Despair/Eine Reise ins Licht (1977 West Germany/France 119 mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Bavaria Studios/La Societe Francaise de Production Prod: Peter Märthesheimer Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Scr: Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov Phot: Michael Ballhaus Ed: Juliane Lorenz, Franz Walsch (Fassbinder) Art Dir: Rolf Zehetbauer Mus: Peer Raben

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Andrea Ferreol, Klaus Löwitsch, Völker Spengler, Bernhard Wicki, Peter Kern, Armin Meier.

I never go around mirrors, cause I can’t stand to see a good man go to waste.

– Lefty Frizzell

Eine Reise ins Licht (Journey into Light), Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, is a difficult movie, likely to be misread and misunderstood – not least for its perversion of narrative and because it doggedly subverts the intention of its nominal author – while remaining utterly faithful to the letter of the text. It stands, along with Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999) and Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1968), as one of the most extraordinary adaptations of a novel into cinema. Though people have forgotten lately how the universe was once warped by the cosmic force called Fassbinder. (1)

“Russia, which we have lost forever…” Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) whispers to his wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferreol), as he spins a dream elegy of the homeland. But they are trapped in dismal gray Berlin. For these ‘White’ exiles, nostalgia is a form of foreplay. As they negotiate a tango of preliminaries, Hermann is literally beside himself. He settles into an easy chair to watch a stranger (himself) make love to his wife. We gather that this psychic fragmentation is not distressing for him. It is the lone pleasure left to a dissatisfied modern Ulysses.

Made in the spring and summer before the RAF kidnapping and murder of industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer brought down the ‘German Autumn’ of 1977, Fassbinder’s black comedy of the final journey of the chocolatier Hermann has a distinctly quixotic feel. Like any self-respecting 20th century knight errant, Hermann is tilting against the hegemony of the self, against identity. He will suffer more than a few torments for this mad quest.

In his novel, Nabokov intended a parody of Dostoyevsky and his imitators, a ludicrous story of a madman’s double-cross of himself. Despair is an intentionally cruel narrative where the ‘hero’ is mocked by all, by life, by Nabokov, by the other characters, and by the reader, smug in his armchair. Nabokov has only chuckles for Hermann’s artistic pretensions, whereas Fassbinder sees a kindred suffering that he takes seriously. He dedicated his film to Van Gogh, Artaud (2) and Unica Zürn (3), each a romantic archetype of the artist as mad-person. It is important to understand how different the novel Despair is from the film.

He Never Wrote A Novel He Didn’t Like: (Despair 1.1 thru 2.0)

Why that hilarious fellow, Vladimir Nabokov, chose to dress up a piece of juvenilia, written in Russian in the 1930s, translated into English by himself before the war, and published to a well-deserved oblivion in 1940, only to be resurrected by the master in his sweet Swiss autumn, remains the only real mystery at the heart of the novel Despair.

In his introduction to the novel, Nabokov the fabulist imagines that Hermann Goering’s bombs, not indifference, account for the fate of the original English edition of Despair. (4) But by 1965, Nabokov sat upon a kind of throne that decades of academic drudgery had paid for. He was the celebrated émigré author who forever pinned America’s vulgarity and innocence on a purple field of his drollish prose.

Despair, the novel, is a crude and provincial parody of Dostoyevsky and his imitators. Nabokov had grown tired of explaining at faculty parties why Dostoyevsky was a bad, un-Russian author, and that, thank God, nobody in Russia read him, to the utter disbelief of his boorish American fellows, who never ‘got’ Pushkin and Lermontov. The mystical, raving Dostoyevsky, for obvious reasons, was never to Nabokov’s taste, but that hardly explains the harsh vendetta of the lepidopterist.

Nabokov vs. Dostoyevsky

With a fulminating rage, but with uncharacteristic ham-fistedness, Nabokov conjures up a pulp Dostoyevskian scenario. A factory owner, a Russian exile named Hermann growing obsessed with his double, a laborer named Felix, decides on the perfect crime: he will murder himself and take the place of his double. Laughing yet? Here’s the punch line: The double looks nothing like him, and the supposedly brilliant narrator is a narcissistic madman.

This gut-busting irony is meant to sustain the reader through a mere Two Hundred and Twelve pages of sadistic fun and games. So (WARNING: Brief semiotic review ahead), Elder Nabokov re-writes Younger Nabokov in the guise of ‘Great Russian Author’ Nabokov doubling ‘Bad Russian Author’ Dostoyevsky, and Bourgeois Hermann doubles for Worker Felix; but both pairs fail to resemble their objects, with tragic-comic results. Little wonder that most people didn’t get the joke. Perhaps Nabokov intended and relished their bafflement.

Fortunately, Fassbinder was able to wrest this story away and cobble it together for his own ends. In his films he returned again and again to plumb the limits of human cruelty. Fassbinder was chiefly interested in the ebb and flow of power (rather than its effects) in human relationships. He attacks Nabokov’s story from the inside out. Fassbinder knew he was trapped in an obsessive death spiral of work, sex, and drugs. Behind Eine Reise ins Licht‘s Brechtian facade, we feel that Hermann’s need to shuck his life is real to Fassbinder in a way it never was for Nabokov.


