As a kind of counterbalance to the number of sparely designed, quickly shot Doris Wishman films I have been watching in recent months, I have also been watching films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the West German director whose sense of color and style and his love of Douglas Sirk meant that no frame in a Fassbinder picture ever existed without a great deal of thought and care having gone into it. In five particular Fassbinder films – Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), Fox and His Friends (1975), Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), Chinese Roulette (1976) and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) – my appreciation for some of Fassbinder’s actors has grown and blossomed. I would like, therefore, to focus on five performers in the following series of posts, looking at two roles for each actor and how he or she made such an impression on me.
Brigitte Mira in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)
Brigitte Mira (1910-2005) had her first starring role for Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), a remake/update of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) in which she plays a middle-aged widow who falls in love with and marries a much younger Moroccan immigrant. Again, in Mother, Mira portrays an older woman who must deal with the death of her husband and how she can go on with her life, although in this case the plot is even more political since her husband has recently died by suicide after murdering his boss at their factory in a fit of extreme rage (Mr. Küsters had just been fired), leading some characters to insert themselves into Mira’s world by insisting that her late husband was a martyr who died for the cause of Communism. You want so much to give Mira’s character a hug, for all the heartache she endures and the ways she must bravely face the pain, particularly from unsympathetic family members.
Brigitte Mira in Chinese Roulette (1976)
Chinese Roulette, however, is a totally different story. Fassbinder cast Mira against the type that he had created for her; rather than play another sweet, well-meaning, plain-faced woman, Mira is glamorous, vain and mean-spirited as a housekeeper at a rich couple’s country estate. As Vincent Canby noted in his New York Times review, Mira plays the part “at a far remove from her title role in Mrs. Küsters Goes to Heaven. [Mira] wears brilliant red lipstick, bouffant hair and eyelashes so long and sharp they look as if they could scratch the finish of a Mercedes-Benz. Instead, she simply bosses around her androgynous son (Volker Spengler) and laughs with delight when [the couple’s] crippled child falls off her crutches.” (Canby forgot to mention the short dresses and high boots, which add to the look.) Brigitte Mira does not have the lead in Chinese Roulette, but her note-perfect portrayal of a cruel and gossipy matron is a triumph.