CHINESE ROULETTE (Chinesisches Roulette) A
Stöckach and Munich (86 mi) April - June 1976 d: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
I have tried to make a film that pushes artificiality, an artificial form, to extremes in order to be able to totally call it into question. I’m pretty certain that in film history there is no single film that contains so many camera movements, traveling shots, and counter-movements of the actors. The film I’ve made, which appears to speak out for marriage as an institution, is in reality about how infamous, mendacious, and destructive marriages are, and perhaps, precisely because of this equivocation, it becomes stronger than other films that explicitly speak out against marriage.
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1977)
Taking us into a minefield of marital discord, creating characters the audience loves to hate, including one of the most poisonous mother/daughter relationships this side of Mommie Dearest, which hadn’t even been written yet, this deliciously fascinating Gothic chamber drama is a psychological examination of the indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie, where infidelity and deep-rooted family contempt prevail at this country estate, filled with aristocratic austerity and detachment, hostility, distrust, and malicious intent. Fassbinder disbands his customary stock theatre troupe, utilizes two of Godard's actresses, the always lovely and enchanting Anna Karina as the husband’s mistress, and Macha Méril, who is simply brilliant here in a mute role as the governess to a spoiled and overly pampered, polio-stricken child, the equally brilliant Andrea Schober, who turns the tables on her unsuspecting parents, inviting both to show up at the estate with their respective lovers on the same weekend, feeling they are blaming her for their own unhappiness, so she challenges them to a truth or dare game that has deadly consequences. These roles of Méril and Schober, similar to PERSONA (1966), are among the most inventive in the Fassbinder repertoire, and the Sirkian style here is reminiscent of THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VAN KANT (1972), with fabulous choreography, a kaleidoscope of statuesque faces that are constantly in motion, constantly reflected back in bizarre glass and mirror images, like abstract double reflections, very slow and cold, gracefully refined, elegantly beautiful, featuring extraordinary camera work by Michael Ballhaus, also starring Margit Carstensen (brilliant, as always) and Alexander Allerson as the parents, with Ulli Lommel as the wife’s lover. Blink and you’ll miss a brief scene of a blind beggar knocking on a mansion door, only to be seen moments later throwing away his crutches into the back seat of his Mercedes and driving away, an indicator of how appearances are deceptive and the entire world is living under some kind of illusion. This film is a little tribute to the failings of marriage, and how each act of infidelity is akin to an emotional murder, always hidden and secretive, covered up in lies, like a secret assassin, with devastating results. The final scene of this giant castle in the darkness has the feel of a vampire film, as if the inhabitants are largely bloodsuckers.
Chaos as Usual: Conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder Interview with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, edited by Juliane Lorenz, Marion Schmid, Herbert Gehr, pages 105-106:
He never allowed anything to just take its course. He was far too interested in the process. But by and by, a strong mutual understanding developed between us—which doesn’t mean that we always agreed. It’s just that our relationship graduated to another level. We no longer had these constant confrontations. We knew what we could accomplish together. Three movies evolved in that period, which are interesting with regard to our collaboration. One was Chinese Roulette, a movie which I find impossible to watch today but which had a special meaning for us then. There the camera turned into a person, an actor, so to speak. We developed a very precise and interesting visual language. I learned an incredible amount while we shot it, and our work was surprisingly harmonious. By the way, only three months elapsed between the idea and the finished product—the fastest work of my entire career.
Rainer had been given a grant. So he said, “Let’s make a movie. What shall we make?” We first chose the actors and decided on a locations. I told him, “We own this house in Franconia. We might do it there. It’s quite a beautiful location.” Rainer went to Paris for a couple of weekends and returned with the script. We decided to shoot the movie in our house, and I realized that this was bound to end in disaster. Rainer, who goes out every night, who constantly needs to be surrounded by people, in a place where there’s no entertainment for miles. The nearest bar was in Schweinfurt, and it was very boring. I thought it was going to be awful but it turned out to be the exact opposite. We were all together in that house, we lived together, ate together, spent every evening together playing Chinese roulette. Of course, we also tore each other to pieces. But Rainer felt he had a family, and in the end he didn’t want to leave. A lot of crazy things happened, but he felt at home and never even left the house. It was a strange experience.
