Monday, 26 May 2008

Veronika Voss (1982, West Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

"I have nothing to give you but my dream".

'Veronika Voss' was Fassbinder's penultimate film and concluded the loose BRD trilogy that also included 'The Marriage of Maria von Braun' and 'Lola'. These films examined the German economic miracle and political recovery during the 1950s under the Adenauer government. Fassbinder suggested that this rehabilitation and success was achieved due to corruption and compromise, as well as the cultural and economic imperialism of the United States. In each film, the main character is a woman who either succeeds or falls during the era. Whereas Maria von Braun and Lola were upwardly mobile women who sought a better life for themselves during these boom years, Veronika Voss is a woman whose successes were during the Nazi era and she finds herself unable to adjust to the new West Germany - she's a victim of the country's recovery.

'Veronika Voss' starts with a remarkably prescient scene that predicts events to come. Veronika (Rosel Zech) watches a film from her UFA past; a silent melodrama about a woman addicted to morphine who becomes exploited by her doctor, literally signing her life over to her. This is intercut with scenes with Veronika's memories of making the film, complete with depictions of life behind the scenes. This was clearly an act, though Veronika's actual dependency on morphine is very much real. A jittery mess, she is rescued during a rainstorm by a journalist, Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate). She has delusions about her own fame, whilst he doesn't recognise her. Smitten, he examines her past to discover what happened to the actress who was feted during the 30s but fell out of public view. It was rumoured that she was a lover of Goebbels and relied on the patronage of the Nazis. In post-war Germany, Veronika struggles to find roles. Fassbinder perhaps contrasts with the fact that public officials during the Nazi era were still accepted after the war and were responsible for Germany's recovery. Denazification was a policy that some fell foul of but some did not.

Krohn discovers Veronika's "illness" through observing her withdrawal symptoms. Her doctor, Katz (Annemarie Duringer) is a superficially kindly doctor with a veneer of respectability, although below the surface something much more sinister is taking place. Again, should we see this as an allegory of contemporary Germany? Katz regulates the morphine she provides to her clients, increasing their dependency and desperation for more drugs, allowing her to exploit the wealth of her clients, ultimately ready to allow them to overdose for their wealth. Krohn's attempts to rescue Veronika are at her expense however, reflecting Fassbinder's perception of empathy as essentially a self-serving act motivated by self-interest rather than the good of the other. Krohn's help puts Veronika in more danger and also results in the death of his girlfriend. Only when it's too late does he accept the futility of what he sought to achieve - that he was unable to help her or stop Katz's schemes, and returns to his sports journalist position rather than undermine Katz.

Many of Fassbinder's preceding films were influenced by Sirk's melodramas. 'Fear Eats The Soul' was a direct remake of 'All That Heaven Allows' and other Fassbinder works were influenced by Sirk's use of colour and expressionism. 'Veronika Voss' is very much inspired by one of Hollywood's most corrosive examinations of itself; Billy Wilder's 'Sunset Boulevard' as well as the real life story of UFA actress Sybille Schmitz, who also died of a drug overdose in 1955, which is pretty much when the film was set, given the reference to West Germany joining NATO. Like with Norma Desmond, Veronika makes an abortive comeback, which demonstrates how the art of film making has changed. The opening scene showed Veronika as a silent actress who could weep on cue, but now finds the multitasking of doing this and reciting lines a problem (though this is probably also due to her morphine addiction considering she "breaks down" on set). It's a sign of an inability to adjust, not just perhaps to making films but life itself. Veronika's not used to no longer being recognised or famous and she cannot accept obscurity.

With cinematographer Xavier Scwarzenberger, Fassbinder recreates the aesthetic of many of the UFA productions that Veronika Voss might have starred in, with crisp black and white cinematography and typical methods of cutting between scenes. The reflection upon the Nazi era is important because Fassbinder believed there were attempts towards a collective amnesia about the entire duration of the Third Reich; that it was better not being discussed. He thought that West Germany would only genuinely recover and deal with its past through discussion and reflection. 'Veronika Voss' doesn't just reflect the past though; it carefully considers West Germany's contemporary success, suggesting it wasn't as honestly achieved as many would like to think. 4.5/5

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