Friday, 15 April 2016

Blu-Ray Review: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Based on Fassbinder's own play, "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" is set entirely in the bedroom of a Bremen apartment where Petra (Margit Carstensen) busies herself with a successful career as a fashion designer.
We see the cruel side of Petra early on with her callous treatment of servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), and go on to witness a draining downwards spiral as friends, family and a new lover are introduced to us via the all-female cast.
Petra's previous relationships are discussed with Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) while Marlene stands in the background, listening intently as silent witness to stories which contain fabrications, judging by the servant's facial expressions.
Another visitor to Petra's centre of her universe is Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla); a 23 year-old beauty who casts a spell over her host, and becomes her lover following Petra's promise to help turn her into a top model.
Before long, their relationship turns sour, with Karin's treatment of Petra becoming similar to the verbal abuse suffered by Marlene, and the introduction of Petra's mother (Gisela Fackeldey) and daughter Gabriele (Eva Mattes) further increases the harsh words and actions that pour out of Petra.

Overall, this is an emotionally draining film, driven by beautifully tuned performances and Michael Ballhaus' photography and lighting.
The bedroom features a reproduction of a painting - 'Midas and Bacchus' by Nicolas Poussin - which, along with Petra's bed, becomes another character in the film, sometimes dominating and always acting as a jury, deliberating on the events with eyes that watch from hundreds of years ago.
Towards the end of the film, life really does imitate art as the occupants of Petra's bedroom practically mirroring the imposing artwork.
The room itself is, by turn, claustrophobic, and sometimes really opens up to characters and their audience, while remaining within the wing of Fassbinder's theatrical direction.
The performances, too, are sympathetic to the story, conveying a multitude of emotions as real despair kicks in.
While Carstensen and Schygulla both excel in their roles, Irm Hermann deserves much praise for her portrayal of Marlene, who sometimes takes the guise of one of Petra's paintings, adopting still-life poses as real life turmoil surrounds her.Whether it's sketching designs for Petra, acting as nurse or simply through the clickety-clack of her typewriter keys, she's always there, right up to the finale which sheds some light on her tolerance of Petra's behaviour.

This is top-tier Fassbinder, and ripe for the kind of re-appraisal found in Diane Charleson's excellent commentary track found on Arrow Aacadmey's Blu-ray.
Diane looks at Fassbinder's turbulent family life; influences drawn from American melodrama and Bergman's "Persona"; points out the triangular relationships reflected in the framing; discusses the absence of men in the film and also praises Michael Ballhaus for the fluidity he brought to this production.
It's a stimulating, highly informative track and one that you should return to.

Next up is 'Life Stories: A Conversation With R.W. Fassbinder'. Made for German television in 1978 and moderated by Peter W. Jensen, the interview runs for 48m 29s.
Fassbinder talks about his childhood, his marriage; the reduction of freedom in Germany at the time and of his second home in Paris, declaring he felt more at home there.
"Berlin Alexanderplatz" is also mentioned, and he addresses why his films were not widely known at the time.
It's an enlightening piece, tinged with sadness that Fassbinder died at such a young age.

'Role-Play" Women On Fassbinder' (58m 41s)
Here, Carstensen, Schygulla, Hermann and Rosel Zech paint a picture of what is was like working with a genius who tore of the masks of those he was with.
Hermann talks about their marriage, and why she broke up with him while Schgulla declares his actresses were like "figures on a chess board".
A temperamental, highly focused individual was was a real genius emerges from the memories of some of the ladies who knew him best.
A valuable disc extra indeed.

Once again, this 4K restoration from original camera negatives yields impressive results with a beautiful film-like presentation.
"The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is available to buy now. Another great addition to Arrow Academy's catalogue.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Blu-ray Review: The Merchant Of Four Seasons/Beware Of A Holy Whore (Arrow Academy)

Arrow Academy has just released a boxset devoted to the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, containing 7 Blu-ray discs which cover 10 of his films.

