Jordan Brooks

New German Cinema: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘Love is Colder Than Death’

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With a career fueled by otherworldly talent, prolific drug use and defiant self-indulgence, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was an astounding byproduct of the New German Cinema movement and undoubtedly one of its best. Possessing a creative energy unrivaled by any other filmmaker, Fassbinder produced an inconceivable forty feature films, two television series, three short films and twenty-four stage plays in his brief, fifteen-year career. Penetrated by an unquestionable genius, his exhaustingly-extensive career reveals a penchant for complex moral reprehension, and a provocative cultural subversion unlike any German filmmaker before him.

A Brechtian noir showcasing a great admiration for the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Love is Colder than Death has a meticulous aesthetic consistency, as Fassbinder’s strict adherence to the “Rule of Thirds” is nauseatingly impressive. Basking in drawn-out pauses and uninterrupted tracking shots, Fassbinder strives to make his audience feel a profound discomfort and delights in presenting an errant challenge to his viewers’ integrity.

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Love is Colder than Death begins in the middle of a story-in-progress. A crime syndicate, trying to recruit new soldiers, holds a group of small-time criminals captive in a basement dungeon. Among these men are Franz Walsch (Fassbinder) and Bruno (Ulli Lommel) who seem to gravitate toward one another. Once free, the two men reconvene at the apartment of Walsch’s lover: a brothel where Johanna (Hanna Schygulla) works. In the same vein as Godard’s Bande à part, the social malefactors spend their time committing petty crimes and dreaming of the perfect score. An escalating series of crimes leads to scrutiny from various antagonistic groups (rival gangs, the police), while a romance between Bruno and Johanna is oddly ignored by the dangerously aloof Walsch.

Rarely in motion, Fassbinder’s camera holds a steady focus as his characters move in and out of view. While the framing of his later works is nothing short of transcendent, Love is Colder than Death has Fassbinder far more concerned with simplicity and focal shifts. Naturalistic choreography (if any) coupled with a well-positioned camera become incredibly powerful tools in building mood and tone. Not bound by the confines of the frame, the characters’ freedom neutralizes cinematic fallacies while building an air of bravado and nonchalance around the fearless criminals. The director experiments with his depth of field in the construction of several shots, using movement as a means of shifting audience focus. Attracting attention through dialogue and stage direction alone, he balks at the idea of controlling concentration/sympathy through melodramatic camera work and excessive montage. Though “above” using tricks and filmmaking magic to guide his audiences’ emotion, Fassbinder never misses an opportunity to evoke disgust or moral furor.

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Love is Colder Than Death highlights appalling characters, as both a revolt against the conventions of cinema that Fassbinder reviled, and as an apparent self-imposed hurdle to retain audience interest in spite of the reprehensible players. He uses his actors (being one of them himself) as bullhorns for his opinions. Blatantly mocking the bourgeoisie he passionately despised, Fassbinder has a member of the upper class interrupt the trio as they clean their newly-acquired arsenal. Looking to spend some time with Johanna, the brainless characterization ignores the two men in the room sitting before a stockade of guns. When he finally notices, his lack of alarm is comically brilliant. Speaking out about the corporatization of everything from shopping malls to crime, Love is Colder than Death symbolizes protest more than film. Cartoonish villains and dimwitted store clerks surround our insidiously cold trio — a distorted reality where killings are seen as just desserts instead of heinous murders.

A promising start to a truly bountiful career, Love is Colder than Death retains the broad strokes of filmmaking tradition while discarding the rest. Ominous noir overtones grip the film with the icy hand of suspense as Fassbinder thwarts narrative and cinematic standards to deliver an affecting, brutal drama that came to rock the foundations of German film.

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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