“So much tenderness,” as Rainer Werner Fassbinder gazes unflinchingly into the abyss (of a country and of a cinema). The references have been well-noted: characters named Murnau, Fuller; a club called “Lola Montez”; high-contrast B&W photography that seems to regress into history as the film proceeds (from 70s self-aware to 40s noir to 30s melodrama, finally resolved and reconciled in an eras-spanning tableaux mort). Less remarked on is the sense that The American Soldier is itself a desiccated object, an effective corpse that nonetheless contains signs of life, even if only mere twitches. The catch is that once a beating heart is espied herein, it must be annihilated, all the better to maintain official, sanctioned histories (devoid of soul and spirit) over more multifaceted realities. As Billy Wilder turned a crumbling Berlin into a slapstick, satirical playground in One, Two, Three, so Fassbinder offers up The American Soldier’s Munich as a monochrome city of sadness, peopled by a stoic rogues gallery (most of them screaming in silence) and presided over by Karl Scheydt’s fedora-clad angel of death, Ricky.
A cold, contract killer cast in the elegantly lumbering mold of Lemmy Caution and Jef Costello, Ricky is continually nagged at by conscience, though he swats down such pangs as if they were gnats ravenously buzzing at ear. Like Godard and Melville’s protagonists, Ricky works best when he’s unmoored from reality, though he’s cursed to feel in ways that distinctly separate him from his nouvelle vague forbears and more readily ground him in mortal concerns. The telling sequence comes after Ricky is hit on by a flamboyant male gypsy: he follows the man upstairs to his bedroom, allows him to strip seductively, then shoots him dead. The act is unspeakably cruel, but Fassbinder views the scene with an empathy all-encompassing, the camera (courtesy DP Dietrich Lohmann) taking in the full scope of the gypsy’s horror, then capturing Ricky—post-shooting—in a length-wise mirror, uniting murderer and victim rather than dividing them through privileged perspective. Fassbinder then skewers his subject’s overdressed alpha-male exterior via a hard-cut to Ricky pleading on his hotel phone for a prostitute, though the damage has been done—emotion has seeped in to where it shouldn’t. When Elga Sorbas’ comics-reading femme fatale, Rosa, answers Ricky’s call, she comes upon him lying (queerly) prostrate, naked, vulnerable. Without looking at her, Ricky demands that she strip. Rosa complies and covers herself awkwardly with hands and arms. The duo then lock eyes and burst into laughter, but only for a moment before resuming the empty sexual exchange (this interaction is reflected in a no less bizarre sequence where Ricky shoots down a giggly male and female, freshly home from a night of carousing).
Sentiment dooms Fassbinder’s characters, though they push on as long as they can, even deferring their inevitable ends to proxies. As Ricky and Rosa make love, Margarethe von Trotta’s Zimmermädchen enters their room unacknowledged, sitting on the edge of the bed and outlining, to camera, the story that will eventually become Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. It’s a decidedly more melodramatic telling of the tale, climaxing on a note of interruptus and quickly followed by the von Trotta character’s over-eager, barely acknowledged (by Ricky and Rosa) suicide. But the mélo weighs on Ricky, following him home to a mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) and brother (Kurt Raab) whose icy contempt masks unspoken agitations (as glaringly obvious as the anachronistic pinball machine—Ophuls’ reckless moment as literal, mechanized kitsch—placed smack-dab in the middle of otherwise antique furnishings) that can’t help but come to the fore.
All throughout The American Soldier, Ricky attempts to counter the burden of influence and experience. Asked by his confidante Franz (Fassbinder) how it was in Vietnam, he responds with a hilariously terse, “Loud,” thus reducing war (presently and presciently) to a purely superficial sensory experience. Fassbinder answers Ricky’s shallowness via the above-mentioned tableaux, a no-less prophetic capper (one which eerily called to mind Nick Út’s two-years-hence photograph of napalm attack survivor Kim Phúc) that illuminates the inexplicable horrors of a loved one lost to war, the battle—so it comes clear—as much within as without, and the retribution demanded by even the basest twinge of morality forever muddied by the lifeless thing now cradled, flailingly, in arm.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door.