Monday, March 3, 2008

Rio das Mortes

Michael and Günther are two young men without prospects, the former a tile-layer, and the latter just out of the navy (which despite their mutual vow to evade national service he joined to be a “good German”, he says with a mocking laugh. He’s black). They have an old hand-drawn map of the Rio das Mortes region of Peru, indicating buried treasure, and the film focuses on their attempts to raise money for the expedition. Unfortunately, despite selling a car and having Günther move in to save rent, they are not very good at it, perhaps because as members of the working class, they were never taught how – the mantra of Michel’s schoolteacher girlfriend is that children must be inculcated to succeed in society. They try to raise money from an investor, claiming to be planning a cotton farm, but with no sense of the realities involved, and they fail miserably to get funding from an academic body when they plan to take along a student acquaintance. Although, as Michel says, “you can never get what you want”, it is no surprise in their case as they are entirely unequipped to deal with the economic realities they face, as perfectly represented by the fact that although their reasons for going on the trip are “for life, for freedom”, their dream also based on escaping into fantasy from their workaday existence and discovering buried treasure (a further irony being that the Rio das Mortes region is in Brazil, not Peru).

While the boys are running around trying to raise money, Hanna Schygulla watches unamused as Michel’s girlfriend. It is she who is the real star, opening the film casual in lingerie, and thereafter in a succession of smart outfits and hats. She thinks their idea is stupid, and besides she wants to get married (although this may well be more for social form than anything else, as her mother badgers her over the telephone, and she reacts with irritation to the landlady’s calling her “frau”). There’s something fatal to the film about the disjunction between her character and its presentation, and the activities of the boys; although she too has a same-sex friend, another teacher, their joint educational aspirations are not given enough emphasis (treated as a childish joke in one scene that turns the USSR into a phallus) to balance those of the boys (who even wrestle like hawksian/fordian/walshian buddies), and as great as she looks, she’s too Hollywood-overdressed for the movie; by the end she is literally dressed to kill, but exchanges her revolver for a lipstick, twin signifiers if ever there were, of Fassbinder’s American cinema. Based on an idea by Volker Schlondorff, the film feels tossed off, with the air of being casually formulated over a few drinks in the bar and never refined. The boys get a fairytale ending as a random patroness stumps up the cash; it would be a shameless deus ex machina – in Fassbinder’s fantasy the working class gets a well-deserved break – were it not for the fact that Fassbinder himself had received the funding for his first feature the previous year in almost exactly the same way, from eccentric patroness Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, here playing herself. Nonetheless, the meandering feel gives it an enjoyable lightness and the stylistic disjunctions – if not the over-used zoom – can be borne with for the presence of the always-captivating Schygulla. And the best scene of all has no relation to the plot whatsoever, as Schygulla, in a sizzling red and lace dress dances up a storm to “Jailhouse Rock” on the jukebox in the company of an oafish leather-jacketed youth, Fassbinder himself.

d/p/sc Rainer Werner Fassbinder ph Dietrich Lohmann ed Thea Eymèsz pd Kurt Raab m Peer Raben cast Michael König, Günther Kaufmann, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Baer, Ulli Lommel, Marius Aicher, Walter Sedlmayr, Franz Maron, Hanna Axmann-Rezzori
(1971, WGer[TV], 84m)

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