The RWF Quintet: Gottfried John

Gottfried John in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)

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If there had never been an actor with a face as memorable as Gottfried John’s (1942-2014) before, perhaps only Rainer Werner Fassbinder could have imagined him. Like so many of the men who worked with Fassbinder, John had unusual looks and yet was unmistakably magnetic. Standing at a lanky 6′ 3½” and with a nose, eyebrows and lips that you couldn’t soon forget, John cut a distinctive figure in Fassbinder’s films and TV work between 1972 and 1981. In fact, John was one of the few among Fassbinder’s regular collaborators who had a decent career as a character actor in productions made elsewhere in Europe and across the world, appearing in Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978), the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995), the Quay Brothers’ animated films Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995) and The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes (2005), the Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe thriller Proof of Life (2000) and the British WWII movie The Gathering Storm (2002, TV).

John’s role as the photojournalist Niemeyer in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is only partly sympathetic; in many ways he is as bad a seed as Mrs. Küsters’ daughter, Corinna, with whom he becomes romantically involved. Niemeyer takes advantage of the main character’s plight by insinuating himself into her life, using the first opportunity he gets to invite himself into her apartment for her a seemingly endless photo session (chronicling every aspect of her home life) and interviewing her about her husband’s death, which he later spins into negative press that shames the Küsters family and drives Mrs. Küsters away from her daughter, son and daughter-in-law. Niemeyer is ultimately one of the only characters who shows genuine concern for Mrs. Küsters, though, when she becomes embroiled in a perilous situation at the end of the film.

Gottfried John in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

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Fassbinder gave John a much more complex role in In a Year with 13 Moons, in which he plays Anton Saitz, a Holocaust survivor and millionaire entrepreneur who is the object of protagonist Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weishaupt’s unrequited love. Years before the start of the film, Anton’s casual comment to lovesick Erwin (played beautifully by Volker Spengler) that it was “too bad you aren’t a girl” was the catalyst for an impulsive, life-altering action: Erwin’s decision to have a sex-change operation, subsequently taking the name Elvira. As the viewer sees in the two days during which the film’s action takes place, Anton was not worth the trouble; he never cared about Erwin/Elvira and does not recognize Elvira when she visits his office building, despite their having once known each other very well. The mood in the scenes with Anton veers between absurdly farcical (the character is obsessed with one of the musical numbers in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis musical You’re Never Too Young (1955), forcing his chauffeur and other underlings to reenact the performance from the movie) and tragic (Anton agrees to go to Elvira’s apartment, but ends up having sex with her best friend, Zora, thus destroying Elvira’s hopes). Like the Douglas Sirk films that Fassbinder loved so much, In a Year with 13 Moons is heavily melodramatic, but the viewer cares because Fassbinder put so much thought into his work, and even a character as reprehensible as Anton Saitz can be made watchable because of how Gottfried John played him.

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