Limited edition box set (1,000 copies) containing Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Merchant of Four Seasons, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends, Chinese Roulette and The Marriage of Maria Braun
Brand new 4K restorations of the films from original camera negatives
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations
Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
Optional English subtitles on all films
Six audio commentaries: Adrian Martin on Beware of a Holy Whore, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Christian McCrea on The Merchant of Four Seasons, Diane Charleson on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Mark Freeman on Fear Eats the Soul, Ken Moulden on Effi Briest and Hamish Ford on Fox and His Friends
Two early short films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder from 1966, The Little Chaos and The City Tramp
My Name is Not Ali, Viola Shafik’s 2011 feature-length documentary on the life and death of El Hedi ben Salem, star of Fear Eats the Soul
Newly-filmed interview with actor Lou Castel on Beware of a Holy Whore
Newly-filmed interviews with actor Ulli Lommel on Love is Colder Than Death, Effi Briest and Chinese Roulette
Newly-filmed interviews with director of photography Jürgen Jürges on Fear Eats the Soul and Effi Briest
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Family, an all-new featurette detailing the actors who worked with Fassbinder time and again throughout his career
Life Stories: A Conversation with R.W. Fassbinder, a 50-minute interview with the director conducted for German television in 1978
End of the Commune, Joachim von Mengershausen’s 1970 documentary portrait of Fassbinder and his troupe including rare footage of his actors rehearsing and Love is Colder Than Death’s premiere at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival
Role-Play: Women on Fassbinder, a 1992 documentary containing interviews with four of the director’s leading ladies, Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla and Rosel Zech
Life, Love & Celluloid, a 1998 feature-length documentary on Fassbinder, written and directed by his regular editor, Juliane Lorenz
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977, a candid 30-minute interview with the director
Original theatrical trailers for Katzelmacher, Beware of a Holy Whore, Fear Eats the Soul, Fox and His Friends and Chinese Roulette
200-page hardback book, exclusive to this limited edition box set, containing all-new writing by Tony Rayns, Gertrud Koch, Michael Pattison, Nick Pinkerton, Ashley Clark, Erica Carter, Alex Davidson, Glenn Kenny and Margaret Deriaz

The films are also being released individually throughout 2016.

Although he passed away at the absurdly young age of 37, Fassbinder had an astonishingly prolific career and these releases are essential for followers of world cinema.
During the next few weeks, I'll be taking a look at five of these films.

The Merchant Of Four Seasons

"The good die young and people like you come back."

When Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) returns from a year away in the Foreign Legion, his mother (Gusti Kreissi) with the hostility of a bitter woman whose son has fallen well short of expectations.
Hans peddles fruit through the streets of Munich, aided by his wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) who is determined to make ends meet for their young daughter and also for their marriage.
Hans has an alcohol problem, and we first see his real devotion to the demon drink when Irmgard interrupts a heavy session with his cronies, only to have a chair thrown at her, followed by a beating when he eventually gets home.
One heart attack later, and Hans' drinking and heavy lifting at work are curtailed by a Doctor's warning that drink and physical exertion will be fatal.
So, Hans and his wife hire a labourer to work the rounds. Before long, the money is rolling in but further unhappiness lies just around the corner.

It's grim subject matter to be sure, but compulsive vewing thanks to the excellent cast who represent family and a band of outsiders who all have a part to play in this sad story.
Hirschmuller is very good as the ticking clock that is Hans, earning both sympathy and disgust for the choices he makes.
His family - Heide Simon as his married sister, brother-in-law Kurt played by Kurt Raab and sister Anna, the brutally honest one (Hanna Schygulla) - are dysfunctional in the extreme, while the hired help enter the picture with cold, calculating parts to play.
Top billing, for me, has to be Irm Hermann wo delivers a beautifully multi-layered performance, packing in all the emotions as she fights to keep the family unit together. Joy, pain, despair and a very real fear are all present and conveyed so very well.
Praise, too, for Ingrid Caven as Hans' great love. Her screen time may be limited but she leaves her mark like a stash of old letters that silently chronicle a love that could never be.
All of these actors are well served by the photography of Dietrich Lohmann whose exquisite framing helps make this a true work of art.
Highlights are many, but my own choice for the most affecting is the shot that follows a distraught Irmgard as she heads home through darkened streets past a variety of shops; one of which sells bridal gowns that should mark the beginning of a joyous union. Unbearably sad.
Those of you yet to experience a Fassbinder film, and who have perhaps been alerted by Arrow's deluxe treatment of other important director figures, may well find this a good place to begin.

