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The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

If you can say one thing about Fassbinder’s films, you can say that he was adept at portraying and processing human feelings. These were usually negative human feelings. For example in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, he explored vanity and loneliness, whereas in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, he explored isolation and rejection. There are many other examples, such as Fear of Fear, which is a lesser-known Fassbinder that captures anxiety better than any film I’ve ever seen. With The Merchant of Four Seasons, the emotion that he captures is depression.

I’ll be honest that depression is something I don’t understand. Sure, I’ve had bad days and been down in the dumps. Who hasn’t? I’ve known people that have been depressed, and I’ve had a tough time connecting with them. One friend sent me this cartoon link from Hyperbole and a Half, which helped me understand depression to a certain extent. I can never understand it as well as people like this friend or (likely) Fassbinder experienced it, but a film like The Merchant of Four Seasons gets me closer.

As fair warning, this is a film that requires spoilers to discuss properly. If you haven’t seen the film or are spoiler sensitive, then I would not read this entire post.

merchant of four seasons - overhead food cart

The character of Hans is a disappointment to most in his life. When he returns from the military, after finding out that someone else did not make it home, his own mother says, “the best are left behind while people like you come home.” We learn later that his military career ends with a sexual transgression. He then becomes a cart merchant, peddling fruits for a small profit in order to support his wife and daughter. When he isn’t working, he drinks with his friends and does not want to be disturbed. In one pivotal scene, when his wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) demands that he come home, he throws a chair at her. Later, when questioned, he beats her.

merchant of four seasons - anna and hans

His family scorns him and thinks of him as a disappointment. They shun him after the case of abuse, siding with his wife while he beckons her to come back. The only person in his corner is his sister Anna (Hanna Schygulla), yet she has a minor role and is mostly ignored. When we see the family on screen, they serve the purpose of reminding us how worthless Hans is in their eyes. It’s no wonder that he feels such helpless despair.

merchant of four seasons - hans hospital

Hans suddenly has a heart attack, and is forced to stop drinking and is not allowed any heavy activity. Given his prior anguish, one would think that this would push him further into depression, but the opposite happens. He takes on the role of proprietor, hires a productive employee, and enjoys profits. In a later scene, his family is surprisingly pleased with him. In their eyes and his, he has succeeded as a cart merchant.

merchant of four seasons - hans framed

Things come tumbling down due to another theme among the primary characters – weakness, especially in terms of their sexual proclivities. Han’s weakness with an admirer is what ruins his military career. In an early scene, he delivers fruit to an woman and is chastised by his jealous wife for spending seven minutes with the woman. We learn later that there is a hint of an affair happening at some point, which possibly happened off-screen during these early scenes. While in the hospital, Irmgard has an affair of her own with a taller, more masculine man. That man coincidentally ends up becoming Hans’ successful salesman. In my opinion, this was too coincidental, but it was a necessary plot development to take Hans further down in his slide.

merchant of four seasons - irm weeping

Irmgard is a confounding character. She rekindles her relationship with Hans, even when he is employing her former, temporary lover. It is in this period that his depression begins to take shape again. Even before he discovers the truth, which comes up after he catches him skimming money from his sales, a strategy in which Irmgard suggested. She is the mystery. Fassbinder usually portrays women as strong and sympathetic characters, but Irmgard makes some baffling decisions. At times she seems to want to undermine Hans, while at others, like in the image above, she is saddened by his downfall.

merchant of four seasons - hans depressed again

Hans’ depression reaches such a low that he decides he wants to die. We learn through flashback that this is not the first time he’s reached this low of a feeling. When being whipped by an enemy soldier, he faces certain death, only to be rescued at the last minute by fellow soldiers. Rather than thank them, he asks them, “why didn’t you let me die?”

merchant of four seasons - hans being whipped

The final drinking scene is the culmination of the burdensome weight of all those who he has disappointed, including himself. Because of his health condition, he holds the gun that will decide his fate. He commits his suicide with bitterness and no regret. He even dedicates each shot to a certain someone who has wronged him. This is his way of getting back at the world.

