Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1936 novel ...
Double Trouble: Cannes Journal, Entry Five
Charles H. Meyer | May 18, 2011 | Comments 0
Among the twenty titles comprising this year’s Cannes Classics is the 1978 film “Despair,” the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1936 novel.
The film tells the story of Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde), a Berlin chocolate factory owner whose dimwitted, voluptuous blonde wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol), is carrying on a flagrant affair with her cousin, a ridiculous, untalented painter named Ardalion (Volker Spengler). While making love to Lydia one evening, Hermann hallucinates a doppelganger staring back at him. As these visions recur, he begins to fear that he is suffering from a split personality disorder. But fear soon gives way to curiosity, and then to fascination, and finally to a foolhardy scheme to commit “the perfect murder” when Hermann meets Felix Weber (Klaus Löwitsch), a working-class drifter whom he takes to be his exact double, but to whom he actually bears little if any resemblance. After a planned merger with another chocolate factory collapses, Hermann takes out a life insurance policy with the intention of dressing Weber as himself and then killing him, thereby faking his own death and reaping a rich reward.
“Despair” is as beautiful as any Fassbinder film I have ever seen, an impression partly due to the immaculate restoration presented the other night at La Salle du Soixantième, but primarily due to the superb camerawork by Michael Ballhaus and the elegant art deco interiors by Rolf Zehetbauer, winner of an Academy Award six years earlier for his production design on Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.” Zehetbauer could not have been a more fitting choice because “Despair,” like “Cabaret” is set in the decadent atmosphere of Weimar-era Berlin.
Visually, “Despair” is thoroughly engrossing because Fassbinder choreographed a constant interplay between the changing positions of the camera and those of the actors. The complex blocking of the actors and the variety of camera setups and movements produce a kind of Italian Futurist energizing of space—an effect punctuated by our frequent glimpses of an Italian Futurist canvas hanging on one of the walls of the Hermanns’ apartment. Almost every shot is a dynamic masterpiece of composition that emphasizes and/or gives symbolic expression to the shifting relationships among the characters and to the deterioration of Hermann’s mental and emotional condition.
The opening scene is a perfect example. Although the mood is light and the atmosphere romantic, the ostensible intimacy between Hermann and Lydia as they prepare to make love is undermined, first by the distance that separates them as they converse between rooms, and then by the backwards retreat of the camera and the stark contrast between their respective states of dress as she disrobes completely and he buttons up his jacket before embracing her.
Fassbinder’s style is so powerful that it constantly threatens to overwhelm the actors’ performances. Even an actor as skilled as Bogarde—widely considered to be in peak form in this film—cannot help but find himself in the director’s shadow. But it is precisely the manic intensity with which Fassbinder’s authorial presence constantly risks crowding out Bogarde’s portrayal of Hermann that makes this film so tense, so taut, so imbued with such a dreadful, dizzying degree of madness. Thus, what in one light appears to be this film’s greatest weakness is revealed in another light to be its greatest strength.
Both “Despair” and Fassbinder’s 1976 film “I Only Want You to Love Me” will be released on DVD on June 7.
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