THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)

Händler der vier Jahreszeiten filters most everything through economic arrangements. One might assume that something suiting this description would be dry, offputting, schematic; yet writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film is humane, moving, rich. It ends with a veiled suicide, a night’s drinking by a man whose recent heart attack requires him to refrain from alcohol; Hans Epp feels an utter failure because both wife and mother seem to adjust their sense of his worth according to how much money he makes. Hans, beautifully played by Hans Hirschmüller (best actor, German Film Awards), is a street fruit peddler. He was once a police clerk but lost that job in disgrace when he was caught being lewinskied by an arrested prostitute—a haunting figure thereafter. Hans was further degraded in the Foreign Legion, when his whipping outdoors by a black Arab—played by El Heïdi ben Salem, Fassbinder’s lover—wasn’t halted by two fellow soldiers until he was about to be shot to death. Apparently they were indulging their sadism at Hans’s expense. “We couldn’t come any quicker,” these buddies feebly explain. Hans, humiliated: “Why didn’t you let him kill me?” One wonders if the Arab was paid by them to do just what he did—which, if so, means he was not really paid for his own murder. The event provides the film with a stunning, disquieting late flashback.
     Irm Hermann (best actress, German Film Awards) is a bit wearying as short Hans’s tall wife, Irmgard; but Hanna Schygulla is both robust and kind as Hans’s sister, Anna. One wishes that her part were more extensive.
     Hans’s most complex relationship, however, is with Harry, his “friend” from the Legion, who will be co-opted by the widow when she needs a new mate.

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