Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Veronika Voss (Fassbinder, 1982)

Finally continuing with Fassbinder's acclaimed BRD trilogy. Thoughts on the first part, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), can be found here. Comments on Lola (1981) - the final chapter of the trilogy, but second part chronologically - will follow this post.

Veronika Voss is an incredibly self-conscious film that takes pains to expose its artificial nature to the audience. With every cut, Fassbinder literally seems to be underlining the relationship of Veronika to cinema itself - has any other director ever deployed such a wide variety of ways in which to edit his film? Filmed entirely in black-and-white as if to further toy with our conceptions of the 1950s noir-esque drama, Fassbinder is clearly paying homage to Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950) here: forgotten diva of yesterday's pictures + 'innocent' man caught up in the saga = exposé of stardom's deformed underbelly (amongst many other things). Veronika steals that basic formula and considerably widens the scope, resulting in a film that stimulates the intellect whilst slyly awakening the audience's own sense of self with its constant references to artifice and film history.

Fassbinder draws upon the pessimism of the typical noir feature here, and also takes full advantage of its potential as social critique. The role of Veronika the "star" then, plays into the BRD trilogy's trademark attacks upon the post-war German lifestyle. Under particular scorn here are the supporting characters' reactions to what she represents - namely, the 'glory' of a bygone era. Unlike the other leading women of this trilogy, this film's 'heroine' is deprived of her sexuality - she's a tragic and unwanted antique, rendered hopelessly vulnerable in a regenerative society driven simultaneously by capitalistic greed and a need to repress the historical past of which she's so emblematic. This is not to argue that Fassbinder is completley uncritical of the character - the flashback scenes, dubious wartime ethics and contemporary egotism ensure a balanced insight - but Veronika is a perfect testament to the director's ability to humanize even the most grotesque of his creations.

Nevertheless, it's Veronika's undesirable personality traits that provide the narrative with much of its gravity, because it renders her supposed 'romance' with Robert completely unbelievable and consequently poses all sorts of complications for the viewer: why would he fall for that so quickly? (Especially when he has a beautiful girlfriend at home?) And why would his girlfriend both accept his unfaithfulness and then actively participate in the mystery? These are curious propositions for the audience, but their troublesome nature evaporates when one realizes that Veronika is working less on the grounds of emotional identifiability and more on the level of self-aware cinematic constructs. Fassbinder's characters do not react as everyday people would in such situations, but the film maintains no pretenses of resembling reality either (although it certainly has illusions, but more of that in a sec) - they exist in an alternate filmic universe where their fates seem pre-ordained by all-governing cinematic gods. [Spoiler]For example, the girlfriend's fate was kinda inevitable, no? And if Veronika is some sort of bizarre re-imagining of the femme fatale (not implausible) then she too, meets an entirely necessary end. Although the final conclusion, moulded by the overarching intents of the trilogy itself, is a brilliant defiance of the status quo so the screenplay shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value here.[/Spoiler]

Anyway, as fascinating as the film is when viewed through a socio-political filter, it's really this compelling engagement with narrative's relation to spectacle that provides the film with its most provocative fibre. In my (very) limited experience with the director, I've discovered that he enjoys filming his characters in long-shot, presumably to preserve the audience's capacity for objectivity. In Veronika Voss, the titular character is frequently seen from such distances, emphasizing her own isolation alongside this impartiality. Moreover, Fassbinder's visualization complements the aforementioned reference to a "repressed historical past" through his use of stark b&w photography - the surface shimmer of the film is ridiculously pristine, provoking a glaring discord between visual design and narrative content. This accordingly seems to reflect cinema's own "repressed past" (inc. the memory of stars such as Sybille Schmitz - the film's inspiration), whose spirits Fassbinder reconceptualizes as a relucent external catharsis that overcompensates for the failure of the internal drama to provide a morally-desirable ending. Appropriately, Veronika's flashback sequences scale the heights of this unbearable perfection: the earliest ones are saturated by light that literally imprints a wealth of manufactured stars onto the frame, deliciously revealing the extent of her alienation from life itself. At one point, Veronika makes a similarly tantalizing meta-reference to cinema's need for "light and shadow". This exploration of the cinematic and its very definition, combined with numerous intertextual references, helps to make the film an exhilarating experience for any cultured film enthusiast.

In conclusion: isn't Fassbinder wonderful?

Oh, and I must also give a shout-out to Veronika's rendition of "Memories Are Made Of This", which - after watching it on repeat about five times - might well be one of my favourite sequences in film. Ever. Fassbinder is in such complete control of his craft here (as he is throughout the film actually... it might be the most technically accomplished feature I've seen of his) and his precision is on such perfect display in this brief, but perfect scene:

Now, go and watch the film if you haven't already, so you can understand why the subtext here makes me so unbearably sad.

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