feature by Gregory Avery, 17 November 2000

Veronika Voss 

Over 154 days, from June, 1979 to April, 1980, Fassbinder made his film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was comprised of thirteen parts, with a 111-minute epilogue, "My Dream of Franz Biberkopf's Dream." It was previewed, over twelve days, at the 1980 Venice Film Festival before it was shown on West German television, starting in October and concluding with the final episode on December 29.

When Fassbinder acted in his films, he often appeared as a character named Franz. The real name of the carny worker Fox in Fox and His Friends turns out to be Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder edited his films under the name Franz Walsch, the latter name coming from that of director Raoul Walsh, whose film, Band of Angels, was one of Fassbinder's favorites. And when Irm Hermann and her husband had their first child, a boy, they named him Franz.

Why the continuing fascination with Franz? In 1980, Klaus Eder asked Fassbinder about what interested him about the character of Franz Biberkopf in Döblin's novel. "That gets harder and harder for me to say," replied Fassbinder. "In the beginning it was easy. I always said, This is a person who goes around for much too long trying to believe in goodness in this world, in this system he lives in, though he actually knows better. Maybe he hopes that if he sees it this way, it will be this way, and people are, people can be good. Not until very late does he accept the idea that in this system people just can't be any different from the way they are, and he can't be either. But he could afford to go through the world in this anarchistic way [sic] only because he wasn't a worker, but just lived on the margin of the working world. [In Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz is an ex-convict and former day laborer who returns to Berlin life in 1927, during the most volatile years of the Weimar Republic.] For that reason it isn't a worker's novel. It's a novel that takes place on the margin of the normal working world, but for that very reason says a lot about the working world, I think...."

Innate shyness in a person can sometimes create frustrations that build up and then come out in the wrong ways. Fassbinder could be courteous and attentive to actresses such as Barbara Sukowa and Rosel Zech, while being unmercifully hard on other performers such as Kurt Raab and Irm Hermann, the ostensible reason being that if he goaded and berated Kurt or Irm on how bad their acting was, their performances would improve. But the atmosphere on the set of Satan's Brew and Bolweiser grew so acrimonious that Kurt Raab, a brilliant actor who also served as a fine art director for many of Fassbinder films, would have nothing more to do with Fassbinder.

And then there was the time when Hanna Schygulla, following Maria Braun, told an entertainment trade reporter that she would like to do a remake of The Blue Angel, with Fassbinder directing. This did not sit well with Fassbinder, the reason being that the story's pre-World War I setting did not fit in with his current plans to make a series of films set in Germany following World War II. But Fassbinder maintained a tit-for-tat attitude towards those around them, giving rewards to some and punishments to others.

Lili Marlene had been kicking around international film markets for years when, suddenly, Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla became involved in it. It should be touched upon, if it is to be touched at all, for a few reasons. One of which is that it gave Fassbinder his biggest budget to-date for a motion picture feature (DM 10,500,000, compared to the DM 1,975,000 that "Maria Braun" ended up costing, and the DM 700,000 to 800,000 budgets for Fassbinder's two other 1979 films, In the Year of 13 Moons and The Third Generation).

Based on the novel, Der Himmel hat viele Farben (The Sky Has Many Colors) by Lale Andersen, the story features Hanna as Willi Bunterberg, who is plucked from obscurity when she sings the title song, first in a cabaret, then on a hit recording and, finally, in front of huge audiences at the Berlin Sports Palast (which is what happened to Lale Andersen in real life). The song becomes as much of a sentimental favorite among Germans during World War Two as "The White Cliffs of Dover" was to the British and "You'll Never Know" to Americans.

Fassbinder flew to New York City to meet with Richard Gere about playing the male lead opposite Hanna in the film, that of the son of a wealthy Swiss family who is working against the Nazis. Gere turned out to be more interested in trying to get Fassbinder to direct a film version of Martin Sherman's play, Bent, which Gere had recently appeared in on Broadway. The meeting came to naught, and so we'll never find out what the pairing of two of the hottest screen actors at the time would have been like, but it couldn't have been any worse than who they ended up getting for the part: Giancarlo Giannini, the Italian star of Lina Wertmuller's most acclaimed films of the Seventies, and who, with his hair dyed blond and his dialogue completely redubbed to eliminate his accent, is ludicrously miscast.

In fact, with the exception of Mel Ferrer, who plays the father of Giannini's character, all the actors in the film were redubbed after complaints, following initial screenings, that the performers sounded too German. (In which case, they should have made the film in Ohio.) Watching the film, it's difficult to tell if the dialogue coming from Schygulla's direction is actually hers, but the singing definitely is. Earlier, Schygulla played a frontier saloon singer in Whity, and, because of the semi-satirical nature of the film, one assumed that the off-key, off-tempo singing was intentional. In Lili Marlene, though, she still sounds the same way, but here she's supposed to be playing a famous and renowned chanteuse. All of Europe comes to a screeching halt in order to listen to these awful sounds emanating from Schygulla over the radio.

