Useful Misunderstanding: Observing Fassbinder’s Depair

By Daniel Garrett

by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard,
from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Production Design: Rolf Zehetbauer
Camera: Michael Ballhaus
Editing: Juliane Lorenz with RWF
Music: Peer Raben
Producer: Lutz Hengst
Museum of Modern Art (New York)
April 6, 2007 Screening

Greed, madness, paranoia: that is one way to spend an evening. I saw Fassbinder’s film Despair in a screening at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, following an invigorating stroll through the art galleries, where I had seen the work of favorite artists—Picasso, de Chirico, Andy Warhol, among others; and greed, madness, and paranoia were among the words in the museum’s description of the film, a not inaccurate description. However, my own understanding and misunderstanding of the film proved interesting: watching the film, with its talk of the reparations that Germany was required to pay, I assumed the film took place after the second world war—but I was wrong, it took place after the first world war and during the rise of the Nazis. What this meant is that, as I watched the film, scenes that I thought were memories or fantasies were intended as present-time occurrences. The film Despair is focused on a man’s consciousness, focused on a divided self, a self that becomes amoral, and disturbed, but rather than being partly haunted by the trauma of the German political past—which was my assumption—a man is partly haunted by the trauma of the present, his personal present and the German political present. My misunderstanding made me think about how meaning is constructed when watching a film.

What is understanding? Is it the identification of an idea, a feeling, an image, a texture, a structure—a form? Is it the articulation of a logic, or even a story, about an act, an idea, an image, an event, a place, or a person? One watches Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair, and one’s sense of which characters are in control and wise changes as the film moves. What is understanding? Does it merely identify, or explain; or does it narrate—possess by surrounding with a story that connects to other acts, ideas, things? Is understanding always subjective, or can it be objective? Do facts exist beyond us, without us? Fassbinder’s Despair was made in the late 1970s, in 1977, some thirty years or so after the twentieth-century’s second world war. Had the German people come to terms with that war? Is meaning only what we know now; and, of what lasting value is current knowledge, when what we know is always becoming deeper, larger, more? Are we always learning—or are we also forgetting? Is meaning only what we accept, only what we remember; or is it also what we have exiled, what we have refused to know but that which might still drive us? What is understanding? Is yours as good as mine? Is there an unimpeachable authority that can know, decide, and teach?

Fassbinder’s Despair is not his alone. Based on a book by Vladimir Nabokov, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, it has an odd tone: a blend of reason and excessive emotion. The film begins with broken white egg shells, as someone makes something—what? a drink—and a woman nears a window: she is Lydia, the blonde, chatty, sexual wife of the man we are about to meet, a distracted chocolate factory owner. Rain, a cityscape. Inside an apartment, the apartment, the blonde woman is in a negligee and the man, Hermann, is in a suit. There is flirtation, teasing. She is often making a favored drink, which involves eggs; and he sometimes refuses, sometimes takes, the offered drink. Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) mentions a crash on Wall Street, which she, Lydia (Andrea Ferreol), takes to mean an accident, such as a car or factory accident, rather than a financial crisis. Stupid woman, he says, adding that intelligence would take the bloom off her carnality. (Lydia seems coldly and dumbly voluptuous to me.) She arrives in their bedroom in her negligee, and he asks, “How dare you come into the room partly clothed? Have you no sense of indecency?” It is her carnality he appreciates, sometimes from a distance: however, he is becoming very distant from her. He imagines himself watching the two of them as they make love, and he does not notice significantly what some other man might consider questionable signs (another man’s socks in the bedroom: his wife Lydia identifies the socks as those of her cousin, an eccentric painter, Ardalion). Hermann and Lydia’s apartment is large, with a lot of yellow, beige, and brown, very different from the colors in and near his factory—much of which read as purple as I watched the film, but which could have been blue originally (a week later I saw in a local theater an old print of The Great Gatsby featuring Sam Waterston as well-bred observer Nick Carraway and Scott Wilson as wronged husband George Wilson, sensitive performers both, and the child in the Gatsby film referred to her own clothing and that of a woman as blue—which looked like lilac or light purple to me). The film Despair moves from Hermann’s home life to his work life to his conversations in restaurants, on the street, and a few other places. Hermann owns and runs a chocolate factory with faltering revenues; and he, there, tastes chocolate offered by one of his associates: is it too bitter or not bitter enough? (The resonances of the word bitter can lead one to think that something else—experience—is being discussed.) Hermann and his business colleague talk of the expense of Germany’s reparations, and of having foreign troops on German soil. “In my opinion, this is just a little too bitter,” is the concluding comment in the scene.

