[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Fox from Tractor Facts. Visit his site to see Fox's thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]
The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder often tread a fine line between stylized melodrama and blunt naturalism. His characters act in exaggerated ways, stumbling and falling in a weeping heap, pounding violently on tables, taking long, meditative walks. Their emotions exist right on the surface, overwhelming them like characters in a soap opera. And yet, within the bleak worlds that Fassbinder constructs such maudlin melodramatics are not unwarranted; his characters are not overreacting but rather doing the only thing possible in the face of a cruel, suffocating existence. The Merchant of Four Seasons is a typically relentless Fassbinder film in this respect, telling the story of the fruit vendor Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), a man who takes as much as he possibly can from an unfair and unrewarding life before finally giving up. Hans is a pathetic man, a man who's made all the wrong decisions whenever he had a choice, and who at other times has had choices cruelly taken away from him. His domineering mother (Gusti Kreissl) refused to let him pursue his chosen career as a mechanic, viewing it as beneath her family's station, and she ignored Hans' distaste for the school she forced him to attend instead. In the film's opening scenes, Hans has returned after running away from school to join the Foreign Legion; instead of greeting him, his mother treats him with contempt, ending with the searing put-down, "once a no-good, always a no-good."
That pretty much sums up what's in store for Hans. Once back, he settles into a life as a fruit vendor with his wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann), though he's predictably miserable: the couple are constantly bickering, and Hans responds to these arguments by running away, going off to bars for drinks. Throughout the film, flashbacks fill in the details about Hans' life that had led him to this state. He had once been a policeman, but in a moment of weakness gave in to the seduction of a prostitute and was caught, thus losing his job. He had once loved another woman (Ingrid Caven), who throughout the film goes unnamed, referred to only as "the love of Hans' life." He had planned to marry her, but she rejected him, saying that her upper-class father would never accept her marrying a fruit vendor. Both through his own fault and through the simple combination of circumstances, Hans' life was a series of one disappointment after another, a series of compromises and settling for second best, never getting what he really wanted. He is an utter loser, a nothing, and he knows it and hurts from it.
Even when a heart attack after a bout of drinking and violence seems to give Hans a second chance, it all quickly falls apart again. Before the heart attack, Irmgard had been ready to leave him because of his violence, but afterward she decides to stay with him after all. Since he can't do the heavy work anymore, they decide to hire a worker and set up a stationary stand as well, and the new approach to the business makes them more successful than ever before. Hans briefly seems rejuvenated, but when he hires a man named Anzell (Karl Scheydt) to help with the business, his wife is horrified: she had slept with this man during a brief flirtation with becoming a prostitute. So she schemes to get him fired, and succeeds. Fassbinder stages the sequence where her treachery becomes clear to Anzell as a taut exchange of glances between the three protagonists, their eyes veiled, filled with understanding and restrained rage. It is a decisive moment, though Fassbinder never makes it clear just how much Hans actually understands about what has gone on here.
In any event, Hans' downward spiral resumes after this, only temporarily interrupted by a joyous reunion with his old Legion buddy Harry (Klaus Löwitsch), who takes over Anzell's job as fruit hawker. The film's final stretch is a funereal procession in which it's obvious that Hans is preparing for death, saying goodbye to a life he never enjoyed. He visits the people in his life one by one, reaffirming his disconnection from them, even from the love of his life, who no longer excites him, and from his affectionate sister Anna (Hanna Schygulla), the only person who ever stood up for him. When he goes to visit her, however, she's distracted by work, and Fassbinder accentuates how little attention she's paying to Hans' depression by placing her in the foreground, reading and writing, while her brother quietly mopes in the background, saying little, virtually ignored.
This is Hans' fate, to be ignored and mistreated, and Fassbinder never misses an opportunity to emphasize his protagonist's pathetic life with stylized touches. After a drunken, miserable Hans beats Irmgard one night — a harrowing, horrifying scene, with the couple's daughter struggling to protect her mother — Irmgard runs away to Hans' family. When he shows up, contrite and begging for her back, his family reacts with almost comical horror, freezing into gothic poses right out of a silent melodrama; they all but sweep their hands across their brows as their eyes pop out of their heads. Only Anna reacts with calm and patience, treating the situation with adult restraint and sympathy for everyone involved, comforting the couple's weeping daughter while everyone else projects their emotions in shrill upper registers. These people are so wrapped up in their own lives, their own emotions and worries, that they have no empathy for anyone else, and certainly not for poor, pathetic Hans.
Fassbinder contrasts these outsized, melodramatic emotions against the mostly quiet suffering of Hans. He has only one real outburst, and it's enough to completely destroy his heart; otherwise, his life is a slow, sad descent, with little struggle or attempt to change things. Like many of Fassbinder's protagonists, he seems to have accepted his fate, making the final scene, in which he commits suicide by drinking himself to death, inevitable. Fassbinder stages this sequence as a series of formalist closeups: as Hans raises a glass to each person in his life in turn, Fassbinder cuts away to direct, intimate closeups, as each person looks silently on, doing nothing as Hans destroys his life for good. This final scene is a metaphor for the entirety of Hans' self-destructive, unlucky life: no one cares, no one does anything to help him, and Fassbinder's constricting mise en scène forces the audience into a position of numbing complicity, as we also watch this man destroy himself. It's a typically tough, unflinching film from Fassbinder, an inquiry into the ways in which people place limits on their own lives and those of others.