Film Rating: 7/10

Supplements

Commentary – Wim Wenders, 2012.

Wenders talks about how it is unusual to comment on a film from a friend and colleague that died 20 years ago. He gives a commentary you would expect from Wenders. He speaks slowly and relaxed. He is not the type to comment or analyze every little scene. Even though I like analytical commentaries, I also like this type because it is more like you are watching the film from a friend.

  • Fassbinder did everything himself, including writing, directing, sometimes acting, editing, sometimes producing. Working on so many projects as Fassbinder did required him to be working on the next one while he was finishing the last one. Wenders says that the speed in which he worked would eventually kill Werner.
  • Wenders loves film, and he especially loved Hans Hirschmüller so much that he cast him in Alice in the Cities.
  • He had such a strong ensemble that he would often cast his major actors in small roles. Hanna Schygulla and Kurt Raab are examples here. Of course Schygulla, in Wenders words, would “become one of the major stars of German cinema.”
  • Back then, selling fruit off a cart was a real Bavarian profession. He points out the fact that the people speak with a distinct Bavarian accent, but that does not come across with subtitles.
  • Prior to the German New Wave, the most successful German films were either Westerns or softcore porn. This direction into character-based melodramas was a major shift. They learned their craft from American films.
  • He talks about the New German Cinema experience. They were not in each other’s way, had nothing in common, different perspectives, different missions. They helped each other, had no envy, shared cast and crew. Fassbinder was way ahead of them. By this time, Wenders had only made two short films. They were not bound by a cultural aesthetic, and never discussed content, style, but more about distribution, projects, etc.

  • Irm Hermann: 2015 interview.

    She had no formal training, but got lucky when she met Fassbinder and he pulled her off of an office desk and put her in front of a camera for The City Tramp. He quit her job for her. Fassbinder was charismatic and started in the theater. She had no training save for how Fassbinder trained her. She didn’t want to do the sex scene, but Fassbinder was discrete and sent everyone out of the room. She is grateful for the film because of the Douglas Sirk-like close-ups. Her and Hirschmüller won German Awards, as did the film. and that was a major deal.


    Hans Hirschmüller: 2015 interview.

    The role of Hans was written with him in mind. Fassbinder wanted someone down to earth and simple, which was really what he was at the time. He knew the types of merchants that he would play. Fassbinder didn’t tell him anything about the role. He just made him read the script, and asked if he approved.

    They did not often do multiple takes. Usually one or two, sometimes three, but very rarely four. Rehearsal is when they would improvise, never during the scene.

    It was a tough role for him because he had to face death like he never had in his personal life. He had trouble getting to the position of being helpless. The scenes where he was depressed were the toughest for him.


    Eric Rentschler: Interview with film historian and professor at Harvard.

    This was the film that put Fassbinder on the map. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Some said it was the best film to come out of Germany in years. Fassbinder had been working productively prior to this, but his rise out of Merchant was meteoric. Early films were bleak and resembled neo-noir. You could tell that Fassbinder was a student and fan of film.

    Fassbinder is good at showing what character’s are capable of, both good and bead. Irm Hermann is an example of this because she has adultery and is planning on leaving her husband on one occasion, yet adores him in other occasions.

    The film was based on his uncle, who had fallen from a high position and ended up as a fruit salesman.

    Criterion Rating: 8/10

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972

Like many of Fassbinder’s films, he features strong, female characters in the leads and supporting parts. In this film, the cast is predominately female, and is among the most feminine of his works. That does not mean that it is feminist. One could argue that it has some feminist attributes, and it can also be seen as anti-feminist since the portrayals of women are mostly negative. It can also be seen as a class contrast, with Petra (Margit Carstensen) representing the bourgeois, Karin (Hanna Schygulla) representing the poor and uncultured, and Marlene (Irm Hermann) representing the working class.

