Colour, 1970, 88m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Michael Fengler / Starring Kurt Raab, Lilith Ungerer, Irm Herrmann, Lilo Pempeit, Hanna Schygulla / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC)

The blackest of comedies and most despairing of dramas, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?) is often cited as the first real Fassbinder masterpiece. Essentially a slice of life portrayal of average family man Herr R. (Raab), the film walks through a succession of seemingly mundane events in which he lingers outside various social circles. First seen tagging with some joking co-workers, he never really connects with his wife (Ungerer) or child, while former schoolfriends, neighbors, and colleagues go about their trivial business, leaving his inner compulsion for order and control increasingly irritated. Eventually his frustrations surface, calmly but horrifically, in a violent outburst that closes the film on a particularly grim note.

A relentless craftsman already fully in control of his cinematic voice, the 25-year-old Fassbinder etches the all-too-familiar events of Herr R. with a startling dramatic precision, captured with a casual, realistic filmic approach leagues away from the colorful, stylized melodramas which formed the latter stages of his career. An actor who manages to evoke uneasiness simply by sitting at a table, Raab is the perfect choice as the protagonist; interestingly, he would run amok far more dramatically six years later as the lead in Fassbinder's Satan's Brew, which is basically a sick-joke remake of this film. Future Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla also pops up in a nice supporting bit as a school friend, and her warm, engaging presence is already a standout. Interestingly, Fassbinder chose to designate co-writing and co-directing credit to his friend, Michael Fengler, a status also carried over to their TV film the same year, The Niklashausen Journey. Most disturbingly, Fengler's son, Amadeus, plays Herr R.'s son without credit.

A key Fassbinder film held off long after the major flood of his masterworks onto DVD, Herr R. gets a welcome presentation with Fantoma's excellent new digital transfer, maintaining the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (apparently shot in 16mm) and looking much fresher than past video versions. The Dogme movement comparison on the sleeve is appropriate, as the film is flooded with bright, natural lighting and hard-edged exteriors that look especially crisp and striking here, coupled with Fassbinder's choice to shoot most of the film in detached medium shots. Note that the opening credits run very tight against the edges of the frame, so some cropping may be visible depending on your monitor's settings. Audio is presented in sharp German mono with optional English subtitles. The biggest extra is a 1992 video interview with regular Fassbinder cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann (later destined for such Hollywood fare as Deep Impact and the astonishing Color of Night), who talks about his collaborations with the tempestuos but undeniably brilliant filmmaker during the early stages of their careers together. Fassbinder scholar James Clark also contributes a nice set of liner notes exploring the various themes and questions explored by the film. (Too bad Fantoma couldn't also snag the wild, parodic 2004 short film, "Why Does Herr V. Run Amok?;" it would have made a great extra!)

Colour, 1978, 124m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

One of Fassbinder's grimmest films, In a Year of 13 Moons takes its title from a period in which abnormal lunar activity results in rampant misery and misfortunate. Since this concept is relayed in an opening crawl as our transgendered hero/heroine, Elvira (Spengler), is pummeled in a Frankfurt park by some thugs, you know right away it's going to be a bumpy ride. Formerly known as Erwin, Elvira decided to switch sexes in Casablanca after one unrequited love object, Anton (Gottfried John), made an offhanded comment, "Too bad you're not a girl." Of course, Erwin's drastic response proves to be a problematic course of action, not least of all for his ex-wife. Elvira befriends a prostitute, Zora (Caven), whom she escorts to her previous place of a employment, a slaughterhouse (shown in lingering, excruciating detail). She walks back through the stages of her life and eventually returns to Anton, seen in one of Fassbinder's oddest set pieces performing an impromptu dance routine with his coworkers. Not surprisingly, it all ends with tragedy and irony in equal measures.

