The Merchant of Four Seasons was a turning point in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career, ushering forth his evolving, idiosyncratic fusion of pop and avant-garde filmmaking, which he would continue to refine at a bewilderingly rapid and instinctual pace. The severe and intensely meta hall-of-mirrors aesthetic of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant hadn’t fully arisen yet, though there are significant suggestions of it in a few floridly colorful flashback sequences. Fassbinder’s Sirkian tendency of framing characters in symbolic cages (often fashioned from doorways or gates) is visible, though understated by comparison to a film like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Stylistically, The Merchant of Four Seasons is more notable for how Fassbinder stages group scenes, particularly when Hans (Hans Hirschmüller), the titular fruit vendor, subjects himself to his disapproving bourgeois family, who ridicule him for his blue-collar occupations, both past and present (he saw violence firsthand as a member of the French Foreign Legion, and was subsequently a police officer before losing his job for receiving fellatio from a suspect). The filmmaker often cordons Hans’s family off into statuesque clusters so as to nurture an implicative us-against-him impression that grows more poignant over the course of the film. When someone disagrees with the family, such as Han’s one supportive sibling, Anna (Hanna Schygulla), they’re subtly positioned alone on a different plane of the film’s frame, usually in the deeper background.
A variation of this heightened, subjectively revelatory blocking is utilized to memorably disturbing effect over the course of a few scenes in which Hans quarrels with his wife, Irmgard (Irm Hermann), over his drinking and carousing. Drunk, Hans beats Irmgard in their bed, and the physical actions of both characters are performed in a pointedly artificial manner resembling a stage fight. The vocal performances are realistic though, with Irmgard sobbing as Hans wails on her with a mixture of confusion and hostility. The disconnection between the visual and aural elements chillingly imparts a sense of the discombobulating otherness of violence with a lucidity that far eclipses more conventionally “lifelike” renderings of abuse. Similarly, Fassbinder will occasionally break the dramatic flow of a moment with a cut to a close-up of an observing third-party (often Irmgard), showing them to be in the grips of attempting to understand the scene that’s been broken by the cut; this aligns them with us as a member of the audience and affirms a notion of distance from Hans, a universal every-human bound to be marginalized and misunderstood. These formal alienating effects fuse with the melodrama and the lived-in drabness of the settings to forge something like a fantastical quotidian—a theoretically oxymoronic sensibility that’s distinctly Fassbinder’s.
There are plenty of other aesthetic effects to which formalists will certainly groove (such as the Technicolor-red roses held by Hans’s lost love), but The Merchant of Four Seasons isn’t a stylistic orgy like Petra von Kant. The former is subtler, with a story that’s remarkably un-self-conscious by Fassbinder’s standards, occasionally resembling, in its confident straightforwardness, something like Werner Herzog’s subsequent The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which also bridges expressionism with a poetically docudramatic celebration of actors’ faces. Composed of a series of episodes that exist as nearly self-contained atoms in lonely Hans’s life, The Merchant of Four Seasons methodically reveals itself as a portrait of a disillusioned man of a post-war culture who hates and destroys himself, while everyone else moves on coldly, unceremoniously. Like Herzog, Fassbinder appears to be wary of his country, which might be so eager to recover from war that it sweeps under the rug all of those who’re too eccentric, damaged, or quixotic to immediately lock in step and get with the program. This film has a freeness, a casualness, a matter-of-factness, that’s unusual for Fassbinder, despite the prodigiousness and the brilliance of the filmography to follow. Fassbinder finds in this film’s estranged fruit man an expression of his own torment—the selling of fruit having in common with filmmaking a yearning to reach out to the populace and be momentarily heard.
Criterion’s transfers of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films have been beautiful even by the company’s impressive aesthetic standards, and The Merchant of Four Seasons is no exception. As with the label’s other restorations of the director’s work, there’s a remarkable and apropos density of texture. The bricks in the courtyard that serves as one of the film’s primary settings, the surfaces of the fruits, and of the cart holding them are all exactingly rendered, and faces are a marvel of minute detail. The print is also pristine, devoid of all scratches and marks as well as most grain, and this clean-up heightens a major accomplishment of Fassbinder’s work: a simultaneous hyper-awareness of all surfaces, whether human, animal, or inanimate, that offers an ecstatic celebration of life’s tactility, regardless of the plot’s direness. Colors are earthy and vibrant, particularly the lush blacks. The soundtrack is clean and nuanced.
Director Wim Wenders’s audio commentary was recorded in 2002, and though it’s often punctuated with long silences, it remains an unusual first-person account of Fassbinder’s career, as Wenders is obviously another German New Wave legend who actually knew the wunderkind in question. Wenders recounts familiar anecdotes about the influence that Douglas Sirk’s films had on Fassbinder, though he’s on firmer, more interesting ground when elaborating on the dearth of pop culture that characterized Germany in the wake of World War II. Wenders regrets having been accepted into film school, waiting two years to make a movie, while Fassbinder, who was rejected, began to produce films at his characteristically astonishing pace. Wenders memorably describes post-war German ennui as feeling as if "we’d been born into a destroyed country." He also fascinatingly contextualizes this film’s stylized Bavarian dialect, which will be lost on English speakers relying on subtitles. New interviews with actors Irm Hermann and Hans Hirschmüller poignantly outline Fassbinder’s methods of fashioning characters from the personalities of people around him, while an interview with film scholar Eric Rentschler offers a sturdy primer on the filmmaker’s imagery and thematic preoccupations. This is all good stuff, but, as with other Criterion editions of Fassbinder films, one misses something larger and more modern, perhaps an audio commentary or a new documentary to offer elaboration on a filmmaker who may remain unknown to blossoming cinephiles who’re greater acquainted with Herzog and Wenders. Rounding out the package is a booklet with an essay by film scholar Thomas Elsaesser.
A must-buy for the beautiful aural/visual rendering of one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s gentlest, most direct films, though it could use a bit more contemporizing in the supplemental department.