Fantasy, Reality, Love, and Tragedy in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss (1982)
Veronika Voss (1982) Rainer Werner Fassbinder
One of the great pleasures of watching movies is the sense of discovery, particularly with a director who is clearly passionate about cinema. I think we can safely say that anyone who makes 37 films (to say nothing of his television work, short films, and theatre work) in less than two decades is passionate about cinema. Although I have only seen three films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), I know that he was such a director. Each of these pictures made me think, feel, and reflect upon what it means to be human. I realize how grandiose that sounds, but I can’t bring myself to deny it. While Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) both moved me, Veronika Voss haunts me. Perhaps that was Fassbinder’s intention.
The black-and-white film opens in a movie theater in 1955 with Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) watching one of her own films with an audience (which includes Fassbinder himself). The scene they’re viewing depicts Veronika’s character begging another woman for something (which I will not reveal). This moment will be significant later on, but for now, Veronika closes her eyes, refusing to watch. Is this because she doesn’t want to remember the scene and her performance in it, or is it something else?
Suddenly Fassbinder changes the point of view from the theatre audience to an observer on the set of the scene being shot. After the director says “Cut,” the cast and crew congratulate Veronika on her performance: “You were marvelous. Heartbreaking.” Veronika responds, “It’s my job to break hearts.”
Standing outside in the dark, shivering and unprotected from the cold and rain, Veronika stands crying. A man named Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) walks up to her and offers to share his umbrella. The camera follows them as they walk through a wooded area. Their walk is purposeful, not only to get out of the rain, but also to avoid something unpleasant, possibly dangerous as if the two are attempting to escape from some deadly German fairy tale. Then, viewed from inside a Munich U-Bahn car, the couple moves past one window after another, as if traversing frames of film, transforming their journey from a primeval forest to a place of modernity. A sign shows us that Veronika and Robert have arrived at Geiselgasteig, an area known as the “Bavarian Hollywood.” All of these details are significant. We might be guilty of reading too much into them, but the concepts of modernity vs. the past, fantasy vs. reality, and how one adjusts to postwar life are inescapable, and Fassbinder knows that.
During the U-Bahn ride, Fassbinder utilizes Dutch angle shots and closeups to convey Veronika’s emotional state, her sudden fear that she’ll be recognized. Perhaps she harbors a greater fear that she won’t be recognized. Robert, a sportswriter, doesn’t recognize her at all, not until hours later when Veronika calls him to meet her at a restaurant. Robert’s ignorance has worked in his favor: Veronika thanks him for treating her like a human being during the previous night, yet it soon becomes obvious that she wants everyone (Robert, a waiter, and others) to recognize her celebrity status and cater to her every whim. But none of this bothers Robert. He’s hooked.
Initially seeking to write a story about aging film actresses, using Veronika as a case study, Robert is drawn into Veronika’s unstable and sometimes self-destructive world. Veronika’s magnetism is so strong that even Robert’s girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) finds his affair compelling.
The allure of cinema’s artificial world of fantasy seems at odds with the harsh realities witnessed by a man whose job is reporting on sporting events. This dichotomy is reflected in Robert’s recognition of the signs of a toxic relationship developing with the actress, while he also pictures himself as her savior. Veronika’s salvation, Robert believes, must come about through her deliverance from a neurologist named Dr. Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who may not have Veronika’s best intentions in mind. Robert clearly sees himself as Veronika’s deliverer/hero.
Comparisons to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film I recently discussed with my Great Movies library discussion group (LINK), are inevitable. Like Wilder’s masterpiece, Veronika Voss presents us with a once-famous actress whose life is changed by the unexpected appearance of a writer, although both writers seem to have different motivations.
Photo: Peter Gauhe, DFF
I haven’t explored enough about Fassbinder to know how much he intended to borrow from Sunset Boulevard, so I will leave further comparisons to the reader, which are fascinating to consider. Yet this Fassbinder quote may give us a hint:
“Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It’s a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple’s relationship one partner destroys the other.”
Veronika Voss stays with me, its images and sounds refusing to let me forget them or dismiss their presence with easy answers. The film’s lighting (with cinematography by Xaver Schwarzenberger) is a crucial element, and the actress tells us as much: “Light and shadow, those are the secrets of the cinema.”
During their second meeting at a restaurant, Veronika commands a waiter to bring more light to their table. She knows what displays her talents most effectively and so does Fassbinder, staging the behind-the-scenes shots of Veronika’s films with shimmering prisms of illumination, reminding us that we’re in the midst of a beautiful world of unreality. Yet one wonders if the stark, blistering brightness of Dr. Katz’s clinic is meant to convey purity or blind us to something sinister hiding in plain sight.
There are many aspects of the film I have not explored here: the Treibels, an elderly couple also being treated by Dr. Katz, the use of American country music with songs such as “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sixteen Tons,” the overarching theme of postwar Germany, and more. I suspect that, like Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss reveals more of its richness and depth with each viewing. If this is true of Fassbinder’s other works, we may all have much to explore.
Veronika Voss is the second film in Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, available on Blu-ray from Criterion.