The Thin Blue Line: A Radical Classic By Charles Musser
Inside the Pink Stable By Chuck Stephens
“Gray literature” is the term German film historians use to describe the material written purely for publicity purposes and made available to the press, but not meant for official publication. Often this gray literature, which is only accessible to film journalists, is indirectly responsible for a film’s reception. The press work for Lola was handled by Karsten Peters (and Fassbinder quickly came up with a part for him in the movie: Peters played the local reporter). Peters had a delicate job to perform, because on the one hand they wanted the press to believe that the new Fassbinder film was a remake of The Blue Angel, but at the same time, they had to avoid this impression for copyright reasons.
In the press booklet Fassbinder explained how the movie came about: it was a story in itself, he said. “After I made Despair with Dirk Bogarde, he wrote me a letter saying that, although he didn’t actually want to make any more films, he would like to do another film with me—and he wanted it to be Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat. I thought this was an exciting idea. But my writers, Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich, said that the story in the novel as it is didn’t interest them very much. In the meantime, I was also at the point of thinking to myself that the period in which the novel is set—i.e., before World War I—didn’t interest me very much either. I am interested in the fifties.”
The attempt to transfer the story to another epoch failed at first, however. Märthesheimer went into seclusion for six weeks and wrote a new version—at his own risk, because he wanted to prove that only a free adaptation would correspond to Fassbinder’s ideas. (Even Josef von Sternberg’s screen adaptation of the novel, The Blue Angel, had deviated from the original plot. The film ignored the critical references to the period, stressing instead the melodrama; left out most of the story of the marriage; and turned the “artiste” Rosa Fröhlich into the nightclub singer Lola Lola.)
The second attempt succeeded because Märthesheimer freed himself from what had become a historical milieu. Fassbinder wanted to make a film about the fifties, but the theme of the high-school teacher as small-town tyrant, a figure from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm, simply did not fit into the period of the German economic miracle. The protagonist had to have something to do with the reconstruction of the country, so a building commissioner seemed to be the ideal profession. A big-time building contractor as his antagonist formed a logical constellation. The whore fit in with the time, as a virtual representative of the fifties, because—as Fassbinder explained in the press booklet—“the years from 1956 to 1960 were more or less the most amoral period that Germany ever experienced.”
This brought about “a completely new, completely original story,” continued the filmmaker. The lawyers took a different standpoint; the producer wanted to avoid a lawsuit. They agreed to have a nonpartisan legal opinion drafted on behalf of Leonie Mann (Heinrich Mann’s heir) and Trio Film. Paragraph 24 of the copyright law stipulates that an independent work that has been created in free adaptation of the work of another party can be published and exploited without consent. The decision about whether the work has been adapted freely or not is a matter of interpretation; it is a gray zone, and since the producer did not want to risk a plagiarism trial, they agreed on a settlement out of court.
“He didn’t like preparatory talks. He also didn’t like intermediate talks or final discussions, but preparatory discussions least of all,” reports Peter Märthesheimer. Script conferences like those he used to have as a TV producer didn’t exist with Fassbinder. “You would be invited to dinner at his apartment and would talk about all sorts of things, but not about the project. “And then at some point he would take you aside and give you his order.” In the case of Lola, the work was not immediately done to the customer’s satisfaction, but Fassbinder accepted the second version without any changes. However, during the shooting—this was his way of appropriating a script—he began to rewrite...without consulting the screenwriters. Märthesheimer: “I’m sitting there watching the rough cut of Lola and feeling quite happy, and all of a sudden a black G.I. walks into the apartment….”
In the opening credits, under “screenplay,” the third name listed is Fassbinder’s: the final version stems from the director. The new ending reflects a truly essential change. Even after their marriage, which integrates von Bohm once and for all into small-town society, Lola remains Schuckert’s own private whore. That was the last scene in the screenplay. The preceding scene—in the screenplay—the usual Sunday churchgoing, the election poster reading “No Experiments” summarizing the political tone of the situation—was changed by Fassbinder. The marriage: Lola all in white. The bride bids farewell, gets into her red convertible, and meets with the building contractor—Fassbinder hardly needed to change the screenplay there. This is followed by a new closing scene: Esslin and von Bohm walking in the woods; von Bohm’s assertion that he is happy does not sound convincing. This gives the false happy ending a different accent: von Bohm has willingly resigned himself to his fate, and he appears to recognize that Lola is betraying him. Otherwise, Fassbinder hardly touched the dramaturgy, the narrative flow, the sequence of scenes, or the dialogue, except for minor rearrangements and accentuations that are typical of directorial changes in the filming of a screenplay.
