Tuesday, December 18, 2007

12/18: Lola

The final film in Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy is Lola, and it is the trilogy's lightest and most comical installment, a colorful and vibrant satire of the capitalist idea of advancing one's self. Although Lola (Barbara Sukowa), an expensive call girl, is the titular role, she steps in and out of the central space in the film, largely ceding the foreground to the two men she's manipulating and seducing: the corrupt contractor Schukert (Mario Adorf) and the seemingly incorruptible city building inspector Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Even when she's in the background, though, Lola is the film's heart and soul, its vivid icon of the post-war struggle for success. Lola is, like the heroines of the other two BRD films, a woman who has been kicked around by life, and responds by making herself hard and doing anything to get what she wants. In this case, what she wants is economic independence, freedom from being a piece of property bartered over by the city's upper class citizens. With this in mind, she sets her sights on the newly arrived Von Bohm, a pillar of respectability who's unaware of her lowly status.

The film's story of love, exploitation, economic scheming, and capitalist corruption is, in its narrative details, almost entirely realistic. And yet Fassbinder makes this story seem like a dazzling fairy tale by bathing the film in gorgeous, multi-colored lights and fragmenting the narrative with dramatic ellipses, fading to an abstract smear of colors in between scenes. One can't possibly talk enough about Fassbinder's use of color in this film. Color was always an integral component in his films, especially in the ones he made following his first exposure to Douglas Sirk, but this is the epitome of Fassbinder's approach to color and light. He arranges a dazzling array of pinks, reds, blues, and greens, making almost every scene a fabulous composition in color first, and anything else only secondarily.

But Fassbinder's use of color is hardly just ornamental, and he makes good use of his bright palette in developing his characters and their worlds. From the very first shot of the film, Lola is associated with the color red, and in most scenes where she appears, she's bathed in red light. Von Bohm, on the other hand, is associated with blue, most clearly in the bright blue of his eyes, which Fassbinder consistently accentuates. Von Bohm's face is often shrouded in darkness, with only a light tightly focused on the area around his eyes, so that they glow and glisten with an ethereal blue light. This tension between the red of passion and Von Bohm's cool blue is finally released when the pair drive home together and then talk outside the car afterwards. Throughout this conversation, Von Bohm's side of the car is filled with blue light, and Lola's side with a soft pink, without rational explanation — Fassbinder lights the film not in terms of realistic light sources, but with the metaphorical logic of dreams, and every nuance of lighting has a meaning. It's telling, then, that when Von Bohm comes closer to Lola to kiss her, he's moving out of the safe blue aura that has surrounded him throughout the film and into the bright red of Lola's world. When they kiss, both of them are illuminated in red. In the scenes after this point, following Lola's rejection of Von Bohm and his subsequent discovery that she's a whore, Fassbinder no longer calls attention to Mueller-Stahl's shining eyes, eliminating the blue aura of respectability that has protected him. Lola's appeal has drawn him away from his orderly world, whether he realizes it or not, and everything that happens to him afterward will be subject to her desires.

The film's stylishness and glamor elevate this otherwise down-to-earth tale into a capitalist fable, a breezily executed metaphor for Germany's "Economic Miracle" and the dehumanizing toll on a society that has begun to place economics before life and happiness. Several characters in the film speak about the distinction between public life and private life, but the film itself is essentially chronicling the suppression and destruction of the private sphere in favor of the public. Lola, certainly, has no private life of her own: her sexuality consists of business transactions, and even her grasping at genuine love with Von Bohm quickly morphs into a cycle of exploitation and manipulation in order to achieve monetary success and security. The film suggests a society in which people's private selves have disappeared, and all that's left is the shallow, money-focused exterior they present as a public face. With capitalism, Fassbinder seems to be saying, there really isn't much more than what meets the eye. There are only occasional and ineffective pockets of resistance to this capitalist barrage, especially in the form of the socialist Esslin (Matthias Fuchs) and, briefly, the jilted Von Bohm, before Lola's seductive charm sets him back on the course of the capitalist lock-step. Even the principled Esslin, a disciple of Bakunin, can eventually be bought out for the right price.

This film is Fassbinder at his witty, delirious best, deftly blending political satire and overwrought melodrama, with a stunning set of performances from some lesser-known lights in the director's stock company. Sukowa, especially, is a revelation in the only starring role Fassbinder gave her; she tears into a juicy performance as the cold but sexy Lola. Her character ranges from woozy sentimentality to joyous singing on stage at the whorehouse to icy manipulation, and in the scene where Von Bohm sees her at the brothel, she breaks into a jaw-dropping striptease, throwing her anguish at her lover's discovery into every violently jerky movement and crack in her voice. Mario Adorf is equally notable in his only role for Fassbinder, burning up the screen as the sleazy but undeniably vibrant contractor Schukert, his energy swallowing up everything around him. It goes without saying that Mueller-Stahl is exceptional as Von Bohm, exuding exactly the quiet strength that the character requires, and stalwart Fassbinder bit player Hark Bohm is cagey and opaque as the city's corrupt mayor.

This is a typically complex film from Fassbinder, in which politics and personal conflicts are inextricably wed together, making "the personal is political" much more than a shallow catch-phrase. The film both opens and closes with a black and white photo of Konrad Adenauer, the post-war first Chancellor of West Germany, and in between is a whole world of private and public dramas happening under the auspices of his administration. For Fassbinder, this is the only way to look at the world, as a web of interpersonal connections interwoven with the necessities of politics and economics, and Lola is a glorious farce that unravels some of these threads.


reassurance said...

This has always been my least favorite of the trilogy, although I hear Fassbinder die-hards think Maria Braun is too commercial. Regardless, I think it's probably the best film to showcase Hanna Schygulla, who seemed to get a real chip on her shoulder in the later works with Fassbinder.

reassurance said...

Although, yeah, Barbara Sukowa is great.

Ed Howard said...

I wouldn't say Maria Braun is too commercial, but it's my least favorite of the trilogy. It's just too straight-faced and schematic, and it lacks some of the bite of Fassbinder's usual satire. I like it just fine, but having seen 30 or so Fassbinder films by now, it doesn't stand out from the pack. I feel about it how you feel about Lola: Hanna Schygulla is amazing, but...

On the other hand, I'd have a very hard time picking between Lola and Veronika Voss, both of which are among my favorites. The unity of style and satirical substance in these films is unmatched anywhere. I have a natural affinity for the more acerbic and stylish Fassbinder films, the ones that blend the bitterness of his ideas and characters with the sugary sweetness of a lush visual style.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Keep an eye peeled for Udo Kier and Raul Gimenez as the dancing waiters.