Pushing his penchant for melodrama to its most unsparing, stripped-down extremes, Fassbinder seemed determined with this film to swerve as far away as possible from the commercial success of films like The Marriage of Maria Braun. His ongoing personal issues and recent tragedies (including the death of his ex) have been cited as large contributions to this film's inception, and the result certainly isn't a happy one. As the center of the film, Spengler gives an excellent, anguished performance; his haunted face is often seen reflected in mirrors (often several at a time) and even fractured into segments in one of the film's most arresting images. Performing cinematography chores himself. Fassbinder conjures up some visually intriguing moments by framing Elvira inside trendy bar decor, against modern architecture, and from a distance within vast, antiseptic rooms, conveying the impression of a soul enclosed by its own ill-advised, emotional choices.

Fantoma's special edition is the most elaborate of their Fassbinder releases to date, beginning with an admiring video introduction from director Richard Linklater (School of Rock). Julianne Lorenz, Fassbinder's editor and longtime friend, contributes both a video interview and audio commentary explaining the circumstances of the film's genesis and its unique status as the director's most personal, hands-on film. Director Werner Schroeder appears for a conversational appraisal (entitled "Love and Despair"), while writer Robert Kolker contributes some incisive liner notes. The transfer looks very good throughout, though the film often has a dark, intentionally grimy look in many interior scenes. The 1.78:1 framing looks okay but a little tight at times; when played back on one 16x9 monitor, the credits skirted off the top and bottom of the screen, but on another set they barely stayed within frame (similar to the Criterion BRD trilogy). In any case, it looks much better than the old New Yorker tape and is an essential part of a Fassbinder collection. Just don't make it your first foray into his work, or you might feel too dejected to come back again!

Colour, 1974, 115m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Margit Carstensen, Karlheinz Böhm / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC)

Many fledgling movie watchers have become intimidated by the name Fassbinder, which has become associated (not quite accurately) with depressing, angst-ridden character studies. For newcomers, one great place to start would be this unheralded gem, a jet-black, thoroughly depraved comedy of manners crossed with a domestic, Gaslight-style thriller, shot through with incredible sleaze and sadism. A head-spinning precursor to stylized trash cinema classics like Wild Things and Secretary, this study in marriage gone very, very wrong is nominally based on "concepts" from a Cornell Woolrich story ("For the Rest of Her Life"), mainly its ending. However, while Hitchcock and Truffaut successfully shoehorned Woolrich into their own palatable brand of internationally accepted entertainment, Fassbinder runs mad with the author's misanthropic tone and pushes it into even blacker territory than the cranky mystery novelist could have imagined.

We first see our title character (played by gaunt Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen) vacationing in Rome with her father (Mark of the Devil's Adrien Hoven), a nasty piece of work who enjoys belitting her and engaging in psychological mind games. Still a virgin even in middle age, Martha is startled to find an Arab (Ali's El Hedi ben Salem) sent up to her room, apparently as a sexual favor from the conceirge; she sends him away, afraid of rousing her father's ire. Soon after, daddy suddenly drops dead on the Spanish Steps... but Martha doesn't seem remotely upset until moments later, when the scheming Arab shows up and makes off with her purse. Outside the German embassy, she locks eyes with another tourist, construction magnate Helmut Salomon (Peeping Tom's Karlheinz Böhm) during a stunning circular tracking shot that "freezes" time years before The Matrix tried the same trick. Back home, Martha and Helmut cross paths again at a swanky dinner party where her irritable, deeply conservative mother passes out from a tranquilizer overdose while Helmut picks up Martha with these can't-miss pick-up lines: "You aren't that pretty. And you seem like you might smell." Naturally the two fall in love on the spot, so he drags Martha to a carnival and forces her to ride a rollercoaster. Afterwards while she's puking in the bushes, he propses marriage (a scene only topped decades later in Killing Me Softly) and breaks the news to mom, who responds by downing a glassful of sleeping pills. "She has a right to die," Helmut explains while forcing himself on Martha right next to mom's rapidly expiring body. Fortunately he calls the paramedics at the last second so mom can attend the wedding ("Everyone seemed so happy, I don't think they even noticed the medical attendants," Martha gushes). Helmut sweeps Martha away to an estate where she's forbidden to smoke (except outside on a plant-filled veranda), and he even sends in a resignation letter for her librarian job without telling her. Despite his abusive behavior, Martha refuses to admit that anything's wrong with her beloved, even when seeking help from friends. However, Helmut's sadistic tendencies spin rapidly out of control, leading Martha to believe that he might be capable of killing her.

