Without Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s characteristic sense of detachment, the director’s Sirkian melodrama I Only Want You to Love Me wouldn’t be nearly as engrossing as it is. Produce for a television audience in 1976, Fassbinder’s dispassionate portrayal of a marriage supported by the Herculean efforts of nebbish husband Peter (Vitus Zeplichal) maintains a steely air of detachment that makes determining where the director’s sympathies lie harder the longer the film goes on.
There’s no dogmatic context within the film that Fassbinder’s audience can use to inherently understand Peter and his wife Erika’s (Elke Aberle) need to get more money and more possessions as being either strictly good or bad. This is the biggest sign of the times in I Only Want You to Love Me, a telling aesthetic choice that says so much about the amoral capitalist society Fassbinder imagines his characters live in. “Money gets more money,” a bartender says at one point, a truism that speaks to the firm-handed, matter-of-fact tone of Fassbinder’s film. Good or bad, monetary transactions decide everything, making the success of Peter’s marriage largely dependent on his ability to generate more moolah.
When Peter marries Erika, there doesn’t appear to be any passion between the two. Before they tie the knot, they bond over the fact that Peter provides for his parents, generously building them a house using his self-taught skills as a bricklayer. Erika admires that selflessness, and in a scene after he shows off his handiwork, the two are wed. Their marriage ceremony doesn’t matter, it just happened sometime between that scene and the one where we see Erika in her wedding gown and Peter in a tuxedo.
If anything, the latter scene is pointed to a fault, eschewing sentimentality completely by reducing the importance of the couple’s life-changing decision to a scene where Peter, after their wedding, has to work up the courage to ask his father for money. He assures Erika that he won’t have to ask but rather that they can expect a little money as a wedding present. Sure enough, Peter’s father gives him some money and then dances a perfunctory dance with Erika. That scene makes the knotty implications of that transaction largely implied: Does the fact that Peter anticipates his father’s gift make him just as guilty of being lovelessly absorbed with money as he thinks his family to be? Are they even as ungenerous as he thinks they are?
The latter question is especially intriguing as the film’s narrative seems to either be a series of Peter’s recollections or a story unfolded by a sympathetic but distant omniscient narrator. Cold intertitles infrequently fill in the gaps between scenes, relating at one point that Peter’s family loved him for two weeks after he built them their new home and then they promptly forgot about him. That hardly seems fair but is it supposed to be taken as gospel truth or with a grain of salt considering that the film ends with a negligible scene of Peter talking to a reporter about the events leading up to a meaningless act of violence.
Fassbinder’s direct style creates vagueries in I Only Want You to Love Me that become all the more unsettling the longer you consider them. While it seems like Peter is totally selfless, accruing more and more debt because of his simple-minded need to please his wife with sewing machines and furniture, the fact remains that he’s always keeping his eye out for money. The scene where he stares at Erika’s grandmother as she removes a 100 kroner note from a cigar box is especially treacherous. While Fassbinder does not shame Peter by having him do anything more than stare, the fact is that his stare seems to grow hungrier the more you think about it in light of later events. Fassbinder knows exactly what he needs to show and how he needs to show it to get the maximum effect out of any given scene, creating an expressive portrait from specific images that only initially appear to be literal-minded representations of the domesticated, money-minded youth of the ’70s.
I Only Want You to Love Me will play on February 18, 19, 22, and March 3 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.