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The Merchant of Four Seasons

Forms of Asphyxiation


In the commentary that accompanies the DVD of The Merchant of Four Seasons, fellow New German Cinema filmmaker Wim Wenders talks of the six films Rainer Werner Fassbinder made in the year prior to making the film, and  someone might wonder whether if a little less haste would have arrived at a more thought through style. Aren’t the flashbacks he utilises here, the eavesdropping scenes adopted, the death of its central character, all clumsily dramatized signs of a filmmaker learning his craft and inflicting it upon his audience? “My first films were really to learn film technique”, he says in Fassbinder, edited by Tony Rayns.

Yet there would be several reasons why we would disagree with such an easy assumption, even if it means disagreeing with Fasbinder’s own statement, and the first is that Fassbinder was never interested in simply learning his craft; but much more in mastering new forms. While Katzelmacher the previous year shares some of the same concern for the weight of petit-bourgeois judgement as Merchant…, the earlier work contained it in formal rigour: filmed in black and white, the film is a series of fixed frames interposed with a handful of dolly shots. It was a work of aesthetic minimalism; The Merchant of Four Seasons is a work freeing itself from some of those constraints. It is less that Fassbinder hadn’t learnt his craft, but instead that each film was an attempt to stretch film form. As he would say in a Playboy interview from 1978: “From the beginning I’ve tried to line up film crews who know their craft so well that they really enjoy learning new things. Not people who are just learning the ropes, but those who enjoy trying out something new.” Sometimes this requires the contraction of aesthetic possibilities; sometimes their expansion. The Merchant of Four Seasons is expansionist as it utilises devices that the Fassbinder of Katzelmacher would have dismissed, yet the critique remains equally resolute: once again the director wants us to damn the society, but this time feel for the people in the situations. As he would say in an interview in 1974: “The best thing I could imagine would be to create a link, between a way of making films as beautiful and powerful and as wonderful as Hollywood films, yet which nevertheless are not absolutely affirmative.” (Quoted in Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius) Here he does and he doesn’t make such a film: as the form is never quite ignored even as Fassbinder often wilfully utilises conventional tropes.

What do we mean, though, by the form never quite ignored; for aren’t all films aware of form? But, to paraphrase Orwell, while all films have form some films have more form than others. Perhaps the question is what films contain their form in their content, and what films contain their content in their form. In Katzelmacher the content was embedded in the form, while here, while the form never gives way to the content, it doesn’t allow us easily to fall into the story that the film tells, and this is partly why someone might feel it is inept, uncrafted, unpolished. In the scene where the merchant, Hans (Hans Hirschmueller) literally drinks himself to death, Fassbinder cuts back and forth between Hans dropping another glass of spirits, with his wife and friends looking on in a series of reaction shots, before the film slips into flashback as Hans talks of one friend’s earlier loyalty. The combination of reaction shots to the people at the table, and the flashback as Hans recollects a moment when he was in the Foreign Legion, isn’t subtle, but that isn’t quite the same thing as saying it happens to be obvious; or rather, one should say, its obviousness possesses its own subtlety.

For example, the reaction shot is a commonly used device to give us a context on a particular scene, so that if a character acts obnoxiously, heroically, stupidly, others are on hand to underscore the audience’s appropriate emotion in relation to the character’s actions. In the recent Reality, the central figure pushes an hungry, homeless person away from his fish stall and the reaction on his co-worker’s face makes it clear that he disapproves of his boss’s behaviour and we should judge likewise. Mateo Garrone’s scene is subtly done: there are no reaction-shot close-ups and just after sending the homeless person away, the boss feels a mixture of guilt and self-irritation. He hopes to get on Italian Big Brother and suddenly believes the homeless person has been sent as a test of his humanity, and that he has just failed the test. The point we want to make is that Garrone absorbs the reaction shot into the texture of the film so that it’s unlikely anybody would feel the shots as obtrusive. Fassbinder flirts with this obtrusiveness not as amateurism, but as a certain type of perceptual expansion that includes the nature of the form. He doesn’t reveal the form as flagrantly as he does in Katzelmacher, but he doesn’t quite absorb it into the content either. He utilises the device, but also makes us semi-aware of its use by its unsubtlety within the context of an ‘invisible style’. He wants it both as manipulation and distanciation. Garrone wants to use the reaction shot as neither quite one thing nor the other, and therein lies its relative subtlety.

