Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first English language film Despair (1978) is a fascinating entry in his filmography: while it is set in Germany, it is his first film in English, with iconic English actor Dirk Bogarde in the lead. This cinematic fusion of cultures and identities is apt for this film, a study in changing cultures and split identities. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) is head of a chocolate business and married to an adoring wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol). While all seems well for Hermann, he experiences a sense of dislocation. Visits from Lydia’s painter cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler) seem to simultaneously amuse and annoy Hermann, as does Lydia herself, but they do not completely satisfy him. However, when Hermann watches a film with a plot focusing on twin brothers, one a police officer, the other a criminal (both played by Armin Meier), and then later meets Felix (Klaus Löwitsch), a vagrant, he hatches an elaborate plan to change his life. Felix is different to Hermann in seemingly every way, most obviously in physical appearance, but Hermann nevertheless sees Felix as his doppelgänger. Under the pretext of being an actor, Hermann proposes to hire Felix as his double, but Felix is sceptical about Hermann’s motives.
It is tempting to view this film version of Despair in relation to its historical setting, with the rise of Nazism prominently featured, or to draw parallels between the film and Fassbinder’s life, or to compare the film with the novel (original title: Otchayanie) by Vladimir Nabokov, which are all fascinating paths to explore.1 Putting these interpretations aside, though, Despair is a striking formal film exercise, with the techniques of cinema employed in ways that mirror the central character of Hermann and amplify the themes of the story. Throughout the film, Michael Ballhaus’ twisting, roving camera prowls Hermann’s environs, with Hermann’s outer reality and inner world each reflecting the other, the images representing Hermann’s labyrinthine scheme and fragmented mind. Hermann is frequently framed by mirrors and doors, seen through windows and in surfaces reflecting his image, observed by others and, in his ‘out of body’ experiences, even observing himself. It is almost as if Hermann is constantly seen through the looking glass: outwardly, he is a man with an enviable life who is holding things together while the society around him unravels, but inwardly he is despairing, but at exactly what remains tantalisingly vague. Bogarde plays Hermann with an ironic, amused detachment, portraying a man both convinced of his inherent superiority over those around him, but also dissatisfied with his life and insecure about his identity.
There is a mystery at the heart of Despair, but the crime is not hidden and Hermann is clearly the culprit. The answer to the question of why exactly Hermann is doing what he is doing is the intriguing and disturbing mystery at the heart of film. In terms of the visual style of Despair and the mysterious mindset of Hermann, Peter Bradshaw’s summation of the film as “surrealist noir” seems apposite.2 Overlooking the potential autobiographical elements in the relation to the director, Despair is still recognised as a quintessential Fassbinder work. As Dennis Lim notes: ““Despair” is perhaps the most explicit elaboration of one of Fassbinder’s recurring themes: the alienation of someone who not only “stands outside himself,” as Hermann puts it, but also wants to escape himself and indeed flee the trap of identity altogether.”3 Wallace Watson also comments on what makes Despair a work that is recognisably that of the director: “Fassbinder’s films probe relentlessly beneath the repressed surfaces of individual lives and the deceptive ‘normality’ of modern social and political arrangements, to reveal oppression and exploitation in many forms, in both personal and public spheres.”4
Acting and image is front and centre in Despair, both in terms of Bogarde’s charismatic central performance, which makes Herrmann both undeniably magnetic yet curiously remote, and in terms of performance in cinema in general. In the aforementioned scene when Hermann watches the film showing the twin brothers, the ‘twins’ are shown on screen in the same shot. Cinematic trickery is employed to convince Hermann and the cinema audience that the same actor is playing both parts on screen, but it is noted as being unconvincing, shattering the illusion. This is despite the fact the line down the middle of the frame, which is hidden by the edge of a wall, is actually successful in hiding the illusion. Interestingly, though, a foreman at a factory (also played by Armin Meier) is the spitting image of the twin brothers in the film seen by Hermann, something that is given no rational explanation. Hermann is an actor of sorts, taking on a role that he thinks is absolutely believable, but which is transparently unconvincing: that of Felix, the poor man that the rich Hermann is convinced is his double. Perhaps Hermann could be seen as a sly commentary on movie artifice ultimately being unconvincing: if twin trickery in the film being watched by Hermann is not felt to be convincing, despite the exact on-screen resemblance between ‘twins’, why does Hermann think Felix would succeed in being his double? Even when there is an image of Hermann that looks like him, as seen in a portrait of Hermann that hangs in his home, the image is still unconvincing. While the resemblance between Hermann and his portrait is noted, Hermann has acquired a moustache by this scene in the film, while the portrait depicts him as clean-shaven, as he was earlier in the film.
Perhaps a deluded Hermann really believes himself to be an actor inhabiting a role (as he claimed to Felix), living out a film plot in his head, seeing himself as the image of somebody else, while everybody around Hermann just sees his descent into madness. One of the latter scenes in Despair draws comparisons with a classic Hollywood film scene, as noted by Tom Milne when he compares the depiction of cinema in Nabakov’s novel to its portrayal in Fassbinder’s film: “Not content with the minor role Nabokov maliciously assigns to the cinema, Fassbinder fattens its part with intimations about illusion and reality (and with a final scene that blows itself up out of all proportion by borrowing from Gloria Swanson’s descent of the staircase in Sunset Boulevard).”5 While Milne may believe that Fassbinder’s use of cinema in this way was overblown, it makes sense that the director would use the cinematic apparatus to foreground cinema, particularly acting, and use it as a prism through which Hermann sees himself. Despair does not focus on a fading film star or changing movie industry, but it does have a crime at its centre, like Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). Perhaps Fassbinder’s film sees Hermann as some kind of parallel to the obsessively devoted fan or the slavishly dedicated actor, a man that becomes too immersed in the fantasies depicted in films, and in the process loses himself in the part he plays, identifying so much with somebody else that he can no longer see the obvious split down the middle.
Despair (German title: Eine Reise ins Licht, 1978 France, West Germany 120 mins)
Prod Co: NF Geria II Film GmbH/Bavaria Studios, Munich Scr: Tom Stoppard (Based on the novel Despair by Vladimir Nabokov) Prod: Lutz Hengst, Peter Märthesheimer Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Phot: Michael Ballhaus Ed: Juliane Lorenz, Franz Walsch Prod Des: Rolf Zehetbauer Mus: Peer Raben
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, Volker Spengler, Klaus Löwitsch
- For an analysis of Despair from these perspectives, which includes an exchange of letters between Bogarde and Fassbinder, along with an overview of the director’s career, see Wallace Watson, “The Bitter Tears of RWF,” Sight & Sound, Vol. 2 No. 3 (July 1992): pp. 24-29. ↩
- Peter Bradshaw, “Despair – review,” The Guardian, 5 Jan 2012. ↩
- Dennis Lim, “A Second Look: ‘Despair’,” Los Angeles Times, 12 Jun 2011. ↩
- Watson, “The Bitter Tears of RWF,” 24. ↩
- Tom Milne, “Feature Films – Reviews: Despair,” Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 45, No. 535 (August 1978): pp. 156-157. ↩