The Merchant of Four Seasons: Downward Mobility in Munich

On Film / Essays — Jun 1, 2015
The Merchant of Four Seasons

The Merchant of Four Seasons was a turning point in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career, winning him both critical acclaim and commercial success. With this somber, intensely poignant 1971 portrait of a man lost to himself and to the world, he embarked on his declared goal “to make Hollywood films—in Germany.” Set in the mid-1950s, the film tells the story of Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), who returns home to Munich from a spell in the French Foreign Legion, which he joined after being sacked from the police force for once accepting sexual favors from a prostitute. He gets a frosty reception from his mother (Gusti Kreissl) and shrill reproaches from his wife, Irmgard (Irm Hermann), but he shoulders his responsibilities and starts a new life selling fruit from a pushcart in the backyards of tenement houses. Soon, however, his frequent stops at a local bar to help him forget his domestic misery and the memory of the love of his life (Ingrid Caven) begin to lock him into a downward spiral of depression, recrimination, and resentment.

Fassbinder shows the German economic miracle beginning to transform working-­class lives but creating losers as well as winners. His characters and locations offer a scrupulously observed milieu that sacrifices none of its atmospheric realism for being put in the service of a story whose schematic simplicity has the strength of a parable and the stark economy of ancient tragedy. He depicts the stages of his hero’s slow, steady slide into despair and oblivion in a style that builds on the emphatic fluidity that had become his trademark. The Merchant of Four Seasons was Fassbinder’s twelfth feature in less than three years, and the first after his discovery of the tightly scripted middle-class, Middle America “weepies” of the German ­émigré Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, about whom he wrote, that same year, what must surely count as the most appreciative essay the director received during his lifetime.

Inspired by Sirk, Fassbinder conceived a cycle of films centered on the impossibility of love or trust within (homo- and heterosexual) couples, or of finding happiness in family bonds. Transferred to very diverse but nonetheless typically West German milieus, Sirkian melodrama proved a winning formula for Fassbinder, informing some of his best-known films, such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Martha (1974), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and Fox and His Friends (1975). The most astonishing, however, because possibly the most sharply etched, remains the first of these, The Merchant of Four Seasons.

Shot mostly in muted, pastel colors, with brief flashes of sumptuous red and shimmering gray, depending on the expressive tenor of a given scene, Merchant’s grim tale has a mysterious power to move the viewer almost to tears, enlisting compassion for its hero but avoiding bathos. Even though most of the story is told from Hans’s point of view (uncannily, this includes his own funeral after he drinks himself to death, thus delving deeply into the narcissistic fantasy that underpins the story and possibly makes it so psychologically convincing), Fassbinder evenhandedly extends sympathy and understanding to the other characters as well. The flinty scorn of Hans’s mother (who had to raise a family without a husband) and his wife’s nagging and scheming hysteria are seen as the plausible results of the daily worries that wear the women down, choking their own capacity for love and thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of aggressive defensiveness and sullen silence. Fassbinder learned from Sirk how to extend his emotional range, which here encompasses the lives of working-class people with middle-class ambitions (Irmgard, the wife) and vice versa: Hans is middle class but prefers to work with his hands or even as a humble street vendor rather than fulfill his mother’s expectation that he become a civil servant or white-collar employee.

Sirk’s work also taught Fassbinder how to carry an audience into the more mixed emotional responses that these characters, who seem so unlikable, are able to elicit. For instance, several scenes in The Merchant of Four Seasons skillfully switch tone and modulate mood, such as a visit Hans pays to his great love, during which she offers him afternoon sex that he turns down, or a call he makes on his sister (Hanna Schygulla), who claims to be too busy finishing a translation to have time for his worries. One incident in particular is memorable in this respect, as Hans, abruptly shifting from self-pity to violence to sentimentality, returns home late and beats his wife after an evening of drunken acrimony and self-recrimination. The deft use of decor and the perfect timing of the verbal exchanges manage to sustain an unsettling flow of conflicted feelings in a situation that might otherwise appear absurd or over-the-top. Instead, the scene is as horrifying as it is pitiful, especially after Hans, morose and disgusted with himself, stumbles into the family’s living room, puts on a gramophone record, and collapses into a chair. As he listens to a Rocco Granata ballad, his body relaxes and opens itself up to the plaintive music, intimating a life beyond grief and pain, while the chair he is slumped in comments sarcastically on these longings, epitomizing as it does the cramped modishness of not-quite-affordable extravagance and unfulfilled aspiration. The domestic decor thus serves to explain why Hans prefers working-class values over middle-class pretensions.

With The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fassbinder perfected a style that could engage spectators, striking discordant notes that nonetheless rang true, irrespective of whether this kind of faux-naive sincerity beyond irony was melding a post-’68 disillusionment over working-class militancy with a melancholy social conscience or displaying a post-Warhol camp sensibility that, for example, rediscovered with relish the 1950s German family and its weakness for sentimental songs by such exotically named popular stars as Granata, Freddy Quinn, and Caterina Valente.