However, what makes Fassbinder different from many other important filmmakers who refuse to allow us to settle into the form and absorb the content, whether it be filmmakers as stylistically diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Miklos Jancso, is that his form often utilises rather than rejects the convention. When Godard uses the reaction shot in Bande a part or Weekend, it either mocks the reaction shot or spatially confuses us. When Antonioni uses an establishing shot in The Red Desert or Blow Up, it doesn’t establish the space it troubles our perception in relation to it. When Jancso uses the long take it doesn’t generate perceptual ease, an effortless feeling of confidence in relation to the filmmaker’s wondrous craft (Kubrick’s comment about Max Ophuls’ camera being capable of walking through walls encapsulating it perfectly), but instead an anxious sense of the camera going anywhere but not always where we would wish it to go, as it configurates human patterns, rather than follows the actions of characters. In each instance the filmmaker doesn’t flirt with convention; he rejects it. Fassbinder here doesn’t accept or reject formal convention but utilises it for his own needs and ends.

We can see this in the scene where Hans is selling fruit from his stall, and the film cuts between Hans, his wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) standing nearby, and someone (Ingrid Caven) calling out from a window in the apartment block. Clearly the wife is wary of this woman requesting a fruit delivery, and Fassbinder registers her wariness in the cuts between the three characters. As Hans puts some pears into a paper bag and goes up the stairs to deliver them, the film cuts back to Irmgard looking hurt, as she glances up at the window, and the film cuts to Caven’s character closing it.  This is the love triangle filmed in the standard way: Caven was the love of Hans’s life (in the credits she is referred to as Hans’s great love), and Irmgard has every reason to feel jealous. As we later find out, the reason Hans and Caven never got married was because he was a lowly merchant. Shortly after this sequence, Hans crosses the road to go the pub and almost gets run over. Fassbinder inserts a zoom shot of Irmgard worryingly looking on. Yet within these conventions Fassbinder will frame in a manner that refuses ready identification with the characters, and makes us wonder more about the situation, and the form that contains it. When Hans goes up to Caven’s apartment, the camera is often aloof, using a frame within a frame. As Hans knocks on the door, we view it from behind a window frame that frames the door frame. Fassbinder might use the shot/counter-shot in the exchange between the two characters, but the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene are framed to generate a question around the drama. It would have been more conventional to view Hans knocking on the door from the side, rather than from behind, as Fassbinder and his cameraman Dietrich Lohmann, frame the door so precisely within the other frame that it makes us unavoidably aware of the image within the image.

What does such formal play add to the story that Fassbinder tells? Thomas Elsaesser says in the pamphlet, Fassbinder. “the typical situation in a Fassbinder film, where a mother/father, wife/husband or friend/colleague makes demands on the hero/heroine that are sadistic, or betray, deceive or abandon him/her, is dramatized in such a way that these dominating figures, from whom there is objectively or subjectively, no escape, also have their reasons, are sometimes well-meaning or possess complex motives over not all of which they have control”. By contrast, the hero “is given a moral/emotional innocence that almost makes him the holy fool in a Dostoevskian world of universal prostitution.” If Elsaesser is correct, how might one choose to frame this problem, and let us think of it in terms of the scene just mentioned. Caven’s purpose in the film isn’t to be pathetic but sympathetic: the motive for leaving Hans might seem selfish, but she is presented as a figure of some sympathy since she seems partly to regret this decision. However, Hans is pathetic, a character for whom pathos is elicited, evident equally in other Fassbinder films where the director wants to move us with the predicaments of the titular Fox in Fox and his Friends, the cleaner Emmi in Fear Eats the Soul, and Erwin/Elvira in In a Year of Thirteen Moons. This need for pathos though cannot be unconditional, but requires formal containment. Fassbinder wants to generate immense feeling for Hans, but accepts that others have their reasons within the givens of a situation. Filming the scene from the side might have removed that sense of perspective which says Hans is pathetic but this doesn’t mean Caven is unsympathetic. The door closes on Hans’s face after Caven asks Hans in and he says perhaps another time, but viewed from a side elevation the moment could have seemed dismissive, while Fassbinder’s framing wants to hold in balance the sympathetic dimension to Caven’s character, and the pathetic dimension of Hans’s. “I think I can go further than [Brecht] did in that I let the audience feel” he said in a 1977 Cineaste interview. This scene exemplifies that attempt to blend the search for an emotion with its containment by the form.

