Rainer Werner Fassbinder
West Germany, 1977
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 07 March 2006
Source New Yorker DVD
Features: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The Stationmaster’s Wife comes at something of a period of stasis in Fassbinder’s career. The productive application of Sirkian melodrama which had produced films like The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fear Eats The Soul, Fox and his Friends, and Martha, socially critical works that were, through their clear narrative lines and with characters that audiences could identify with, accessible to the wider German public, was now at an end. 1976 saw the release of two films signalling a change to a much more aggressive and provocative approach, with both the deliberate assault on the audience of Satan’s Brew and the oblique mind- and camera-games of Chinese Roulette.
In retrospect, the films that followed over the next year — Bolwieser, Women in New York, Despair — reveal a Fassbinder seemingly undecided as to which direction to move in, treading water so to speak, until the brutalism of his contribution to Germany In Autumn, his searing response to West Germany’s terrorism crisis, shook him off into the real inspiration of the annus mirabilis of 1978: The Marriage of Maria Braun, In A Year With 13 Moons, and The Third Generation, the latter two being two of the most astounding films Fassbinder ever made.
The Stationmaster’s Wife was originally a two-part TV film of just over three hours shot at the end of 1976 and broadcast in 1977; then reduced to 112 minutes and released in cinemas in 1983. (The latter is the version on the New Yorker DVD.) It’s an adaptation of a novel by Oskar Maria Graf, Bolwieser, the title Fassbinder’s film retained—the American title The Stationmaster’s Wife is something of a misnomer (more on this later); and it is one of the literary adaptations Fassbinder did of German novels — Effi Briest, the massive Berlin Alexanderplatz, plus the planned but never filmed Soll und Haben — which were a means of exploring the historical, political, and social roots of what he saw as the malaise of contemporary German society.
Graf (1894-1967) was a novelist, poet, and dramatist, active in left-wing circles after the First World War, who fled Germany after the Nazis’ coming to power and eventually (in 1938) settled in the United States. One of the great stories about him tells how he fled to Vienna in 1933 and, on discovering the Nazis weren’t planning to burn his books, published an article in an Austrian newspaper (“Burn Me!”) urging them to do just that. Which they duly did in ‘34.
Bolwieser was published in 1931, and Fassbinder in his adaptation—which he wrote himself—took pains to set the film at this time, immediately prior to the Nazis’ rise to power. The setting is a small Bavarian town, the epitome of a smug, self-centred petit bourgeois society, and Fassbinder makes the point of having a very minor character (played by Volker Spengler, one of the Fassbinder acting troupe who had leading roles in Despair, In A Year With Thirteen Moons, and The Third Generation) make an appearance in Nazi uniform in the middle of the film, in this way underlining the social and political conditions at play.
Xaverl Bolwieser is the perfect servant of the bourgeois state, the town’s stationmaster, a loyal, conscientious, and meticulous state functionary. He is also completely sexually enthralled by his wife Hanni, to the extent that when Hanni, out of her own frustrations, physical (she constantly refers to Bolwieser as “Fatty”) and economic (she equally makes constant reference to Bolwieser’s lower social position and the money she has brought to the marriage), embarks on affairs first with a butcher, then with a hairdresser, he is the last of all the townspeople to know. He even accepts this situation, perjuring himself in court on her behalf, and allowing himself ultimately to be destroyed by his masochistic passivity.
This streak of masochism on the part of the victim, a masochism which manifests itself in the way the victim to a greater or lesser extent colludes with the individual and social forces conspiring to oppress him or her, is a recurring Fassbinder theme. It’s a theme that Fassbinder develops into a wider political critique, one that he made most explicit in his subtitle to Effi Briest: “Many who have an inkling of their possibilities and needs and yet accept the ruling system in their head and, therefore, by their deeds strengthen and confirm it absolutely.”
For Bolwieser, this acceptance occurs on two levels. He accepts his appointed role within this repressive society, allying himself with the forces of oppression at the time of the railway strike and performing socially in ways that are expected of him (he goes out drinking when he’d much rather stay at home with his wife). This wider social submissiveness and passivity are then reflected in the mixture of blindness to and acceptance of his wife’s separate affairs.
