Barbara Sukowa plays the title character in Lola, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s riff on The Blue Angel. Instead of Marlene Dietrich leading Emil Jannings to his downfall in Weimar-era Germany, here we have Armin Mueller-Stahl’s upright building inspector falling for Sukowa’s cabaret singer–prostitute in 1950s West Germany.
In the small city of Coburg, the city fathers are doing their part for West Germany’s “economic miracle” (die Wirtschaftswunder) of the ‘50s by colluding in as much graft as possible, most of it steered their way by the building contractor Schukert (Mario Adorf). Schukert is overseeing the local building boom; he’s also the proud proprietor of the local bordello, where he plays gregarious host to the same bigwigs who sign off on his building contracts. The brothel’s star attraction is Lola (Sukowa), who is also Schukert’s mistress and prize possession. “The sweetest ass in all of NATO” is his memorably crass endearment and sales pitch.
Where Schukert is loud and effusive, an Italian trapped in a German’s body, Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Von Bohm is the soul of officialdom, a diligent, dedicated stickler for the rules. Yet thanks in part to Mueller-Stahl’s performance, Von Bohm is not without a certain courtly charm. He exudes such decency and dignity that it’s understandable why Lola, who’s used to being pawed by drunken louts at the brothel, would be attracted to him. Von Bohm embodies the bourgeois rectitude of an earlier time — and it’s precisely his air of being a man out of time that dooms him in the more vulgar era to which hucksters like Schukert are perfectly attuned.
Fassbinder is not exactly subtle here. In its depiction of endemic corruption in postwar West Germany, Lola is at times like an enjoyably scathing political cartoon come to life. But by making Von Bohm more than an easily ridiculed caricature, Lola gains a twinge of pathos it wouldn’t have if it was just Fassbinder spewing bile at the hallowed Wirtschaftswunder. The movie may be a political critique, but it’s not wagging a finger at the audience.
For one thing, the corruption is presented as a fact of life. Graft is just part of Ordnung. We can see how Schukert views himself as a perfectly reasonable guy, and how Von Bohm could be a pain in the ass to everyone around him for raising too many questions about the building contracts.
What’s more interesting is how Fassbinder depicts the city fathers grudgingly tolerating the nascent peace movement of the 1950s. Noticing a demonstration for disarmament across the square, the Mayor (Hark Bohm) wearily comments, “In a democracy you have to permit all sorts of things.” (A German official of his age might remember when things were done differently, of course.) But even the peaceniks here are hardly plaster saints. Esslin (Matthias Fuchs), one of the lead activists, also plays drums in the brothel’s house band every night, and is also Lola’s boyfriend, fully clued in as to how she earns her living.
More important, Von Bohm’s tragicomic downfall allows Fassbinder to pull out the stops with the lush melodrama. Showmanship trumps didacticism: Almost every shot in Lola is striking, because Fassbinder deploys vibrant candy-colored light in almost every scene, even some of the exteriors, calling our attention to, and reveling in, the lavish Technicolor artifice.
The gaudy colors even creep into Von Bohm’s otherwise sober office; in some shots the light is pinpointed to show off the icy blue of Mueller-Stahl’s eyes. During Von Bohm and Lola’s courtship, his half of the screen is suffused with one color, hers another. The effect is of carefully controlled unreality, and it gives Lola the atmosphere of a sardonic fable: Once upon a time, in the early days of the Federal Republic, the following happened… and no one wants to talk about it.
Fassbinder saves his full flamboyance for the scenes in Schukert’s brothel, where a lavish seediness presides. No one will ever create a decadent cabaret atmosphere, or maybe onscreen decadence in general, as well as Fassbinder. The colors are super-saturated, the humor is worldly and caustic, and there’s the added entertainment value of Udo Kier mincing around as one of the bordello staff. (All of this looks spectacular on the Criterion DVD.)
Lola’s cabaret numbers are the set pieces, particularly the extravagantly trashy performance where Lola — having spotted Von Bohm in the audience, gawping in dismay as he discovers who his beloved fiancée really is — throws aside any hope of redemption, embraces her whore status, and strips down to her underwear while the increasingly rowdy crowd claps and sings along. It’s all one shot, and one take, too: Fassbinder’s only instructions to Sukowa were to “start there,” meaning the stage, and “end up over there,” i.e., the VIP booth across the room, from which Schukert holds court. The scene is a tour de force for Sukowa, and it’s no wonder the actress was able to launch a second career as a modern-day interpreter of cabaret Lieder after the movie came out.