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 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 grand-daughter 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.
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Archival Spaces 249
The Last Days of Louise Brooks
Uploaded 15 August 2020
Louise Brooks died 35 years ago this week on 8 August 1985. I met Louise Brooks for the first time in 1975, long after her Hollywood career had ended, when she was living on N. Goodman Street in Rochester, N.Y., around the block from my apartment. At the time, I was a paid post-graduate intern at George Eastman House and confess that when I met her in Curator George Pratt’s office, she was to me just another silent film actress. She had come to Rochester in 1956 at the invitation of James Card, the founder of the George Eastman Museum Film Collection and my boss. Rumor had it that she had been living in poverty in New York City, working as a part-time salesgirl at Macy’s, occasionally selling herself, and drinking full-time. In 1957, James took her to Paris, where Henri Langlois celebrated her as a goddess and resurrected myth, while Jim took her as his lover. However, she still drank, and soon the legendary screaming matches between Brooks and Card became the talk of the local bar scene. When the relationship finally ended sometime in 1963, Louise began a friendship with George Pratt that only ended with her death.
George was gay. He loved Louise for her strength, but was also well aware of her weaknesses. It was George who encouraged her to write her memoirs, but she balked. Instead, he helped her research and write a series of articles, which were eventually collected together in Lulu in Hollywood (1982), a book that has remained in continuous print since then and established her as one of the most well-known actresses from the silent era. George told me he thought Louise’s career had ended, because she was personally and professionally completely undisciplined. George had been hired by Card as Assistant in 1953. By the time I got there, Card and Pratt had not talked for more than ten years, except through the departmental secretary, Kay McRae, possibly because of Louise’s switched allegiances.
Louise by that time had long silver gray hair, her face was extremely thin, almost anorexic, but with shiny eyes and still beautiful fingers. She wore a simple house dress with flats and no make-up. Her movements and speech were measured and deliberate. Had she really been a star? I saw her again a few weeks later, wearing a gray raincoat that looked like it was cut for a man, as she walked past my apartment around lunch time; my kitchen faced the street. From then on, I saw her regularly on my lunch break, walking towards East Ave., then returning a short time later with a brown bag under her arm. George told me her diet consisted mostly of Vodka, at least until she stopped drinking a couple years later.
It was not until weeks after my first meeting that I saw my first Louise Brooks film, The Beggars of Life (1928). I now began to understand why Card had endeavored to collect every Louise Brooks film he could find. Could this wonderful young woman with black hair and a square face really be the same person I had met? After viewing all her other films at Eastman, I knew that she wasn’t. Louise Brooks in black and white existed only as a star image on the screen, in photos, and in the desire of thousands of later-born. Louise, herself, maintained a healthy skepticism about her and understood that she was not identical with the image on screen.
In September 1984, eight years after having left Rochester, I returned as George Pratt’s successor. Soon after, George suggested we visit Louise, driving to her apartment with Kay McRae. Louise opened the door, then turned around and went straight back to bed. I was flabbergasted to see that the living room décor consisted of a Formica kitchen table and two chairs, which we brought o her bedroom to sit with her. Except for her bed and a wooden night stand, there was no other furniture, no pictures on the wall, no books. George introduced me again, but there was no conversation, because Louise wanted to write everything down. She had a little black note book and a pencil, but her arthritic fingers were bent and shook, due to emphysema. It took her minutes just to write down my name. I asked her a question, which she had to write down, “for her next book,” before she could answer. After twenty minutes, we were all exhausted, so we decided to postpone the meeting for another day. It never came.
Louise was not as isolated as the above implies. She did have a small circle of friends who called and visited her regularly, many of them younger gay men.
Her funeral service took place in a local Catholic Church with not more than thirty people: a few relatives from Kansas, local film critics and friends, and the Eastman Museum crew. Much to the surprise of her friends, Louise had converted to Catholicism at the end of her life. Jack Garner, the national Gannett Newspaper film critic and himself a devout Catholic – who passed away earlier this year – gave the funeral speech and served as an altar boy. Having had a Catholic education, I’ll never forget that image of Jack in red and white alter cassocks, almost seven feet tall and as wide as an armoire, towering over the presiding priest. Louise’s estate was donated to the Museum a few weeks later in a ceremony at Eastman. It consisted of two cardboard boxes with a few letters, some books she had been sent and her little black notebooks. The latter were completely illegible.
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