Pier Paolo Pasolini once wrote that the direction Federico Fellini gave to his cameramen and cinematographer Otello Martelli for La Dolce Vita inherently steeped viewers in his lead protagonist’s point of view. “The camera moves,” Pasolini wrote, “and fixes the image in such a way as to create a sort of diaphragm around each object, thus making the object’s relationship to the world appear as irrational and magical.” The same is true about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s expressive direction in Despair, an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel by the same name. In spite of the fact that Despair‘s screenplay was adapted by Tom Stoppard, a writer whose personality is surely just as forceful as Fassbinder’s, the film’s most vital author is its director. His pointedly off-kilter direction subtly establishes the immediacy of bored chocolatier Hermann Hermann’s (Dirk Bogarde) rapidly unraveling emotional well being, and in almost each scene, Fassbinder instantly establishes arbitrary oppositional relationships between Hermann and commonplace objects in ways that Stoppard’s script only hints at.
One of the biggest shortcomings of Stoppard’s script is the way it doesn’t develop the tension that our initial encounter with Hermann’s doppelganger unceremoniously establishes. Stoppard introduces Hermann, a domineering and very wealthy Russian transplant living in Germany in the early ‘30s, through a rather kinky sex scene. Hermann orders his wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol), to undress and keep their bedroom door open while they make love because, unbeknownst to her, Hermann’s double is watching them boff. The way that Fassbinder’s camera conflates the space between Hermann’s bedroom and living room, two spaces he’s literally simultaneously inhabiting, is much more interesting than the flat-footed way Stoppard’s scripts the audience’s jolting first encounter with Hermann’s voyeuristic double.
In fact, that image of an identical twin that only Hermann can see is one that loses even its luster to Stoppard, who wisely ditches that conceit entirely after using it in a vital scene set in a movie theater. In that scene, Hermann’s obsession with his double immediately evolves into an obsession with a silent film about a prisoner that replaces a well-respected police chief.
The suddenness with which Hermann’s obsession transforms into something new and much more unsettling is alarming but telling. Fassbinder makes the majority of Despair‘s more nuanced details immediately seem accidental. He only cursorily focuses on Hermann’s preoccupation with the homeless Felix Weber (Klaus Löwitsch), a man that Hermann mistakenly believes looks just like him, and his falling out with his wife. Instead, Fassbinder is more interested in inexplicable close-ups of cacti arranged on an indoor windowsill and aggressive camera movements during an argument Hermann has about the bitterness of dark chocolate and the Nazis inevitable rise to power. During the latter sequence, Fassbinder creates an adversarial distance between two protagonists by filming their argument behind and around the side of a see-through cubicle.
This only serves to buttress a vital bit of information about Hermann’s fractured perception of the world that Stoppard gives us during this seemingly inconsequential scene. The man he’s arguing with is a know-nothing subordinate who only parrots the political rhetoric he reads in the paper. Hermann calls him out on this and in the process draws our attention to his boredom with the very idea of his employee’s imitative impulse (he also puts Lydia down by calling her a cockatoo and later a parrot). Hermann can’t simply accept an imitative world of surface details.
To wit, Hermann induces his own psychotic breakdown by investing in a fantasy world that forcefully overlaps with the material one that he lives in. Fassbinder reproduces that schism between the two worlds through Hermann’s tendency to ignore Lydia’s blatant affair with her cousin, Ardalion (Volker Spengler), and, more immediately through his constant insertion of multiple frames within his camera’s frame (ex: window panes, mirrors, etc.). The film’s real focus is on Hermann’s rejection of reality, so while Stoppard’s script may be the chief architect of that central psychic implosion, Fassbinder’s persistent ornate flourishes is what makes Despair memorable.
Olive Films's DVD features the newly restored print of Despair that recently screened at this year's Cannes as part of the festival's "Cannes Classics." The picture quality is accordingly perfect and unmarred by any blemishes. The film's soundtrack, however, is mixed rather unevenly and, as a result, the dialogue sounds a lot louder than the music or sound effects.
Only a photo gallery.
Of the authorial trifecta that created Despair, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's voice is the most pronounced.