I have read Thom Donovan's review of Michael Haneke’s new movie The White Ribbon, which I haven’t seen. The review offers up to the reader Donovan's feelings of queasiness and distress with depictions and executions of violence in Haneke’s films, but also mentions similar feelings while watching movies directed by Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I had previously written a small note on Haneke’s filmic atmospheres here.
I was mostly taken aback by Donovan’s seeming desire to excise violence from film, to not show acts of violence on women, and/or to position film as a place for a kind of sentimental moral instruction. I will not undertake a discussion of Bergman’s films, as viewed by violence, because I simply don’t understand the issue, as I have always considered Bergman’s films to be of the utmost psychological and spiritual seriousness and not one interested in depicting a mentionable amount of violence. The greatest moments in Bergman’s films, to me, are when he delves into the brutal, lived messiness of life and speaks frankly (Scenes From A Marriage), unknowingly (Persona) or poetically (Wild Strawberries). Additionally, I will not speak to the films of Lars von Trier, who does depict moments of violence, but whose work seems most keyed into a blend of intense interpersonal, spiritual, and philosophical environments.
Of the thirty films of Fassbinder that I’ve seen, violence is certainly a central entity. In the early films, Fassbinder often depicts young street criminals involved in crime (Gods of the Plague), or through a syndicate (The American Soldier), or through an outpouring of repressed class and auguring depression (Why Does Herr R Run Amok?). He then moved into more Sirkian territory and frequently displayed alcohol-fueled abuses (Fox and His Friends, etc.), domestic violence (pick a film), or cruel games enjoyed (Chinese Roulette).
There are two moments in two films that most clearly stick out for me, however, in this discussion of filmic violence, and they are from his later films, In A Year of 13 Moons and his epic masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz. In a Year of 13 Moons is often considered one of Fassbinder’s most directly biographical, as his lover (who was a butcher at one point) had killed himself, and the movie infamously depicts, at a long take, the slaughter of cattle. Fassbinder is not going to let you look away. There is the captive bolt that bluntly hits the animal’s head, there is the hoist, the hanging hook, the slit throat, the sudden blood. It is all routinized. The boredom of killing. The scene plays out as it does everywhere in the world, behind the doors, away from the cleanly displayed and wrapped packages of meat in supermarkets. The clean, animal-less meat is placed in ample SUVs everywhere. When I first watched this film, I had to turn off the movie at this point. I was sickened by its refusal to not cut away. I never watched the rest of it. Two years later, though, I watched the entire movie, including the long slaughter scene. (Is this not the least someone can do, if one is going to eat meat?) But Fassbinder’s motives are not so simplistic. I think that he was depicting his lover’s world without judgment, or with judgment, about the class who does the killing and sees it (the poor, etc.) (which is their reality) and the ones who get to just eat the meat without seeing the killing, or the blood—which is why we have those handy blood-gathering sponges beneath the meat. In this way, we get meat that doesn’t even seem to be bleeding. This second group of people made up Fassbinder’s filmic audience. He is going to show you his former lover’s real job, the real job that goes on. He won’t be providing a filmic blood sponge.
The second instance of violence is the repeated scene in Berlin Alexanderplatz of Franz Biberkopf’s brutal, deathly beating of his wife, for which he went to prison. This scene replays many times throughout the 14 episodes, coming in at different moments from the beating, at different lengths of times, in memory. But always the result is the same. The jealousy is there, the sense of humiliation, the mocking, the threats, the rising up, the fear and the struggle, the beating. The beating, the beating, the beating. The blood from the blows, the fear, the anger. The dying, the quiet, the death, the quiet. The quiet.
Here, too, the importance of showing this violence is of the utmost responsibility. The entire film pivots on this episode, for Biberkopf’s life was transformed from his killing of his wife. It should be in his memory. It should be haunting him. It should re-present itself over and over again. All the more realistic, too, that Fassbinder doesn’t depict Biberkopf as “saved” or as immediately in moral rehabilitation, especially from prison life, which is almost never the case in real life, as the social and economic patterns are still in place.
One doesn’t watch Fassbinder’s films to “like” his characters. One doesn’t watch the films to remind oneself of the middle-class considerations of what is Reality. One doesn’t go to Fassbinder’s films to find comfort, to find escape, to be treated to the dimwitted binary constructions of characters so often the case in films. Fassbinder wants to show the things that get swept under the carpet—he wants to show the anger, the violence of life, the upsurge of confusion, of the inveterate, accumulating chaos, while attempting to Not make sense of it, which is not to be idle in mind, but to be a realist. The real realist documents the unknowingness, the mix of vulgarity and spirituality, of spirituality’s vulgarity.
Fassbinder didn’t like easy answers, didn’t like simple declarations—he mocked society and outraged people, and unsparingly condemned us to look at ourselves and the societies we set up and believe in. Fassbinder was no saint in life—he was, by all information, both abusive and intensely sensitive and caring. His films are full of life’s paranoia, greed, uncertainty, loneliness, and violence. His filmic worlds are about difficult emotions, and their flurry, their pointing to directions and mis-directions, and how these emotions play out within larger political and societal systems, and yet still there is singing in bars by defensive killers with Nazi sympathies, and lyric poetry in the boredom of the slaughterhouses. Wishing it wasn’t in film doesn’t explain how it is in life itself.