Early in 1977, Stoppard approached Fassbinder with a script he had written earlier, believing that the German director would be ideal for the subject. Stoppard’s adaptation of Despair is a cinematic artifact. Beautifully concise, original and violently funny, Stoppard manages to out-Nabokov the master. To call the scenario better than the original text is childish. It’s like that Borges story where Pierre Menard sets out to rewrite Cervantes word for word. Stoppard writes the lines that Nabokov should have written, and ‘improves’ on the ones he did. Like Nabokov, the Czech-born Stoppard is a virtuoso of the English language, but also has an intimate understanding of the exile’s plight, the spiritual misalignment of memory and matter, and the petty humiliations of the stateless person. All these shadings can be found in the script.

Even so, that is not to say that all these riches are perfectly rendered in the final product. Fassbinder was directing for the first time in English, using a script he did not completely write, and working with non-native speakers, but he floats through on the magic carpet of his cat burglar-like intuition. The shoot was chaotic, and apparently Fassbinder and Stoppard had a bitter falling out over the director’s free adaptation (or violation) of the scenario.


Also alien to a modern audience, which has become fatally accustomed to the egoistic naturalism of the Actors’ Studio, is the film’s mix of performance styles that lends it a ‘locked in a wax museum’ claustrophobia. Hermann appears to be separated by a wall of glass from the people in his life. We are meant to see the characters as Hermann sees them: Lydia as a devoted De Lempicka voluptuary (“Intelligence would take the bloom of your carnality,” Hermann reminds himself); her lover Ardalion (Völker Spengler) as a mincing faux bohemian; and Orlovius (Bernhard Wicki), the insurance man, as a slightly sinister authority figure. Only Felix (Klaus Löwitsch), his double, who exists for him as a dangerous, volatile, erotically potent man, seems to have depth, but it is the depth of narcissistic projection.


Hermann is ruffled by a series of subtle forces. He is poised between listless erotic fascination with and misogynistic contempt for his wife, between self-hood and paranoid dissolution, between arrogance and desperation, between artistic sensibility and nihilistic rage. These states flit, some lingering a little longer, across the face of Dirk Bogarde, allowing us to read his mind. It would take a great actor to convince us that there is a man beneath all that confusion, and Fassbinder chose well.

Hermann is his own narrator of a distant emotional terrain. As he reflects on memories of his beloved mother, he says: “I seem to hear Chopin rather badly played. It is myself.” It is a killer line, both mournful and funny. And later, when he travels to the Ruhr to buy a failing chocolate factory run by a Nazi sympathizer, he movingly reveals the source of his fragmentation: To the wrong person. He pours out his despair about his status as a stateless person and the thing that increasingly weighs upon him, his half Jewish soul. Upon hearing of his Jewish ancestry, the Nazi brutally rejects his offer, shrieking: “Keep your fucking shekels!”

It’s a high-wire act. Bogarde never allows us to dismiss Hermann, or worse, to pity him. He remains endlessly fascinating, even at his most repellent. And it is also a brilliant comic performance. The look of disgust on his face whenever he tastes chocolate is priceless, and no doubt related to a Freudian family tragedy: His mother’s dowry of golden coins was revealed “upon investigation” to be a chocolate forgery. “My father died of grief, my mother of diabetes,” Hermann explains with quiet emotion.

The Double

Just as the structures of his carefully constructed ‘identity’ start to implode in slow-motion, Hermann has a chance encounter. He meets a tramp, Felix, who he imagines to be a perfect double, even though we see that the two men, aside from being roughly the same height, have completely different features and builds. Felix reminds him that a rich man never quite resembles a poor man. Hermann is amazed: “We are as like as two peas.” Felix, who is by no means a stupid fellow, is drawn to Hermann for reasons of his own. The tramp decides to humor this eccentric bourgeois in the hope of getting a job.

Even in the 1930s, Nabokov was himself interested in the cinematic possibilities of his novel. But he understood that there were dangerous challenges in presenting the story visually. Upon seeing Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), he cited the scene where Big Jim’s ravenous imagination turns Charlie’s Tramp into a delicious looking chicken, simply by means of superimposition and a dissolve. Nabokov proposed this as a possible solution to presenting the mental distortions occurring inside of Hermann’s mind.

Fassbinder chose not to help either Bogarde or the audience with optical tricks. Hermann longs to be someone that he is not. It is that longing that is important for Fassbinder, not the cruel world of image. Fassbinder, like a medieval mystic, saw bodies as prisons. He certainly treated his own body as such, like a crude machine that had to be enhanced by sex and drugs to keep up with his furtive soul. When we see movies like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) or The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), it is impossible not to feel the oppression of identity and physical matter itself upon its fragile protagonists. It could be that Fassbinder’s peculiar transcendentalism explains why his star fell so quickly after his death. (5)

Meeting his double opens up a world of possibility for Hermann. A silent film seen earlier functions as a touchstone for the rest of the film. Two identical brothers, (played by the same actor, Fassbinder’s great love, Armin Meier) one a gangster, the other a policeman, face each other in a showdown. The policeman enters to negotiate a surrender. He soon comes out, announcing to the others that the gangster is dead. He gets in a police car and starts the engine, but another cop is suspicious and fires, killing him. The gangster’s ruse is discovered; he has killed his brother and taken his uniform.