"The Merchant Of Four Seasons" is accompanied by a commentary track from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Christian McCrae.
The pair combine well to deliver a track that will stimulate and inform newcomers and seasoned Fassbinder buffs alike.
We hear about the core issues Fassbinder brought to the table; the discomfort created by certain scenes in this film;
a funny story concerning the director's 8 month hiatus prior to shooting Merchant and analysis of when the films moves from cinematic to theatrical.
There's also praise for Hermann's performance; exploration of Fassbinder's attitude towards women - the director's own words being quoted on several occasions which adds to the wealth of information complied - and critical reaction to the film, which is sometimes challenged.
This serves for a lively, informative track that manages to fit in cast and crew information, and director's Fassbinder inuluenced and was influenced by, including Michael Mann and Douglas Sirk. Listen out, too, for Alexandra's wonderful description "a parody of mourning". A job well done.

Beware Of A Holy Whore

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's tenth film - an engrossing study of a film shoot from hell - was set in Spain and shot in Italy, and that's a consideration when one studies the sense of dislocation that's prevalent in this picture.
Lou Castel plays Jeff, director of this film-within-a-film and one of the few people to have a identifiable role in proceedings.
Jeff arrives on the set to find a motley collection of cast and crew - some interchangeable - who congregate around of bar area of the hotel lobby where they consume copious quantities of alcohol, while lust, jealousy and violence hang heavy in the air.
We have Fassbinder himself playing what appears to be the producer; Hanna Schygulla as a Monroe-esque Goddess clad in white; Eddie Constantine playing himself, effortlessly conveying real star quality; Uli Lommel's wanna-be director and a cast of supporting players who mostly become infected by the creeping moral malaise which covers this film.
Jeff's project is pitched as being against a certain kind of brutality that's sanctioned by the state, and includes two brutal murders which involve Constantine who initially draws the line at performing his characters deadly work.

The first half of "Beware Of A Holy Whore" is composed of long takes, while the second half contains a multitude of shorter scenes that jump about to such an extent, it's often confusing to get a handle on what's happening and when it occurred. For all that, it's a stimulating piece of work that presents the madness of a film set where missing materials, bouncing cheques and various warring factions combine to push the director towards the edge.
Once again, Fassbinder moves between the cinematic and the theatrical with beautifully composed framing shots from the director and his DOP Michael Ballhaus.
In many ways, "Beware Of A Holy Whore" would make for a compelling double bill with Abel Ferrara's "Snake Eyes" (aka "Dangerous Game") with the human wreckage of an ugly shoot ready to explode at any moment.

The excellent Adrian Martin takes the microphone for a commentary track that begins by examining a story from Werner Schroeter at the beginning of the film, and Adrian also notes how many of the cast were already film directors (including Schroeter) or would eventually move into this field.
Adrian talks about Fassbinder's early career; the connection between Beware and "Whity"; the director's use of music in this film; points out the influence of Sirk, Ray, Godard and Warhol in a commentary that takes in everything from the fragmented approach of the second half Of Beware to individual performances.
Listen to this and you'll immediately want to watch the film again.

A 2m 41s theatrical trailer is followed by "Castel As Fassbinder". This 9m 53s interview includes the story of how Lou eventually got tthe role of Jeff; his thoughts on working with the late director and his verdict on the film.
It's a nice way to end a disc that provides beautiful 4K restorations of both films.