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    Early Fassbinder: Eclipse Series 39 DVD Review

    DVD Criterion

    Aug 21 2013 01:07 PM | Matt Hough in DVD & Blu-ray Reviews
    In his first year and a half as a professional filmmaker, German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed ten films. Five of those have been collected in the latest Eclipse box set Early Fassbinder. Included among these are his first two films as well as three others, all of which show the auteur’s fascination with both American classic genre films and the French New Wave. As one of the pioneers of a new wave of German directors, Fassbinder was truly in a class by himself, but these early films show only embryonic snatches of the style that would make him world famous.

    Title Info:

    • Studio: Criterion
    • Distributed By: N/A
    • Video Resolution: 480I/MPEG-2
    • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1, 1.78:1
    • Audio: Other
    • Subtitles: English
    • Rating: Not Rated
    • Run Time: 7 Hr. 34 Min.
    • Package Includes: DVD
    • Case Type: slimline cases in a slipcover
    • Disc Type: DVD-5 (single layer)
    • Region: 1
    • Release Date: 08/27/2013
    • MSRP: $69.95

    The Production Rating: 3/5

    Love Is Colder Than Death – 2.5/5

    Franz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) is a crook who resists tying himself to any German crime syndicate despite numerous entreaties to join their ranks. He likes his freedom to plan and execute his own jobs, using his prostitute girl friend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) to tide him over between jobs. He meets the quiet, charismatic Bruno (Ulli Lommel) and is drawn to him, allowing him to join their criminal ranks. Despite having an initial attraction to Joanna, Bruno would like to get rid of her if possible leaving only him and Franz as a team, and an upcoming bank job would seem the perfect opportunity to get rid of her.

    Fassbinder’s script is filled with the tropes of Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s and utilizes the guerilla filmmaking techniques of the French New Wave since the film was financed with very little money. The result is a stark and moody cinematic experience, crude in many respects and obviously the work of a neophyte and yet with a style that’s not completely unappealing despite the film’s odd pacing (several long tracking shots just for the heck of it and plenty of close-ups of his two stars, both of whom are gorgeous creatures) and amateurish sound effects and staged action scenes. Fassbinder’s own acting (perpetually smoking with a sneer) is no threat to Marlon Brando’s brooding loner in something like The Wild One (Brando’s outfit in that movie seems to have influenced Fassbinder’s choices here) while his muse Hanna Schygulla has not yet developed into the acting paragon she would become in the years to come.

    Katzelmacher – 3/5

    A group of financially strapped and indolent German young people spend day after day on their apartment stoop gossiping about one another and trying to find any way they can to earn money. Elisabeth (Irm Herman) takes in an immigrant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) from Greece, Rosy (Elga Sorbas) has begun prostituting herself to earn a few dollars even going so far as charging her boy friend Franz (Harry Baer) for sex, and Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem) with a clinging, pregnant girl friend Helga (Lilith Ungerer ) is charging for sex, too, from Klaus (Hannes Gromball) whom he sees on a weekly basis. But as the Germans grow increasingly agitated with their inert status, they begin to focus on the immigrant Jorgos as the target for their own frustrations inventing reasons to despise him (his alleged sexual prowess, his “rape” of one of the regulars, his alleged Communism, his lack of hygiene).

    Fassbinder adapted his own play for the screen here, a scathing satire on the German mistreatment of immigrants and their hypocritical actions against innocents when their own behaviors are so much worse. The satire is rather obvious, and Fassbinder’s cinematic technique hasn’t altered much from his first film: lots of static takes, spartan backgrounds, and rudimentary staging of his actors. (The film was shot in nine days which accounts for its utter simplicity.) The characters apart from the Greek and Marie (Hanna Schygulla), the one German who gets to know the real person instead of listening to the foul rumors her friends are perpetuating, are a dismal lot, and watching the bullies among the friends (some male, some female) treating those they supposedly care about so disgracefully is pretty off-putting making for a long ninety minutes. The film didn’t make much money at the box-office, but it was a great critical success and enhanced the director’s reputation around the world.

