Although with regard to career chronology Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss) marks the culmination of Fassbinder’s so-called “BRD (Budesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy”, its narrative in fact positions it as the second work in this celebrated series and its pointed interrogation of wartime and postwar Germany. It is set in 1955, specifically between Die ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979) and Lola (1981), and like those films uses the fate of its titular heroine as a vehicle to pass comment on the country’s recent past. Drawing inspiration from the real-life tragedy of actress Sybille Schmitz (a popular UFA performer who was blacklisted and then committed suicide in 1955), Fassbinder lays out with diagrammatic clarity a fervent culture of amnesia and anaesthetisation. He explores the desire to efface the past, and takes in not only the protagonist’s personal tragedy but also, through the elderly survivors of Treblinka, a direct representation of a national atrocity that seems to have been largely suppressed in the era of postwar economic prosperity that The Marriage of Maria Braun in particular so beautifully dramatises and allegorises.
From another point-of-view, however, Veronika Voss does indeed offer a point of climax and summation: namely, to the meteoric career of its director. Significantly, it is one of the most successful of Fassbinder’s many appropriations of canonical Hollywood genres, a project – his desire to create a Hollywood in Germany – that was among the director’s most astute and intelligent achievements. This project had already seen transpositions of the gangster film in Der Amerikanische soldat (The American Soldier, 1970) and Götter der pest (Gods of the Plague, 1970), the literary drama in the shape of Effi Briest (1974) and, most notably, the Sirkian melodrama in Handler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971) and Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, 1974). Veronika Voss, in turn, makes great play with the surfaces elements of film noir, the high contrast black-and-white imagery of a desolate postwar urban milieu that here becomes redolent not only of an aesthetic nostalgia that conjures up a pervasive cinematic past (one better remembered than the national and social) but also a correlative to the polarised realms of good and evil, lost innocence and alienating experience, that amorphously wind their way in and through the narrative and its central participants. For example, the overwhelming white of the doctor’s house where Veronika is “treated” functions as an expressionistic space wherein any sense of the outside world, a tenable reality has been systematically stripped away, leaving an interior site of withdrawal and alienation that dominates in its stead.
Lending a structure and organisational dynamic to Fassbinder’s predetermined, prescriptive narrative are a series of filmic references. These appropriations relate thematically to a sense of doubling that is prevalent throughout the story – in, for instance, the fractured life of Veronika (her past and present selves) and her middle-aged lover Krohn’s (Hilmar Thate) disjunction between his work as a reporter and his flirtation with poetry. This latter point, in particular, effectively communicates an irreconcilable division that pervades the film, reflecting its foundational antinomy between reality and the movies (a compromised opposition that relates as much to Fassbinder himself as it does his tragic character). To this end the spectre of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950) haunts Veronika Voss, whilst Thomas Elsaesser also compares Krohn to the obsessed male figures in such works as Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) (1). Krohn’s fundamental opacity and obscurity (for instance his precise reasons for his involvement with Veronika) further grant the film a blank, circumspect centre. He remains throughout a remote figure of the present in contradistinction to Veronika, who is anchored to the past, and together their dynamic relation offers a double-edged portrait of fateful action that cannot be alleviated. Like Germany, they both spiral wilfully into a vortex from which extrication remains at best elusive, at worst impossible.
Veronika Voss (the German title, Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, translates literally as The Longing of Veronika Voss) was Fassbinder’s penultimate feature. It was made after the epic television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) moved his historical paradigm back to Weimar Germany, and before the insular, stylised dynamics of his Jean Genet adaptation, Querelle (1982), seemed to point toward a negation of historical specificity in the face of an external manifestation of sexual identity and a claustrophobic no-man’s-land between self and other. As Fassbinder biographers Robert Katz and Peter Berling have argued, “Veronika Voss… would have been, if you had to die young, the film to exit on” (2). It is certainly a film about endings that do not offer much in the way of a postscript, as well as about failure and how one can succumb almost readily to loss and despair (unlike Maria Braun and Lola with their colourful mise en scène and over-determined design). Indeed, Veronika and, to an extent, Krohn’s cognisant complicity in their own dark fate is perhaps Fassbinder’s most damning judgement of Germany during and following Nazism. It is a worthy summation of an extraordinary trilogy of films.
Veronika Voss (1982 West Germany 104 mins)
Prod Co: Laura Film/Maran Film/Rialto Film/Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SDR)/Tango Film/Trip Film Prod: Thomas Schühly Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Scr: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pea Frölich, Peter Märthesheimer Phot: Xaver Schwarzenberger Ed: Juliane Lorenz Prod Des: Rolf Zehetbauer Mus: Peer Raben
Cast: Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer, Doris Schade, Erik Scuhumann