Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal opens on the eponymous poet (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) walking down a country road as if he’s on a catwalk, strutting toward an unknown destination with the confidence of either an important man or an asshole. And as is soon revealed, he’s a bit of both. As viewers, we’ll come to find that while Baal can’t sustain his bravado in the face of challenges to his artistic autonomy, Schlöndorff manages something close to the opposite, shuffling through a rolodex of visual techniques with an abandon that makes Baal one of the most simultaneously experimental and watchable films made during the New German Cinema movement.
Twenty-four brief chapters chart the rise and fall of Baal, a poet by trade, a musician on the side, and a drinker through and through, and whose carefree approach to relationships both romantic and professional ensures that his life is perpetually fraught with instability. He’s also defiant toward the bourgeoisie that stands to potentially corrupt his poetry. At an obnoxious party meant to welcome him into the comforts of the art world, guests amuse themselves by errantly discussing Homer and making specious comments such as “there are limits even for genius.” And Schlöndorff frames the sequence with an iris effect that blurs the sides of the frame, bottling Baal into this vacuum-sealed world of top-dollar donors and poor artistic tastes.
Schlöndorff adapts the anti-heroic logic of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, written in 1918, to the era of cinematic new waves, where formal daring and abrupt shifts in time and place were not only welcomed by eager audiences, but even expected by this point, some three years after Godard declared “fin de cinema” in Weekend. Brecht was a natural touchstone for filmmakers taken with the concept of the distancing effect, even if contemporary viewers should question how progressive the concept could have been by 1970 if audiences were craving it as a course of expectation. Nevertheless, Baal ceases to be run-of-the-mill reflexive in its ongoing refusal to settle into anything resembling a comforting narrative, which is made doubly rich by Fassbinder’s sadistic yet charismatic presence, and even further confounded by a few musical sequences in which Fassbinder, rather poorly, sings.
Baal’s rapid narrative refocusing takes Baal across the German countryside, in and out of multiple bedrooms, and alongside a highway where he fights with Sophie (Margarethe von Trotta) and Ekart (Sigi Graue); both women are of sexual interest to Baal, whose appetite for various forms of tumult is constantly evolving. More so than any Godard feature from the period, Baal confronts how the artist’s narcissism and blind rage at authority proves increasingly unproductive as a political gesture. Baal’s turn to violence and self-mutilation (shades of Fassbinder’s own, subsequent The Merchant of Four Seasons) cements Schlöndorff’s perception that unchecked celebration of one’s self as an idealistic spokesman for the people begets populism at best and, in turn, almost assuredly the individual’s own destruction.
Still, there’s nothing didactic in Baal, though the film is quite grotesque, and in ways that one imagines might look paradoxically even more batshit to contemporary eyes than it did to television audiences at the time, if only because anyone more accustomed to Schlöndorff’s other work is likely to be taken aback by this film’s associative, punk sensibilities. One can understand this aesthetic move biographically, as Schlöndorff had just shot the higher-budgeted Man on Horseback and expressed his dissatisfaction with the final result. In adapting Brecht’s arguably most youth-oriented play, Schlöndorff submitted his bid to be taken seriously as a dynamic and relevant filmmaker within the West German industry. And that he used television to do so helped pave the way for Fassbinder’s own pioneering work in the medium with World on a Wire, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, and Berlin Alexanderplatz.
The image is bright and consistent, with no perceptible fluctuation between colors. There are only minimal signs of scratches and debris, while focus, whether in close-up on Baal or in deep space as at the early party, has been properly calibrated to account for Volker Schlöndorff’s unusual framings. The monaural track is nothing remarkable in terms or range or dynamism, but it gets the job done, as there’s no feedback or distortion at any point.
A full, if not quite robust, lot of extras kicks off with Schlöndorff in a lengthy 2015 interview discussing, among other things, the renaissance that Bertolt Brecht’s play was having in Germany during the late 1960s. As Schlöndorff says, in relation to his career at the time, "this was the moment for my own personal New Wave." An earlier, shorter interview from 1973 finds Schlöndorff in a more political mindset, explaining how his film was sparked by the events of May ’68 in France and that he wanted to vacate the more didactic style of his previous films by adapting Brecht for the present. In a 2017 interview, Margarethe von Trotta fondly recalls making the film, explaining how she would marvel at Fassbinder on set. She also offers her take on the source material, saying that an adaptation in 1968 made sense because, as when the play was written, it was a time of upheaval demanding change. Film scholar Eric Rentschler focuses in his interview on the anarchic style of the New German Cinema and how Baal’s premiere on television rather than in cinemas played a role in announcing the medium as a viable option for serious filmmakers. In the disc’s final interview, actor Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan M. Sherman discuss their 2013 play Clive, which was a riff on Baal’s narrative. The pair keep an exceedingly casual tone, even mocking the fact that they aren’t Brecht scholars, yet they still offer some keen philosophical advice regarding Brecht and Baal. As Hawke says, "If you do Baal right, no one can like it." An essay by film critic Dennis Lim rounds out the disc.
A central work of the New German Cinema movement finally finds its weary way onto Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection.