Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s only Western is slow, studied and gorgeously stylized, set in the late 1870s, and about a vicious, dysfunctional family headed by a wealthy rancher and including his hyena of a second, much younger wife, two sons, one a fag-hag and the other retarded, and two servants, a mother (played by a white actress in charcoal blackface) and her grown son (played by the filmmaker’s own lover at the time), who is called Whity. This interracial Uncle Tom ends up murdering the whole lot of them. (His white gloves in the forefront of a shot reminded me of the more-than-butler, played by Erich von Stroheim, at the organ in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, 1950.)
Hanna Schygulla, one of my favorite actresses, is, for me, no more than adequate as a mercenary saloon singer/prostitute in the Dietrich-Monroe mold. Whity is in love with her, and as she manipulates him she encourages the view that she is also in love with him. The closing scene of their dancing together in the dunes in long-shot, with Whity at one point elegantly kissing her hand, is a mirage correlative to Whity’s dream. The gal has left for better pickings in Chicago, although she did ask Whity to accompany her. Strange, unconvincing woman.
Indeed, this is a difficult film to navigate; but there are lots of things I like in it, especially Fassbinder’s wonderful long-shots, the alternation between placid and explosive mise-en-scène (a remarkable example of the latter is the first glimpse, in long-shot, that we get of the interior of the saloon), and the repeated sound of footsteps indoors that marks the entrapment of people in their imagined excess of freedom. Characters pace so much, then, in an effort to create the illusion of space. This befits a film that begins in the tight quarters of a kitchen where a fish gets its head chopped off for supper and a bird, possibly an owl, watches from a cage so small that the pet can only stay put.
Slavery more or less still exists, as indicated by the frequent visits of massa’s whip to Whity’s brown back.
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