Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?
Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, West Germany, 1970
by Nick Pinkerton
When I try to find the words to praise Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, the first thing I think of isn’t quite a compliment: it’s a scab I can’t stop picking. It is, you see, one of the most thoroughly miserable movies that I know of. Most films that attempt to literalize torture—from Guinea Pig through The Passion of the Christ through The Road to Guantanamo—only serve to illustrate the observation of Le petit soldat: “Torture is so monotonous and sad”—particularly the first part of that equation. Their exhaustive, drubbing adherence to details of bodily violation seems tedious in comparison to something like a Herr R., a L’Eclisse, or a Wavelength, movies that function as insidiously tightened spiritual vices built from quotidian materials. What’s truly terrible about the physical violence in Fengler and Fassbinder’s film, which erupts only in the final minutes, is not its graphic detail, far from it; it’s that that act of violence comes as nothing if not a relief from the eighty-odd minutes of psychic violence that preceded it.
The film is 22 scenes in the life of Herr R. (the R. stands for Raab—Kurt Raab, this film’s star, and one of Fassbinder’s most constant collaborators from the on-stage days of the Antitheater group through 1977’s Bolweister). He’s a draftsman for an architectural office, provider and patriarch for a family comprised of one willowy Teutonic wife (Lilith Ungerer) and a young son (Fengler’s own child, Amadeus). The title is sarcastic; boxed-in Herr R., who even makes his living by drawing walls (though he prefers doing the windows), has no opportunity to run amok—his chartered life is divided into dull blocks of obligation: coffee breaks, company get-togethers, weekend afternoons with the parents, after-school conferences with teachers, doctor appointments. Only the last meet seems like it might do our protagonist some good: R. looks flaccid and unhealthy; Raab’s funeral-wax complexion, put to such good use as the Vampire of Dusseldorf in Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves, is here nearly translucent—but the trip to the MD’s as fruitless as the rest. A cutback in smoking is prescribed to cure some much deeper unrest.
In the presentation of Herr R.’s routine, the term “daily grind” has rarely seemed more applicable. The primary instrument of this grinding-down is a wall-to-wall carpeting of clatter—the clack of the secretary’s typewriter at his office, the static noise of inane prattle from co-workers, by parents, by his spouse. Excluding only a mid-day get-together between Frau R. and her oh-so-politely sniping neighbors (including a wonderfully tousled, ever-hard-faced Ingrid Caven), Raab is in every scene, absorbing every worthless word. He himself isn’t overly inclined to speak, and his silence sets him aside, waiting out conversations with an expression of barely covered-up dyspepsia. When he does open up, it’s at the wrong time, in the wrong way—the only occasion he really holds court, an endless, rambled-out toast to fraternity at a company dinner, is a disaster (“At home you can’t find your tongue...and here you don’t stop talking bullshit!”).
Herr Raab, at the film’s conclusion, finds his peace and quiet. One evening, matter-of-factly, he picks up a candlestick and caves in the skulls of his wife and one of her friends as they gab on the sofa. He’s still never quite “gone amok,” though—his passionless killing blows are the gestures of a completely exhausted man, committed with no more vehemence than he’ll show when, immediately afterwards, he snaps off the TV. He also takes a moment to enter his sleeping son’s bedroom and snuff out his progeny, but this seems more a mercy killing than a bid for silence: R. sees too much of himself in the introverted, “different” kid with the speech impediment; he only wants to preempt him from entering an ill-fitting world.
A thoroughly miserable movie, then. And yet, as I write these words, I am sitting under a poster for this film, purchased at no small cost to me. After first being struck by a still of Herr R. ’s final frame in a cinema studies textbook, an image suggesting stark, unremitting bleakness, I have seen Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? probably ten times. If I am gifted with a long life, I may watch it 40 more. I will say just this: If greatness in filmmaking were determined by the sustained clarity of a singular vision alone, this might be one of the greatest movies ever made. The film’s design is clean and devilishly simple; if illustrated in one of Herr R.’s blueprints, it would be as a long line of slowly sloping ascent, like the painful creaking uphill of a rollercoaster. And then a drop straight down. And then nothing. I might include a little notched lull in that slow ratcheting tension, representing the moment when Herr R. and an old classmate (played by Fassbinder’s frequent composer, Peer Raben) sing a sentimental hymn, the appropriately plaintive “Where Shall I Turn?”