Hermann sees himself and his wife as opposites, but as perfect together, as a lock and a key (could be sexual imagery). “I suffer, but I never complain,” says the husband, Hermann. (What does it mean to say, “I suffer, but I never complain”? What is that but an indirect complaint?) There is conversation about identity: about class, about cultural associations. Who is bourgeois, who is bohemian? Who is conservative, who is radical? Hermann and Lydia see a silent film, in which one brother is a policeman and another is a criminal—and there is fatal confrontation and a moment of uncertain identity. The uncertainty does not last. Observing the film that Hermann watches, we see that men, even brothers, are similar, but there are usually differences—especially differences of character, of spirit—that make them individual, discernible. The criminal brother pretending to be the policeman brother is detected and shot by other policemen. In the theater Hermann observes himself watching the film; and not long after he sees one of his factory workers and tells the man, an attractive man, that he recognizes him from somewhere else, from the avenue or the theater, where the man denies being, and Hermann’s insistence is rather strange.

At home, in a Berlin apartment, we see a man, and a woman in dark clothing, he has a whip, she kisses his boot, and there is the suggestion of sadomasochism: and the man watches himself in the scene—and we later see that the scene was not real-time, was but a fantasy. Why does Hermann require fantasy for excitement? Why is he turning sex into theater? Hermann announces he is going to Düsseldorf to do a murder—he meant to say merger, but it is a telling slip (the kind that the book and film American Psycho would mine decades later). In Düsseldorf, we see Hitler on a poster in a factory, a factory Hermann is thinking of going into business with. It seems the factory makes little chocolate people figures. With the Hitler poster, and the chocolate figures, which looked like little dead bodies, I thought I was watching a history-soaked fantasy of the past and of the Nazi atrocities, a fantasy that Hermann was having. (That would have made sense if the film was set after the second world war, rather than before.) Hermann speaks of his own complicated parentage, as a Russian émigré in Germany, and of the false personal history he has constructed for himself, a history of political subterfuge—and Hermann’s constructed history can seem the typical façade of the ambitious person, as well as that of the political refugee and the instinctive coward, but it also means that in not respecting whatever the truth is, Hermann has been alienated from his personal truth, from the force of his own experience. That could explain his self-division, his troubled mind. (Dirk Bogarde’s style seems refined, not that of a man, Hermann, who is likely to fall to pieces: one believes in his intelligence, but it takes a little time, through attention to his sensitivity, to believe in his torment.) When the conversation, about a prospective business merger, is ended with “Keep your fucking shekels,” this use of a Jewish word, of an ancient Hebrew word for money, was so rude, so unexpected, that I thought of it as expressionistic—as a confirmation of Hermann’s fantasy, as an excess that had to be Hermann’s fantasy, a fantasy fueled by personal anxiety and financial worry, or as the filmmaker’s dramatic attempt to blend past and present. Knowing that the film is set during Hitler’s rise, those words are little more than evidence of rampant, casual and then-current anti-Jewish prejudice, a prejudice that can be used to mask personal weakness.

Fassbinder’s Despair, focused on the troubled self-divided mind of a Russian émigré in Germany named Hermann Hermann (a double name for a doubled self), and based on a book by Vladimir Nabokov, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, has an unusual tone: logical and passionate; and I would identify the historical concerns and sexual curiosities in the story with Nabokov, the conversational wit and logic and double meanings with Tom Stoppard, and the compulsive sensuality and tormenting passion and acknowledgment of mundane hypocrisy with Fassbinder. (I have read about Fassbinder’s work, but I have done no research to corroborate that supposition regarding precise contributions to the film: my understanding is an assumption.) Is a work of art ever about only one thing? Can it be about a man and not his society? Can it be about love and not be about the beginning and end of love and the absence of love? Can it be about sexual pleasure and not about what drives us toward sexual pleasure and how that pleasure becomes, finally, boring, inadequate? Can it be about life and not about death, about death and not about life? The film Despair, dedicated to the artists Antonin Artaud, Vincent van Gogh, and Unica Zinn, gives us a picture of a particular man in a particular culture in passing time, and what we see is his intelligence, his sexual hunger, his vanity, his alienation, his calculations, his delusions, and the society—complex, money-driven, sex-besotted, dishonest, hostile—in which he lives. There are fleeting moments of insight, and pleasure, and use, in the life we see, moments of betrayal, of camaraderie, of coarse instinct and fragile feeling and missed possibilities. It seems easy for a society to betray other people, such as the Jews, if its citizens are able, with little more than a wink and a smirk, to betray themselves. Is it true: does moral feeling toward others begin with how we treat ourselves?