Ah, where to begin? Next to the genuinely lunatic Satan's Brew, this is Fassbinder at his wildest, funniest, and most openly passionate about other films. Martha's home address on "Douglas Sirk Street" is an early clue, and the film piles up with visual and verbal references to Hollywood films; in the one of the nastiest momenets, Fassbinder tweaks the famous sunburned lovemaking scenario from Two for the Road into a ghastly marital rape. It's hard to take all the cruelty seriously, though, especially when Böhm and Carstensen are constantly clutching, embracing, and striking dramatic poses while absurd events are unfolding around them, especially a third act scene involving a cat that will have animal lovers running for the exits. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus really pulls out the stops here, providing one incredible image after another coupled with fluid camerawork and Fassbinder's typically impeccable sense for decor and lighting. This is really an E.C. Comics story for adults, right down to the icy, sucker punch ending that's wholly appropriate and deeply unforgiving. If you want a nice, warm story about compassionate people, go somewhere else; if you're looking for a wonderfully sick joke of a film that can still pass for respectable foreign cinema, look no further.

Though shot for German television, Martha is a visual feast in every respect and presented wonderfully on Fantoma's DVD. Previous VHS editions gave no indication of the marvelous color and art direction details on display here; mastered at American Zoetrope, the image looks pin-sharp throughout with excellent color fidelity. The German audio has optional English subtitles and sounds fine. The only big extra is Fassbinder in Hollywood, a 54-minute shot-on-video documentary about Fassbinder's collaborators who went on to work in the United States. Though rough around the edges, it's a fun sideways look at the Fassbinder influence, beginning with director Ulli Lommel cruising through L.A. and stopping to visit a Santa Monica theatrical troupe specializing in scandalous, nudity-filled Fassbinder plays. Lommel also talks about his first meeting with Fassbinder when they tossed notes at each other to set up a movie expedition to see A Bullet for the General. Ballhaus turns up as well to talk about his remembrances of the director, along with the great Hanna Schygulla and Wim Wenders; it's a breezy, interesting hour well spent, though not as meaty or incisive as the documentaries in Criterion's set. (It sure beats out most of Wellspring's discs, though.) The packaging comes with liner notes by Midnight Movies' Jonathan Rosenbaum, who mounts an elegant defense of the film against Fassbinder's more respected and widely-seen work.



Colour, 1978, 120m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch


Colour, 1981, 113m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl


B&W, 1982, 104m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate / Criterion (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Finding a thematic link between many of Fassbinder's intensely personal films can be tricky, but this splendidly appointed four-disc set from Criterion ties together three of studies on postwar German culture. Dubbed the "BRD Trilogy" (that's "Bundesrepublik Deutschland," by the way), the films all focus on one strong woman building a life after the war; often combining comedy, tragedy, and eroticism within the same story, the films dovetail nicely with each other and form a sort of loose study in the director's evolving but always distinct style.

The most internationally famous of the three, The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun), stars his frequent muse Hanna Schygulla as the title character, a woman married during the turbulent final days of Allied bombing in Germany. Her soldier husband, Hermann (Klaus Löwitsch), is separated in the chaos after one day of wedded bliss and trots off to Russia; soon Maria is cozying up to American soldiers to learn her spouse's whereabouts. News of his death sends her into the arms of another man, a soldier named Bill (George Byrd) who falls in love with her. Unfortunately their liaison is interrupted by Hermann's unexpected return, which for results in Hermann being carted off to prison. Always resourceful, Maria goes to work earning money to have a comfortable life ready when he finally gets out. However, the temptations of power, money, and other men prove to be a strain on her loyalty, and her plan works out far differently than she had imagined.