Hermann sees that he can now abandon his sputtering identity like an old carapace, and take on the life of his double. Of course, after prudently insuring his old life, he celebrates with wife and friends in his Weimar Art-Deco apartment. The guests discuss politics, casually dismissing the rise of Hitler with the gusto of idiocy. They ask Hermann what he thinks and he answers: “I don’t think, I just insured my life.”

Hermann works very hard to set up his own murder, with an overwrought attention to detail. He shows a blackmail letter to the insurance man, Orlovius, and drops him a dramatic hint, which Hermann believes to be a complete red herring; that Lydia is having an affair with another man. When Orlovius sympathetically concurs, saying “Such things I have long observed,” Hermann moves from bafflement to a flash of anguish (“You have?”) before going back to demented self-assurance.

Hermann is fated to experience more than a few such crises in the texture of his reality. But his world never shatters, and time after time his artistic gift for madness keeps him whole. He explains his double to Lydia as a long lost brother believed dead, who is living a life of utter depravity after having poisoned the woman he lived upon. In his confection, the brother begs Hermann to end his life, telling him that he wants to “make a gift of his death.” Hermann nobly agrees to help his ‘brother’ atone for his sins. (6)

Meeting the tramp at an appointed place and time, he baptizes him Hermann with a gunshot, thus killing his old life. The tramp seems to thank him for ending the misery of his existence. But in this hall of mirrors, Hermann’s happy relief has been superimposed on Felix. But he of course has committed a fatal blunder that only time will reveal.

Having killed his double, Hermann escapes to Switzerland, where he waits to reap the fruits of his scheme. Guests confront him with maddening trivia that he can make no sense of: “Seems the monster insured his own life and took another’s.” To him, everybody seems obsessed with clues, and the newspapers are webs of misinformation. He seeks shelter high in the mountains, breaks his last mirror, and is consoled by the passport that bears his name and another’s face.


  1. Thief, Pimp, Loyal Friend, Suicide-monger, Drug Addict, Bavarian, Alcoholic, Lover and Victimizer of men and women, Equal Opportunity Sado-masochist, and Visionary, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the closest thing the cinema has ever had to François Villon. Fassbinder had the misfortune to live in an age without gallows, where one could only howl from the belly of the state, and die, festering like a cancer, waiting for a future apotheosis. Or so the story went. Twenty years after his death, the wound has pretty much healed over. Fassbinder has been properly digested, so much so that a soulless, colorized rip-off (or was it a Sirk-off?) of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul could orbit the Oscars with barely a mention of the man who reinvented the melodrama for the children of Marx and cocaine (Far from Heaven, 2002). Even the Red Army Faction deconstructed itself in a paranoid operetta, as if they were following the letter of a lost unproduced Fassbinder piece from his Anti-Theatre days, complete with the brain of Ulrike Meinhof. And Europa Unita? It would have killed him all over again, but with kindness.
  2. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), the father of the Theatre of Cruelty, played the sympathetic monk in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). His ideas were baffling to his contemporaries (he was thrown out of the surrealist movement), and he spent much time institutionalized as a schizophrenic. There was an Artaud vogue in the 1970s.
  3. Unica Zürn (1916-1970), the German Surrealist painter who struggled with schizophrenia, committed suicide by leaping from the balcony of her apartment.
  4. See Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  5. Seeing Eine Reise ins Licht again recently suggested a companion picture for a double screening, Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus (2002), which could more justly be called Despair. Schrader’s Bob Crane seems to be on his own mad journey, and the great performance by Greg Kinnear seems to be literally haunted by Bogarde’s Hermann. The drama of a man’s humanity being crushed in the grip of a monstrous narcissism, the intense stylization of image, and the interplay between the Brechtian stage world and Crane’s fragmenting video-identity, owes more to Fassbinder than to Schrader’s acknowledged master, Bresson (see also Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985).
  6. For those Zemblans who think this is too harsh a treatment of a beloved author I offer this solitary olive leaf: Perhaps it is possible to read Despair as Nabokov’s belated atonement for his icy treatment of his brother Sergei. Sergei was a kind of double for the self-involved Nabokov. A sensitive, talented child, who was always in the shadow of his slightly elder brother, Sergei was also a homosexual, something that filled Vladimir with a suspiciously disproportionate sense of horror. The story of the ‘dead’ reprobate brother is haunting. One wonders if it was in the first edition or added in the revision. Sergei died in a Nazi labour camp in 1945. Even twenty years after Sergei’s death, Nabokov had trouble talking about his brother. See Lev Grossman’s “The Gay Nabokov” (17 May 2000) http://archive.salon.com/books/feature/2000/05/17/nabokov/index.html.

About The Author

Carloss Chamberlin is a Delaware corporation, flying a Liberian flag, with assets in Switzerland and The Cayman Islands.

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