Love is Colder Than Death

“For Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Marie Straub” says the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1968 “Love Is Colder Than Death,” an early entry into the director’s canon. One can see the influence of all three directors even early on. There certainly the Chabrol/French New Wave inspired parody/ode to American crime and gangster cinema. You might say that constitutes the core “plot” of the film where Fassbinder himself plays Franz, a smalltime crook who was recruited by a major crime syndicate, but prefers his freedom. He later hooks up with another crook named Bruno (Ulli Lommel) and, along with Franz’s prostitute girlfriend, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), the trio becomes a kind of German Bonnie and Clyde. From Straub, Fassbinder takes the Bresson inspired minimalism, including an artificiality that’s flaunted rather than hidden. The Rohmer connection is more subtle, but the love triangle between the three leads will certainly draw comparisons to Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales.

This was my fifth Fassbinder film after Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fox & His Friends, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, and all I can say is that I’ve yet to get a handle on Fassbinder as an artist. He once said (perhaps jokingly) that he wanted to be “what Shakespeare was to theater,” and he certainly managed the Bard’s prodigious output, but I also think he managed his startling stylistic versatility; there is very little the films I’ve seen of his has in common. Any director that can go from the stark, dramatically restrained, asceticism of this film to the Douglas Sirk inspired melodrama of Fear Eats the Soul, to the tragic social commentary of Fox & His Friends is going to be difficult to pin down.

Being such an early film, it’s perhaps appropriate that Fassbinder’s influences are more on display here than in his later, more subtle works. But even here there’s an originality, mostly present in the bare art design, idiosyncratic handling of character, and the slow-paced, strangely hypnotic rhythm—but it’s a rhythm that takes some time to slip into. The opening scene consists of three characters sitting around the table with Franz smoking. Seconds slip away in front of the static camera and bizarre framing that has the characters sitting to the far left of the screen with a blank wall behind. Minor scuffle ensues after a man asks Franz for cigarette and he refuses. This section segues into the “recruitment” where Franz refuses to join the syndicate and is beaten. Even these scenes take place in front of a bare white wall or in a minimally decorated office that looks like a set built in the corner of the studio apartment.

There certainly a Godardian element to these scenes, which simultaneously seem to be parodying classic gangster films, exploiting the unrealistic nature of them, while still attempting to build a legitimate genre drama. Unlike Godard, Fassbinder’s less interested in subverting tropes. Instead of focusing on a couple cramped up in an apartment for long stretches of non-narrative related dialogue, Fassbinder does take his characters through the motions of committing crimes ranging from petty larceny to actual murder. One scene has the trio in a small apartment store bombarding the sales lady at the counter from three different sides while the other steal sunglasses while she’s not looking. The scene plays out more like a children’s game than a heist film with master thieves. Other examples are even more bizarre, perhaps culminating with Johanna and Bruno’s stroll through a department store shoplifting minor items along the way. Fassbinder films all that in a single long tracking shot that lasts for minutes, wholly unconcerned (perhaps oblivious) to the bevy of customers staring at the camera, with an operatic choral piece and screeching sound effect droning over the soundtrack.

Another French director that comes to mind for comparison is Jean-Pierre Melville, if only because of the narrative distance Fassbinder maintains (perhaps one overarching motif in his cinema). But for Fassbinder that distant serves to highlight the characters’ folly instead of just enhancing style. Unlike Rohmer, Fassbinder seems less concerned about the moral of patients behind his characters, their actions and relationships, and more about bringing their foolishness to the forefront. One always got the sense that Rohmer’s mind was actively involved in his character studies, using them as the catalyst for exploring his thematic concerns. In comparison, Fassbinder never lets lets us into his characters. Franz, especially, remains an almost emotionless, stone-faced mystery, while Johanna and Bruno are little more explored.

Like the best minimalism, at the best moments, Fassbinder manages to say a lot with a little, like the subtle charge of erotic tension that runs throughout the film. In one scene, Johanna lies on the floor, as if sleeping, when Bruno walks into the small room where Franz is sitting on the bed in the background. Bruno lies on the floor next to Johanna and begins unbuttoning her blouse, gently kissing her. Eventually, Johanna lets out a giggle and stands up, buttoning her blouse back up, only for Franz to unexpectedly walk over and slap her, stating “that’s for laughing at my friend”. It’s tempting to say that Fassbinder’s homosexuality is playing a role here, emphasizing male-male bonding/friendship over heterosexual relationships, but anyone who’s seen Fox and His Friends, which features Fassbinder’s naïve character being tragically used by a pair of older homosexual men, will realize that Fassbinder didn’t see male friendship or homosexuality as a mutual paradise either.

What these scenes, and indeed most of the film, point towards is an excruciatingly closed-off, claustrophobic world that negates the desire for freedom that Franz’s character explicitly wishes for (it’s the reason he states for refusing to join the crime syndicate) and the other characters implicitly wish for. We never get the sense these characters have other options; every location Fassbinder takes us, mostly during Bruno’s search for Franz and Johanna, are populated by pimps, prostitutes, and thieves. Franz, Bruno, and Johanna may not be an ideal trio of partners, but they’re likely all each other has. As weak and foolish as they are, there’s still strength in numbers. Indeed, their mini crime streak seems to make them feel invincible, a genuine absurdity from Fassbinder’s narrative point of view, making their downfall all the more inevitable.

Like the other Fassbinder’s I’ve seen, Love Is Colder Than Death is a film it’s easier to appreciate than it is to love. The combination of the cold, distant perspective, slow pacing, observed rather than engaging characters, and lack of overt narrative tension, conflict, and drama makes it a difficult film to get involved in. It also feels too much like a mishmash of French New Wave influences searching for an individualized identity. Fassbinder finds that identity in the best moments, like the last murder the Bruno commits, which finally brings handwringing drama and psychological substance to one of the characters. Or especially the final scene that has [SPOILER ALERT]Johanna and Franz dumping Bruno’s dead body on the side of the road after the failed bank heist[/SPOILER ALERT] only to find Fassbinder pending over to a harsh, barren desert, it truly potent visual symbol for the wasteland that these characters inhabit.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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