In Despair, Hermann sees a poor man on the street and imagines a resemblance between the two of them. “You have my face,” Hermann says, an impossibility. Who has ever had my face? Or yours? Or Hermann’s? “A rich man never quite resembles a poor man,” the poor man says: knowing that the face is more than skin and bones, that it is experience. The poor man, Felix (Klaus Lowitsch), is a bit of a gypsy, is earthy, even dirty, and muscular, sensual (it is an image that has not aged at all: vitality, in art, does not age); and we see the two, Hermann and Felix, talk amid a carnivalesque scene. “I stand before me,” Hermann thinks: and that may be what he wants, what he needs—to see himself objectively (and, of course, that is precisely the exact opposite of what he is doing).

The German chancellor resigns. Hermann’s business associate arrives in his factory office in a brown shirt, a military uniform, with an arm band featuring a swastika (I was sure this was a fantasy). “Have you joined the boy scouts, or something?” asks Hermann. The arm band is no fantasy, and no child’s delight. How alienated is Hermann from the life around him? In the artist studio of the cousin (Ardalion) of Hermann’s wife Lydia, Hermann sees the back of a painting, on which a swastika has been scribbled, scribbled by the housekeeper’s son. Hermann sees such political signs, but they do not register fully: they seem to register as signs without meaning. There is a nature outing, with the male cousin swimming, the wife on a chair in the grass, and Hermann recognizably Hermann. It is a moment outside of work, away from overt sexuality—near paradisal, but with what we learn later, we cannot call it innocent. It would be presumptuous to have an opinion of politics and express it, someone says: and I cannot recall if it is the cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler), or Hermann, who says that, though it is probably Hermann as the cousin does have opinions (and his flamboyance inclined me to wonder if he might be gay); and one of the assembled talks about how the national socialists (Nazis) are against the socialists and the people’s party is against the people. Across the street from where Hermann and his group are gathered, we see brown-shirts on the street attacking a Jewish business—it is so brutal and stupid, one thinks of it as nearly farce, though it was, in actuality, the beginning of tragedy. Not far away, orthodox Jews calmly play chess. Thus, peace and trouble are placed, and live, side by side: then, and now.

Hermann again sees the poor man, Felix, with whom Hermann imagines a resemblance. Hermann describes himself as an actor, and the poor man says actors are decadent. Decadent: an interesting word (does it mean artificial, corrupt, exhausted, sexually perverse?); and how does Felix mean it? Hermann says he wants the poor man to be a double in a film he claims to be making (I wondered, here, if we were in the presence of metatextuality: textual comment about the text in which we were in). Hermann wants Felix to pretend to be Hermann. In the next scene, the poor man is washing in his room and Hermann encourages him to take off all his clothes. (This, I thought, might be a scene of homosexual recognition; and that might be why Hermann was feeling alienated from his wife and self-divided; but, that is not it.) Hermann sees a painting in the man’s room and imagines it is one he saw in Lydia’s cousin’s artist studio (Hermann is seeing doubles everywhere). The poor man, hearing Hermann’s plan, wonders, rather wisely, with appropriate foreboding, What if it all is a scheme, “some sort of double cross”?

Does Felix understand what is happening; and does he choose to forget what he has understood? What is understanding? Is it the identification of an idea, a feeling, an image, a texture, a structure—a form? Is it the articulation of a logic, or even a story, about an act, an idea, an image, an event, a place, or a person? Is it our sense of how things seem, and of how many possibilities lurk behind appearances?