Fassbinder may have been clued in on this, because of the way one scene in the film is staged. Giannini's character is arrested and thrown into solitary confinement. The cell has been outfitted with a large speaker that has no on-and-off switch. Willi/Schygulla's recording of "Lili Marlene" is then played over the speaker in the cell, again and again, all day and all night. Then the needle gets stuck in the record that's being played, so that it keeps repeating, over and over, "one day, one day, we'll meet again...." The noise finally causes Giannini to break down altogether.

Four months after the completion of principal photography on Lili Marlene, Fassbinder moved on to work on Lola and the film that would be his third "postwar trilogy" film, along with making a documentary, Theatre in a Trance. He never worked with Hanna Schygulla again. It was as if Lili Marlene were punishment for Hanna's impudence.

Sometime in the mid-Seventies, Fassbinder began his hard drug usage. Cocaine enabled him to lock himself away and work for long periods of time at a stretch, after which he would sleep, then start working again for long periods at a stretch. For his insomnia, he used a pharmaceutical called Mandrax, which, when taken with cocaine in the system, is supposed to produce sleep without the interim period of drowsiness.

When West Germany banned the dispensing of Mandrax, Fassbinder understandably panicked. He tried other sleepaids -- nothing worked. Eventually, Juliane Lorenz, his film editor since 1976, contacted a physician who provided a sleep aid under strict instruction that Fassbinder should only take a dosage of a half-tablet at a time. It worked, but then Lorenz discovered shortly thereafter that Fassbinder had been taking three whole tablets of the drug at a time.

"If there is an atomic war," Fassbinder said, "people should stick with me, because if a bomb drops, it won't destroy me. I've got more energy than any bomb."

Fassbinder wanted to make a film of the 1921 novel, Cocaine, written by Pitigrilli, the pen name for Italian journalist Dino Segrè. In it, Tito, an Italian playboy, tumbles in and out of various adventures, gets a job at a newspaper that pays him for not writing, and carries on simultaneous affairs with two women, a young dancer whom Tito knows from his youth, and a stately Armenian widow. He also is introduced to the title recreational drug, although Tito's downfall at the end comes about only partially as a result of it.

The novel is surprisingly funny, even lighthearted in parts, and there are some indelible scenes, such as when butterflies imported from South America are set free during a high society party in Paris where the guests are drinking cocktails made from ether, and, as the party progresses, the butterflies slowly succumb from the ether fumes, one by one.

Fassbinder had come up with a film treatment that would have depicted the effects of cocaine on the protagonist by gradually showing the settings being covered with a hoarfrost, silvery and sparkling, and the characters' breath becomes visible in the air at all times and in all places, even during the hot times of the year and in warmer locales. You can get some idea of what this visual scheme would have looked like while watching Veronika Voss.

There is one sequence in Veronika Voss that particularly sticks in the memory, especially if you've ever worked in film production. Veronika (Rosel Zech), working for the first time in years, has to deliver a single line reading in one scene, where she receives a telegram and, after reading the message, sheds a tear while she tells something to the delivery boy. As she makes the attempt, gazing straight into the camera (and at us), her face grows rigid, tense, mesmerized. Her hair style and costuming make it look as if she were encased to appear before the camera. The moment comes. She has to deliver the line. She delivers the line alright, but she doesn't produce the tears needed for the scene. Take Twelve, and we see what she sees while she's attempting to work: down a narrow path, there approaches the camera, the dolly, the cameraman, many technicians, and, sitting to one side of the camera, the director, his overcoat and porkpie hat draped in a stylishly "louche" fashion, with a calm yet anticipatory, predatory expression on his face. Veronika loses her concentration and breaks character. Take Thirteen: the tears are alright, but the line is wrong. The set is finally cleared. Silence in the corridor outside the soundstage, until, finally, with the stealth of a Panzer tank, we hear Veronika's agonized screech as she breaks down altogether.

Veronika Voss has been compared to Sunset Boulevard, in that it shares some basic similarities: a gloomy old house, a fading film star, a relationship with a younger man, and a comeback attempt. But of the three women in the "trilogy," Veronika has more in common with Blanche DuBois than Norma Desmond. (Fassbinder was said to have been interested in staging a production of A Streetcar Named Desire.) During one of the opening scenes, Veronika and her future "savior," Robert (Hilmar Thate), take a streetcar from Geiselgaste to Thierschplatz. The two streetcars that figure in Tennessee Williams' play, and which travel, in opposite directions, on the same route, are named "Desire" and "Cemetery." "Geiselgaste," where Veronika and Robert meet after she has left a screening room, translates as "hostage guest," while Thierschplatz turns out to be the same street where the office of Veronika's "doctor" is located. In fact, the story takes the usual dynamic of most stories about a woman who gives her all to a man, and turns it into a story about a woman who gives her all...to another woman.

