Volker Spengler in Chinese Roulette (1976)
If one had never seen a film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chinese Roulette would not be the place the start. It is the kind of deadly-dark comedy that not every viewer can tolerate, except those who appreciate Fassbinder’s cynical brand of humor and his interest in the lives of socially/sexually exploited characters. In Chinese Roulette, the two halves of an unhappily married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Christ (Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen), meet by accident at one of their sumptuous vacation homes in the German countryside, each spouse having gone there with his/her lover (Anna Karina and Ulli Lommel, respectively). This get-together was orchestrated by the couple’s disabled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who sees through each parent’s façade of fidelity and resents them for well-masked hatred of her and her permanently crippled legs.
This is where the Kast family enters the scene. Mrs. Kast (Brigitte Mira) is the haughty housekeeper at the country estate, and one of the malevolent pleasures she gets out of life is bossing her grown-up son Gabriel (Volker Spengler) around. A “tall and typically lumpy man with small, beady eyes and perennially tousled hair,” as the TCM database’s mini-biography describes him, Spengler (b. 1939) has a striking appearance in Chinese Roulette: doughy skin, very pink lips, shaggy hair bleached blonde, an army-green uniform, black boots. He wanders through the mansion, taking orders from others (usually his mother), sometimes a silent witness to the strange goings-on in the house. Reviewers have occasionally described Spengler’s character as androgynous and asexual, but he does have a fixation on young Angela’s governess, a mute woman named Traunitz (Macha Méril), although the revelation of Gabriel’s love/lust for her feels random and is never mentioned again after the one scene in which he visits her room and kisses her (seen in the sixth image above). Perhaps whether the relationships in this film make sense is a moot point, though; as a storyteller, Fassbinder was interested in actions but not necessarily in logic.
Volker Spengler in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)
The film guide The A to Z of German Cinema (2010) describes Volker Spengler as an actor who “specialized in introverted, damaged, and decidedly odd characters.” While that may sound like a bit of a put-down, the book also notes that his lead performance in Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons “reveals the breadth of Spengler’s emotional range.” Moons is another film that you wouldn’t want to be your first-ever Fassbinder experience, but if and when you are ready for it, the impact will be devastating. Spengler plays a a transsexual woman, Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weishaupt, who underwent a sex-change operation when the love of her life, Anton Saitz (played by Gottfried John), rejected her for then having a man’s body. The film chronicles the last few days in Elvira’s life as she searches for answers: why her lover, Christoph (Karl Scheydt) has been so abusive, beating and belittling her; how her upbringing in an orphanage affected her; what her sex-change has meant to her ex-wife Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar), who still calls Elvira “Erwin,” and her grown-up daughter Marie-Ann (Eva Mattes), who thinks of Elvira as “Papa”; and why, despite all her efforts, she cannot find the companionship she craves. Sexual identity is a key part of the story being told, but Elvira’s tale is one of basic human longing for compassion and reciprocated love. They are needs which transcend the definitions or limitations of a person’s physical form.
Film reviewer Jim Clark wrote about Fassbinder, Spengler and In a Year with 13 Moons in 2004 and had this to say:
“A grieving Fassbinder began this picture soon after the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier (who appeared in eight of his pictures), and it is arguably his most powerful work. It is also his most personal, not only because he wrote, directed, designed, photographed and edited it himself, but because he laid bare his most profound feelings and ideas. With Volker Spengler in the lead, it also features one of the most breathtaking performances in any Fassbinder film. This riveting character study of a transgendered woman defies categorization, as it joins together – on some primal, intuitive level – melodrama, tragedy, and a unique strain of comedy which is both merciless and tender.
… Erwin/Elvira was brought fully to life by the astonishing performance of Volker Spengler, in his first starring role. He had played some intriguing, and bizarre, earlier characters for Fassbinder – including the tormented wannabe philosopher Gabriel in Chinese Roulette and the deranged Ernst who tries to copulate with houseflies (!) in the farcical Satan’s Brew – but nothing prepares us for his breathtaking work here. Spengler reportedly lived this role fully, although not surgically, and even spent most of his offscreen time with Fassbinder. The director’s typical hands-off approach, allowing actors maximum freedom (so long as they remained true to his vision), clearly brought out the best in Spengler. The actor also relished the spontaneity which came with getting final script pages hours, or minutes, before filming. Incredibly, most of the shots were done in just one take.
Although most of Fassbinder’s films focus on one central character, perhaps no other creates such a tight, and multi-layered, bond between protagonist, story and form.”
Volker Spengler continues to act in theater productions in Berlin – in October he was in the two-person play 4.48 Psychosis, put on by the troupe LAWBF (Like a Wild Beast’s Fur) – but there is no doubt that his greatest claim to fame in terms of international recognition rests on his outstanding achievements when working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.