Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: The Long Harm of the Law
By Evan Calder Williams
Nashville: America Singing
By Molly Haskell
In May 1981, in the midst of shooting Lola, Rainer Werner Fassbinder sketched out his next film project: Sybille Schmitz. On the cover, he had written, “Story for a Feature Film*.” The asterisk pointed to this footnote: “It is possible that the title will have to be changed for legal reasons, because the film, though not blatantly documentary, tells of the life and death of a once-popular and admired movie actress.” Of his generation, Fassbinder was the only filmmaker whose interest in German film history neglected neither the period of the Third Reich nor the much-disparaged fifties. He had no fear of contact, even back in his antiteater period, when he was giving parts to actors like Luise Ullrich, Werner Finck, Adrian Hoven, and Barbara Valentin (New German Cinema was busy relegating former stars to the background and making its farewell to Papa’s cinema). He had wanted to cast Schmitz, about whose tragic end he knew nothing at the time, as the mother in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, 1972). In the touring stage production, the role was then played by Lida Baarova. In 1979, in answer to a query about his personal favorites, Fassbinder counted Schmitz, along with such Hollywood heroines as Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh, among those he deemed the ten best actresses.
“On the morning of April 13, 1955, a cool and rainy Wednesday, the doctors of Schwabing Hospital in Munich could only pronounce the patient Sybille Schmitz dead.” Fassbinder read the contemporary newspaper accounts of the mysterious suicide and the trial of Schmitz’s physician, Dr. Ursula Moritz. She was charged with continued offense against the drug law with intent to gain illegal financial advantage. Henriette von Speidel, a seventy-year-old actress, had set the ball rolling. The elderly woman had noticed that in recent years two other subtenants of the doctor had apparently taken their own lives. She rented a room in Dr. Moritz’s home and was finally able to produce the evidence: 723 prescriptions for narcotics, made out within a period of just under three years. Paul Demmler, an official from the Munich Health Department who was called in on the case, surprisingly defended the accused physician, and the court was not able to establish legally binding proof of a connection between the doctor’s practice of prescribing the drugs and Schmitz’s death. The tabloids could not accept the verdict (Moritz was sentenced to just four months in prison), and the public learned that the police and the Health Department for months had refused to investigate the charges. The case was never satisfactorily solved, leaving room for speculation. Fassbinder invented the figure of the reporter Ewald Zweig, whose investigation soon takes him beyond the normal practice: he becomes a private detective on his own. He suspects the doctor and is interested in the person of Schmitz, whom he never meets during her lifetime (here the film is different from the treatment). Zweig visits scriptwriter G. Petersson and learns that the UFA star had fallen out of favor with Josef Goebbels and had been hiding with her husband in a village in the Austrian mountains until the war was over. He finds out about the machinations of the doctor. Zweig’s girlfriend, Henriette Speidel, slips into Dr. Moritz’s practice as a patient; befriends the housekeeper, Klara Schweickhardt; and discovers important information. Toward the end, the treatment breaks into a breathless pace and turns sensational: Schweickhardt, who has overheard Speidel speaking to Zweig on the telephone, pushes her down the cellar steps; Zweig presses charges against Schweickhardt but on the way home is run over by a car in front of the police station—the driver escapes undetected—and dies. His charges against Dr. Moritz’s housekeeper land in the waste basket due to lack of evidence.
This was the plot of Fassbinder’s original treatment; his subsequent thoughts, unpublished and quoted here from his notes in the manuscript, reveal what fascinated Fassbinder about this material, which appears to be a conventional crime thriller. The drama-turgical problem of the manuscript was “that two themes come together here which in no way can be seen as running parallel, opposite, or in any way separable from one another,” because they must be told in reference to a particular period and its social characteristics and requirements. “The one theme is the destruction, the downfall of a person—superficially a single, almost private occurrence; the other theme is the criminal exploitation of the very different kinds of despair of overly sensitive individuals.”
