Ingrid Caven in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)
It is hard to imagine what it was like for Ingrid Caven (b. 1938) to be married to an artist as temperamental as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (Their union lasted from 1970 to 1972.) Like Irm Hermann, another actress who was Fassbinder’s on-again, off-again girlfriend in the 1960s and 70s, Caven had to deal with the personal and professional troubles of living and working with such a talented but highly unstable (and sometimes vicious) man. I wonder, because I’m not sure: did Fassbinder write characters specifically for Caven, and if so, why were they often – if not always – unlikeable?
In Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Caven plays Corinna Coren, the cabaret-singing daughter of the main character (Brigitte Mira). When Mr. Küsters kills himself, self-centered Corinna thinks nothing of exploiting her father’s death to promote her own career by returning home to Munich, giving interviews at the cemetery and in her parents’ apartment, and capitalizing on the recent tragedy in order to book concerts in local establishments. Corinna spends most of the film applying makeup and either putting on or taking off clothes, investing far more time and effort in her appearance than in the feelings of her mother and other family members. Every gesture is an act to advertise herself; even when she enters a relationship with a photojournalist, Niemeyer (played by Gottfried John), it is done only to get her name in the paper. Caven’s performance is one of magnificent barbarity, although one must admit that when she sings, she does have a captivating presence. Fassbinder could find external manifestations of poetry even in a character with an ugly personality.
Ingrid Caven in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)
Unlike many of her previous characters, Caven’s role as the prostitute “Red Zora” in In a Year with 13 Moons is not glamorous. She is not dolled up with immaculate makeup, although she still has the ultra-thin Marlene Dietrich eyebrows that Fassbinder favored for his actresses. Zora, who is the one close friend of protagonist Elvira/Erwin Weishaupt in the film, spends the entire film wearing blue jeans and a ratty faux-fur jacket, tight and tacky choices that underscore the nature of her profession. Fassbinder, who shot the film himself, photographs the character/actress in unflattering ways, making his forty-year old ex-wife look tired, almost haggard. Because Zora is one of the few people in the world who cares at all about Elvira, the role initially seems like a departure from the usual unpleasant roles that Fassbinder had Caven play. Once more, however, she must eventually do wrong by another character; no “hooker with a heart of gold,” Zora commits an unforgivable act of betrayal by having sex with Elvira’s great love, businessman Anton Saitz (Gottfried John). Zora knows that Elvira experiences terrible psychological crises as a result of her confusion over her sexuality and her inability to sustain certain personal relationships, but like so many Fassbinder characters, Zora only bothers to pay attention when it is convenient for her; by the end, we know that there is only emptiness underneath her weary face.