Hermann rushes to the cousin’s studio to find the painting that he thinks, somehow, might have been in two places at once, there and in Felix’s room: and Hermann finds Lydia’s artist-cousin Ardalion naked and Hermann’s wife Lydia half-dressed, a scene that any other husband would recognize as marital betrayal and which Hermann reads not at all. Hermann claims the painting he finds there is the same as the one in the poor man’s room: we see it, and it is not the same one. (The paintings, of different objects, are both still life images, nearly abstract in the solitude of the objects presented.) Hermann is deluded, but why is he deluded? Why is he refusing to see what is before his eyes, the painting, or his wife’s relation to her “cousin”? (Is this a film about incest? Is that a transgression so unspeakable that it has unhinged Hermann? Has Lydia been the controlling, smart one, and Hermann the fool?) To an insurance man Hermann once mistook for a psychoanalyst, a man whose role Hermann once misinterpreted, Hermann confides that he is depressed, that he received a blackmail letter. (Hermann will guess that his confidante Felix sent the letter. Is Felix attempting to betray the possible betrayer? Is Felix refusing to play the game according to Hermann’s rules? How like life is that?) Hermann finances the painter Ardalion’s trip away from Berlin (the conversation is such that we think Hermann has intuited the painter’s true relation to Hermann’s wife). Someone knocks on the door to the apartment where Hermann lives—the poor man? “I’m not here, I’m not in this world, I don’t know him” says Hermann. Those words sound, and look, like male hysteria, a state so extreme it speaks nonsense, but they are telling words, revelations: “I’m not here, I’m not in this world, I don’t know him.” This can be translated as a confession—My mind is not fully alive to where my body is, to where I find myself at this point in life; and I am no longer functioning appropriately at home, at work, or in society; and I do not know the character or life or goals of the man I have been drawn to and have tried to ensnare in my strange scheme. The knock at the door and Hermann’s hesitation seem a chance for Hermann to reject the scheme he has begun to put into action, a sign that he is considering that rejection. (Hermann’s hesitation could be, as well, simply Hermann’s fear that the poor man has arrived to tell of Hermann’s scheme.) What is understanding but our knowledge that we are always interpreting what surrounds us, turning all we see and hear into signs to be read? When Hermann’s wife arrives home, he is being comforted by the young woman who works for them, and to his wife—who seems to pretend to see and then not see a compromising situation—Hermann mentions a dead brother and a possible swindle Hermann could undertake, pretending to be dead (and killing his double), gaining insurance money. What is the perfect murder? One in which the victim committed the crime. Hermann does meet the poor man, Felix (Klaus Lowitsch), who wears a suit, the kind of suit Hermann would wear, and looks great; and then Hermann asks to do a thorough inspection, and Felix, smiling, turns his back to Hermann, who shoots Felix. Has the film been merely a story of murder, the inspiration for and planning and execution of murder; and is money, an insurance payment, the significant inspiration? Felix is, with Ardalion (Volker Spengler), one of two of the most vital presences in the film; and Felix is dead. Is there an instinct, in the most civilized male, the male most accepting of cultural order, to exile and kill the most vital forces? Dirk Bogarde’s apparent refinement then seems quite appropriate for his character Hermann: the man who wants order, and, failing to control himself, tries to control others—and finds more chaos. (What is the film about, but everything we see and hear—and, possibly, some of the things we do not.) Will Hermann’s insurance money plan work? There is a fantasy of Hermann’s wife Lydia (Andrea Ferreol) getting a check, and rushing to meet Hermann at some appointed place and finding Felix there—but that is not what happens. After Felix’s body is found with Hermann’s identification papers, the police immediately doubt that this is Hermann who has been killed: they do not see the resemblance Hermann saw. They do not read the clues as Hermann wanted, or expected: they refuse the understanding, the false story, which Hermann proposed. The police see Hermann as a murderer, not a victim; and they search for him, while he hides out in one place and then another, including a mountain village. The police apprehend Hermann, a recognition and capture made possible because Lydia’s cousin, the artist Ardalion, just happens to be in the same village, a fateful coincidence, in a scene that does bear some similarity to the silent film, featuring the policeman and his criminal brother, that Hermann and Lydia watched, the one in which the criminal brother pretends to be his policeman brother, whom he has killed, but the criminal does not fool the surveilling policemen, who shoot him. It was a film that Hermann saw but did not accurately, usefully, interpret: he read the film for the possibility it offered, but not for the consequence of that possibility. What is understanding, but this, now?

Author Bio: Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. His work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine,,, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Black Film Review, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International,, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations,, Nat,, Option,, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter,,,, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on