Fassbinder’s debut feature is a stylish but spare gangster story that works in its own unusual way.
Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1969 | Germany | Crime/Drama | 89 mins | 1.78:1 | German
Not rated (likely to be NC16 for some sexual references, nudity and violence)
Cast: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, Hanna Schygulla
Plot: A small-time pimp Franz, who is torn between his mistress and Bruno the gangster sent after him by the syndicate that he has refused to join.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Source: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation
Subject Matter: Slightly Nihilistic
Narrative Style: Slightly Experimental/Elliptical
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Eclipse DVD)
While it wasn’t exactly a spectacular debut by any measure, Love Is Colder Than Death certainly did not merit the boos that greeted R.W. Fassbinder’s work when it made its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1969.
Unsurprisingly, Fassbinder wasn’t discouraged and continued working. As if to stick a middle finger up that audience’s collective ass, he made and released six more features in less than 24 months, and many, many more in the ensuing years, which made him arguably the most prolific German filmmaker who ever lived till his premature death in 1982 at age 37.
“I want to be free.”
Love Is Colder Than Death saw a spirited young filmmaker who was raring to go, trying new ways to tell a standard story, and exploring what the audiovisual medium could do. In a sense, he had absorbed and was not shy to proclaim his love for the French New Wave, as well as influences from Hollywood gangster movies.
So, one could see his first feature as a conflation of some of these referentially-cinematic ideas. In fact, it is immediately striking from the first moments that Love is going to be a spare film (probably also due to its limited budget), with minimal production design and props.
The first 15 minutes or so does feel like theatre, which Fassbinder initially hailed from. And in the manner of direction, it feels like a staged play rendered cinematic by virtue of long takes and sequences where the trio of lead characters are just walking, loitering or lazing around. Plotting takes a backseat, but it comes up now and then when Fassbinder wills it, such as a plan to rob a bank.
The film’s editor Franz Walsch is actually a pseudonym for director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Fassbinder plays Franz, a small-time hoodlum who refuses to join a syndicate forcing him to work for them. He leaves for his girlfriend, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), who prostitutes for him. Bruno, an acquaintance from the syndicate, finds them and proposes to work together, complicating the relational dynamics among the trio.
It is an unusual film inasmuch as Fassbinder doesn’t quite know whether he wants to make an arthouse-type genre piece, a character study (or a study of characters), or an exercise in style. But that also means that it is not a work that is stifled by rules or conventions, though it does follow some of them.
Perhaps the best way to see Love Is Colder Than Death is to consider it as a pretty promising first draft, a stepping stone for an astoundingly-talented filmmaker to find not just his own style and values, but his own self-defined route to artistic success.