The fifth film in a prolific run cut short by an early (and courted) death, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?) does not deserve the dismissal that its brilliant young writer-director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, would later apply to it. He and his co-scenarist, co-director and co-editor, Michael Fengler, have wrought a stunning work of art that steers clear of “story” and other assorted nonsense in order to home in on humanity and the personality of the camera. Beautifully rendered in a cinéma-vérité style that prefigures the Dogme 95 movement, this film reveals the nature and dynamic of bourgeois insecurity better than any other film I have seen. It is powerfully affecting.
The film centers on the Raabs, who live in Munich. (I have read that the family is given no name, only the initial “R,” and we never learn for what the letter stands. That may be the case, but I am unfamiliar with German. In the version I viewed, the name Raab, which coincides with the name of the lead actor, appears in subtitles. Additionally, the names given in subtitles to other characters often also coincide with the names of the actors playing them.) They are a typical bourgeois family. Herr R. works as a technical draughtsman for what may be either an architectural or an urban planning firm. He works long, dedicated hours, interrupted by an occasional extended personal phone call, and is in his element at work. At home, he has migraines, in part work-induced, but a night’s sleep always refreshes him for the next day’s work. As I said, he is typical bourgeois, living to work rather than working to live. Meanwhile, Frau R. is doing nothing to supplement the family income. Even while their son is at school during the day, she is a stay-at-home mom. She tends to the home, shops, prepares meals, kibbutzes with neighbors, and shares with her spouse the responsibility of helping their son with his school work. The Raabs—the R.s—seem to be a smooth-running family.
Only they aren’t, as indeed bourgeois families never are. There are so many aspects to the family’s actual state of desperation and disarray that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let us start, though, with their son, whose name, Amadeus, provides a comical index of bourgeois parental hopefulness and “great expectations.” (Amadeus, as in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—but here again, the name may come only from the actor playing him.) Rather than being precocious, however, Amadeus is failing simple arithmetic, is pegged by his teacher as being “introverted,” and is saddled by a speech impediment that at any moment might trigger derision from his peers. In a conference between this teacher and the parents, Herr R. blanks out as the teacher points out all the boy’s shortcomings—Herr R. “blanks out” a lot away from the workplace, including when his son reads aloud at night—while Frau R. makes a ludicrous, fastidious show of defending their son. Two ideas instantly arise, and both get to the heart of the bourgeois quandary. Amadeus’s struggle with pint-sized academia reflects on his father’s higher education and training, suggesting its narrow impetus in (instead of the joy of learning) career preparation. Like father, like son, and one predicts the other’s dire future (if future there be). Frau R.’s defensiveness regarding her son, whom his teacher describes as intelligent but indifferent and wanting “concentration,” reveals something else: the grotesque extent to which middle-class parents feel guilt over the inadequate academic performance of their offspring—an indulgence for which working-class families, by contrast, have little time and lack the requisite self-absorption. The R.s, it strikes us, are in a perpetual state of feeling the need to justify themselves and their existence, for which this rational defense of their son provides shorthand. Deepening this impression is the fact that Herr R. is never exactly settled in his work but always eyeing the promotion and even the most minimal salary increase just up ahead.
The basis characteristic of bourgeois existence is its intense, exhausting and debilitating selfconsciousness. Fassbinder and Fengler are extraordinary at showing the extent to which, when they help their son with schoolwork, for example, the R.s are acting according to how they believe they ought to behave. By contrast, working-class parents who have made time to thus help their children might be selfconscious about their ability to help but about little else; their “family time” flows from a love of their children and from a desire to contribute in order to make the future of their children better than their own circumstance. There is no play-acting involved—no parental involvement suited to a class model of what their involvement ought to be. However much they love their child (and, of course, they do), nothing in the assistance that the R.s provide Amadeus seems to flow spontaneously from parental affection. Everything is modeled; everything is part of a plan. Fassbinder and Fengler, then, expose the breathtaking capacity of bourgeois parents to stereotype themselves—this, again, a means of self-justification.