"Have pity. I'll give you everything I own." "All right. All of it." "Now you own me and everything that's mine." After delivering these lines in a film, Veronika is complimented, on the soundstage set, for her performance. "It's my profession to be 'moving'," Veronika responds confidently.

Years later, Veronika is chastised by her physician, the "neurologist" Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who catches her taking an overdose of sleeping pills, like a naughty child with his or her hand in the cookie jar. "Am I not your best girlfriend," Dr. Katz says, not as a question but as a statement of fact. She speaks to Veronika in the placating but fully commanding "best friend" tones of a true abuser. "You...you don't want to die yet, do you? You can't die until I allow it." Veronika laughs at this, ruefully. The laugh is her only defense. Dr. Katz laughs. Everyone else in the room laughs. There are times when you laugh or go mad. There is a lot of rueful laughter in this movie.

At a party held at Veronika's house -- where Rosel Zech sings a wickedly outstanding rendition of "Memories Are Made of This" -- Veronika tells a reporter that she has been considering offers from Hollywood studios -- United Artists (."..it means, 'union of artists'..."), as well as M.G.M., and 20th Century-Fox. What will she be paid? someone asks. "You know what they're called over there," Veronika responds, using the German term "Traumfabriken." "A factory that makes dreams, not money. Making dreams. Just making them." Joseph Goebbles used the term "traumfabrik" in 1933 when, as Germany's new Minister of Propaganda, he met with the German studio heads and producers and called for German film production to both rival and outpace Hollywood pictures in terms of quality and standard. When, in 1981, Fassbinder was asked what his aspirations were twenty years earlier, in 1961, when he was still an aspiring filmmaker, Fassbinder replied, "To make many, many films, so that my life would become a film."

In 1955, when Veronika Voss is set, the "traumfabriken" are all located in the U.S. Some people still remember Veronika as a star, but not a lot. She lures Robert back to her house, telling him "I like seducing defenseless men...," but when she wakes up, she doesn't know who he is and what he's doing there. She is having pain from the lack of morphine in her system -- the pain is also what causes her to break-down on the film set -- so Robert must bundle her off to Dr. Katz, who gives Veronika the "spritzen" she needs, but in exchange for the morphine Veronika must turn more and more of her assets over to Dr. Katz to pay for the drug, which she does when the pain returns, and she must go again to see Dr. Katz....

Veronika can be seen as either a victim or as someone who chooses her destiny (she must "finish" what she has "started"); as a relic of an era being swept into the past (we do not even find out that she was a star at Ufa, the biggest of Germany's studio complexes, until almost the end of the picture) so that Germany can now move into its future, or as someone who is simply being gotten rid of. The final scenes of Veronika Voss are played out, in confinement, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and one could even surmise that Veronika moves on to another, higher plane, a star who passes up into the sky where the stars shine bright.

Fassbinder realized Veronika Voss in the style of the grand Ufa studio-made melodramas of the 'Thirties and 'Forties, from the stylized opening credits to the use of all sorts of cross-wipes and "tear-throughs" for scene transitions. And he and Xaver Schwarzenberger worked out, with great specificity, an intricately-designed use of black-and-white photography and lighting for the film. Scenes at Dr. Katz's clinic seem to approach, but just hold off from, being blindingly bright, while the visuals give the features of Rosel Zech's Veronika a slightly hazy look, as if their definition had been affected after being exposed under the heat of too many studio lights for too long.

The initial idea for the film came from the real-life death of Sybille Schmitz, a German film star who died from a combination of morphine and sleeping pills. There were unresolved suspicions, though, as to whether she took her life entirely by her own hand or not. The opening credits of Veronika Voss identify it as "BRD 2/1955" ("BRD" standing for "Bundesrepublik Deutchland"), 1955 being the year of Schmitz's death, and which chronologically sets it between Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola (which was set around 1958, and was identified as "BDR 3" in its opening credits). The scenes at Dr. Katz's clinic, from which Günther Kaufmann's G.I. can be seen coming and going, have Armed Forces Radio playing in the background, and one can hear Johnny Horton's recording of "The Battle of New Orleans." ("Oh, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles/ And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit wouldn't go....")

Fassbinder had always wanted to work with Romy Schneider, but he did get to work with an actress in Veronika Voss who has the same luminous, wounded beauty as another postwar actress, Hildegard Knef: Cornelia Froboess, who plays Robert's girlfriend, Henriette, a photographer. The two of them try to expose Dr. Katz's racket in snaring people onto morphine solely for financial gain. At one point, Henriette even poses as a lackadaisical rich woman who has a pain, an emotional pain that only Dr. Katz can treat with her unmentioned narcotic. (Katz pulls a fast one, though, switching the morphine prescription she gives her with one for "Radix Valerianae," an herbal medicinal described by one source as "the Valium of the nineteenth century.") When Robert and Henriette go to see a state official in the Health Department, he tells them that all he can do is make sure that pharmaceutical narcotics are being regulated. "The system of control is perfect. It's the people that aren't perfect."



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