Featuring a powerhouse lead performance and studied, well-composed camerawork, this remains one of the director's more accessible films; while the theme of emotional deadening and financial corruption might not sound like much fun, Fassbinder keeps the story moving along briskly with a wry sense of humour about our heroine's need to get along in a society where political winds shift on a daily basis. For the groundlings there's enough titillation in the form of Maria's amorous encounters over the years, but the sex really takes a backseat to the elaborate plot machinations which function as a satire on the corrupt development of Germany in the aftermath of war.

Substantially lighter, at least on the surface, is the wild fantasia of Lola, whose title immediately announces its intentions as a riff on Josef Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. Here our capitalistic siren, played by Barbara Sukowa (M. Butterfly), is a nightclub performer and whore in the service of wealthy, cheerfully decadent Schukert (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's Mario Adorf), with whom she has a child out of wedlock. Enter morally pure Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a building commissioner who threatens Schuckert's financial grip on the city. On a bet with her patron, Lola plays innocent and sets out to seduce Von Bohm, who falls in love with her. However, the interplay of emotions and money prove to be more complicated than either of them imagined.

Unlike its predecessor, there's nothing naturalistic about Lola at all. Shot through with glowing primary colors that make Dario Argento and Pedro Almodovar look restrained in comparison, this is a stylist's dream come true. Characters are constantly bathed in particular shades to emphasize their moral condition: Lola equals red, Von Bohm equals blue, and so on. Scene transitions are usually accomplished with elaborate dissolves in and out of focus, and the constant flow of cigarette smoke provides an appropriately gauzy visual texture. For some reason Sukowa remains one of the less internationally renowned actresses, which is a shame; she really cuts loose here with a magnetic performance, including one musical freak-out that gives Ann-Margret a run for her money. In a twisted sense, this is also one of Fassbinder's more cheerful films; the characters celebrate their corruption and infidelities, and as the seemingly incorruptible hero finds his scruples eroding with Lola's influence, the film closes on an ironic "happy" note whose consequences are left to be addressed in the viewer's mind.

The visual and thematic opposite of Lola, Veronika Voss finds its fallen heroine in a black-and-white Germany whose appearance resembles the glittering surfaces of a Von Sternberg film; unfortunately something is very rotten underneath. A former UFA cinema star, Veronika (Rosel Zech) runs into reporter Robert (Hilmar Thate) during a rainstorm and, after a reluctant bus ride, accompanies him home for a halfhearted tryst. Her star rapidly falling, Veronika has not fared well since the war and, even worse, has become addicted to morphine thanks to the questionable medical practices of her physician, Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer). Unfortunately Veronika's attempts at a comeback do not fare well, and Robert's earnest quest to end the corrupt doctor's plans also encounters a few nasty snags.

While these films could most obviously be read as a parallel to the experience of postwar Germany epitomized as three women (or, if you prefer, one woman under three different names), they could also easily be read as a sardonic commentary on the role of success and celebrity in a more disillusioned era. The first film follows a rise to power, a capitalist climb with an ultimate disillusionment; the second depicts the height of excess and success, an orgy of color and corruption; the third, sapped of color, casts a mirror back at the past and follows the decline of fame and fortune. Of course, the parallels to Fassbinder himself are unmistakable; Maria Braun found him at the peak of critical acclaim, a rising force in the film world with a stable of actors. Lola finds indulging in gleeful directorial excess of the highest order, like Douglas Sirk on acid. By the time of Veronika Voss, his penultimate film, his drug addiction was about to claim his life. Each film also offers the opportunity to witness the Fassbinder crew at various stages, particularly composer Peer Raben; his triptych of scores represents a beautiful contrast in styles, integrating Germany's music hall and theatrical heritage into a beautiful group of orchestral scores.

All three transfers look magnificent, framed at 1.66:1 with anamoprhic enhancement. Playback in 16:9 (which tends to mask off to 1.78:1 on many monitors) may result in some peculiar framing during the opening credits for each film; Fassbinder uses the odd device of repeating the names numerous times across the screen in linear strips, with portions of information deliberately running off the screen. Naturally Lola is the most dramatic piece of the set; its ultra-gaudy colors look magnificent and certainly surpass the smeary VHS transfers found in Europe. (Inexplicably, this is the film's first-ever appearance on American video.)