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is a peculiarly unsettled film. It establishes this tenor by opening with a visit from Frau R.’s schoolfriend, whose massive frizzy hair occasions Herr R.’s nervous comment that his wife could not have her hair done that way because they, the R.s, have “obligations.” Middle-class people are forever filling the void of their identity with the self-importance of alleged “responsibilities” and “obligations.” Thus the least necessary ones among us find a psychic way of feeling useful, real, connected. Obligations also is code for the inclusion of neighbors in the extended family definition, for the opinions of others in their immediate vicinity, their class category, help determine the model for bourgeois behavior. This is inhuman—the eviction of the Freudian superego from the human mind and its replacement by sheer gossip. After an all-female coffee klatch where one of Frau R.’s neighbors notes Herr R.’s rapid weight gain, Frau R. feels compelled to throw this up at him. Whether his portliness bothered Frau R. before, it certainly does so now. Or would it be more accurate to say that she acts as though it does regardless of whether it does? In any case, the source of Frau R.’s concern is a neighbor’s apparent disapproval, not any issue relevant to her husband’s health. This accurately nails the middle-class mindset and its hostility to genuine emotion.
The application of sensitive, subtly rough-edged handheld camera to the film’s mise-en-scène perfectly conveys the unsettled nature of the R.s’s lives. Their self-seriousness shows the R.s’s insistence on their own reality, to fill again the void of bourgeois identity, but the use of the camera, with its jittery fluctuations, simultaneously lends realism to the action and questions the “reality” upon which the R.s insist. By becoming correlative to the R.s’s selfconsciousness, the handheld camera cumulatively exposes the R.s’s instability beneath their massive show of stability and the artificial state of their reality, which is derived from their endlessly modeled behavior rather than from spontaneous emotion. The content of this behavior and of the behavior surrounding the R.s, in family situations and at the workplace, is much improvised by the resourceful actors to stress its mundaneness. For instance, at one family get-together, R.s’s mother goes on, chattering so idly and incessantly, that, from beneath the show of affection, her hostility toward her daughter-in-law bobs up, reaching a crescendo when, during an after-dinner walk, the chatter back and forth distracts the two women, along with the men, from keeping an eye on Amadeus, who is suddenly lost amidst a stretch of forest, inviting charges and countercharges of parental and grandparental negligence. On the other hand, not all ordinary behavior is given a negative spin. There is a lovely early scene in which Herr and Frau R., after dinner, just talk, not to talk about something (as characters generally do in movies), but simply to express marital complicity and intimacy—something couples do in real life all the time, but a kind of behavior that one rarely sees in films. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment occurs at an office party when, a little drunk, Herr R. presses his boss to have a drink with him as a “brother,” an equal, and the boss absolutely resists. Generally, the mundane content of the human behavior we witness in this film, which is both reinforced and probed by the application of handheld camera, stresses the dissatisfaction of the R.s beneath their consciously/unconsciously modeled façade. Eventually Herr R. implodes, creating a massive scene of violence that turns the ordinariness of everything we have seen inside out. We are left with the legal reportage of a criminal event, an objective series of facts for which the whole film provides an explanation rooted in the suppressed emotions of the protagonist. The film cumulatively answers the question posed in the title.
Few films blur the distinction between documentary and fiction more compellingly than Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Fassbinder and Fengler want us to see both the surfaces of bourgeois reality and the psychosocial matter that is suppressed beneath these surfaces, and the marriage of form and content that they employ achieves their aim, suiting subjectivity—the R.s’s dissatisfaction, desperation—to objectivity, the bourgeois pretense at a “normal,” settled, satisfied life. One would have to disregard a formidable historical context to equate European middle-class with American middle-class; after all, the existence of the United States postdates the Renaissance in Italy, from whose mercantilism, we learned in high school, the European middle-class arose. On the other hand, European emigration transplanted the gist of bourgeois behavior to the States, which rampant American commercialism reinforced. There is nothing on view in Fassbinder and Fengler’s alarmingly funny and alarmingly alarming film that doesn’t strike familiar chords in current American experience.
All the performances, most of them, I presume, nonprofessional, are perfect. Kurt Raab plays Herr R.; Lilith Ungerer, Frau R.
Fassbinder and Fengler deservedly took the directorial prize at the German Film Awards.