    Gods of the Plague – 3/5

    No sooner does he get out of jail than Franz Walsch (Harry Baer) begins planning his next caper. None of the women in his life want him to take up a life of crime again especially chanteuse Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) or Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta). With his close friend Günther (aka The Gorilla) (Günther Kaufmann), he hopes to rob a supermarket managed by another old friend, but discarded lover Joanna feels compelled to inform a cop (Jan George) on what might take place, hoping to keep her beloved out of harm.

    Once again celebrating the Hollywood gangster milieu of the 1930s and 1940s, Fassbinder has produced an almost plotless film with just the barest bones of a narrative that’s not even made clear until the final half hour. Before that is simply a series of liaisons with former lovers and some dallying with a girl who earns money by selling pornography. But the director’s style is certainly coalescing nicely with tracking shots that have some point (the wounded Gorilla’s climactic stumble down a nighttime street recalls Cagney’s similar stumble in Public Enemy) and scenes where the static camera focuses on unhappy lovers at least don’t go on too long. There’s a very clumsily staged and shot fight between friends that still betrays the director’s lack of experience, and he succumbs to indulgences like having Schygulla mime to Marlene Dietrich and Carla Aulaulu to sing several verses in English of “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” but otherwise the film has a much more professional air about it than the previous two.

    The American Soldier – 3/5

    Returning from the Vietnam War to his Munich home, Ricky (Karl Scheydt) becomes a contract killer doing jobs for unscrupulous policemen (Jan George, Hark Bohm, Marius Aicher). He’s an equal opportunity hit man killing a gay gypsy and a newlywed couple without batting an eye. But when Jan’s undercover policewoman/girl friend Rosa (Elge Sorbas) is sent to spy on Ricky and ends up falling for him, Jan puts a hit out on her. Guess who gets the job?

    Fassbinder’s third crime drama/noir is his most confident yet. His style is becoming more fluid, and there appears to be more care taken with production design (though sloppy continuity continues as before: a clarinet player in a club has his horn out of his mouth as the clarinet tweets merrily on the soundtrack). The narrative, of course, is as sparse and terse as always with characters more styled on zombies with their lack of emotion (one exception to that rule: Ricky’s brother Kurt - Kurt Raab – has an obvious incestuous infatuation with his brother and doesn’t mind showing it which includes the film’s ludicrous ending, a four minute slow motion wallow of death between the two brothers), and Fassbinder’s snail’s sense of pacing (he even includes an almost unnecessary scene where he plays Ricky’s old friend Franz Walsch, and they visit the old neighborhood together, its only purpose being to introduce the character who will figure into the climactic sequence). As in the other crime “thrillers,” women are objects to be used and abused; obviously women’s lib which was a strong movement in America at the time hadn’t reached the Old Country.

    Beware of a Holy Whore – 3/5

    A German film crew is holed up in a Spanish seaside resort hotel waiting for their director (Lou Castel), the star of the show (Eddie Constantine playing himself), and more money with which to begin shooting. During the waiting and amid pre-production mayhem, people drift into and out of relationships, many Cuba libres are consumed, and quarrels and shouting become the order of the day. The director proves to be a dictatorial nightmare: insecure, spoiled, lovesick, and on the verge of a breakdown which his chaotic cast and crew do nothing to relieve. And yet through the bedlam, a film manages to get made.

    After his nightmarish experience making the film Whity early in 1970, Fassbinder collated his thoughts and feelings about the incident to fashion the script for this his tenth film. Though he’s cast himself as the production manager in the movie (who loses his wife to the bisexual director), Lou Castel plays his alter ego in the movie even down to the ubiquitous black leather jacket which was a Fassbinder trademark. His satirical view of himself and his compatriots is unsparing in its savagery portraying them all as witless, vain, spoiled children squabbling about anything and everything and generally making spectacles of themselves without regard to how they’re coming off to the employees or other guests of the hotel. The film’s first two-thirds retains the languorous style of his previous films and the deadened line readings from all except those having a momentary temper tantrum. The last third shows the production of the movie in fits and spurts but with little sensibility of what’s actually going on. Among movies made about making movies, this one ranks at the bottom of the barrel since it’s far more concerned with the quirky, unstable personalities of its participants (which are all shown on the surface without any examination into their psyches) rather than in telling a real story. Truffaut would do it so much better in Day for Night in just a couple of years.

