Wednesday, July 15, 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I encountered a Counterpunch article about the death of the left academic Giovanni Arrighi, and this passage caused me to recall Oshima and Fassbinder:
Both Oshima and Fassbinder subjected the world around them to this sort of evaluation and exposure. In particular, the passage reminded me of one of Fassbinder's last films, Lola. The film is properly understood as a garish, extravagant, high contrast color remake of Sternberg's masterpiece, The Blue Angel. But whereas The Blue Angel remains one of the most disturbing and depressing examinations of the submission of people to authoritarian social constraints, Lola, transposed to the German economic miracle of the 1950s, celebrates the joys of capitalism even as it displays the transitory inadequacy of them.
He was a very, very good teacher. I recall that some classmate or other had presented a criticism of some reading, a fairly convincing one I think we all thought after hearing it. Arrighi commented, “You have only criticized that theory for its weaknesses. You can’t defeat an argument by attacking its weaknesses, you have to attack its strengths. And if you can identify the weaknesses it only means that you yourself could construct a better version of the same argument, so you have a responsibility to first construct that better version and then attack that one.”
The plot is fairly straightforward. A building commissioner, von Bohm, arrives in a moderate sized German city after being released from a Russian POW camp. He proceeds to apply technocratic socialist principles of planned development to the projects under his supervision. Not surprisingly, he immediately runs afoul of a corrupt developer, Schukert, and his political supporters. He also falls in love with Lola, a cabaret singer/prostitute who conceals her true vocation. As you might have guessed, one of her most important clients is Schukert.
As is typical, Fassbinder utilizes this triangle to explore the social and economic relationships in which the characters find themselves enmeshed instead of highlighting their emotional conflict. Most importantly, he reveals why the Germans found it so difficult to resist the allure of capitalism after World War II. Put simply, the money, the power, the sex, the prestige, even the competition . . . it was just all too much fun. Schukert, portrayed in larger than life style by Mario Adorf, gives expression to it through his engaging personality and the delight that he takes in giving free rein to his appetites. Schukert is yet another of Fassbinder's appealing capitalists, one who gets his way as much through the force of his likeable personality as through his money and influence.
By contrast, von Bohm, performed with a sympathetic, naive rectitude by Armin Mueller-Stahl, and his subordinate, the anarchist Esslin, presented as an inflexible moralist, infected with the autocratic values of the past, simply cannot motivate others to withstand the inducements of Schukert. All three find themselves vying for the attention of Lola, soft hearted, yet harshly practical as required. Barbara Sukowa brings out these qualities in a skillfully modulated peformance. At the end of the day, Esslin is completely marginalized and von Bohm, despite his sober Social Democracy, succumbs. If you are familiar with Fassbinder's personal life, you will recognize that the ending references his marriage to Ingrid Caven. The film is available on DVD.