Gateway Movies offers ways to begin exploring directors, genres and topics in film by examining a few streaming movies.
For a binge-watching challenge, look to the ultimate binge filmmaker. The German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in 1982 at age 37, yet worked at a pace that allowed him to complete more than 40 features.
His signature is instantly recognizable, but it resists easy description. His films — frequently populated by a regular company that included Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem and Fassbinder himself — can seem cerebral and abrasive even as they push the conventions of melodrama to absurd, moving extremes. Many of his greatest works, like “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” test their characters’ capacities for love and cruelty.
Fassbinder’s prolificacy makes getting started a daunting task. One fun way in is to stack him against the émigré Hollywood legends he clearly revered — directors like Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder and Josef von Sternberg. Sirk, the master of the self-deconstructing 1950s women’s picture, loomed particularly large as an influence.
But the Austrian-born, mainly American-raised von Sternberg, whose enduring collaboration with Marlene Dietrich (in films like “Dishonored” and “The Scarlet Empress”) helped make her a star, was also a kindred spirit. He and Fassbinder were both masters of style and artifice, intellectual filmmakers unafraid to embrace popular forms. Fassbinder drew attention to those affinities in “Lola” (1981), which put its own spin on a von Sternberg classic, “The Blue Angel” (1930).
The best way to approach any von Sternberg film is to look, first, to the surfaces — ornate, seamy or otherwise. As Dave Kehr explained in The New York Times 10 years ago, for von Sternberg, “plots were at most a structuring device, a way of ordering elusive emotions, hazy atmospheres and almost abstract images.” According to Fassbinder’s associate and biographer Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder particularly admired von Sternberg’s aestheticized use of lighting.
“The Blue Angel,” von Sternberg’s first collaboration with Dietrich and the only one made in Germany, follows a protagonist driven by pure impulse as he is pulled into the gutter of the Weimar Republic and ultimately undone by his naïveté.
Emil Jannings stars as Immanuel Rath, “a professor at the local college,” as he pretentiously introduces himself, expecting others to be impressed. (Few are; his students’ nickname for him is Professor Unrat, meaning “garbage.”) A habitual scold, he lives for formality and fustiness, in jarring contrast to others around him, who seem to embrace the lusts and harsh social realities that he tunes out. When he solemnly puzzles over a pet bird that has died, his maid indifferently tosses it into a furnace.
Rath’s road to ruination begins when he ventures to a nightclub, the Blue Angel, that he believes has been corrupting his students. (In a tactile touch typical of von Sternberg, the nightclub has an elaborate seafaring theme, so that Rath has to tangle his way through fishnet curtains to enter.)
But soon he himself becomes smitten with Lola-Lola (Dietrich), a cabaret singer and pinup girl. Who wouldn’t, especially when, on a subsequent visit, the M.C. theatrically declares Rath a guest of honor and gives him a prime balcony seat for Dietrich’s rendition of “Falling in Love Again”? (“The Blue Angel” was shot simultaneously in German- and English-language versions; watch the German-language one from Kino, which is widely acknowledged as superior.)
An early talkie, “The Blue Angel” has moments that play like a silent film: There’s a breathtaking sequence depicting the passage of time, when Rath accidentally burns through a torn-off calendar page, and a series of dissolves proceeds through subsequent burning calendar pages to bring us forward several years. Jannings was also one of the great silent-screen muggers, and von Sternberg takes full advantage of his exaggerated expressions as Rath’s recklessness in pursuing Lola leads to the end of his teaching career, penury and ultimately humiliation on the vaudeville stage.
Fassbinder’s “Lola” updates von Sternberg’s template for a new context. The story takes place in West Germany in the 1950s — it’s part of a trilogy set during the postwar rebuilding period known as the economic miracle — and the moralist is not a professor but the new building commissioner in a small city, Mr. von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). A model of punctiliousness and a font of jejune humor, he is appalled by the clutter his predecessor left. Von Bohm tells his secretary to always arrive one minute before he does at 8 a.m. He is so innocent he even, upon experiencing the wonders of a new television, mistakes a test pattern for a broadcast.
And, of course, he has no knowledge of the local culture of corruption and self-dealing, which has enriched Schuckert (Mario Adorf), the city’s biggest building contractor — a man who embraces being characterized as a vulture and who expects von Bohm to rubber-stamp his plans.
Von Bohm will, true to the earlier film, fall for a cabaret singer — here, explicitly a prostitute at a high-class brothel — with the stage name Lola (Barbara Sukowa), but the Fassbinder twist is to give their courtship a transactional dimension, befitting the movie’s backdrop of unchecked capitalism. Lola, who has a daughter with Schuckert, plots to catch von Bohm’s eye by dressing up in pearls and feigning an interest in church hymns and East Asian art. His humiliation will be in finding out who she really is and, moreover, seeing the city with its metaphorical pants down when he finally visits the club and whorehouse that the male residents frequent.
Fassbinder uses various distancing devices to simultaneously heighten and comment on the proceedings, from the outrageously stylized use of primary and pastel colors and jarring camera movements to the discordant notes of the score and the way ambient sounds like the clack-clack of a typewriter punctuate the action. It’s involving as a melodrama and a meta-melodrama — and like “The Blue Angel,” a study in how people take advantage of one another, at once exploiting and acting on all-too-human needs.