Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), or The Style Is There, But The Technique…

10 03 2009
German is such a spitty, menacing language. At all times Fassbinder makes the dialog sound like theyre talking about kicking my moms ass!

German is such a spitty, menacing language. At all times Fassbinder makes the dialog sound like they're talking about beating up my mom!

Foreign films are like sweet music to my ears. They gently coo to me, “Eric, let us avaunt to a land far away! A land where healthcare is universal, a land where even the most measly part-time employee gets 2 weeks of paid vacation, a land where films are art and not just a business (offer for awesome foreign getaway not valid in the Eastern Block, Czech Republic, and Turkey)! Truly a siren’s song for me are these delightful films from continents away. Some of my favorite ones are from the Germans, and it just so happens that today’s film comes to us from a wonderful German director, R.W. Fassbinder, the godfather of New German Cinema. This is his first feature, entitled Love Is Colder Than Death. It is certainly a real show of force for a debut, but the problem is that I don’t think Fassbinder found his niche just yet.

It is a gangster film of sorts. It starts and ends with the life of Fritz. Fritz is a simple pimp on the streets of Germany. How romantic! He has a lovely lady named Joanna, enough money to feed himself; everything is going just fine for this guy. Until a crime syndicate steps in, that is. This evil syndicate has plans for Franz to join up with them (i.e. getting a cut of his pimping profits), but Franz doesn’t like the idea. He decides not to join, and goes back to pimping and having “relations” with Joanna. One of the other recruits for the syndicate named Bruno strikes up a bond with Franz in the process before the free-spirited crook leaves. It seems like this Bruno will never become important for any reason, but for ambiguous reasons later in the movie he tracks down our “hero”. They become fast friends and revel in their youthful freedom. The movie explores their relationship, which is at once an innocent friendship, a homoerotic flirtation, and a shared interest in Joanna, who they share sexually (!!!).

Much like Godard’s Breathless (who supposedly inspired Fassbinder immensely), Love Is Colder Than Death is an experimental take on the typical gangster movie. But while Godard creates a debut similar to Welles’ Citizen Kane in terms of sheer beginner’s prowess, Fassbinder falters here and there to find his grounding. Not in the places you might expect, though, which is the really intriguing thing about it.

I enjoy parts of it. There are some great genuine moments here. Bruno driving alone at night is simply fascinating to watch. The whole movie could have been that and I would have been fine with it. Fassbinder’s landscape here is populated with skanks, losers, and unwitting codependent nutjobs. This is his signature, and I love how he portrays the world with a love of the outcast and the misbegotten. I also love both the subtle and not-so-subtle flourishes he makes with mood. The over-long pauses, the stark symbolism in some shots (especially the opening “syndicate interview” scene), and the inexplicable people use all make for something very unique. Fassbinder was only getting started, and in his brief life he would come to make masterpieces. Not this time, however.

The characters are half-baked, and their motivations are not even remotely understandable. These characters are losers seemingly for the sake of having misfit characters to adorn, not because they are real and they mean something on a social or metaphorical level. The script needed some work with specifics is all. I’m not saying that I didn’t “get it” or that it was “too confusing”. It just felt less like conscious vagueries and more like unconscious plot-holes to me. And because of these motivation gaps, I felt some of the performances suffered, especially Hanna Schygulla, who played Joanna. She does things sometimes for absolutely no reason, and it really perplexed me, but more so I think it perplexed her. She seems lost in the idea of this character, so she drifts from scene to scene in hopes that perhaps she will get her bearings back.

All in all though, a solid debut that any serious film fan should check out. This will definitely get you in the spirit of Fassbinder, and you will quickly want to watch more of his later works, when he fulfilled all the potential that this promised. it is edgy, expermental, and a meditation of the crime film from the point of view of the offenders that will not be forgotten so easily. There are some flaws, but for a debut, anyone will admit that this is damn good. I give Love Is Colder Than Death 7 unwitting condependent nutjobs out of 10.

Tomorrow we learn a very important lesson, a lesson on how to Never Back Down!