The Merchant of Four Seasons (’72) was German writer-director-actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ninth film in four years, an early sign of a creative fertility which would never let up throughout his brief career; he would make 41 movies in the 14 years before his death in 1982 at 37.
Fassbinder was, according to some, a nasty piece of work, a bitter, overweight and unattractive bisexual who could be cruelly manipulative and who was to develop a bad cocaine and alcohol addiction (hence, the early death). He was the consummate outsider, a bitter misanthrope whose jaundiced worldview infused his films.
Merchant, a stylized melodrama which reflects Fassbinder’s early work in the theater, establishes its world of misery right from the start. Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), fresh from a stint in the foreign legion, is greeted by his mother with withering disdain. “The good die young and people like you come back,” she tells him, and things go downhill from there. Hans is an ex-policeman, having been fired for a sexual indiscretion, who ekes out a living as a fruit peddler, aided by his unfaithful wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann). Hans’ problem is that nobody really loves him, possibly because he’s so damned unlovable. His sister is sympathetic but distant; his mistress is compliant but unable to get through to him. It doesn’t help that he’s so determined to be unhappy. (Reasons are suggested, but this is melodrama, not psychodrama.) When his fruit business becomes unexpectedly successful, he sinks even further into depression, becoming a shambling zombie of despair. He seems to have been born doomed, and there’s no indication that anything anyone could do would help him.
The movie’s a bummer but it’s a masterful one. Fassbinder was one of the trio of leading directors of the New German Cinema of the ’70s (the others were Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog), and his films had a shocking freshness when they were first released. They were carefully crafted anti-social acts, emotional exposés of post-war German society often influenced by the Douglas Sirk-directed soap operas he so admired. One of his recurring themes was love as exploitation, the way it can be withheld or falsely given as a form of manipulation (his first film was called Love Is Colder Than Death).
In Merchant, Hans’ suffering is presented in the context of a world where everyone’s wrapped up in their own self-interest and the only smiles are cruel ones. It’s melodrama without catharsis, so devoid of any lightness as to be nearly comical (and if you’re young and/or callow enough, the movie may seem fairly ridiculous). But though its unrelenting darkness comes from the director’s idiosyncratic point of view, one which he would cultivate with more subtlety in later films, Fassbinder’s unrelenting depiction of the way people abuse each other can seem, on certain days, to be some kind of undeniable truth.
In German with English subtitles. Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Dec. 1. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].