Fassbinder’s film sketch was meant as an offer—“Producer and owner of the rights would be Rialto Film in case of interest and agreement,” is written on the cover—and as a memo for further work plans. The crew was already settled upon, and the director had a precise idea about the cast: Margit Carstensen would play Sybille Schmitz; Karin Baal, the doctor; Armin Mueller-Stahl, the police reporter Zweig; Hilmar Thate, the medical officer Demmler; and Franz Buchrieser, the husband of Schmitz. (In the film, Thate ended up playing the role of sports reporter Robert Krohn, Mueller-Stahl that of scriptwriter Max Rehbein, and Erik Schumann that of medical officer Dr. Edel). Rosel Zech and Cornelia Froboess were not yet part of the plan; instead Ruth Drexel (Klara Schweickhardt) and Angela Schmid (Henriette Speidel) were foreseen. For Fassbinder, it was clear that “Pea Fröhlich, Peter Märthesheimer, and I have to develop a maximally simple, generally understandable story out of the material at hand, be it either a product of reality or of my imagination. And since time is of the essence—often a positive starting point for work, incidentally—we have to try and develop a structure for the story within the next three weeks that will provide a more or less vague plan for the production of the project.” They were able to stick to the schedule: The writers, Märthesheimer and Fröhlich, wrote a scenario under the title Sweet Death (Das Süsse Sterben); six weeks later, in July, the first calculable screenplay draft of The Longing of Veronika Voss was ready, and in August, they completed the second version ready for the shoot. Fassbinder was in a hurry because another big project had fallen through, and he wanted to shoot the film from the middle of October to the middle of December 1981, “which roughly corresponds to the date planned for the Kokain project.”
The preparations for Kokain, the film adaptation of the notorious novel from the twenties by Pitigrilli, were well under way. A contract with Horst Wendlandt and his production company, Rialto Film, had been signed (the filmmaker’s interests were represented by the William Morris Agency in London); the first shooting version (322 manuscript pages, much too long) was ready; and the locations in Naples, Paris, Brest, Lyon, and Rio de Janeiro (alternatively, São Paulo) had been inspected. Wendlandt, who along with Luggi Waldleitner (Lili Marleen, 1981) was one of the most powerful producers of the West German old guard, hesitated. He desperately wanted to work with Fassbinder, but this project was very delicate. The novel, a blasphemous hymn to dissipation, was on Germany’s index of writings harmful to juveniles, and not only because of the topic of drugs, but also because “the sexual relationship between man and woman is depicted with decided cynicism and ingenious appreciation of the obscene” (Cologne Administrative Court, 1955).
In 1982, Moewig-Verlag published Kokain in paperback, rashly noting on the back cover: “Soon to be a film by R.W. Fassbinder.” The Federal Inspection Office again put it on the list. (The ban was lifted in October 1988, only after a further edition had been published by Rowohlt Verlag). Kokain was a big-budget project—Fassbinder wanted to shoot in CinemaScope. But the subject matter would not appeal to a large audience, and there was the further danger that the self-controlling Film Assessment Office (FSK) would not give the movie its okay. The court in Cologne had written about the novel: “When a person under the influence of cocaine, reckless, broken, and debased in her personality, reels inevitably toward her downfall, then this is portrayed by Pitigrilli not in the sense of a warning or condemnation, but obviously for the purpose of enriching the sexual play through perverse nuances.” In his preface to the screenplay, Fassbinder made no attempt to conceal the fact that he had no intention of taking a moralistic stance. A cocaine addict shortens his lifespan but lives more intensely: “The decision for a short but fulfilled life or a long but unconsciously led and largely alienated life should be made entirely by the audience alone.” For Fassbinder, drugs were not only a means of extending consciousness, but also an analgesic against those “gruesome depressions” that suddenly attack and paralyze a person, “an unconscious grieving, at the very least, which clasps itself over your head like a glass bell so that you are almost smothered in fear.”
The Kokain screenplay, which, except for the preface, has remained unpublished, is more than a rough draft of a film; it is a confession. Fassbinder does not follow the different stations of the novel’s plot but instead lets scenes from the life of the cocainist (Tito Arnaudi, lying in a coma) pass in review in a veritable surreal onrush of images: a hermetic world of the imagination, rapidly oscillating between colorful, shrill, grotesque moments and dark, death-loving fantasies. “People are only happy in dissolution, and the further along the dissolution is, the happier they are,” asserts a sentence from the novel that was to be spoken as a voice-over commentary in the film. Arnaudi realizes: “Sniffing coke is only a symbol for the general contamination. Cocaine is the sweet, voluntary death which we all, in this way or that, summon.” The morbid world of Pitigrilli melts together with the obsessions of Fassbinder, who cites here the pessimism of his earlier films. The woman, Luisella, admits: “I have never loved. And, to tell the whole truth, I’m very proud of it. Love is colder than death—that’s what I believe in.” Cocaine freezes the brain, and Fassbinder found a metaphor to describe that. The weather is freezing cold, although the film is set in Naples and Rio; and the breath of the person speaking can be seen even in the scenes that take place in summer or indoors, while frost flowers form on the windows. “Life is very precious even right now,” are the last words spoken by the mortally wounded gangster in Gods of the Plague (Götter der Pest, 1969). “Death is very precious,” says Arnaudi in the opening sequence of Kokain. He flirts with death, takes an overdose, but secretly hopes to survive. However, he loses the gamble and dies.