The entire movie takes place in Petra’s apartment. Often films that are shot in a single location can be drab and tiresome, but there is enough visual ingenuity, both with the camerawork and the mise-en-scene, to keep every scene fresh. The performances are all tremendous, particularly Carstensen who was working with a great deal of dialog.

Petra represents the horror that success can have on a person. She is conceited, brazen, thin-skinned, and she asserts her power over defenseless people. Marlene, her assistant, is the object of many cruel and disdainful eruptions. Petra thinks of her as less of a person. At one point she tells Karin that “Marlene has been with me for three years. She sees everything, hears everything. Pay no attention to her.” Petra does not bother to hide her secrets from the help, but we will find out later that this person is not the invisible bystander that Petra considers her.

Petra and Karin

Petra and Karin

Petra’s cousin (Sidonie von Grasenabb) introduces Karin as a young model. Petra takes to her, seeing someone with a beauty that she can possibly mentor and control. Petra’s riches come from a life of fashion, and she could make a person’s career. She asks Karin to visit her later, and the girl timidly agrees, knowing that this could lead to a brighter future. When she shows up later, she is dressed to the nines, with a gold outfit and a wide collar around her neck. Petra is dressed in an ostentatious and grossly flamboyant outfit with circular beads decorating her breasts. The outrageous wardrobes are contrasted with the Classical European paintings on the walls. Some of these include nakedness, male and female, and they are prominently placed within the frame. Fassbinder was not bashful with nudity, whether his own or others, and he clearly used these paintings as a way of injecting an uncomfortable sexuality into the mise-en-scene.

Petra is intrigued by the young lady, although seems more interested in bragging about her own experiences. There are mirrors everywhere, and as she talks, she narcissistically watches herself. It is when Karin reveals a horrible tragedy that happened to her parents when Petra really takes to her. It is at this vulnerable moment that Petra sees Karin as someone fragile that she can control, who can fill the void of loneliness that is consuming her. Karin becomes a kept woman and a romantic relationship begins between the two.

In the second act, the tables have turned. Karin is the one who has the power. Petra is helpless to get her affection, much less her attention. Karin cannot be bothered, reads a magazine on the bed and demands that Petra get her a drink. She is playing the role of the spoiled child, and Petra is trapped as her enabler. Earlier she had bragged that “everyone is replaceable,” referring to Karin and Marlene, but to her, that is a flat out lie. She is psychologically tethered to both of them.

Marlene, ever so silent.

Marlene, ever so silent.

Marlene is the anchor for this movie, beautifully played by Irm Hermann in a mostly silent role. She doesn’t need to speak to convey her thoughts. She says plenty with her face, as she reacts to what is happening in Petra’s life, which often does not have anything to do with her. Some of the best shots in the film are when Petra and Karin or whomever are talking about some nonsense, and the camera pans over to Marlene and zooms in for a close-up, showing her utter and absolute disdain for her employer. Her hatred is obvious to the audience, but Petra is oblivious. She is just another plaything, like the dolls and mannequins that she collects. Only this one does her bidding without ever questioning her authority. At least not yet.

Despair

Despair

When she is left. Petra is completely isolated and in despair. She sits on a white carpet that looks like a cloud. The European, nude painting is still behind her in the frame, fully exposed just like her heartbreak. Has she died and gone to heaven? The shot implies as much, and a major part of her, her power, has died. She feels completely abandoned, but there are still some people remaining in her life. Her daughter Gabby appears with family, and Petra’s behavior is similar to what we’ve seen with Karin and Marlene. She is out of control, lashes out at one moment and tries to apologize the next. She calls them fake, “dishonest little rats.” After her fury passes, she is told that she will pay for her actions, that there will be consequences. There are. I will not reveal them in this write-up, but I will say that Petra’s conclusion is in the typical Fassbinder style.