Each disc comes with its own audio commentary featuring different participants. Maria Braun finds cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and director Wim Wenders discussing the film in great detail; a few bits of Ballhaus' talk cover information from his earlier Whity commentary, but for the most part this is a fresh and new experience. Also included are video interviews with Schygulla (who looks great and fondly recalls her projects with the extremely prolific director) and Fassbinder scholar Eric Rentschler, who puts the film in context within the volatile chronology of the filmmaker's life. For Lola, commentary duties go to Fassbinder biographer and friend Christian Braad Thomsen; it's an extremely factual and structured talk, with very few conversational asides, and offers some good insights into the visual construction of the film despite Thomsen's extremely strong accent. (This commentary works best in separate chunks than a continuous experience.) Sukowa turns up for a welcome video interview in which she charts the elaborate process of how she came to work for Fassbinder in Berlin Alexanderplatz and how Lola came to be. Fassbinder co-writer Peter Märthesheimer appears for a separate video interview, explaining his own collaborative experiences. Veronika Voss features a commentary with Fassbinder scholar (how many are there anyway?) Tony Rayns, who covers the latter stages of the director's life and discusses the various cultural influences on the film. A fine companion piece to the commentary (best viewed afterwards) is a one-hour documentary, Dance with Death (Tanz mit dem Tod), about the life of UFA actress Sybille Schmitz (Vampyr), whose tragic life was more or less the inspiration for this film. Video conversations with Zech and editor Juliane Lorenz also cover the making of the film, focusing on how the amazing period look and feel was created through performance and pacing.

If that wasn't enough, a fourth disc of supplements is also included. The 90-minute I Don't Just Want You to Love Me is an astoundingly rich documentary covering all things Fassbinder from his scrappy early days through his lavish final works. Most of the more unsavory aspects of his life are acknowledged but not dwelled upon, with his colleagues offering a mostly positive perspective on a man who was either blazingly brilliant or impossible to be around, depending on his mood. The man himself appears in a rare 45-minute German TV interview for Life Stories; apparently he was good friends with the interviewer and agreed to discuss his creative process in far more depth than usual. More video interviews are included with Fassbinder cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger (whose work on Veronika Voss is never less than breathtaking), Fassbinder scholar Laurence Kardish (yes, another one!), and editor Juliane Lorenz. Finally, each film's theatrical trailer is included; all of them are in very good shape, and the promo for Maria Braun is the most striking thanks to some fancy explosion-style transition effects. Set aside a few days for this one; the time spent is well worth it.

Colour, 1974, 93m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem / Criterion (US R1 NTSC)

Decades before Todd Haynes dissected '50s soaper diety Douglas Sirk in Far from Heaven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder had already done the trick for European cinema with several of his melodramatic character studies. The most obvious Sirkian project is clearly Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), a dazzling reinterpreation of All That Heaven Allows which throws in age and racial differences onto the already volatile story of love ripped apart by class divisions.

Fassbinder's most unorthodox leading lady, Brigitte Mira, takes center stage as Emmi Kurowski, an aging cleaning woman with two grown children. She begins an affair with Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a much younger Arab whose fractured German proves to be only one of his traits which others find unacceptable. Convinced they are in love, Emmi and Ali decide to get married, much to the distress of her friends and family. Much drama and tragedy ensues.

Despite their reputation as austere and often difficult to enjoy, Fassbinder's films are actually quite engaging and rewarding as long as one doesn't necessarily expect a traditional Hollywood ending. One of his most accessible films, Ali benefits from extremely rich and realistic characters whose plight elicits a number of powerful emotional responses. The spectacular two lead performances are the greatest assets; amazingly, Mira would go on to nearly equal her work here one year later in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. As usual Fassbinder's use of the camera to frame his characters and their striking, angular environments is without peer, and here we really see him developing the dynamic, stylized use of color which would explode in such later films as Lola and Querelle. Whether seen as a tearjerker, social statement, or artistic experiment, Fassbinder's masterpiece works perfectly and remains sadly relevant, regardless of the passage of time or the country of origin.

