Brecht, Sirk, Marx: That’s basically what you need to know about thematic ideas when going into a Fassbinder film. Sometimes there are other influences, sure – couldn’t talk about Querelle without mentioning Genet, for example – but the roots of everything he does is a solid mixture of those three names, including 1980’s Lola, his tribute to Josef von Sternberg’s classic The Blue Angel which basically remakes the story of a young cabaret singer (here more openly shown as a prostitute) who ruins a straight-laced professional (there a professor, here a medium level city planner). But it’s like this – every film of his starts from a grounding in the Brecht/Sirk/Marx triumvirate and then he finds a story (based in post-WWII Germany) that appeals to him that will navigate a new course through their works and put his stamp on the synthesis.
Let’s start with Marx here. I’m trying to think of a Fassbinder film that doesn’t at some level deal with class conflict rooted in the effects of capital and can’t come up with one. He had this as a subtext earlier on and brought it to the fore by the end of his career. It’s especially notable here, with explicit and pervasive references to capitalism and the way it can pervert and destroy relationships – personal, public, etc. – and the particularly oily and manipulative character of Schukert to embody its worst excesses, even going so far as to offer money to the opposition to his causes just to cover his bases. But no one is immune to its effects and while Lola is far more sympathetic a character than Schukert, or even than the character of her mother who is infatuated with the perceived class and status of the new official Von Bohn, she still uses all the means at her disposal – primarily sexual – to seduce, entrap and ruin the official. The effect of the film is particularly nasty, with the worst instincts of Lola and Schukert (with the complicity of most every other character in the film) given free rein and in the end, triumphant over the seemingly normal and moral character of Von Bohn, who succumbs utterly to their influence. It’s a brutal comment on the classes and the ambition of the underclass to join to upper classes by any means they have.
Sirk and Brecht go hand in hand in the film, even though they’d seem to be at polar opposites. Sirk’s modus operandi is to create a melodrama skirting on the edge of believability that sucks you into the lives of his characters regardless because he’s consistently critical of the social traps that the upper classes face; bound up in their worlds, they are forbidden to transgress them. And while this sort of storytelling that gets you so would up in the story is the seemingly antithesis of Brecht’s style, in which the viewer in constantly aware of the artifice of theatrical gesture so that the ideas being pushed in the work remain at the fore of the consciousness, the pure artificiality of the melodrama offers up the same effect. Lola's candy colors, the intrusive scores, the overly enthusiastic performances (in some scenes) – it all adds up to a façade that feels as false as Fassbinder’s earlier antiteater tricks, with actors reciting blandly into the camera.
So far this is a review that could’ve plugged in any Fassbinder film and altered details to fit the specifics, but the meaning would be the same. It’s a problem you encounter with true auteurs. When a director explores themes over and over, it’s tough to find something different to say about it the 26th time out. I’m a believer in a lot of what Fassbinder has to say, though I think I’m far less pessimistic about how things work in the real world. But I enjoy his provocative tricks, even the 26th time out. The circumstances portrayed in this film can be extrapolated out of postwar Germany being rebuilt into a modern world where corporate greed and big business take precedence over anything vaguely resembling human emotion and kindness and even the supposed resistance can be co-opted (exemplified by Lola’s on and off boyfriend Esslin, who proves to be readily available to Schukert’s bidding) for the right price. In short, it speaks past the time and place of its setting to the present (and the foreseeable future as well), which says that it’s a work of art worth attending to.
Is it my favorite Fassbinder? Is it his most effective screed about greed and corruption and class conflicts? Not for me. I can think of a handful of other films of his I prefer to this, ones where the devastation wrought by the central characters’ greed hits me more fully even while making sure that you don’t miss the political ideas he’s promoting. But it’s a solid one for sure, a fitting example of his later, more assured style, where Brecht and Sirk sit comfortably alongside each other while Marx, as ever, hovers in the background.