Film Rating: 8.5/10

Supplements:

Outsiders: – These are four interviews with actresses from the film: Margit Carstensen (Petra), Hanna Schygulla (Karin), Eva Mattes (Gabby), and Katrin Schaake (cousin Sidonie). This 2014 segment edits their answers together so that they stay within the topic of the film. Most of them felt like outsiders to Fassbinder’s stable of actors, which is strange because they were all cast in many of his films, especially Carstensen, who played many lead roles. Most talked about how they were treated on the set by Fassbinder, and how he would play games to create conflict amongst each other. Some were reluctant to reveal much, while others are more forthcoming. The overall sentiment was that Fassbinder was difficult to work with. The only exception was Eva. He was gentle with her and did not play the same sort of games as with the other actors.

What is surprising is the production time. The filming was lightning fast, 10 days. Carsternsen had an easier time because she had played the same role in the theater and knew the lines, but the other actresses had difficulties. As they put it, Margit was perfect everytime.

The story was autobiographical based on a relationship of Fassbinder’s. It is interesting that he chose women to play the roles, but he often did portray his own life through women, which may have been an element of his homosexuality. Fassbinder felt that whoever had the strength in the relationship loved the person less, and that was what he was trying to convey with this film.

Michael Ballhaus – Ballhause was the Director of Photography. This was his third film with Fassbinder, who had dismissed him as a TV DP. In the other segment, the other ladies had very kind things to say about Ballhause, although those were probably contrasted with Fassbinder. He said that this project was challenging because they shot quickly and he had one room to work with. He had to figure out good angles to keep it interesting, which I would say he accomplished. Fassbinder told him that he was a big fan of Douglas Sirk and wanted this to look as visually rich as a Hollywood film. They would argue and at one point there was a blow-up. At one time Ballhause said “I am not a machine. If you don’t like it, then hire someone else.” They eventually made up, and worked on many other projects together. Ballhause liked working with Fassbinder because he was a good visual director.

Beautiful Destruction – This is a feature from Jane Shattuc, author of Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture.. She talks about how dark his work was, although it was beautiful visually. He had a bleak portrait of humanity, and that was reflected in his work.

Fassbinder started with a theatre troupe, and as we know, he maintained that collective for much of his film career. Many of the issues playing out in film were also part of their personal lives.

She says that the mise-en-scene was very important in this movie. The changing in appearances of Petra reflects how she feels about herself. She starts in the operatic dress, then to red hair, and finally in a white nightgown, showing her true humanity. The set, clothing and shooting change as the character changes.

Role Play: Women on Fassbinder – This was 1992 German TV documentary with many of the women who worked on his films. This was quite a bleak documentary. It was far from a puff piece. The actresses were frank about how far on the edge they were during the Fassbinder age, and how cruel he was to them. Yet he was also successful and gave them continual work if they could endure it. For the most part, he was not friendly with actors save for rare occasions. When Margit Carstensen speaks of her history with Fassbinder, her tone and look are as if she is revealing a traumatic and monumental time of her life. This is not the type of remembrance you’ll see of many directors.

The people that worked for Werner often thought about leaving and starting fresh somewhere. Margit attempted this and distanced herself from his inner circle, which made him angry. She tried to leave one time during the filming of Chinese Roulette and said: “You leave and you’re out of the film.”

Even though he was difficult, he portrayed women beautifully, and most of the women conclude that it was due to his effeminate nature and homosexuality, although none of them really understood it or him. We know that he was bi-sexual and would engage in relationships with actresses, such as Irm, but even she was confused during the relationship.

They all say he was a brilliant filmmaker. He had the capacity to love, but his addiction and dependence got in his way. He had a series of disappointing relationships. Often he would test his lovers and be disappointed. His standard of love was too high for anyone to really achieve. In many ways this tale is a tragedy because Fassbinder, however brilliant, was tortured, never found love, and died due to indulging too much.

Criterion Rating: 9/10