Hardboiled Bavaria: Fassbinder’s ‘Gods of the Plague’

Following his detour into socially oriented melodrama in Katzelmacher, Fassbinder returned to the hardboiled crime genre with 1970’s Gods of the Plague. The second installment in Fassbinder’s loose trio of Franz Walsch crime pictures, all collected on the new Eclipse box set, the movie opens with Walsch getting out of prison, shown in a long pan that all but screams the director’s love of Godard.

Harry Baer as Franz Walsch. © Copyright the Criterion Collection.

This time Franz is played not by Fassbinder (as in Fassbinder’s debut, Love Is Colder than Death), but by Harry Baer, an actor who was also Fassbinder’s longtime assistant director. Where the original Franz Walsch was pure hoodlum, Baer’s svelte, shaggier incarnation of the character looks like the grooviest member of a 1969 rock band.

Franz tracks down his old flame Johanna (Hanna Schygulla again) at a club called the Lola Montes, where she performs a cabaret number. As she sings, Dietrich Lohmann’s luminous, silvery B&W cinematography is the first sign of how the filmmaking in Gods of the Plague represents an advance on the director’s first two features. After Schygulla sings her lustrously filmed Lied, a minute later her character Johanna poses backstage near a Marlene Dietrich poster, an acknowledgement that feels redundant — her performance already made the connection perfectly clear.

Johanna’s cabaret number is followed by Franz and Johanna’s late-night visit to an illegal gambling spot. Lohmann’s B&W photography provides such inspired, almost archetypal noir imagery here that even master cinematographer John Alton (author of Painting with Light, whose credo was “It’s not what you light, it’s what you DON’T light”) might be moved to tip his hat in respect. The gambling den is a lone gaming table illuminated by a single light, surrounded by a sea of darkness. The crew here is a colorful rogues’ gallery of hoods, floozies and a campy American muscleman and his impudent boyfriend, who are like an oddly innocent counterpoint to the criminals.

Hanna Schygulla, Harry Baer. © Copyright the Criterion Collection.

There will be tension on multiple fronts for reunited lovers Franz and Johanna. The latter is coerced by a ruthless amoral cop to rat on Franz and his accomplices; she becomes more willing to talk when Franz leaves her for another woman, Margarethe (played by Margarethe von Trotta, who would soon become a filmmaker herself).

Margarethe’s main draw for Franz may be that she’s more willing to be treated as a doormat than Johanna. It’s interesting to note that while Hanna Schygulla might look like a baby-faced angel with a head full of curls and mesmerizing eyes this early in her career, Fassbinder already has her characters show a certain steely will. In film after film, Schygulla’s characters voice a grounded, plainspoken point of view, regardless of whatever affectations or decadence the director has going on around her. Schygulla was not just the leading lady in Fassbinder’s troupe for many years, but also the one actor he reportedly never subjected to mind games, and never treated abusively.

Johanna and Margarethe both want Franz, but Baer plays him as such a black hole of affectlessness it’s hard to discern what the two women see in him. Franz’s deepest attachment, meanwhile, is to Günther (Günther Kaufmann), a.k.a. “The Gorilla,” a mixed-race* Bavarian hood who apparently killed Franz’s brother in a murky bit of gangland business. No matter; pained though he might be by his brother’s death (it’s hard to tell), Franz is devoted to Günther, and the two of them form a ménage a trois with Margarethe.

Gods of the Plague spends a lot of time in Margarethe’s apartment. The film slows down after the opening scenes, as if in keeping with Franz’s subzero emotional register. As in Love Is Colder than Death, a dissolute, draggy, truculent atmosphere predominates. While Lohmann’s camerawork is striking, the noir elements of the story often feel like midnight-movie japery that’s only intermittently amusing.

As in the other two Franz Walsch movies, the viewer has to sit through multiple scenes of blonde dames throwing themselves at inexpressive men who are more likely to slap them around than return their affection. The domestic violence feels less like jejune bad-boy posturing on the director’s part than an expression of contempt for all the parties involved.

Eventually Franz and Günther decide on a supermarket heist. Given the prevailing air of anomie, the robbery will be a heroic stand for them, a way for Franz in particular to break free of his existential torpor and live as a free man with Margarethe and Günther from here on out.

But Johanna and her crooked cop are still out there, and given the slightly glib fatalism hanging over the picture, it’s inevitable that we get another shootout and a high body count near the end. Hoods get shot and stagger down the street for a long time, as in Breathless, and the coda is a funeral that suggests the young Rainer Werner was also a fan of The Third Man. It’s not clear how seriously we’re supposed to take any of this, but the nighttime B&W photography in particular sure is something to look at.

For more on Fassbinder, including reviews of Lola and Fear of Fear, click here.

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