Criterion's beautiful presentation ranks with the best of the much-needed Fassbinder restorations. Colors are rock solid and beautifully saturated; the red-lit Arab bar where Emmi and Ali repeatedly return to dance could pass as a set from Dario Argento's Suspiria. Detail is exceptionally clear and crisp, with no digital problems in sight. The optional English subtitles are well translatead and always legible. As with most Fassbinder titles, this was shot at the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1 but, for widescreen TV owners who prefer filling up their frame, this blows up to 1.78:1 quite nicely. Criterion's double-disc set pays lavish tribute to this landmark film; the first disc contains the film along with the original German trailer. Disc two contains a wholly appropriate interview with Haynes, who discusses his film school exposure to Sirk, outlines the Sirk influence on both quasi-remakes, and defends a genre once spat upon by cineastes. A 2003 short film entitled "Angst isst Seele auf" (a more grammatically correct version of the film's title) takes place entirely from the point of view of a dark-skinned Arab in Germany, encountering violent neo-Nazis before stepping into a live theatrical production of Ali with Mira reprising her role. The short is presented in anamorphic widescreen, framed at 1.78:1. Mira also turns up for a new 22-minute video interview and comes across as extremely sharp and witty; she makes for charming, candid company and discusses how Fassbinder's approach revolutionized her acting career. Longtime Fassbinder editor Thea Eymèsz also appears for a separate interview, running 21 minutes, in which she discusses the professional working relationship she cultivated with the director and traces how his approach evolved over time before his premature death. "Signs of Vigourous Life: New German Cinema" is a 32-minute BBC program from 1976 which offers an overview of the rising directorial talents in Germany; Fassbinder doesn't really enter the picture until halfway through and is covered mainly through stills and second hand narration, while Werner Herzog is interviewed and receives the lion's share of screen time. The final extra is a snippet from Fassbinder's earlier The American Soldier, in which a character quickly relates the story of Emmi and Ali with a far more brutal conclusion than the one Fassbinder ultimately chose.

Color, 1982, 108m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero / Columbia (US R1 NTSC), Second Sight (UK R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Four years after escaping from both a Turkish prison and a potential change of sexual orientation in the shower room in Midnight Express, late actor Brad Davis went over the edge in Querelle, the last film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died of a drug overdose before the film's US premiere. The director's most blatantly homoerotic work (to put it mildly), Querelle throws aside the touchy gay politics of realistic studies like Fox and His Friends in favor of what can only be described as a hellish, horny mixture of Heironymous Bosch and Kwaidan. Derived more or less from a novel by revered thief/poet/novelist Jean Genet (who also inspired Poison and The Balcony), the fractured story follows the misadventures of Querelle (Davis), a sexually undecided sailor who winds up at a port in Brest and encounters a variety of colorful characters, including his brother, Robert (Hanno Pöschl), who is having an affair with saloon owner and singer Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Meanwhile her burly black husband, Nono (Günther Kaufmann), sets his sights on Querelle, whose lust is temporarily distracted when he impulsively knifes a fellow sailor to death and diverts the blame to Gil (Pöschl with different facial hair), a murderous criminal with whom Querelle begins to fall in love. Meanwhile Querelle's commanding officer, Seblon (Franco Nero), lusts from afar and begins devising his own agenda.

Upon its release, Querelle was critically scorned (especially in the US) for its jolting and deliberately artificial storytelling technique, which regularly punctuates the action with rambling voiceovers and onscreen quotations from Genet and other seemingly random sources. Davis' performance deliberately turns Querelle into a blank slate upon which the other characters project their desires; the crafty, intense charm which made him famous is transformed here into a casually voracious presence, whether engaging in choreographed knife and fist fights or lolling around in a different character's bed every night. While Nero has virtually nothing to do but gaze intensely from afar, Moreau fares better (in her second Genet adaptation after the underrated and startling Mademoiselle) thanks to her ability to give poignancy to even the silliest lines and lyrics. The studio sets used to represent Brest are a visual feast of blazing oranges, reds, and yellows, which can make the whole experience queasy after a while but certainly give the film a distinctive, unforgettable look. From the phallic statue formations to the corruptively ripe saloon interiors, this is Fassbinder in full throttle, choking the screen with as much overstuffed excess as he can possibly muster.

