Archival Spaces 250
Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal (1970)
Uploaded 28 August 2020
When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with Bertolt Brecht. I saw my first Brecht play, “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui” at the Ruhr Festspiele in 1965, which featured 20 foot high puppets. For my senior thesis in Betty Nichols’ English honors class at Frankfurt American High School, I wrote about Brecht’s “Epic Theater.” I did the research at the Goethe University Library in German and English sources. During my sophomore year at the University of Delaware, I finished a paper on “the young Brecht” of “Baal” and “Man is Man” for a graduate level German course. That same year 1970, Volker Schöndorff’s television film, Baal, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was broadcast on German television exactly once, then immediately disappeared when Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow, filed an injunction against the film. It was not released again until 2014, when Brecht’s granddaughter finally granted permission for public exhibition, leading to a restoration by the Criterion Collection; it is now also available on Kanopy.
That fate somewhat mirrors the original German production of “Baal” in Weimar Germany. Brecht’s first play was written in 1918, in just four days, according to Martin Esslin, when Brecht was a student in Munich. A first version was performed in Leipzig in 1923 after Brecht had received the prestigious Kleist Prize for his first three plays. But Brecht was unhappy with it, and completed a revised version, which was performed exactly once in 1926 in Max Reinhardt’s Junge Bühne, when it ignited a near riot in the theater. Influenced by Brecht’s evolving conception of epic theater, “Baal” featured a Rimbaud-like poet who speaks in free verse, ravages both men and women, whom he discards like toilet paper, and ultimately drinks himself to death. No one could have realized in 1970 that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was playing what would become his own biography down to the t, but today it is not possible to see the film except through that lens.
Financed by German television, Baal is a quintessential 60s-70s German art film from the Munich film scene, populated with then mostly unknown actors who would define Fassbinder’s and New German Cinema. Shot in 16mm color in contemporary dress with a roving camera by Dietrich Lohmann, who filmed almost all of Fassbinder’s 1970s films, Baal opens with the poet hero walking through a wheat field, reciting verse, before getting thoroughly drunk at a reception in his honor. Lohmann often smears Vaseline around the edges of his lens, leaving only Baal in focus in center frame, thus mirroring the poet’s blindness to his surroundings. The remainder of the film follows Baal drinking, insulting patrons, mistreating women (including raping one), reciting poetry, and ultimately crawling into the bushes to die. In keeping with the alienation techniques of epic theater, Schlöndorff retains Brecht’s poetic verse, the actors reciting expressionlessly, often directly to the camera. Non-synchronous musical interludes feature Fassbinder reciting poetry (off-camera) over Klaus Doldinger’s iconic jazz-rock score.
Many of the actors in the film were or would become familiar to audiences through Fassbinder’s 1970s work. There is Hanna Schygulla, playing a pretty waitress and lover of Baal, who would star in no less than nineteen Fassbinder films, including Effie Briest (1974), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), and Lili Marleen (1981). We see tall and thin as a rail in a walk-on as a land-lady, the late Irm Hermann, her inevitably dour presence graced eighteen Fassbinder films, almost always as an impression-making secondary character, but starring memorably as the embittered house wife in RWF’s masterpiece, The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972). It was the first film for Günther Kaufmann, a black German actor who was to become one of the director’s discarded lovers, appeared in fourteen Fassbinder films, and starred in Whitey (1971) and had a major supporting role in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Another supporting actor, Walter Sedlmayr, already had a long career in Bavarian roles, before playing in eight Fassbinder films, as well as several Schlöndorff films. Finally, Margarete von Trotta plays one of Baal’s abused lovers, but not a victim, rather she chooses out of strength to sacrifice herself, an interesting interpretation in the light of her subsequent work. Starring in several Schlöndorff films, as well as being his wife, von Trotta would go on to become one of Germany’s most important explicitly feminist directors with films, like The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum (1975), Marianne & Juliane (1981), and Hannah Arendt (2012).
However, Rainer Werner Fassbinder dominates every scene, just as he would in star turns in his own Fox and His Friends (1975) and his last role in Wolf Gremm’s Kamikazi 89 (1982, which co-starred Günther Kaufmann). Throughout Baal, Fassbinder wears his trademark leather jacket, an updated version of Brecht’s leather gear from the 1920s; I saw RWF in the same jacket at a press conference at the Berlinale Film Festival in 1974 after the premiere of Effie Briest, feigning indifference when he was criticized by some of the press. At the time, I thought it was his Brecht act, echt anti-Kapitalistisch, but maybe he really was the same on screen or in person. In Baal Fassbinder is sullen, aggressive, violent, insolent, driven, pathetic, self-centered, drunk, and drunk again, totally focused on his own desires without a second thought for those around him, but also a brilliant, funny, caustic, serious lyricist. He is the romantic 1960s version of the expressionist artist who wallows for his art. In retrospect, we see Fassbinder is Baal, just as Baal was a version of Brecht, and like Rimbaud and Baal, Fassbinder died at the age of 37 after too much drink, too many drugs, too much anguish, but leaving behind an immortal body of work.