Thursday, February 21, 2008
The Merchant of Four Seasons
From the perspective of portraying inter-relationship conflicts, hypocrisy within relations, class consciousness and yes, love, Fassbinder's The merchant of four seasons is a dedicated study, a masterpiece. Even though Fassbinder was clearly influenced by Sirk's melodramas, nowhere does melodrama creep into this movie, and at times even if there is a hint of it, it is deliberate, with reason, and annuls any immediate relationship with the viewer.To all the added complexities, Fassbinder adds more, namely sadomasochistic and "racialized fetish", which must be addressed too.
Hans, the main character, can get easily lost in a crowd. He doesn't look significant, he appears ordinary. He is a street vendor selling fruits and vegetables. Hans has tried his hands at a few things with failure. He remains detested within his family, especially by his mother, who, in the opening scene wishes him dead. Hans, living with his wife and growing daughter, is thus a marooned character, surrounded, right from the beginning of his life with hostility and division. Hans, after drinking too much, descends into rage and assaults his wife Irmgard who runs to her in laws. There, Hans, on confronting her, gets a heart attack. They reconcile and at his wife's suggestion, employ help for their struggling business. The man turns out to be the wife's recent lover. Feeling complicit and trapped, she conspires to have him thrown out. Hans runs into his ex-foreign legion friend Harry, who becomes his new help. However, Hans descends into a drinking depressive and dies of a heart attack. Irmgard seals a new alliance with Harry, and the last titles roll on.
Usually, story outlines like the above, become caricatures of movies for they do not in any way reflect the reality of the real. Fassbinder, it is said, made the same movies always. However, that is true of every artist, for in each work, each separate work, a thread runs through, which can only be discerned by a reading of the complete oeuvre. The naive reader or the viewer, like the writer of this post, must also be equipped with certain tools to read a work of art, a movie or a novel. This involves not only the historical dimension of any work but also a knowledge of how such things sustain and are born, and perhaps an inkling of the native climate from where such things attain sustenance and thus life. It is obviously difficult to know all of this, a thing expected from a student of cinema or a professional literary critic or theorist and yet, the average viewer must seek to redefine the lens with which cinema, the important cinema of this kind can be viewed.
Hans is a tortured man, a reject in society and a pariah within his family. I thought his treatment at his mother's hands was a kind of double-bind, a schizophrenic communication. She wishes him dead, telling him that "the best ones die young" ( Hans has returned from Morocco) and when he succeeds in business, she claims that she could foresee that. He meets the same fate at his brother-in-law's hands and his wife too. Within his family, only his sister Anna ( played by the dazzling Hanna Schygulla, a goddess of German cinema) confronts the hypocrisy within the family, though she too in the moment of reckoning lets him down. Hans' wife is unfaithful and a manipulator, quickly seeking new frameworks, new structures, though in a way she is a sufferer too. She is a survivor, while Hans does not survive. Hans does not survive not because of them but because he cannot, because he is Hans.
The reigning framework of this movie is a disjointed few existences, which are so and do not just appear to be. However, they are representative of the society that breeds this hypocrisy. Hans, known to his wife, has his "own love of his life", who brings a few bright flowers to his graveside. She, in a scene of brilliance, strips for Hans and lies on the bed while Hans feels out of sorts. However, this naked body does not emanate eroticism of any sort. It appears broken and disjointed, as if temporarily pieced together. Hans is thus a perpetrator of and victim of a malaise, a malaise of the middle classes, with him being the underachieving sibling, the loser, the victim, the culprit, the sufferer. There are many times when he breaks down, when he cries and is sad. We are affected by him, but Fassbinder isolates that feeling in us and then redirects that towards the viewer, which makes the viewer uncomfortable.
This movie has many flashbacks, in no chronological order, a task that Fassbinder leaves for us to untangle. Harry and Hans have served together and whilst drinking, Hans calls Harry a pig. Harry answers by saying that "we are all pigs". In another flashback, Hans is in Morocco ( ?), tied to a tree, being lashed by a native man ( played by Salem of Fear eats the soul). I was struck by the anomaly of this lashing, for it is being observed by Harry from a distance, who only later on shoots Salem dead. In a brilliant essay ( discovered more by chance) Barbara Mennel writes about Masochistic fantasy and racialized fetish in Fassbinder's movies. In a scene of homoerotic dimension,
"the native role, or the colonized man's role is reversed, and it is Hans who is at the receiving end". She argues, tracing back to Fannon, that
"the fetish of colonial discourse- epidermal schema- is not, like the sexual fetish....a secret. Skin plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies. Thus, masochistic racialized staging is embodied in Salem, a role reversal is thus a masochistic fantasy". However, as in Fear eats the soul, this area needs to be explored further. It was evident in that movie that Ali was being fetishized, though any sadomasochistic element escaped me when I watched that movie.
Fassbinder wrote of the "exploibility of feelings, to produce in the viewer.....emotions, feelings and thoughts, which must combine to produce action, which is the true purpose of art". This movie, as Wim Wenders points out, reflects alienated subjectivity, disruptions. The whole of the colour schemes and camera work contribute towards this feeling ( I am not an expert by any means of this). However, it is easily understandable that his techniques are a social critique and yet nowhere, does he allow us to identify with the victim or the torturer. Hirschmuller as Hans is brilliant, understated and seething, as he dolefully looks out of his window, aware of many awarenesses, of his and his wife's infidelity, of haggling and buying and selling, possessing a certain knowledge, even of harmful drinking, which leads to his death eventually. Irm Hermann as his wife was a Fassbinder regular who also makes a brief appearance. Schygulla, bright beautiful has an important but short role.
The merchant of four seasons is a shining masterpiece, a jewel in Fassbinder's bright collection of cinematic treasures. I feel quite earnestly that it is my own shortcoming that doesn't allow me to understand more of what I saw. I also know that writing about a movie demands a craft that is different from say, writing about a novel. However, even Fassbinder might excuse this post.