Lola is a perfect melodrama. Fassbinder, who loved the “woman weepies” of Douglas Sirk, did not want to make a tearjerker, however. “I don’t think that Märthesheimer and Fröhlich were aiming at a comedy,” he expounded in the press booklet. He announced that it was a “nasty story, a black comedy.” Overuse of typical style elements of the genre, grotesque overstraining of the artistic means, exaggerated acting by the cast to the point of caricature—Fassbinder encouraged all the participants to dare to go to extremes in their field, to go to the limit in the scale of cinematographic aesthetics: “We played at the most excessive level, actually often beyond that, entering the red zone,” remembers Armin Mueller-Stahl.
A surprise packet containing syrupy kitsch and sticky sugar cubes, wrapped up in candy colors. “We’re making an early American color film,” the director told his cameraman, Xaver Schwarzenberger, and to prepare themselves they watched Technicolor movies from the fifties. Fassbinder adopted the glaring colors of these films as his aesthetic concept. Pink for Lola, blue for von Bohm, hard shadows on their faces: color, dramaturg, and lighting insistently interpret every image. Lively colors dominate, not only in the neon light of the nightclub, but even in the exterior shots, from garish green to lemon yellow. But red and blue above all—for instance, in Schuckert’s garden there is a red chair and a blue one on the terrace; red pillows lie on the swing hammock; the water in the swimming pool is blue; a red ball and a blue ball slowly drift apart on the water. The hiking excursion echoes the German Heimat films of those years, and the technique of fade effects (the cuts are covered over by the blur) also come from the cinema of the fifties. While editing the film, Fassbinder watched Gustav Ucicky’s The Girl from the Moors (Das Mädchen vom Moorhof, 1958), a remake of the UFA film directed by Detlef Sierck (who later changed his name to Douglas Sirk).
Melodrama, as Sirk once defined it, is drama with music. The Blue Angel had already illustrated both worlds with music: the bourgeoisie, with its traditional melodies whistled by Professor Rath in the morning (“Practice fidelity and honesty…”), is contrasted with the honky-tonk of the current pop songs (“Get out there, give ’em the old schmaltz,” advises the director, shooing Lola Lola out onto the stage). “Classical or modern?” asks von Bohm of Mrs. Kummer in the Fassbinder version, when he learns that her daughter is a “singer.” The pop hits of the fifties telling of wanderlust and lovers’ bliss make up—in contrast to the directions in the screenplay––Lola’s repertoire in the Villa Fink establishment: “Am Tag als der Regen kam,” “Plaisir d’Amour,” and above all Rudi Schuricke’s “The Fishermen of Capri”: “When in Capri the blood red sun sinks in the sea…”
The building commissioner naturally prefers classical music and plays the violin himself. The violin playing was Armin Mueller-Stahl’s idea: the actor had once studied music, and his passion suited the character and could be used for dramatic purposes. Alone in his house in the evening, he plays Vivaldi on the violin, hesitates a moment, and then changes to the motif from “The Fishermen of Capri.” He has made his decision and goes to the Villa Fink; when he walks through the door, we hear the line from the song: “…then my dreams did awaken, then you came along.” The score, composed by Peer Raben, corresponds to the colors: superficial thrills, bold emphasis on the emotions, harmonic melodies, but, like the main theme, set in two keys so that the music seems false and hypocritical.
“A white ship sails for Hong Kong,” sings Freddy Quinn during the opening credits; Konrad Adenauer, manuscript in hand, sits listening next to a tape recorder. Sound documents, used with more restraint and less complexity than in The Marriage of Maria Braun, also form an ironic level of commentary in Lola. In the scene when the lovers Lola and von Bohm are sitting in the car, we can hear scraps of a speech by Adenauer: “The world was filled with unrest during those weeks. In different places on earth, changes took place on a grand scale.” The chancellor speaks of “times still not pacified,” of the Hungarian uprising and the federal border police in his own country, and finally declares that “defenselessness offers an enticement to an aggressor.” When, toward the end, Lola is a guest of the Schuckerts, the marriage, as at the end of The Marriage of Maria Braun, is brought about by a deal about which the man in question knows nothing, and once again we hear in the background a radio broadcast from a world soccer championship, this time from 1958 (Germany vs. Sweden): a player is being sent off the field.
