The credits for Despair are impressive: Fassbinder just before the start of his great BRD Trilogy; a script from Tom Stoppard; a source novel from Nabokov; Dirk Bogarde in the starring role; longtime Fassbinder collaborator Michael Ballhaus as DP.
Bogarde plays Herman, a chocolatier, perhaps insane, who thinks he sees his doppelganger and arranges an elaborate, inane murder-insurance scheme.
I really like Nabokov’s novel, so I was at first disappointed with this film. One thing that, if I recall correctly, is vastly different (aside from the setting in Fassbinder’s film being changed to 1930s Germany), is that in the book we don’t realize that Herman doesn’t in fact look like his “double” until said information is revealed at the end. In the film, we see it immediately. It might even feel odd to those unfamiliar with the novel – why does Herman think he and the itinerant Felix (Klaus Lowitsch, a Fassbinder regular) look alike when they clearly don’t? It’s a nice turn in Nabokov’s novel: despite his sounding crazier and crazier, we still take the narrator at face value.
Despite that change, by the end Fassbinder and Nabokov turns out to be a beautiful pairing. Both favor a detached style and characters with an air of both naive invulnerability and arrogance; both look at fascism in some form (though that theme is much more prevalent in Fassbinder).
Lydia (Andrea Ferreol – I could’t think of where I know her from so I looked it up: It’s La Grande Bouffe!), is considerably more bug-eyed and ludicrous here-
-but then again it’s Fassbinder in basically his most melodramatic period, so the entire film is flamboyant. Check out Lydia and Herman’s apartment:
That looks like haze, but the gradients are more due to that white wall outside on the terrace. The place is gold-soaked and Herman looks at the prostrate Lydia like a tiny general staring at his prey. That apartment extends via an almost maze-like series of translucent glass, and Fassbinder really uses it to his advantage, sometimes as a visual joke-
-other times for a dizzyingly doubling effect-
-an effect which is rendered elsewhere throughout the film:
This is very much a movie about losing one’s personality or self, about stepping outside of one’s self (which Fassbinder represents quite literally early-on, with shots of Herman watching Lydia and Herman make love).
The films ends with a dedication:
I had to look up Unica Zurn. Check out some of her drawings:
A dedication to the mad artist, perhaps? Fassbinder, 4 years from his death, self-styling himself as a brilliant suicide case?
Like all Fassbinder films this one is also defined by sheer movement. Do Fassbinder characters ever sit still for longer than 30 seconds? It’s crazy how much his characters move and how perfectly he captures this with a complex camera. No wonder Ballhaus quit on him eventually: to be so prolific and insist on such complicated imagery must have taken its toll.
Here’s one example, a party of four: Herman, Lydia, Lydia’s brother Ardalion (Volker Spengler), and Muller (Peter Kern). This blocking example is incomplete, but I think still demonstrative of the movement at work in Despair.
With Lydia and Ardalion in the background, Herman turns towards camera, occupying the majority of the frame. Ardalion makes his way around the room and behind Herman:
Fassbinder pans with Ardalion, finding Muller frame right:
Muller approaches camera and lands momentarily in a close-up:
Muller continues past camera, and now we find Ardalion again:
Ardalion moves forward, this time with Lydia, and we catch them in a tight 2-shot closeup:
Lydia moves back into the room, and the focus pulls to Herman, now seated at his table, in an over-the-shoulder:
It’s not only that Fassbinder and Ballhaus’ camera constantly pans, dollies, and shifts focus here, it’s also that the actors pull this odd bit of circling off without a hitch. That’s what they do here: circle one-another persistently (we see that same bit of circling in earlier parts of the film; I remember noticing a similar, though considerably lesser strategy in Spielberg’s The Terminal years ago, though it didn’t have the same mood of vulturism, nor was it so long as to feel like being caught in a carousel).
Like so many of Fassbinder’s films, a character here thinks he has the upper hand, other characters are either trying to figure that person out, or are watching that person’s downfall from a very short distance. As the characters walk in circles and rotate around one-another you get the sense that they’re traveling a very far distance but not really getting anywhere at all.