Fassbinder’s Cineaste comment is consistent with the notion we’re exploring that he never cared to learn his craft but was interested in finding the means by which to create a distinctive aesthetic. When he says he could go further than Brecht, he is still couching the problem of feeling within the Brechtian idea of verfremdungseffekt – the alienation effect – but wants also to offer emotional release. When he says that he re-watched his early films, “I saw all 23 films in four days…there’s a great deal in the first nine films, up to Beware of the Holy Whore, which I quite like”, he added, “the films give a concrete expression of my situation at the time. When you see them all, it’s clear they were made by a person of great sensitivity, aggression and fear”. Even though he concludes by saying, “they are too elitist and too private, just made for myself and a few friends”, it was nevertheless his later insistence to make more emotionally direct films within this aesthetic that allowed the films to remain distinct. There are numerous scenes in The Merchant of Four Seasons (his eleventh feature) that are predictable in feeling but unpredictable in form and predictable in form but unpredictable in feeling, though they are rarely predictable in both form and feeling at the same time. If one thinks again of that zoom in on Irmgard’s face when Hans crosses the road, the shot is followed by a cut to Hans going into the bar, a cut back to Irmgard looking on, a dolly into Hans, and then a slow zoom through the bar window to Irmgard still standing there across the road, before the film cuts to Hans back at the stall. There is nothing predictable about the shot choices here, even if the scene could be described in colloquial terms as a ‘domestic’.

At other moments the use of flashback might seem cumbersome, but the revelations less so. In one, Hans’ daughter asks her auntie Anna (Hanna Schygulla) about her father, and Anna says maybe she will tell her later, but that Hans wasn’t always treated so well, before a brief flashback from Anna’s point of view with Hans insists he is joining the Foreign Legion; that he has had enough of his mother and family life. As he gives her some cash he walks away and she desperately tries to catch up with him but slips on the floor. It is an odd scene for several reasons. It is a flashback from a peripheral character, gives us almost no new information, and comes just after Anna says she might tell her niece someday, and instead of telling her, reminisces. If she had told Hans’ daughter then that might have impacted on the film’s present:  in how the daughter sees her dad, and if the flashback had shown us the dynamics of the family in the past it would have made us see the context of Hans’ family in the present. Instead it is a brief scene that neither tells us much about the past nor augments very much the present, and is imagined by a secondary character. Added to which Anna wears a semi-diaphanous white dress, with a different hair-style and a seductive manner, and she chases after Hans like a spurned lover. The device might be conventional, but the scene is not.

This attempt to utilise form and feeling by often playing with the conventionality of one and the unconventionality of the other, finds its correlative perhaps in Fassbinder’s films’ attitude to society and rebellion. As Christian Braad Thomsen says in the hagiographically titled Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius: “Outrage at being treated unjustly in bourgeois society is far from enough to give one the strength to defend oneself. The bitter truth holds good for the fruiterer…” This injustice instead often gives Fassbinder characters the means by which to destroy themselves. The outrage turns inwards, so that when at the end of the film Hans takes his own life by drinking himself to death on the spot, he is seeking a real feeling but finding it in the acknowledgement of society’s power over his existence. If Fassbinder accepts that society makes freedom difficult, does he not need to accept that a filmic exploration of this problem also requires some formal conventions if it is going to function as critique? In other words, if his work is about the constraints on freedom rather than man’s liberation, is the best aesthetic way to explore this to offer a combination of the inexplicable and the conventional? The zoom shot as Hans crosses the road, and the flashback to explain a bit more about the central character, are conventional enough, but within these conventions Fassbinder finds his own approach to feeling.