Following the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1977), Fassbinder had proposed to his colleagues Volker Schlöndorff, Alexander Kluge, and Edgar Reitz to undertake a joint project under the title The Marriages of Our Parents. The Marriage of Maria Braun goes back to this idea, and Lola also fits into the context. “With me, the actual development always lags behind my consciousness,” states Mar ia Braun. In the end she has to recognize that her marriage was based on deception; the film ends in catastrophe. Lola has no illusions: she will not make a mistake, “because the soul knows more than the mind,” she explains right at the beginning. In the Villa Fink she gains insight into the structures of small-town society, but she is excluded from it––she wants to be part of it, and the way to achieve that for a woman is still through marriage. Lola knows that her marriage is a deal with a third person, but that is no reason for a catastrophe to happen. On the contrary: she has defused an explosive, and her marriage is the guarantee that the power structure remains intact.
“All sorts of things can be told better about women; men usually behave the way society expects them to,” explained Fassbinder in an interview. His screenwriter was also convinced that “men in reality are becoming more and more boring—how can you tell identification stories about these gray, adjusted, disconsolate men?” Märthesheimer: “As far as men are concerned, it is instructive that in Lola, from a purely dramaturgical point of view, it is not Lola who is the hero, but rather Mr. von Bohm. And what are we told about our hero? That he is a victim. So the secret hero is Lola after all.”
The building commissioner, who comes from East Germany, is a man of moral principle, not involved in the local graft. (Armin Mueller-Stahl, whose first feature film in the West was Lola, brought his own foreignness to the role.) Fassbinder characterized the commissioner’s coworker, Esslin, in the press booklet: “A leftover Wolfgang Borchert who hasn’t died—in other words, someone who has been severely damaged by his war experiences but finally survives because he has to go on living.” In the end, Esslin, who reads Bakunin but despises revolutions, lets himself be bought by Schuckert. But his faultless boss also turns out to be corruptible. He doesn’t get money, but rather a woman. About Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Fassbinder once remarked that “love is the best, most perfidious, and most effective instrument of social oppression,” and in Lola he demonstrates this mechanism.
According to Märthesheimer, “Lola is also a film about the erosion of bourgeois values under Adenauer, about the junking of conservative ideals in the name of a quick buck.” The debris was pushed aside, but they did not come to terms with the past. Economic reconstruction went hand in hand with political restoration. Von Bohm sees through what is happening, as is revealed in his inaugural address in the town hall. But he believes that the reconstruction will not succeed without “expansive powers,” so he doesn’t offer any resistance, but rather supports Schuckert’s plans. Ultimately, he caves in to the capitalist principle. In this posture Fassbinder saw a correspondence to the Social Democrats, who, with the Godesberg Program, gave up their demands for a reform policy of their own.
In Heinrich Mann’s novel, the high-school teacher Professor Unrat falls into social isolation through his liaison with Rosa/Lola Lola; in Fassbinder’s film, the building commissioner, with his moral principles, was an outsider in the town, becomes one of their own through his relationship with Lola. The story is no longer set in nineteenth-century imperial society, but in the 1950s. “Of course there was something like bigoted, hypocritical morals,” Fassbinder explained in the press booklet. “But between the people there was an implicitly sanctioned amorality.” Lola embodies it, as does Schuckert. The building contractor is the man of the hour: down-to-earth, unscrupulous, and free of inopportune class conceit, as opposed to his wife, who cultivates it. Schuckert is not a one-dimensional negative character: he is a man of considerable charm, a kind of sympathetic pig. “At least in a period when it came to rebuilding the country,” said Fassbinder, “the kind of vitality that this man has to have in order to be a construction entrepreneur is an admirable vitality.” The happy ending is disavowed, but so is the melodrama: in contrast to The Blue Angel, Lola does not end in tragedy. The film demonstrates the arrangements on which the Federal Republic of Germany was built, but it is not Fassbinder’s aim to expose the double morality and ideology of the economic miracle––he was not a moralist.
In The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, Fassbinder saw “parts of an overall picture of the Federal Republic of Germany that help to better understand this strange democratic construction—as well as the hazards and dangers.” The history of the FRG, told through female characters: originally he hadn’t thought of it, but now he inserted, in the opening credits under the title of Lola, the subtitle “BRD 3” (FRG 3). Shortly thereafter, he supplied the missing second part of the trilogy: Veronika Voss.
Michael Töteberg is the author of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 2002) and has edited, in Germany, three volumes of Fassbinder’s screenplays as well as Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich’s scripts for Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola.