ensemble here is comprised of Carstensen (whom I have already discussed), Brigitte Mira (the seldom used star of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, in a more viscous turn of character), Anna Karina (a Goddard star, this film was one of Fassbinder's first largely budgeted ventures), Ulli Lommel and Volker Spengler (both Fassbinder minor male leads). To call the film an ensemble piece is to state the absolutely obvious. We are presented with a scenario in which we rest with these characters in one house for the majority of the film. The house is the Christ mansion (subtle), Herr Christ has escaped their with his mistress, Irene (Karina) for a weekend of adultery. So has Frau Christ, with her husband's business partner. A situation which is initially met with a laughter turns grave when their crippled daughter (onto which they heap all the blame for their lives' torments) arrives with her mute nursemaid. The crew eventually assemble for chinese roulette, a guessing game which allows for all of their repressed spite and animosity to surface.
The film distinguishes itself apart from Fassbinder's other works as one of his most stylistically distinct films. Movement in Chinese Roulette is a very integral and composed thing. The way our cast moves through a room, or, more importantly, the way the camera follows our cast, forms a balletic parallel to the words and personal positions which divot and sway in the lengthy patches of dialogue. When a camera sweeps a room and lands on a figure, so narrative focus is isolated to that individual for whatever duration that cinematic hold may be. It is a markedly original method of narrative focus, as disruptive as it is effective. Reflection and splitting are very interesting and dynamic visual metaphors utilized throughout the film. Positioned in each room are clear glass towers which serve as liquor and stereo cabinets. Visually, however, Fassbinder uses these as visual devices to isolate and mirror the figures in the room. One character may speak to another, and though they are in the same room, sometimes even in embrace, they exist in polarity, separated by or trapped within these glass towers. Seldom is there a shot in the film that is not interrupted either by these cubes or a pane of glass. There are many shots taken from the exterior of the house, the camera peering through the reflective glass pane of the windows. Seen from this vantage, our wealthy and amoral crew appear trapped. As the majority of the narrative takes place within the mansion, this can be considered as a greater metaphor for the figures of the film who are enmeshed in the construct of their deceit. And yet, this approach also informs the visual potency of the film as but another visual flair that lends to the film. It makes for a stunning image when a figure is doubled in the glass boxes. As open to metaphor as he was opposed, it can quite certainly be argued that Fassbinder chose to depict his crew in this landscape because, more than anything else, it proved visually alluring
As a whole, Chinese Roulette is Fassbinder's most inconsistent film. Yet here, these inconsistencies prove to be conceptually arresting tangents in the way of the film's narrative. When Kast's son, Gabriel, opens the door to the daughter's room to find the nursemaid playing hopscotch with the cripple's canes, Kraftwerk's Radioactivitat floods the soundtrack. It is a moment isolated from the rest of the film for the inclusion of contemporary (pop) music. We have only heard Mahler and the film's original score by Fassbinder regular Peer Rabin until this point, and it is an eerie inclusion that marks the scene as one of interesting import. Similarly, at one point we move from the house into a pastoral shot. Already we are removed from the narrative consistency, as we have yet to part company with our characters to embark on an isolated journey. After we are treated to a lovely pastoral shot, as we carrion with the voice over from the previous (interior) scene, the camera rests on the maggot infested skull of a deer. The voice over, which says something of the mortality of man, juxtaposed with the dead deer reminds us, not just of the material triviality of the dramas that plague our protagonists, but of the mortality of our cast. And also, for as foreshadowing of that which is to come.