Ballhaus, who went on to work in the 80’s with Martin Scorsese in America, shot a total of sixteen films with Fassbinder, the last being THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979), arguably the director’s most commercially accessible work, a film that played at international film festivals and placed him on the international map. Many of his earlier films were only discovered afterwards, where this tense psychodrama is among his most visually stylized works, reminiscent of Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), making it a point to shoot a choreography of faces in close-up merging in and out of one another, like cells symbiotically reshaping themselves, constantly reflected in mirrors or sculpted glass, creating a kind of Picasso disfiguration, as the camera incessantly moves around the room, peering around corners, including a glass liquor cabinet in the center of the living room, dazzled by the refracted images seen while staring through the glass. Actors are often shot at odd angles, or hold their poses like fashion models carved in stone, dramatizing the tense interpersonal relationships that develop, each one growing more suspicious of the other, where Fassbinder’s drama literally has them on display, like animals pacing in a cage, with the camera continually encircling them, Escena (dolly circular) de Chinese Roulette (Fassbinder) YouTube (1:19), as if capturing them offguard, naked and exposed. It’s a uniquely opulent technique, some might even think garish or overdone, yet it visualizes the unseen psychological breakdowns occuring throughout the film, enhanced by a conceptualized vision that accentuates the fragile vulnerability of what’s happening underneath the surface where a series of emotional explosions are taking place, leaving the characters onscreen in tattered pieces afterwards. The film opens with an emotional shock to the system, Chinese Roulette (Opening Scene) - YouTube (2:15), as Arianne (Margit Carstensen) and her 12-year old daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who walks with metal crutches for both legs that can be heard clanking throughout the film, are sitting in separate rooms listening to the operatic sounds of an LP record playing the lush finale to Mahler’s ecstatic 8th Symphony for voices and orchestra, one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical repertoire, a work that looks to the heavens, bathed in the lyrics of Goethe’s Faust, arguably the most famous narrative of man making a pact with the devil, yet so powerfully celestial that it’s often called “Symphony of a Thousand.” Through the windows, trees are seen rustling in the breeze, a contrast to the inert and wordless characters onscreen, as both women appear stuck in time. The scene is exceptionally dense, using exalted music that spiritually transcends the limitations and smallness of humankind. As if on cue, the father, Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson), opens the front door and the music instantaneously stops.
All that is transitory
Is but an image;
The inadequacy of earth
Here finds fulfillment;
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
leads us upwards.
