Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss : (West) Germany 1982 : Rainer Werner Fassbinder : 104mins
If Fear Eats the Soul was Fassbinder’s take on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, Veronika Voss is his version of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard: the tragic tale of an ageing movie star’s ill-advised relationship with a younger man. The familiarity of this relatively straightforward story makes it easily one of his most accessible films – but it’s also one of his very best.
The script, while credited to Fassbinder along with Peter Marthesheimer and Pea Frolich, is based on an idea by the director alone, apparently inspired by a news story about Sybille Schmitz, star of F W Murnau’s 1930 Vampyr (“V.V.” instead of “S.S.”). The fictional Voss, like Schmitz, was a major star in Germany’s state-run UFA studio which churned out Nazi-approved melodramas during the 1930s and 1940s. But after Hitler’s downfall, UFA was broken up and the likes of Schmitz/Voss found themselves without a career. Many sought refuge in drink and/or drugs – though the latter weren’t easy to obtain without the right connections.
Munich, 1955. One rainy night Voss bumps into sportswriter Robert (Hilmar Thate), who becomes instantly smitten with this still-glamorous blonde siren. As in Sunset, the star dreams of a return to the big screen – and though Voss actually does manage to get work in a new movie, it’s a demeaning ‘mother’ role whose lines she repeatedly fluffs to the consternation of the director (Volker Spengler, kitted out in a very Billy Wilder-ish hat and glasses) while the script-writer, Voss’s ex-husband (Armin Mueller-Stahl) looks on aghast.
As his infatuation deepens, Robert discovers Voss is in thrall to a sinister physician, Dr Katz (Annemarie Duringer), who supplies her with morphine. Katz (as in ‘katz und maus’) operates a racket by which she gets her ‘patients’ addicted, then withdraws their fix until they agree to sign over all of their wealth – at which point she bumps them off. Among her victims are the Treibels, an elderly pair of concentration-camp survivors whose suicide spurs Robert into action. In collaboration with his long-suffering girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess), Robert plots to end Katz’s operation and ‘liberate’ Veronika. Bad move.
While taking its substance from Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss borrows its style from an even older source – the opening titles and flashy scene-to-scene dissolves are authentically thirties, and even if few modern viewers will ever have seen a UFA production, we can believe this is what they probably looked like. Fassbinder tips the wink in the very first scene, where Voss watches one of her old movies in a cinema (RWF himself is the anonymous cineaste at her elbow) and the on-screen story closely prefigures her own decline.
Like Boulevard and the UFA movies, Veronika Voss is in monochrome (the production design is immaculate, with Dr Katz’s offices decked out in wall-to-wall pristine white). But this isn’t the sharp, inky, high-contrast b+w used by Wilder, or by Fassbinder’s American contemporaries (Woody Allen, or Scorsese in Raging Bull). Instead, it looks like the film is shot on normal stock then converted to black and white (as in Jan Cvitkovic’s Bread and Milk) – the result is an absence of colour, rather like putting “black and white” inside speech marks.
Because Fassbinder is careful to emphasise the artificality of his film – the most notable of his ‘alienation techniques’ being the monotonously repetitious use of a handful of music cues: a tinkly ‘romantic’ tune giving way to a drum-heavy ‘doomy’ theme when things take a downturn. This initially seems heavy-handed to the point of clumsiness (as does the rather awkwardly-inserted Treibel subplot), but Fassbinder knows exactly what he’s doing. Veronika Voss builds and builds with the remorseless tightness of a bad headache, finally emerging as compelling conjuction of the camp, the comic and the tragic as Fassbinder delineates what William Burroughs calls ‘the algebra of need’ (the German title translates as ‘The Longing of Veronika Voss.’)
But Fassbinder goes beyond tragedy. Voss, we realise, is desperate to play a part – any part. And if that part happens to be “tragic heroine” in a “movie” called her own life, so be it (or perhaps this is only her own justification for her addiction?). And she plays the role to perfection, appearing in a shimmery dress at her own ‘farewell party’ to intone a stunning rendition of ‘Memories are Made of This’ (elsewhere we hear several other 50s American tunes blaring out of a GI’s radio to equally striking effect.)
Voss then plunges into her ‘exit scene’ with gusto – like Sunset‘s Norma Desmond, she clearly still has talent, inhabiting a different universe from Robert, a decent, pudgy everyman in the Walter Matthau / Michael Elphick mould. Lifelong Bayern Munich fan Fassbinder even makes the bloke a football writer whose unglamorous assignments include away games at Kaiserslautern. Thate and Froboess are fine, Zech often terrific – but don’t underestimate the contribution of Duringer, who underplays the feline predator Dr Katz and ends up with something less than (or, rather, more than) a completely monstrous predator.
13th January, 2003
(seen Cornerhouse, Manchester, 9th January)
by Neil Young