MOTHER KUSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

Having made, mostly from his own scripts, more than forty films during his scant time on earth (he was 37 when he joined Mother Kusters in heaven), Rainer Werner Fassbinder was as interesting as he was prolific. Probably he was the best-known member of the West German “New Wave” which, beginning in the ’60s, transformed a moribund national cinema into a hothouse of vibrant expression. And an actor himself (though not a very good one), he elicited great performances.
     Fassbinder always was himself: distanced, difficult, more than a bit self-indulgent, and—how well we now know—irreplaceable.
     With its Brechtian title and cool Brechtian analysis, Mother Kusters is a wonderful piece of work. Its beginning-point is off-screen; factory layoffs from a downsizing company move one worker, till then nondescript, to kill both his boss and himself. Fassbinder thus assails coldblooded capitalism; but this is only his first stop on an impeccable list of targets. For the widow of the dead worker is descended upon by a pack of media who coldbloodedly intrude on her grief and distort the truth, robbing her spouse’s last acts of their political import just to promote “better copy,” a grotesque portrait of violence and instability. In particular Frau Kusters feels betrayed by her daughter’s lover, a reporter, whose promise of fair coverage turns up empty. Abandoned by her son and his spouse, who were living with her and her husband, Frau Kusters seeks solace from solicitous Communists who pledge to rehabilitate Herr Kusters’ reputation by broadcasting the truth. Taken in, she becomes a Party member and activist. But instead of keeping their word these “armchair communists” pursue their priority of an upcoming election, frustrating Frau Kusters, who knows time is of the essence in reversing the image of her husband that the media have put forth. Therefore, she now joins young anarchists in demanding a retraction from the daily that has led the media distortion; but these anarchists also have their own agenda, embroiling Frau Kusters in a hostage-taking and a confrontation with police. Misled and used by everyone in sight, Frau Kusters ends up dead—off-screen, like her spouse. Mother Kusters goes to heaven.
     Here, narrative takes precedence over the film’s visual aspect. (Those, like me, who disparage plot in contemporary cinema must watch this film and marvel.) What a story indeed it is—one showing how people are variously exploited, yet one so constructed that a single ordinary character is many times the victim. (Brigitte Mira is excellent as Frau Kusters.) In the midst of so much conniving and corruption, this person is redeemed by two things: her innocence, and her steadfast pursuit of justice in the service of her husband’s memory—an application, perhaps, of her innocence. (From Fassbinder, no innocent, this appreciation of the character is deeply gratifying.) The media promulgate so many untruths in the course of the film we all must wonder whether they are accurate in reporting that Frau Kusters was in on the hostage-taking and the anarchists’ extortion plot. We aren’t shown any of this; Fassbinder leaves it to us to imagine Mother Kusters’ outcome. His film may be cynical, but it’s never vicious or mean (not even, mind you, to those who exploit and victimize)—and heaven knows how accurate it is. And so, at last, does Mother Kusters.


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