By the same reckoning, when Fassbinder uses Hans’ medical history to generate a low-key suspense it could seem too obvious. As Hans collapses, gets taken to hospital and is told by the doctor he must give up the sauce, so the doctor says even another drop might kill him. The sequence functions similarly to all those moments in a hospital drama where a character is told they don’t have long to live, or needs to be very careful with their health: the sort of moment of course that Fassbinder would have seen in the Douglas Sirk films he so admired: the near fatal accident in All that Heaven Allows, the accident that blinds the central character in Magnificent Obsession – plot contrivances that push the story along at a quicker pace. These are scenes that take the films into melodrama, just as Hans’ collapse happens to do so as well. It is the type of device he would use in later films in various manifestations. The immigrant Ali collapses near the end of Fear Eats the Soul in a moment of near happiness as Emmi and Ali dance, and he gets taken to hospital with a perforated ulcer. In Fox and his Friends, Fox wins the lottery and gets used and abused by all around him. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, Maria’s husband takes responsibility for the murder she commits, and spends the rest of the film in jail while she works hard for the life that he will have when he gets out. More extreme is the sex change the central character In a Year with Thirteen Moons has in the hope that he can persuade the man he loves to love him back now that he is a woman, since the man is heterosexual.

On paper, some of Fassbinder’s scenarios can seem close to another gay, melodramatic director, also influenced by Sirk, Pedro Almodovar. No matter if the tone and execution are very different, both are directors interested in melodramatizing narrative. However, where Almodovar often celebrates sexual dissidence within capitalist plenitude, as he offers a vividly colorful mise-en-scene, and the accoutrements of the material good life of post-Franco Spain, Fassbinder’s purpose often lies in questioning post-Hitler society: the colourful element of Sirk remains a subdued palette in the German director’s films, as if the traces of the past are too strong to allow for liberation. Assuming Hans is in his early thirties (taking in to account the Romanian born actor’s own age), this would make him a child of the war and his mother a woman in Hitler’s Germany. Though the allusions here aren’t as categorical as in Fear Eats the Soul (Emmi and Ali dining at Hitler’s former eatery in Munich), or historical reenactements of the period (as in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen), what Fassbinder explores is not so much the presence of Nazism, but its absent presence: its trace in the German culture and personality. As he says in Fassbinder: “I believe that all feelings are potentially exploitable, and are actually being exploited”.

The Merchant of Four Seasons isn’t at all an allegory of the Nazi period, but like much of Fassbinder’s work it is interested in the problem of use value central to Nazism, and ties it here to notions of friendship, love and exploitation as Hans is in danger of becoming part of the small-mindedness he initially tried to escape, and that he keeps falling into. In the latter half of the film he needs to protect his health but maybe equally sacrifices his principles as he becomes the very businessman who doesn’t get his hands dirty that his mother would so have wished him to become. Earlier, in flashback, when he talks of becoming a mechanic, his mother insists that he should keep studying and not take a job which leaves dirty hands. As he now snoops on the person who works for him, as he calculates the profit he can make out of another man’s labour, so he gains a degree of respectability but loses both principle and purpose. As he sits around unsure what to do with himself, Hans watches as his old Foreign Legion friend Harry becomes the man of the house: working the stall and helping Hans’ daughter with her homework.

“There’s no reason to exist when you don’t have a goal any more”, Fassbinder said in the Playboy interview, and Hans has become that purposeless man come the film’s conclusion. Yet he turns into this figure because of the variables Fassbinder explores: the ex who wouldn’t marry him because his job was too lowly, the neighbour’s comments on his short stature next to his wife’s height, and the mother who shows him little respect, evident in the comment she makes in flashback when he returns from the Foreign Legion where a friend died. “It’s always the same. The best are gone and someone like you comes back”, she says, in an oblique allusion to the Nazi period, and a ruthless remark about her own son. Later in the film, in the present, Anna, reckons the family has always despised Hans and never given him a chance, and so it makes sense when at one point Hans announces: “I hate you, mother”.  His sense of lassitude comes from familial disdain, and this is a family embedded in the Nazi past, and perhaps still with traces of its ideology.