Officially, the Kokain film was only put off until later, and Veronika Voss moved up in its place. Wendlandt did not want to commit himself fully to the new project—with a budget of 2.6 million deutschemarks, it was “by Fassbinder’s standards a cheapie” (Variety)—and he participated only in the final financing. The main producers were Thomas Schühly (Laura-Film) and Fassbinder (Tango Film), supplemented by Trio Film and Maran Film. However, what looked like a fill-in at the beginning turned out to be one of the most important and successful films of Fassbinder’s late career. From today’s viewpoint, exchanging the projects was the right decision, although Fassbinder was opposed to the idea. Arnaudi was a character detached from reality; Kokain outlined the metaphysics of drug consumption. Veronika Voss’ morphine addiction, by contrast, is founded in her character and the story of her life. At its base this film is marked by the same pessimism and world-weariness as Kokain—“If somebody in our society can only relate to drugs, then that has to become bitter,” explained Fassbinder, but the audience is not forced to share the inner perspective of an addict.
Fassbinder was thinking of “a very austere, classical narrative film,” and to this end, Märthesheimer and Fröhlich provided him with the perfect starting point. The exposition itself is a perfect example of narrative economy. Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is sitting in the cinema (the spectator next to her is Rainer Werner Fassbinder) watching one of her old films, a melodrama called Insidious Poison (Schleichendes Gift)—a look back into her past, but also into the future. This scene is followed without further ado by one in which she meets Robert Krohn. Her conspicuous behavior, the grotesque incongruity between the airs and affectations of a star and the complete disregard with which she is met by an indifferent public, is immediately evident in the streetcar. Krohn is fascinated by the woman, although the name Veronika Voss means nothing to him. He has no memories of the cinema; he is at home on the playing field. But he is a man in midlife crisis, and life seems dull and monotonous. Fassbinder makes Krohn into the composer of strange poems that express his feelings of deficiency. “I was fine glass spheres, devoid of foliage or prospect,” is one of his verses.
It also describes the social situation. Set in 1955, Veronika Voss is the middle part of the trilogy of the economic miracle. Contemporary history, to a lesser degree than in the other two parts, is present here in barely perceptible snatches of radio broadcasts (a commentary by Thilo Koch about NATO; a soccer game covered by sportscaster Sammy Drechsel, in which Bayern München loses) or in posters against rearmament. The drug wave of those years was not a phenomenon of the youth scene. Recent German history, considering the way the Nazi period was being rewritten in the fifties, was a trauma for society; as different as their fates might be, both patients of Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer) are victims of their past. Voss and Mr. Treibel (Rudolf Platte), UFA and Treblinka, propaganda and destruction, two industries of fascism.
As in the other two parts of the trilogy, Günther Kaufmann plays a role: his black American G.I. seems alien in Dr. Katz’s household. He walks almost wordlessly through the room and listens to country music on the radio. Fassbinder and his composer, Peer Raben, gave the film a different music than was originally prescribed in the screenplay. The movie does begin with a glorious overture signaling high drama, but the American sounds are at least as audibly present as the reminiscences of the illustrative music from German film classics. Instead of Zarah Leander’s “Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehen,” which was called for in the screenplay, Veronika Voss sings a song Dean Martin made famous—“Memories Are Made of This”—at her big farewell party.