For those unfortunate enough to suffer through Columbia's old pan and scan VHS transfer, Querelle on DVD will look like a different film entirely. Fassbinder uses the entire scope frame to experiment with bizarre angles, distorting lenses, and deeply layered compositions and tableux, while the saturated colors which bleed all over the screen on videotape look more refined and tolerable here. The anamorphic transfer provided by Gaumont most likely comes from a PAL source, and for some reason in 16:9 playback the image looked a bit coarse and noisy (as if suffering from excessive digital noise reduction), while on another widescreen monitor it looked perfectly smooth and glossy. If it looks a little odd on your television, you might want to try another. The end titles sport a Dolby Stereo tag, though the film is presented in mono in both English and French. Davis, Moreau, and Nero provide their own voices, while virtually all of the other actors are very artificially dubbed in a manner that may cause even diehard Italian horror fans to bristle with annoyance. The alternate French track (which can be played with optional English, Spanish, or French subtitles) is a little easier on the ears, but it also suppresses or eliminates altogether most of the sound effects and music. (The UK disc from Second Sight is letterboxed but only retains the English dubbed option.) This unrated edition also runs about two minutes longer than the US edition; while there's still virtually no nudity in the film per se, a few sequences (such as Davis' forced manual stimulation of another sailor at knifepoint) are more explicit and may not have been faked. Inexplicably, the US disc's only supplements are trailers for The Opposite of Sex and sex, lies and videotape, which might give you an idea of where the marketing people are coming from.

Color, 1971, 84m. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer / Fantoma (US R1 NTSC)

Though best known for his visually florid, emotionally overwrought warscapes like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Marriage of Maria Braun, the prolific and self-destructive Rainer Werner Fassbinder began his career with low key, downbeat portraits in kitchen sink realism like Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and The Gods of the Plague, whose titles give a fairly clear idea of their emotional timbre. In this respect, Pioneers in Ingolstadt is a pivotal work, sandwiched in between these two periods and offering a sort of backward glance at the style he was soon to leave behind.

Over the credits we witness the processional arrival of a group of military engineers and laborers into the small town of Ingolstadt, where the citizens await the construction of bridge which will unite it more directly with the rest of the country. The women in particular take a liking to the new male arrivals, with young Berta (Hanna Schygulla) taking a particular liking to the handsome Karl (Harry Baer). Meanwhile the sole black soldier, Max (Günther Kaufmann), becomes the object of desire for more than a few women. Soon simple evenings spent at the local taverns become fraught with sexual interplay and suspicion, leaving the town marked forever in the name of progress.

An emotionally subdued work by Fassbinder standards, Pioneers could almost pass for a small scale, early Werner Herzog film instead. Most of the sex takes place offscreen and remains confined to longing looks and erotically charged discussions on benches; the joy, of course, comes instead from watching the director's regular stable of performers at their height. As usual Schygulla steals the show and proves her worth as one of international cinema's greatest performers; she could simply file her nails for 90 minutes and make the experience fascinating.

Considering it has almost been completely forgotten in light of Fassbinder's later films, Pioneers seems to have been given a second lease on life via the magic of DVD. No one will be likely to peg the film a masterpiece, but it's exceptionally direct and finely tuned from start to finish, making it a fascinating experience for those with an adventurous taste for moviegoing. As with most of Fassbinder's early, low budget efforts, the image quality varies wildly depending on the film stock and lighting at hand, made all the more erratic by the fact this was evidently lensed in 16mm and intended for German television. DVD fanatics may bristle during the opening credits, in which the optical processing necessary to layer the titles has rendered the image with a strong blanket of haze and grain. However, things improve about five minutes in once we switch indoors, and from there onward the material is pleasantly colorful and clean. The optional yellow English subtitles move at a good speed and are well articulated throughout. The rest of the extras are understandably limited, consisting of a Fassbinder filmography and excellent, thorough liner notes by Chuck Stephens. For an interesting comparison at just how much Fassbinder's available means increased within the span of less than one year, take a look (review below) at Fantoma's DVD of Whity (issued later in 1971), a glossy, Cinemascope riot of boisterous colors and articificial sets. Even for those who dislike Fassbinder's work, there's no denying that his versatility as an artist could be astonishing.

