Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson) takes his mistress Irene (Anna Karina) to his country home, where he discovers his wife Ariane (Margit Carstensen) engaged in her own romantic entanglement with his business partner Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). Gerhard and Ariane’s crippled daughter, Angela (Andrea Schober), contrives both this violent collision and the subsequent game of Chinese roulette that positions one of the house’s inhabitants as the Grand Executioner to the young girl’s Grand Inquisitor. One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s more obscure works, Chinese Roulette (because words, not bullets, do most of the damage here) is also one of his towering achievements: a rigorous illumination of deception as a survival tactic, and a vicious indictment of victimhood, martyrdom, and the games people will play in order to destroy one other.
Fassbinder’s camera moves constantly in all directions as if attached to a system of pulleys. He follows characters as they walk, stop, shift alliances, and subsequently fracture his frame using the reflective devices that clutter the film’s mise-en-scène. Because the director’s signature, ever-gliding camera takes on the metaphoric role of a pistol aiming randomly at its parasitic characters, the film could just as easily have been called Russian Roulette. It’s best to approach Fassbinder’s alienating camera as such or the film’s heightened self-awareness may prove particularly suffocating. A haunting shot of the house’s pastoral exterior literally evokes the decay of the film’s modern family, but that the movement is timed to Angela’s engagement of a poem by the self-devouring Arthur Rimbaud, Chinese Roulette also concerns the decay of the human ego.
Though the doll-obsessed Angela seemingly holds an entire household in the grip of her hand, Fassbinder repeatedly questions the various power dynamics at work here. The actual game of Chinese roulette the characters play in the film’s third act allows them to destroy each other with words without ever addressing each other by name. “Eavesdroppers often here the false truth,” says the self-righteous Angela to the goofy housemaid’s son. There are various cripples in the film and one of the strange pleasures of Chinese Roulette is watching which group comes out on top: the emotional cripples or the psychical ones. Angela likens her mother to a concentration camp commander by film’s end and Ariane unconsciously wills herself into the role soon after. Everyone’s a victim of deception and the nasty rituals of revenge these lies provoke. That there are losses on all sides suggests that no one ever wins in similar such games of Chinese roulette.