Here is a director who takes delight in artifice but constantly forces one’s attention to shift between what could be taken from “life” and what one suspects is coming from other movies or television, be it Hollywood spectacles, cheap imported soft-core porn, low-budget avant-garde productions, or soap operas. The new naïveté, however, is far from naive: it deploys conventions, stereotypes, and genre formulas in order to capture a truth whose validity may be emotional first, but can just as well be read as political. The Merchant of Four Seasons is rightly considered an example of political cinema, accessible to a mass public yet often subtle and formally complex in the way it secures that accessibility. Its violent clash of irreconcilable points of view allows its characters’ false (class) consciousness to become the vehicle for showing up a world of insincerity and bogus values, where the deformation of individual behavior mirrors the deformations of social reality. This reality, however, is never presumed to be objectively given but rather reveals itself as subjectively constructed: both Sirk’s and Fassbinder’s melodramas present a point of view from within while juxtaposing it with a point of view from without, which usually is itself someone else’s point of view from within.

What makes The Merchant of Four Seasons special even among Fassbinder’s Sirkian melodramas in this regard is how ingeniously the subjective point of view is constructed and maintained throughout the narrative, highlighted most strikingly when it is at variance with the optical point of view. There are several crucial scenes that Fassbinder persuades us we are seeing from Hans’s perspective, even though he is not actually witnessing them. This applies to the cheerless and hysterical lovemaking between his wife and Anzell (Karl Scheydt), a man she casually allows to pick her up in the street (and who later becomes Hans’s assistant), the logic of which demands that Hans neither is present nor knows about it. But curiously enough, the two behave as Hans would imagine them behaving, or as he fears his wife behaving. In other words, it is not so much that they are surprised in the act by the opening of the bedroom door by Hans and Irmgard’s six-year-old daughter, Renate. Rather, it is as if Renate is the stand-in for Hans, who, having given up on his wife, anticipates her taking a lover and imagines coming across the scene. Even more startlingly paradoxical is Hans’s funeral, already mentioned, shot from inside the grave, as if he were observing the mourners. This seems to gratify a common childhood fantasy, namely, to see how sorry people are when you are dead and how much they regret having been so mean and horrid—here with the added twist that the mourners, with one exception, are not sorry but relieved. Throughout the film, it has been intimated that Hans is already “beyond the grave,” and in this sense, he has been cheated also of an afterlife of memory and mourning. It is this nonexistence for the other, which he has sensed all along, that drives him to suicide.

Why this emphasis on seeing and being seen? Hans seeks to attract the eyes that will finally anchor him in the social world to which he once wished to belong, having for whatever reason fallen out of it, become a misfit, an outsider, and even a traitor to his class. We observe his dilemma in action when, on his daily rounds as a barrow fruit vendor, he is initially caught between the surveillance gaze of his suspicious wife and the gazes of housewives he solicits with his mournful courtyard bark; in neither of them does he find himself recognized or confirmed. On the other hand, he himself assumes this surveillance gaze after Anzell becomes his assistant and Irmgard sets up Anzell to cheat Hans, knowing that Hans will secretly follow Anzell. But since it is a setup, Hans is a watcher watched and ultimately the dupe. It is therefore only logical, if poignantly ironic, that the only times he manages to have all eyes on him, his friends’ and family’s full attention, are during the slow, painful session—punctuated by flashback memories of abandonment, brutal beatings, and betrayal during his time in the Legion—when Hans downs drink after drink, knowing it will kill him, and at his own funeral.

These recursive loops in the register of vision and point of view are underlined and made even more palpable by the double binds that push the main character into an identity that is based on self-negation. A special sort of knotted logic traps Hans right from the outset, best illustrated by the way his good intentions to start a new life are sabotaged by his mother’s rejection on his return from the Foreign Legion, when she scolds him for having come back:

MOTHER: Joining the Legion, well, that’s your own business. But dragging along with you a nice young man like Manfred Wagner—his parents gave me such a hard time. They held me responsible, me! Is he back, too?
HANS: Manni is dead.
MOTHER: It’s always the same. The best are left behind, while people like you come home.
HANS: I’ve changed, Mother.
MOTHER: A devil in the morning, a devil in the afternoon.

This is no mere lack of recognition by a significant Other. What Hans’s mother seems to tell him is that he would have to be dead before she could love him. It starts a chain of events that culminates in his fatally taking sides against himself at every turn, but the pattern is established well before—for instance, when Hans explains how he lost his job with the police after giving in to the advances of a prostitute: “It’s absolutely obvious that such behavior can’t be tolerated in the department. I’m not complaining. If I didn’t know that myself . . . I’d have been a lousy police officer, right? But I was a good police officer. A good police officer.”

It is as if Hans takes his mother’s assertion—that she would have preferred for him to have died—literally: as his death sentence. And when he assumes it, his lethargy and weakness also become his strength, as demonstrated in the final gathering in the bar. His making a spectacle of himself in front of the others as he drinks himself to death becomes the necessary condition for him to just once have a speaking position, from which to “answer” the mother’s verdict and interpellation, retroactively confirming his identity as a dead man among the living. Nevertheless, however miserable from our point of view the manner of his dying may seem, it secures Hans that second, symbolic death: the (exhibitionist) fantasy of “dying to be seen.” It leaves one with a curiously upbeat feeling at the end, confirming the mysterious secret of so many melodramas, where suffering and death have a strangely consoling effect, providing closure to a fantasy we may not have suspected to exist: that of the victim as the ­ultimate victor.