We wouldn’t want to insist too strenuously on Fassbinder’s anti-Nazism, here; we offer it as no more than a means by which to understand a key difference between a filmmaker like Almodovar working out of post-Fascist Spain, and Fassbinder working out of post-Nazi Germany. Though Fassbinder’s palette is more colourful in The Merchant of Four Seasons than in most of his films, it never quite takes on that optimistic visual hue we find in Almodovar’s High Heels, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Tie Me up Tie Me Down. There might be royal blue costumes and crimson cars in Merchant…, but Fassbinder never allows colour to become cheerful.  Colour for Fassbinder has always been more garish than optimistic, a means by which to indicate consumerist gluttony against ethical hollowness, evident in the mother’s apartment in the scene where Hans collapses after trying to get Irmgard back. We needn’t exaggerate the mise-en-scene, but the red curtains and the red carpet look newly fitted, and a colour that seems to announce loudly the items’ presence rather than function. Yet this isn’t quite a suggestive aesthetics either (as Bergman’s rich use of red in Cries and Whispers invokes the painterly), but the inverted expressive: Fassbinder has the habit of creating stifling environments in which to capture his characters. Whether it is the mother’s flat here, Emmi’s apartment in Fear Eats the Soul, or Fox’s in Fox and his Friends, it is as if material accoutrements generate suffocatingly personal mise-en-scene. It does not serve a liberationist function.

There is little in Fassbinder’s work that does. If Almodovar was interested in Sirk for the convoluted possibility in the happy ending, Fassbinder was more drawn to Mogadon melodrama, taking into account the drug’s definition as a powerful hypnotic substance which possesses strong sedative and motor impairing properties. Fassbinder’s characters often sleepwalk their way to despair, but with the sedative nothing less than societal expectation, an expectation that doesn’t motivate beings but which finds ways to enslave them: to kill off their goals. When critic Serge Daney says in a filmed interview shortly before his death at the beginning of the nineties, “we will have this world, but we will inhabit it at last… and it will be the world, never society. From society, only horrible things are to be expected”, it could have been a comment made by Fassbinder not long before his own death from drink and drugs. Indeed there is a beautiful, horrible passage from a lengthy interview with the director’s former wife, and of course the great love in The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ingrid Caven, where she talks of seeing Fassbinder a few days before his own demise.  “I drove down to Munich again. Rainer’s room was utterly disgusting. It was a pigsty. It was so dreadful. Ashtrays, cigarette ash and old newspapers everywhere. Whiskey bottles, everything you could imagine lying around. It stunk, and his bed was so filthy that I didn’t want to sit down on it, it was that bad”. (

It is as though society won out as Fassbinder died not long afterwards; his heart giving way to a combination of cocaine and sleeping pills. Caven describes the ultimate in pessimistic mise-en-scene that happened to be the end of Fassbinder’s life, but it is as if something in his work led to it. When he proposed in the Playboy interview that we need a goal to live by, the question is what kind of goal can we pursue: those of the world, in Daney’s terms, or those of society? Fassbinder sought the values of the world through exploring the limited values of society, and perhaps ended his life because the former finally gave way to the latter. As he would say in the Fassbinder book edited by Rayns, talking of Fontane’s Effi Brest, “[Fontane] lived in a society whose faults he recognized and could describe very precisely but all the same a society he needed, to which he really wanted to belong. He rejected everybody and found everything alien and yet fought all his life for recognition within that society. And that’s my attitude to society.” Hans in The Merchant of Four Seasons fights also for his place within the social, but loses the possibility of a world, and as he lies slumped on the table in death as in earlier in the film his head slumped on the table in defeat (after trying to fight his mother’s expectations), so Fassbinder died at an early age too. But we should search in his work not only for the inevitably pessimistic but for an optimism of world, a sense that the society we live in is merely a mode of living and not the only one available. Fassbinder might not have managed to find such optimism in his stories, but he often did so by framing his films in ways that created space for a critique of assumption, as a way to question. As James Franklin says in New German Cinema, “in all of Fassbinder’s films, from the earliest to the latest, clothing [and the mise-en-scene more generally] functions not only as an element of naturalistic setting, ie., as “costuming”, but as a metaphor of socio-political restraint and existential constriction”. Fassbinder’s work remains one of the great oeuvres of social asphyxiation, and Hans as good an exemplar of it as any character in the director’s films, and the form, though often varied, always attuned to exploring this societal suffocation.


©Tony McKibbin