THE AMERICAN SOLDIER (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970)

Concluding writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early gangster trilogy, Der amerikanische Soldat is a near-masterpiece whose continual reference point is Jean-Luc Godard’s five years-earlier Alphaville. Also in gorgeous black-and-white, Fassbinder’s film creates a noirish landscape; although its Munich necessarily fails to be as romantic as otherworldly Alphaville, a futuristic Paris-and-beyond, it, too, is a place of dark, semi-delirious dreams. Ricky, its protagonist, has a German mother, an American father; after serving in Vietnam, he has come for a visit. Hired as an assassin by three cops, he continues doing what the U.S. military trained him to do. One of his hits, at point-blank range, is the woman in his arms: a stunning hommage to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).
     Ricky briefly visits his mother and infantile younger brother, whose homosexual infatuation he brushes aside—again, the feeling is. But we can see, even if Ricky cannot, that Ricky perpetually denies his own rigidly suppressed gayness as he cuts a ridiculously exaggerated heterosexual figure. With Ricky, misogynism could be either the odd element “in” or “out,” the behavior either insisting upon or contesting his heterosexuality.
     The final shot is brilliant. Ricky is shot to death at a train station when the unexpected appearance of Ricky’s mother and brother, to say goodbye, distracts him, giving his two captives a chance to turn tables. In hilariously, painfully protracted slow motion, Ricky falls, whereupon—the slow motion continues—his brother descends upon Ricky’s corpse with a brace of embraces. Because Ricky’s mother remains absolutely still in the background of the shot (visually, her son’s death has frozen the life out of her), the slow motion possesses the illusion of belonging, being intrinsic, to the action to which it was subsequently applied.
     Time, it appears, has the last image.


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