Ritual and Revolution

Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder now showing at the Orson Welles

THE STATISTICS are overwhelming. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is 31 years old. He only began making films in 1969. Since then he has completed over 20 feature films and worked a number of times in videotape, including the writing and directing of a five-part television series. He has been compared with Warhol, Godard, Sirk, Struaub and Visconti. Critics have heralded him as "extending the language and method of film more than any other film-maker of his generation." The screening of Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, made in 1975 but just recently released in the U.S., is, therefore, certainly an event of great interest. Unfortunately the film will be most interesting to that group with which Fassbinder sympathizes least (the radical chic) and will not attract that group which he addresses most (the proletariat which maintains a society that treats it injustly).

Fassbinder is mainly a humanitarian. He is interested in the banality, not the poverty, of the proletariat. His politics consist almost solely in enunciating that banality and its causes for a politically naive audience. In that respect, Mother Kusterstells a typical Fassbinder story. A man has gone berserk in a factory, killing his boss's son and then killing himself. The press exploits his family and distorts the picture of the man. His wife (Mother Kusters, played by Brigitte Mira), deserted by her children, seeks comfort where she can find it. First, with the Thalmanns, a couple of armchair communists who ask Mother K. to "unburden" herself to them. Herr Thalmann tells Mother K. that her husband "killed to help others." She tells him "you put it so nicely." The Thalmanns convince her to join the Party in order to right the wrongs committed against her husband and she does (because "they talk to me and take me seriously.")

Mother Kusters is anxious for change, though, and finds the slowness of the Communist plan disillusioning. She is persuaded by an anarchist to take more direct action and stages a sit-in at the magazine office which misrepresented her husband. Her two fellow anarchists are anxious for dinner, however, and leave Mother K. sitting alone on the floor. Finally, the night watchman asks her to leave so he can lock-up. He invites her home for a dinner of "Heaven and Earth" (German sausages and apple dumplings) and she leaves with him. He has told her exactly what she wanted to hear all along. He "knew those magazine stories were all lies right away."

Fassbinder is concerned, in Mother Kusters, with the same themes that have interested him throughout his career. He explores the break-up of the German family structure: the son, hammered by his wife, goes on vacation to avoid publicity; the daughter uses her father's fame to advance her career, sleeping with the exploitative journalist and calling her nightclub act 'The Factory Murderer's Daughter.' Fassbinder is intrigued by rituals, by those things which make life most banal and predictable. Mother Kusters is forever either stirring a red pot on the stove or, because the West German "economic miracle" has happened, she is snapping electric sockets into plastic holders at the kitchen table.

The twist, for Fassbinder, is to throw havoc into the lives of those who don't cry out, who don't revolt on their own. Fassbinder feels an immense sympathy with the proletariat's specific angst, with the tension of the everyday, and he is angry with a capitalist economic system that perpetuates such banality. Mother Kusters is forced, through a melodramatic super-realism, to the understanding that "having something isn't having all." She questions whether she has been really living or whether "they" (the capitalist manufacturers) have just indoctrinated her into thinking that she was living.


Fassbinder has stated "I don't make any films which aren't political." (Film Comment, Nov-Dec. '75) Mother Kusters, though stamped through and through with Marxist politics, fails because it makes no final political statement. While Fassbinder evokes a hope in the humanity of the proletariat, he does not illuminate any possibility of revolutionary change from within their ranks. Mother K. is the woman who can never be a revolutionary because she is too easily swayed, too easily disillusioned. She is anxious for rapid and broad-sweeping change but, when that fails, will satisfy herself with petit-bourgeois dreams of contentment. Fassbinder satirizes the bourgeois Communists (Mrs. Thalmann wears Cacherel blouses; she serves Mrs. K. from her sterling tea service while telling her "out aim is to get all a rightful share in what is produced."), the anarchists who lack the stamina to continue their sit-in through dinner hour, and the press which distorts and manipulates people, making the image more important than any truth which underlies it.

Mother Kustersis a frustrating, dissatisfying film because an ideology emerges, but there is no medium through which this ideology can be expressed. The Communists' aims, if not their methods, are Fassbinder's ("people are responsible for their own lives. Capital is the common enemy.") Ultimately, however, the film denies both methods and aims any importance. It presents a pessimistic vision: there are no acceptable means for revolution.

The root of these failures lies in Fassbinder's theory about the relationship between politics and film in general. "I used to think," he says, "that if you brought people up against their own reality they'd react against it. I don't think that anymore." By the time he made Mother Kusters Fassbinder, influenced by the films of Douglas Sirk, had begun to think that the primary aim of film is to satisfy an audience and then bring in politics. He states that "there is no objective reality" and, therefore, unlike most Marxist artists he cannot be interested in portraying any reality but instead claims he can invoke action through a melodrama wedded to an insistent pessimism. "The only reality," he insists, "is the relation of the work to its public. It's a collision between film and subconscious that creates a new realism." Films are political, yes, but they cannot be dogmatic. Fassbinder is interested in pointing out injustices, in making people realize their politics. ("Nothing is to be gained from beinga Marxist; it's worth everything to become one.") Film is a transformative agent.

IF FASSBINDER fails ideologically, he redeems himself through exciting visual effects. It is easy to point out influences in this respect: he places characters in their social setting with the exactitude of Sirk, revelling in the banal and vulgar in terms of taste (flowered wallpaper and knick knacks abound in Mother K.'s apartment); he makes Brechtian use of awkward camera positioning to alienate, shooting not from within the action, but as an observer so that his audience will be responsible for creating its own realism; like Godard, he favors a fade-out to black between shots, allowing his viewer a space to fantasize within the action. The total result, however, is Fassbinder's own. The overall feeling he evokes is simple, clean-cut and slow-paced, but enough shots identifying the artifice or the absurd are cut-in to indicate Fassbinder's love of camp as well. Mother K.'s daughter is seen almost exclusively through mirrors, applying lipstick, mascara, brushing her hair back in the mirror or a car floating eerily through blue space. Traditionally in cinema such mirror shots lay bare the unconscious bourgeois fantasies of the proletariat. Fassbinder understands this and makes exceptional use of the image to emphasize his belief that "All classes betray their own character and favor the next higher. That's why we can wait a very long time for a real revolution in this world."

Fassbinder has criticized Godard's post 'Weekend', post-May '68 films for being too didactic and for alienating their audiences. Such is certainly the case, but Godard is not interested in reaching a broad, but a select, audience. He does not want to point out injustices but is interested in showing specifically how change can be effected. His politics must be uncompromising. Fassbinder, on the other hand, is only interested in citing in justices. He compromises his ideology in order to please a large audience. His mistake is in seeing film as a medium for reaching the middle-aged proletariat masses. Fassbinder expects these people to create their own radical realism. Ultimately he is too optimistic about the breadth of his viewing public and too pessimistic about revolutionary methods.