Rainer Werner Fassbinder had a true talent for probing insights into the deep despair and disenchantment of the human condition. His characters were doomed people, ones fellow German New Waver Wim Wenders speaks of as helpless and hopeless. Such descriptions perfectly suit those in Fassbinder’s 1971 film, The Merchant of Four Seasons, which is out now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Here, Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller) has just returned from duty with the French Foreign Legion. Home in Munich after being gone about a year, he is first greeted with a less than enthusiastic reception from his mother (Gusti Kreissl). As he tells of friends lost in the fighting, she counters with, “The best are left behind while people like you come home.” This is just the tip of the iceberg for what Wenders says is a “lack of love and warmth” that surrounds and afflicts Hans, and it’s what leads to his downfall. The Merchant of Four Seasons thus immediately starts to chart Hans’ steady disintegration, as his world emotionally and psychologically assaults him.
In flashbacks and in the present-day, positive moments are fleeting for Hans. We find out he was at one point a police officer, but was ousted when caught in the midst of some licentious interactions while on the job, in his office no less. Now he peddles produce under the supervision of his wife, Irmgard (Irm Hermann). Our first impressions of her are that she is domineering and prone to jealously, but her character changes a good deal. First of all, she cares far less for Hans than her apparent jealously would suggest, and she’s not quite as overbearing as Fassbinder would have us believe, particularly when we’re confronted by Hans’ own flaws. He is a little hard to handle himself. Early on, he takes his frustrations straight to the bar, with alcohol becoming a recurrent remedy for his depression and anger, ultimately to his fatal detriment. Our hero, Hans, is no saint, but who ever is in a Fassbinder film?
There is, as time goes on and premature judgments and assumptions subside, a mutual defiance in this most unhappy marriage. Irmgard is also unfaithful. As initially taken aback by sexual advancement as she sometimes appears, like when she’s accosted by a man who assumes her to be a prostitute, she, too, is apparently after everyone, making enticing eyes at nearly every male she meets. After Hans drunkenly abuses her in full view of their young daughter, Renate (Andrea Schober), his family, if not fully defending his behavior, generally attempts to understand his actions. Yet make no mistake, they never hide their distain for this black sheep. Only his sister, Anna (Hanna Schygulla), possesses what could be genuine sympathy, though it, too, is unreliable. Following this episode, Hans is hospitalized and is left unable to work in the same physically demanding capacity. He and Irmgard bring on an employee (which doesn’t end well), and for a time, as their business collaboration is revitalized, the two genuinely seem content and happy with one another. Business is booming, and during a family dinner where Hans’ success is touted, he is granted an approving acknowledgement from his mother as now having a “proper enterprise.”
Seldom is anything this sweet in a Fassbinder film not followed by the sour soon thereafter. An inexplicable and profound depression sets in on Hans, just as things are starting to go right. Judging from the flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, Hans seems almost destined to be sad. Perhaps it’s that a lifetime of struggle leaves him inept when faced with sudden success.
With the severe anguish is an accompanying anxiety. Hans is clearly at a turning point, and Hirschmüller, whose performance becomes anesthetized and stoic, expresses the shift in behavior perfectly. Out drinking with his buddies, Hans holds court as he’s seated at the head of the table, rambling incessantly. It calls to mind a quote by Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965): “A man alone always talks too much.”
Only when Hans runs into a former comrade in arms does he find an acquaintance who seems, for the most part, dependable. Harry Radek (Klaus Löwitsch) is brought on to work for, and live with, the family, a most certain recipe for disaster.
Hans’ path toward self-destruction moves forward at full-speed, finally concluding with a gathering where he literally drinks himself to death in real-time. “You’re going to die, Hans,” Irmgard says with tears in her eyes. Yet she is unmoving, her apparent emotion is paradoxically impassive. Similarly, as Hans downs shot after shot, each liquid nail in the coffin assigned the name of someone who has wronged him, even his friends simply look on, shockingly with no interference. It is an utter helplessness, in that Hans can’t help himself at this point, and that no one else seems willing or able to step in. Irmgard and several of Hans’ fiends are seated at the table, and in wide shot we see their proximity. But when Fassbinder cuts in close to any one of them, their immobility and lack of action make them a million miles away.
