Jordan Brooks

New German Cinema: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘The American Soldier’

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A surrealist bookend to his unofficial gangster trilogy, The American Soldier finds Rainer Werner Fassbinder not only at peace with his version of cinematic grace but more cynically-minded than ever. By satirizing melodrama, infusing brutal violence and recalling elements of Godardian idiosyncrasy, The American Soldier is as cold as its titular character — and just about as talkative. Peer Rabin’s score provides an edgy backdrop to the film’s increasingly-outlandish plot; a woeful melody of strings that surreptitiously returns again and again to an upbeat measure. A fitting piece, the music underlines a malevolent narrative oddly punctuated by moments of surprising tenderness.

Unlike the former entries, The American Soldier concerns itself with a group of rogue policemen desperate to clean up the streets. Hiring an impetuous American killer, Ricky (Karl Scheydt, a native German), the policemen pay to have undesirables erased from their books. The calculating and hard-drinking Ricky shows no remorse as he completes his many objectives while seeking out familiar faces around Munich. Also dissimilar in terms of focus, The American Soldier splits itself into two distinct plot lines that never truly cross paths. One follows Ricky as he purposefully wanders the town, and the other concentrates on his puppet masters and their collaborative effort to “destroy” crime without leaving any evidence.

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Fassbinder’s film opens with a strikingly-framed game of cards being played by policemen Jan (Jan George), Doc (Hark Bohm) and an unnamed officer credited simply as “Polizist” (Marius Aicher). The fact that the men are gambling is not taken lightly; in comparison to Gods of the Plague, games like roulette and poker are reserved only for the criminal underbelly. Using pornographic playing cards and highlighting a great talent for deception, this game is an important background detail in the character framework of these three men. Comparatively, Ricky’s arrival is marked with a dangerous stint of drunk driving alongside a giggling prostitute. Obviously enchanted by Ricky’s American charms, the prostitute (Irm Hermann) quickly becomes a point of annoyance while being thrown out of the car and fired upon with blanks. Ricky gets a great deal of enjoyment out of this sociopathic act, laughing deeply as he reenters the vehicle and drives off. In these two intimate moments, Fassbinder gives us all the necessary detail about the characters we will be with for the next ninety-minutes.

Even with the surprising amount of perspective, these opening scenes feel almost out of place in the otherwise barren narrative. We know Ricky has been to Vietnam, but his only remark on the subject (to Franz Walsch reprised by Fassbinder) is that it “was loud.” As a war that would continue for another five years after The American Soldier‘s release, details about the questionable tactics and hellish conditions of Vietnam were still only preliminary. Every bit as cold as Franz Walsch, Bruno and Gorilla, the only thing war has taught Ricky is how to kill intelligently and without emotion.

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The disengaged Ricky displays such a profound lack of emotion that he puts his friend (and cinematic predecessors) Walsch to shame. Never breaking out of his Bressonian stoicism, Ricky’s emotional scale ranges from asleep to disquietingly calm. This does not preclude Ricky from being continually surrounded by feelings. Gifted with Walsch’s aloof sexuality, Ricky inspires the love and desire of all the women around him — even exciting the doubly-perverse homosexual and incestuous love of his brother (a childlike Kurt Raab). Fassbinder twists the jealousy from Gods of the Plague to a male-centered scorn when Ricky earns the love of Jan’s police girlfriend, Rosa (Elga Sorbas). This unlikely relationship leads to several violent interjections reminiscent of Godard’s Masculin féminin, as an attempt to promote attention during these crucial elemental moments. Going so far as to put a pinball machine in Ricky’s mother’s house, Fassbinder not only pays homage to a brother in film, but he injects a humorous and completely alien moment in the midst of a serious passage.

While not as thematically strong as the earlier entries in the gangster trilogy, The American Soldier’s well-crafted characters and parallel storylines add a new dimension to Fassbinder’s work. Mesmerizing cinematography and delicate framing mark an important step in his visual acuity, while an eclectic score and offbeat deviations render The American Soldier a stirring piece of New German Cinema.

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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