2015 Film Essays

New German Cinema: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘Gods of the Plague’


A continuation of his work in Love is Colder than Death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder mixes up new themes and a new cast with part two of his unofficial crime trilogy, Gods of the Plague. A larger budget allowed Fassbinder to expand the scope of his narrative through a much larger cast, which afforded him a greater repertoire of camera techniques. Borrowing from American gangster films (and even taking some cues from Spaghetti Westerns), Gods of the Plague is as bitterly dark as its predecessor, with a melancholy center full of despair and hopelessness.

Franz Walsch (Harry Baer in the original Fassbinder role) has just completed a stint in prison following his actions in Love is Colder Than Death. Vowing never to return, Walsch takes his leave to seek out Johanna (Hanna Schygulla) and begin a life of freedom. With temptation around every corner, Walsch drifts aimlessly around Munich — equipped with an unexplained sexual magnetism — and into the arms of a string of lovers. Seeking out his old partner Günther a.k.a. Gorilla (played by the towering Günther Kaufmann), Walsch lands in the doting arms of Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta), which earns him the ire of Johanna — a woman used by the police to potentially bring Walsch down for good.


Gods of the Plague is less a cohesive, linear story and more an interconnected group of tableaus striving for a sense of autonomy. Fassbinder rarely sets up scenes with transitional shots, favoring a quick cut to a new location with a group of fresh faces. Voyeuristically quiet, the camera watches closely without artificially inflating the inherent temperament of the setting. By slowly building the desired mood and tension, Fassbinder and his actors convey the idea that “less is more,” as a scornful look and complete silence can easily outmaneuver even the most vitriolic dialogue. Fassbinder basks in the quiet of these hushed seconds of agony, prolonging the eventual “break” until the tension has become unbearable. Given the almost complete lack of any real action or affecting drama, the use of discomfort in place of activity builds a precarious tension that is never completely released.

None of the scenes in Gods of the Plague are weighted any differently. Each encounter serves only as another point of interest; all are successive rest stops on a detailed plot line. Fassbinder resists the desire to insert pieces of narrative superfluity, basking in the truth and depth of feeling in every intimate moment. Emotions fly between characters caught up in the passion of fleeting seconds, and the cast exists for these small instances of grandeur — not for some building climax to take place at a later time. Gods of the Plague is the result of these emotional moments interacting with one another.


Franz Walsch (a pseudonym Fassbinder used for his editing and art direction credits) is a purgation of the director’s emotions; an autobiographical character surrounded by a distaste for life and the people around him. Sinking into a depression, Walsch is consumed with a general repulsion for everything in life, which becomes a major factor wherever he is present. His brooding leads to several unprovoked affairs, and each passing fancy becomes the subject of a subsequent scene. Walsch’s partnership with Gorilla is a mirror for Fassbinder’s own homosexual (and eventually turbulent) relationship with Günther Kaufmann. Inviting a sense of perversion, while also alienating an increasingly-despondent Walsch, the underlying themes all play major roles in Fassbinder’s symphony of emotion. Walsch’s character makeup would go on to become a recurring pretext of the director’s male characters.

With Gods of the Plague, Fassbinder sets out to accomplish far more than a mere protest against cinematic conventions and moral decency. A complex study of character and mood, Gods of the Plague relies heavily on subtly-crafted and detached scenes to amass larger thematic ideas of isolation, jealousy and love.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.


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