    Video Rating: 3.5/5 3D Rating: NA

    Love Is Colder Than Death – 3.5/5

    The film is framed on this DVD at 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Sharpness is good to excellent for much of the movie though some of the photography is noticeably lacking depth of focus that can be found in other scenes. The grayscale is skewed a bit with whites that bloom quite noticeably (sometimes deliberately as at the end but not always) and black levels which vary but can be impressive. The film has been admirably cleaned up showing no age-related artifacts to distract the viewer. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.

    Katzelmacher – 3/5

    The film is presented in 1.33:1. Sharpness isn’t as consistent as in the first film though some close-ups show more detail than others. The grayscale once again seems a bit off: whites are a bit too bright and blacks aren’t all they should be. Contrast also varies throughout. Most of the image is clean though there is some momentary spotting during one particular sequence. The white subtitles are easy enough to read, and the movie has been divided into 8 chapters.

    Gods of the Plague – 3.5/5

    The film is framed at 1.33:1. Sharpness is mostly excellent throughout, and the grayscale is solid with whites that don’t bloom and blacks that are more than decent. But the low resolution causes certain backgrounds of scenes to strobe uncomfortably, and there’s some noticeable aliasing in several places. The film has been divided into 12 chapters, and the white subtitles are printed large and are easy to read.

    The American Soldier – 4/5

    The film has been framed at 1.33:1. The image is very sharp, and the grayscale is starkly solid with its crisp whites and edgy blacks which are very deep for a film of this vintage. The image is also very clean with only some minor line twitter in one sequence and some minor pulsing in another to mar an otherwise impressive video presentation. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the movie has been divided into 11 chapters.

    Beware of a Holy Whore – 4/5

    The film is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As the only color film in this collection, the transfer is actually quite lovely. Sharpness is good rather than great, but color saturation is solid and consistent throughout with very believable skin tones. Contrast is also consistently applied making for a very inviting picture unspoiled by any age-related artifacts. The white subtitles are very easy to read, and the movie has been divided into 12 chapters.

    Audio Rating: 3.5/5

    Love Is Colder Than Death – 3.5/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix doesn’t have much bass in the mix. The music by Peer Raben and Holger Munzer is also often distorted and amplified over otherwise pantomimed scenes of the actors at work. All of the dialogue and sound effects were post synched which also adds to the remote sound quality of the transfer.

    Katzelmacher – 3/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix does contain some slight hiss on occasion. This was not post-synched so the sound, as flat as it often is, still rings true throughout. Dialogue is clear and is never drowned out by Peter Raben’s music or the occasional sound effect.

    Gods of the Plague – 3.5/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix has more fidelity than one might expect for a low budget production. There is some hiss present, but otherwise the dialogue, music, and sound effects join to make an effective audio track.

    The American Soldier – 3.5/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix is a bit louder than it needs to be, but it features solid fidelity, clear dialogue, and effective music and sound effects that never are overstated. Much of the film was post-synched, so that dryness and flatness is a problem that’s unsolvable.

    Beware of a Holy Whore – 3.5/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix has the same dry, flat resonance due to the mostly post-synched quality of the recording. The music part of the mix, both a background score by Peer Raben plus pop songs from everyone from Elvis to Dylan, makes a good impression. Sound effects don’t intrude on the dialogue at all.

    Special Features: 1/5

    The Eclipse series of releases does not contain bonus features as such, but each slimline case contains interesting and informative liner notes by film historian Michael Koresky that are indispensable aids in understanding how the director’s life and times shaped what he was putting on the screen.

    Overall Rating: 3/5

    The early films of the late German writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder are not for all tastes, but seeing the very individual style of this world renowned filmmaker develop from film to film in his first two years as a professional give this Eclipse box set its reason for existence.

    Reviewed by: Matt Hough
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    Where is the BD?

    I assume Criterion felt that not enough money could be made with these early films on Blu and relegated them to their Eclipse line.