Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thoughts on Gods of the Plague (Fassbinder, 1970)



In Gods of the Plague,  Fassbinder is aesthetically and structurally working from Godard's noir deconstructions(Band of Outsiders, Breathless) - a copy of a copy but still unique and personal, perhaps a mutation of a mutation would be more apt. The plot isn't particularly important and Fassbinder freely stops the the story dead in its tracks to wallow in melancholy. One break takes place when Franz listen's to a children's record, the rhymes are silly and meaningless, but there's a longing for the naivety of youth - when all you had to worry about was what sound the cows make. These deviations from plot and story accentuate a feeling of meaninglessness - that progression is useless and will only end in suffering or death, which in film noir is always the case.

Here the light draws attention to the door, in which someone will, of course, walk through momentarily.  By using the light in such an obvious way, Fassbinder is reminding you that this is a movie. It's a Brechtian technique to keep you engaged with the message of the story rather than using the film as an escapism.
Film noir lighting is generally high contrast to accentuate the inky black shadows, for Gods of the Plague the lighting is at times more extreme stark and overblown and with its own agenda. It encircles the characters, isolating them further within the frame and from each other. Like a prison spot light searching for escaped convicts, it leaves no place to hide, while also serving as an extension of the camera probing and violating the depths of the characters - what it reveals is the frustrated malaise of the oppressed. This theme of oppression is set up at the start - the first moment of the film is a close up of a sign to a penitentiary. We can hear a gate open and close before Franz walks into the frame, and the camera tracks him as he moves along the prison walls. We never saw Franz go into prison, and we never saw him actually come out. Moments later when asked what it was like on the inside, Franz responds "It's not much different than out here." This remark is the verbal punctuation to the visual statement made in the opening: if we didn't really see the inside of the prison or Franz's exit, then we're left with the feeling that Franz has really been set free and he confirms this feeling with his attitude and dialogue.

American noir from the 40's and 50's is seen as a existential conflict with post-war and post-Depression ideologies. Characters are trying to take a short cut to prosperity promised after sacrifices made abroad, knowing that the old fashioned way of working hard up the ladder is a pipe dream sold to suckers. However they know that their business is high risk and high reward, and this desperate drive in the face of mortality is the dark matter that holds the genre together. Taking this art form of American disenfranchisement and transplanting it in 1970 Germany means one has to take a moment to understand this new context from which the film is created. Based on the film alone, there is a clear ideological conflict in regards to capitalism and sexuality. Character's are open with their bodies and orientation. Franz has both female(Margarethe) and male(Gorilla) lovers, and they would rather do nothing else than just share each other all day, especially if the alternative is working. When Margarethe suggests she prostitute her body to support their lifestyle, Franz reacts violently. The motivation doesn't seem to come from misogyny but disgust at the idea that she would take her body, the only thing a person will always have direct power over, and pervert it with capitalist endeavors. This link between capitalism and sexuality is further defined by the smut peddler, who sells pornographic magazines. In the scene in which the following still is taken from, she sits at a table with Joanna and a corrupt cop, and tells them that her new black market merchandise has exciting "new positions" to stimulate. The shots of the magazine are graphic, depicting fellatio and vaginal intercourse, but the characters regard them with indifference. Selling sex strips it of its passion, making it a sterile transaction, while at the same time the ban on these materials perverts natural human act, not to be enjoyed. Intercourse rarely seems to bring any type of pleasure. Franz is undressed by his lover but his mind is elsewhere - the weight of the future is crushing him. 


For more context to aid in understanding this ideological conflict, one should read this highly informative thesis "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: A Comparative Study Between West Germany and the United States" by Patricia Sannie Lee. She explains that during the reconstruction the Allied forces utilized the Church to "...reestablish 'normality' and 'decency'". Under this mandate, Christian conservatism won out over Christian progressives, putting an emphasis, much like in the United States, on getting the woman back in the home to focus on being a mother, wife and cook, and restoring the familial unit. Sexual education disappeared or, at the very least, severely limited by parents for fear that instruction would be mistaken as promotion, and pre-marital sex and promiscuity were considered detrimental to the rebuilding process. By the 1960's the post-war generation was fed up. There was a sexual revolution, not only in Germany but across the globe, with women particularly taking more control over their bodies, and with a general acceptance of humanity's sexual nature. In addition to the war over the body, there was also the German student movement of 1968 which protested Western imperialism, and rallied behind socialist ideologies. This movement also called for a more introspective focus on Germany's fascist history, specifically during the Third Reich, which lead the country to be divided by the Allied powers. The recognition of the fascist "sins of the father" hadn't truly been dealt with up until that point - only ignored and repressed. Gods of the Plague is born of this national discontent and and is pessimistic about the struggle.

The commercialism of sex looms over the bedroom.

Who the "Gods of the Plague" are isn't exactly clear, at least not at first. The Greek god Apollo, who presided over truth, healing, poetry and music, among other thing, was also known as the god of the plague. Perhaps Fassbinder looks at the social revolution as a plague, not out of disagreement with the ideas, but because of the difficulty that comes with shouldering the responsibilities of healing a country and being more socially conscious. In Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, Apollo is the one who, via an Oracle, gives Orestes the order to avenge his father's murder by killing his mother and her lover. When Orestes is brought to trial by the Furies, Apollo defends him arguing that marriage is a sacred bond that needed to be preserved, and from this perspective the "gods" in question are perhaps the people who enforced the oppressive conservative values in the first place. Despite the sense of defeat and hopelessness in Fassbinder's characters, this doesn't mean that Gods of the Plague sees the fight against social oppression as a pointless struggle, it clearly recognizes this ideological battle as urgent and necessary - it just doesn't know what to do about it.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jae, Mando>Eddie from the 'ol DVDVR, etc. Just found your film blog. Digging it.

    You set up over at Letterboxd yet? It's pretty much re-affirmed my cinema obsession.

    My profile and film diary over there:
    http://letterboxd.com/sabotage/

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