Using Biblical names for several characters, the innocence of this Edenesque opening scene abruptly unravels into multiple derivations of original sin, as a wealthy Munich couple are heading their separate ways this weekend, leaving Angela and her collection of dolls in the hands of her mute governess, Traunitz (Macha Méril). Gerhard is heading to the airport, supposedly a business conference in Oslo, while Arianne is dashing off to Milan, yet within minutes the viewers realize the deception, as Gerhard is at the airport meeting his longtime mistress Irene Cartis (Anna Karina), a French hairdresser, with plans to spend an idyllic weekend together at his family’s countryside home. Part of the intrigue is the exquisite interior of the estate itself, which is identified late in the film as Castle Traunitz, suggesting the governess may be the natural heir to this family estate, yet through sinister legal subterfuge and some carefully kept family secrets, indicated by a devious housekepper Kast (Brigitte Mira) who confides to Gerhard that Ali ben Basset was murdered in Paris, suggesting criminality is involved, yet this is only implied, as more is never revealed. However there is a clearly defined aristocratic class system in place, where Kast and her embittered, sexually ambiguous son Gabriel (Volker Spengler) are the live-in servants and caretakers of the home, who begrudgingly follow every order and command, no questions asked, just as if it was a precise military operation. This hierarchy is conspicuously in place the moment Gerhard arrives, barking out instructions while he and his mistress head out for a little walk in the woods, where they sexually commune with nature. Afterwards, as they return inside the house, they walk in on Arianne having sex on the floor with Gerhard’s business assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). Astounded, shocked, hurt, and bitterly disappointed, both couples laugh at the absurdity of the timing, yet continue to pair off as they had originally planned. After an awkward dinner, perhaps most unexpected is the later arrival of Angela, bringing along her hideous collection of broken or disfigured dolls, accompanied by Traunitz carrying each and every one out of the trunk, where only Kast seems to have had some inclination about this all along. Arianne goes ballistics and is ready to strike her daughter (Gerhard holds her back), actually pointing a gun at her at another point, as she diabolically planned this entire weekend event just to get back at her parents, tired of all the lies and deceit that had been going on for years. This bizarre group of eight comprises the household, much like François Ozon did with his zany musical tribute 8 WOMEN (2002), as the weekend unravels in a series of embarrassing unpleasantries, offering continuously changing mood shifts from jealousy, mistrust, rage, hatred, and sadism.
Angela starts the next morning by opening the doors of each parent, finding them naked in bed with their “new” partners, having a laugh at their expense as the adults go about their business as if nothing has happened, liars and cheaters one and all, where the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie is scathingly depicted, always remaining overly polite, as is customary for the aristocratic class, wrapping themselves around custom and established routines, where the women especially compliment one another, even show signs of affection, though the men, seen later playing chess, are much more wary. Actually the female characters assert themselves more and literally stand out in this film, typical of Fassbinder’s inclinations later in his career, always overshadowing the presence of men, providing most of the real internal intrigue, where they become the dominant players in the room. Gerhard’s authority rests on the fact that he is indisputably the wealthiest person in the family, but he is no match for the vicious psychological warfare taking place before him. One of the most startling scenes is a look inside one of the many closed doors that line the narrow halls of the estate, where loud music is playing, kraftwerk - Radioactivity (Original Version) - YouTube (3:34), representing a stark new German modernization, juxtaposing the new world against the old. Inside, Traunitz is dancing furiously to the music while using Angela’s crutches, spinning around and kicking her feet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Chinese Roulette (excerpt) - YouTube (54 seconds), offering an explosive look at her underlying feelings of unbridled liberation, showing how neither woman will allow themselves to be victimized by their physical disabilities. What follows is Angela’s turn, initiating an incendiary parlor game of “Russian roulette,” where one side tries to get what another team is thinking by asking a stream of questions, with Angela choosing the teams ahead of time, where Irene and Kolbe, the two adulterous lovers, the always suspicious Kast, and her despised mother comprise one team, revealing a chilling calculation on her part. While the game itself may seem silly and harmless enough from afar, but in the room amongst the players, the dramatic intensity that Fassbinder provides with each successive question, along with the shocked reaction on the faces, reaches an extraordinary level of sheer Sirkian melodrama, with the director milking it for all it’s worth. While this vicious game is meant to be intentionally cruel and sadistic, there’s a kind of camp, wicked fun to be had by asking such provocative questions like, “Who would this person have been in the Third Reich?” Traunitz, exceedingly clever throughout, comes up with the most ingenious answers, yet they all indulge Angela and play along, where the results are perhaps not surprising at all, as ultimately it allows Angela to not only insult, but express her unbridled hatred and contempt towards her mother. What’s perhaps most surprising is the number of ideas planted in every scene, where the framing of the film, the artificiality of the color, the mirrors, the décor, and the extravagant look of the characters really tell the story, as this is another extraordinary Fassbinder social critique that mocks existing social norms by highlighting failed relationships and extreme emotional manipulation, where the ending is so operatically over the top that it’s hard not to take a certain amount of pleasure in this family’s demise.