Fassbinder, who otherwise made only minor changes and rearrangements or shortened the openings or closings of the scenes, gave the ending a different accent. A scene could still be found in the rough cut in which Voss puts up a fight, scribbles “Help!” on a scrap of paper, and desperately climbs up on a bench to get to the window, but the child across the way only stares back at her blankly. Fassbinder eliminated the scene altogether because it did not work, and it endangered the necessary ambivalence. It is a murder, but Veronika Voss is the “accomplice of her murderer” (Märthesheimer). In a match-action cut, Fassbinder jumps from Voss as she takes the sleeping pills with a glass of water to Krohn in the newspaper office taking aspirin. He shortened the final scene radically. In the screenplay ending, a popular hit can be heard coming from the radio in the taxi with the lyrics, in German: “Forget about the big wishes / There’s no sense in that / Forget about the stars in heaven / That’s where they belong.…” When Krohn hears this, he shouts: “Turn it off! Turn it off immediately!” The film ends without this outburst. When Krohn gets into the taxi he says, “Back to Munich, to the 1860 Stadium.” End. There is no need for anything else: Speidel is dead, Voss is dead, the man will never in his life be concerned with anything except sports.
“Light and shadow, those are the secrets of the cinema,” says Veronika Voss. A film in black and white, the “most beautiful colors in cinema” (Fassbinder at a press conference). Fassbinder and his cameraman, Xaver Schwarzenberger, evoke a past cinematic art whose tradition reaches back to silent film (Sybille Schmitz played one of her first parts in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr) and developed aesthetic codes of a high standard. Caligari (1920) cast a long shadow; the German light brought emigrants to Hollywood, where it placed its mark on the visual style of American film noir. Veronika Voss was Fassbinder’s version of Sunset Boulevard (1950). (For insiders: In the first flashback, Volker Spengler plays Gustaf Gründgens, and in the scene where the film is shot in Geiselgasteig, Peter Zadek parodies Max Ophüls.) The genre conventions are ironically disjointed; the play of light and shadow is shuffled anew. With Fassbinder, danger reigns when the scenery is mercilessly bright and fully lit: snow white, cold, and clinical are the rooms in Dr. Katz’s practice and the room where Veronika Voss is locked up. Warmth comes when darkness casts its shadows. Such rooms of illusion have to be created and staged through changes of light. The first thing Voss makes sure of in the Café Privileg, in the stairwell, or in the Starnberg Villa is that she appears in the right light. She likes candles most of all (special lenses make them sparkle like diamonds). Tilted camera perspectives, star filters, a whole arsenal of different iris effects and wipes; Fassbinder rediscovers the richness of form in a forgotten language of film.
Veronika Voss premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1982. There was no question about the film’s formal mastery, but the reviews were nevertheless not unanimously positive. The trade journal Blickpunkt: Film, which was important for movie theater operators, published a devastating critique: The story was deemed dull and boring, without any excitement, a sleeping pill. On the same page the journal announced that the film had been sold to many different countries during the Berlinale: United Artists had secured the distribution rights for the USA, UGC for France, Gaumont for Italy. By the end of the festival, the world sales agent of Filmverlag der Autoren had completed twenty sales to foreign countries. And at the awards ceremony, Fassbinder experienced a triumph that had been denied him for Effi Briest and The Marriage of Maria Braun: he was awarded the Golden Bear.
Fassbinder was no longer interested in victories, however. In the press booklet, the filmmaker addressed the question of whether he loved such failed figures as Veronika Voss: “I have a tender feeling toward her—I understand her in all the things she has done wrong. She has let herself be destroyed. Maybe that has something to do with me. You say to yourself, Okay, don’t let yourself be wrecked like that, but still, it could happen to me. There are people who are just waiting for me to collapse . . . .” Veronika Voss was the last film Fassbinder was able to complete.
In one of his last interviews, which he gave after he had finished shooting Querelle (1982), Fassbinder was asked about the collaboration with Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich: “It is very productive work; it is really great,” was his laconic response. He cited the first film of the trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun, as an example. “I just couldn’t manage to put the story together, because it was swirling around in my head, all confused,” he admitted. “And in this area they are very good: they give me a dramaturgical concept or corset that doesn’t weigh me down, but rather frees me.”
Fassbinder was not one to give high praise, but he knew what he owed to his writers. The collaboration was to continue; the next project was to have been a film about Rosa Luxemburg. In the early morning hours of June 10, 1982—he had just made some notes on the treatment by Märthesheimer and Fröhlich—Rainer Werner Fassbinder died.
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.