In the audio commentary he provides for The Merchant of Four Seasons, Wim Wenders says this is the Fassbinder film he likes best. It’s also the movie where he says he started to understand Fassbinder’s films better, noting that it situates itself at a point when the director’s style and themes started to change. In this “film of transition,” as Wenders puts it, Fassbinder simultaneously incorporates, leaves behind, and evolves his penchant for performances that are postured, static, and wooden, to use some of Wenders’ terms, and which are now intersecting with elements of Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama. It’s an unusual mixture of theatrically operatic overacting—with hysterical tears and screams, overly dramatic fainting, and almost hackneyed expressions of lustful yearning—and an organic, sometimes fierce emotion. In other words, it’s a strange combination that scholar Eric Rentschler, who is interviewed for the Criterion disc, calls both artificial and expressive.
Wenders, Rentschler, Hermann and Hirschmüller all discuss Sirk’s intense influence on Fassbinder. And as Thomas Elsaesser also writes in a brilliant essay on the film, “Inspired by Sirk, Fassbinder conceived a cycle of films centered on the impossibility of love or trust within (homo- and heterosexual) couples, or of finding happiness in family bonds. Transferred to very diverse but nonetheless typically West German milieus, Sirkian melodrama proved a winning formula for Fassbinder, informing some of his best-known films. … The most astonishing, however, because possibly the most sharply etched, remains the first of these, The Merchant of Four Seasons.” Such idolatry has been well documented and is clearly evident in much of Fassbinder’s work. In many ways, The Merchant of Four Seasons is a prime example. But the degree in which the influence is manifest in this particular picture is perhaps less than these individuals contend.
To begin with, Sirk was never this abrasive (of course, he couldn’t be when and where he was making his best movies), but compare this film to even Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), arguably Fassbinder’s most direct homage to Sirk, and it’s obvious that The Merchant of Four Seasons is a film far more raw than anything Sirk would have dared. Fassbinder, during the disturbing scene of Hans’ attack on Irmgard, sustains an exhausting long take of the assault, and in some of the less violent though nonetheless troubling scenes, he shoots from a direct, frontal angle, in a painfully stunning refusal to flinch or look away. In this film, with frequent cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, Fassbinder’s style is generally straightforward. There are only occasionally showy camera angles or movements (some tracks and pans), but he basically maintains a static focus on rigid composition. Even the moments of sexual intimacy are awkward at best, shot as they are in tight, abstract close-ups, with little motion or sense of eroticism.
Irm, who touchingly says Fassbinder is the magic word in her life, speaks of the Sirk-inspired Hollywood close-ups with which Fassbinder shot her in this film. True, they are intense framings, and Irm’s face is striking, but there is no Hollywood glamour here. This is a closeness that almost seems to drain the characters’ faces, taking out the emotion and replacing it with some sort of unflappable, unknown contemplation. In his commentary, Wenders spends a good deal of time praising Irm, Schygulla, and Hirschmüller, all of whom do turn in great performances, as they would often do for Fassbinder, yet one can’t help but note the occasionally impassive quality of their presentation.
Likewise, the domestic settings of The Merchant of Four Seasons are never stylized as in Sirk’s pictures, nor are they in any way suggestive of a larger sociocultural meaning: suburban banality, empty spiritual fulfillment, the excesses of the wealth, etc. Here, the homes are just dwellings, or containers, cages even. The apartments are not unlike the sparse enclosed courtyards where Hans sells his fruit. They simply form an area where the drama unfolds without background interference.
Wenders does bring up one Sirk connection that seems more appropriate and apparent, especially with regards to The Merchant of Four Seasons. That is in the way both he and Fassbinder convey a sympathetic and objective consideration of their troubled characters. As Elsaesser further notes, “Sirk’s work also taught Fassbinder how to carry an audience into the more mixed emotional responses that these characters, who seem so unlikable, are able to elicit.” Even in this, though, Fassbinder’s depiction of suffering individuals is more acerbic and brutal, and our capacity for empathy is therefore more drastically challenged.
So in many respects, here and elsewhere, and again, it does admittedly come down to what could be done in the 1950s versus the 1970s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is indeed like Douglas Sirk, but like Douglas Sirk turned up to 11.