2017 is turning into the year of Fassbinder for me. This pretty early, made-for-TV entry is not yet the Fassbinder of the mid-70s, but it’s got some trademarks. It’s one of the funnier films of the director that I can think of. He’s got some dark, cynical humor in so many of his films, but there are some laugh-out-loud moments in Pioneers in Ingolstadt, especially with Klaus Löwitsch, playing a pretty hapless army sergeant who is maybe dumber than he looks.
We’ve got Löwitsch, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Harry Baer, and Günther Kaufmann. So many familiar faces.
For a Fassbinder film, Pioneers feels really static. I think in his later work he just gets people moving. They’re walking and circling constantly. Here, the film feels closer to stagey. Maybe not surprised, since it is based on a play.
This sequence in the park could almost be from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (mixed a bit with Brecht):
Is this look from the budget? The source material? It’s pretty expressionist. Some of his other frames also feel very Murnau. Like the first one below where Schygulla’s Berta sits opposite her employer and his son. That distance is so exaggerated, and then the reverse feels so flat despite the windows:
It’s a great compositional play – isolating Berta, but at the same time putting her at the center of the two men (it’s not a love fight between father and son, but she certainly is metaphorically between them throughout the film). When she’s in shot the frame feels menacing and uneasy; when she’s not it returns to normalcy.
When Löwitsch’s sergeant character falls off a bridge we get a moment that feels so familiar in Fassbinder films. The scene starts with him leaning back. The beam breaks and the camera quickly booms down to find him on the ground:
A back and forth between the sergeant and his men, now called to attention-
-and then Fassbinder goes into a super-slow dolly back, passing every single one of the men, and eventually landing on Max (Kaufmann):
It’s not just the camera movement, it’s the duration (about a full 1:10 for the track!) and the accompanying silence. It feels extra-diegetic, as though we’ve briefly left the world of the movie just to see all of these guys in close-up. I mean, is the sergeant staring at them for this full 1:10, his eyes roving down the line as slowly as the camera? I doubt it.
Later Max is at the forefront of a beatdown that takes over 3 minutes! It’s shot entirely in wide. This is nearly the opposite of the long track above. The staging is believable. It’s slow and therefore more vicious. Where we leave the world of the movie momentarily on the bridge, here we’re almost too into it, uncomfortably so. Pioneers feels this way throughout: it’s stagey and full of tableaus at one moment, and then realistically cynical the next.