Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first feature, (Liebe ist) kälter als der Tod, based on his own play, coolly busts apart the seams of the generic label “gangster film.” One notes the absence of blood despite many killings. In thirties Hollywood films this absence indicated a degree of social responsibility and restraint. With Fassbinder, however, it is a matter of distancing. In both cases, filmmakers wanted their audiences to focus on the characters as people.
Fassbinder, 23 or 24 at the time, plays Franz, whose being a pimp has already locked his life into a dead-end. The syndicate makes every attempt to bring Franz into the fold; despite beatings and threats of worse, he wants his independence. Why? Perhaps this stand of his is a means of transcending imaginatively the dead-end he knows he is in. By film’s end neither the police nor the syndicate have killed Franz, who escapes with girlfriend/prostitute Johanna. Franz is daring, imaginative and lucky, and he will continue to transcend, “escape,” difficulties until his luck runs out. This luck is a function of the most likeable thing about him: his youth.
He, Johanna and another young man, Bruno, eventually form a gang of criminals—thieves and killers. Unlike Franz, Bruno is utterly without imagination. Rather than being himself, or even knowing what that might be, Bruno copies the appearance of Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). He probably fancies Johanna because he wants her to be his Bonnie. He murders people because they confront him with an Other that reminds him of his nothingness, his lack of an individual spark. Reflecting a certain past national tendency, Bruno follows orders. His last order, presumably from the syndicate, is to kill Johanna.
Love, you know, is colder than death.
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