But it’s not that he doesn’t break out into rage and despair at times. On one occasion, he’s deliberately provocative towards Hanni and her lover Merkl. And in the latter part of the film the intermittent spats and arguments explode into a bitter assault, when Bolwieser spits on Hanni (“You are my property. I’ll do with you what I want.”) and in essence rapes her. However, in their next sequence together, Bolwieser has returned to his submissive role and Hanni is cold, haughty, and in control.
Bolwieser’s breakdown in prison after his conviction perfectly expresses the way his rage and bitterness will always be internalised, turned in upon himself, and how he will always slump back into his state of masochistic acceptance and passivity. He may curse and revile Hanni from his prison cell, but at the same time he mixes those curses with mumbled endearments. The way he stands face to the wall and thrusts at it repeatedly in a sterile re-enactment of sex with Hanni is at the least an outward acting-out of his despair, but soon he reverts to passivity and acceptance as he meekly signs the divorce papers Hanni’s lawyer brings him. That lawyer will roar with laughter after Bolwieser leaves the room, just as Bolwieser’s fellow-drinkers did. It’s the cold mockery of a society that both demands that the individual adhere to the ruling order and at the same time laughs at that individual’s weakness and blind acceptance.
Bolwieser’s U.S. title of The Stationmaster’s Wife is unfortunate in the way it shifts emphasis onto the character of Hanni and the Madame Bovary aspects of the story. There are obvious parallels between Hanni and some other of Fassbinder’s female protagonists: with Effi Briest, for example, for the way the adultery and its outcome offer a reflection on society at large. In addition, Hanni’s strength and powerful outward drive — both sexual and economic — have strong parallels with such characters as Maria Braun, Lola, Frau Geesche in Bremen Coffee, and Lili Marleen.
Still, the strong, powerful character of Hanni (all the more impressive in the way that Fassbinder refuses to make her particularly likeable) is not the core of Bolwieser. That is Bolwieser himself, a character that inevitably reminds us of Hans Hirschmüller in The Merchant of the Four Seasons. In that film, Hans’s passive character — passive, in spite of a past with the police and the Foreign Legion (!) — was no match to the oppressive forces of family and society, and he simply gave up on the struggle, willing himself to death through drink.
Nonetheless in other Fassbinder films Bolwieser’s masochism, his own collusion with his oppression, is found more often in female characters—Martha, Veronika Voss, Margo in Fear of Fear, Andrée in Satan’s Brew, and Petra von Kant at the end. We can also relate this motif to Ali’s collapse and hospitalisation at the end of Fear Eats The Soul, and Fox’s suicide.
Stylistically, Bolwieser is a further development on the baroque extravagances of Chinese Roulette, the play with mirrors and glass surfaces, with reflections and refractions of images, with complex and elaborate camera movements that always shift obstructing figures and objects in and out of the frame. The style heightens the claustrophobia and sense of entrapment of the setting, which is symbolised by the recurring sound of the caged bird in Bolwieser’s apartment. The limited TV budget is here used to advantage—visually, there’s no outlet, no escape from these cramped interiors.
However, in the end, effective as it is, Bolwieser is a minor work. The story itself has something plodding and predictable about it. Hanni’s side to it, adultery as an embodiment of a woman’s drive to personal freedom and self-empowerment, lacks the depth and emotionalism of Effi Briest; and Xaverl Bolwieser’s story never attains the clarity and precision of Hans Hirschmüller’s in The Merchant of the Four Seasons. The visual style is complex and thrilling, but can seem simply a reprise of effects from Chinese Roulette, an infinitely greater work. (And it also seems significant that in the outdoor scene that repeats the famous 360° shot from Martha, the result is an empty rhetorical effect, lacking the narrative meaning of the original.) We can value Bolwieser for the interest of seeing characteristic Fassbinder themes, performances and stylistics at work, but at the same time knowing that really great work had come before and was to come after.