Color, 1971, 95 mins. / Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder / Starring Günther Kaufmann, Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Bär, Ulli Lommel / Music by Peer Raben / Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus

Format: DVD - Fantoma (MSRP $29.95) / Letterboxed (2.35:1) / Dolby Digital Mono

In his relatively brief lifespan, controversial and undeniably gifted director Rainer Werner Fassbinder churned out over forty films before overdosing in 1982, and his work managed to hit the mark more often than not. He started out in the '60s doing gritty "slice of life" films like Gods of the Plague, none of which were especially cheerful. However, beginning with the rarely seen musical western Whity, he turned towards a more stylized, formal approach which emphasized color, set design, absurd plot twists, and of course, melodrama. Rarely screened outside Germany, Whity nevertheless caught on as a familiar title among the art house crowd, particularly after Fassbinder distilled its tumultuous production history into the story of another film, Beware of a Holy Whore.

Set in the late 1800s, this perverse epic takes place in the Southwestern household of Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell, the former Bulldog Drummond) and his highly disturbed family. Ben's trophy wife, the blonde Katherine (Katrin Schaake), sleeps with almost anything that moves, while his sons are either outrageously gay (Ulli Lommel) or mentally handicapped (Harry Bär). Each family member is fixated in a different way on Whity (Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder's occasional lover and regular actor), the mulatto servant who tends to their pathetic needs. Whity's mother (Elaine Baker) is content to be a stereotypical "mammy" figure, but Whity has other plans, mostly involving his love for the sultry saloon singer, Hanna (the always magnificent Hanna Schygulla). After Ben reads his will aloud to the family (the film's most astounding scene), each member of the clan's demands on Whity escalate out of control to a murderous finale.

So bizarre that it can't even really be considered offensive, Whity twists the entire notion of American race relations and western cliches to create something entirely unearthly. The white cast members all sport bleached ivory make up, giving them the appearance of walking corpses, while Whity's mother sports a traditional and often alarming blackface. Whity himself and Hanna retain their natural skin tones, as do a few supporting characters (including R.W. himself in an amusing uncredited bit as a gunslinging barfly). Filmed on the same Spanish sets used for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, this is truly an amazing looking film, saturated with vibrant colors even in the darkest scenes, and the cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (who later worked with Scorsese, Coppolla, and many others) is never less than masterful. The actors do what they can under the circumstances, considering each character is insane and on edge in almost every scene.

While Fantoma had understandably flawed source materials to work with for their maiden effort, Jodorowsky's Fando and Lis, they had no such difficulties here. Whity is simply one of the most startling color transfers to DVD so far, with hues so vibrant they put many MGM musicals to shame. The slow pacing of the film itself may not be to everyone's taste, but from a technical aspect, this disc is a stunner. The anamorphic image preserves the original Cinemascope framing, which lends an appropriate visually expansive flavor to this tawdry tale. The optional English subtitles are easily legible and synched well with the dialogue, though it appears that at least several portions of the film (Randell's scenes in particular) were shot in English and later dubbed into German. Several songs are also presented with British singers overdubbing the actors, resulting in a very odd and often incongruous soundtrack. However, the audio itself is very clear and does a fine job of showcasing the melancholy music score by the great Peer Raben. Ballhaus and Lommel (who later turned director with films like The Boogeyman) provide a fascinating audio commentary track which covers not only this film but the entire experience of working with Fassbinder. They remain appropriately sketchy about some of the more sordid, operatic aspects of the director's working patterns, but anyone interested should find plenty to chew on here. They also make some funny observations along the way, such as Lommel's comments during his character's seduction of Whity while dressed up in slinky Victoria's Secret undies.

Mondo Digital ReviewsMondo Digital LinksMondo Digital