The movie’s disgust could be accounted for by the relationship of its authors to its subjects: a counterculture collective, the Antitheater group—largely gay, including Fassbinder and leading man Raab—openly gawping in horror at the not-atypical, stifling existence of a white-collar breeder. In only the film’s third scene they provide themselves an on-screen emissary, Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), an old friend out for a drink with Herr R. and his Frau. This frizzy-haired boho cutie, miraculously free of obligations, expresses contempt for her settled-down contemporaries, “those matrons showing photos of their kids… just to prove they have something.” The conversation continues:
Frau R: What do you do?
Hanna: Nothing really.
Frau R: Not bad. What else?
Hanna: Whatever I feel like.
Frau R: That’s even better.
Hanna: I don’t really know what I do.
Herr R.: If you can afford to.
Hanna: Sure! Otherwise…
The eventual punchline, of course, is the revelation that it’s Herr R. who cannot afford his lifestyle, and the answer to that hanging “Otherwise…” is what finally becomes of the Raab family. But before we discount this as another aloof hipster anthropological study into the habits of the domestic bourgeoisie, it’s worth wondering why the actors are using their own names here—I think it’s a clue to something slightly more complex going on. Mightn’t Herr R. be a postulated Kurt Raab (or a Fassbinder) who never discovered sex, art, the theater, the cinema? Mightn’t the film’s Hanna be, in fact, Hanna Schygulla, a kewpie dilettante catching a drink before Antitheater productions? There is a suggestion that Mr. Raab has something of the poetic smothered inside him, an artistic instinct with no mode of expression, and perhaps it’s this that sets him ticking. Art certainly isn’t integrated into the milieu around him: the highest level of cultural dialogue comes when his mother yammers to his wife about a production of Othello (“Lovely”) and the sex-ed books of Oswalt Kolle. But you can catch a glimmer of yearning for something finer in Raab as he comes alive through music: in the transports of that hymn, or when inarticulately trying to describe a pop tune (“It’s a very sad song, sung with lots of feeling”) to two girls in a record shop who don’t even attempt to disguise their amusement with this ridiculous customer. The movie is nearly on-the-nose as to some vision of repressed creativity in one chiding from Raab’s boss: “With all respect for your artistic nature… could you keep your phone calls short at this time of day?” So is this the portrait of an artist who never learned to express anything?
Anyone expecting this new DVD transfer to reveal a film of more vivid visual textures than those of the old New Yorker VHS will be largely disappointed. That alluring back-cover pull-quote from Fassbinder—“The most disgusting film I ever made”—is corroborated by the movie’s dull brown, black, and white Winter-in-Munich palette. I should say that the drear grubbiness of Fantoma’s presentation almost certainly equates to the drear grubbiness of the original materials that they worked from (the film was shot on crummy 16mm stock and blown up to 35mm); one needs look no further than the company’s fine disc edition of Fassbinder’s In A Year of 13 Moons for proof of their assiduity—it makes available an entirely different movie from the one experienced on the previous New Yorker cassette, one which may be the most beautiful Fassbinder ever made.
Comprised of long, unsteady handheld takes and naturalistic, improvisational performance, Herr R. completely eschews those telltale imprints which, throughout the evolution of his oeuvre, remained staples of Fassbinder’s style: the highly formalized camera gestures, the taciturn, hypnotized line readings, the charted-out, chalk-marked staging (the subject matter—9-to-5 drudgery abruptly combusting into violence—is however the starting point of Fassbinder’s 1975 Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven). And considering the film’s absolute divergence from the work of any other period of Fassbinder’s filmmaking, it’s queer how little curiosity has been expressed—in both previous critical assessments and now in Fantoma’s disc release—towards how much of this idiosyncrasy might be accounted for by the fact that this it’s one of only two films in Fassbinder’s filmography in which the directorial credit is shared (the other is The Niklashausen Journey), divided in both cases with Michael Fengler, also credited as co-writer, and whose production company, Filmverlag der Autoren, financed Herr R.
The DVD’s sole special feature, a lackluster interview with the film’s cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, doesn’t seem to have been commissioned to specifically address the production of Herr R. , and thus offers no insight into the particularities of this production. Equally unhelpful is the mediocre liner note essay by “Fassbinder scholar” Jim Clark, whose statement that Fassbinder “gave” co-authorship to Fengler would seem to imply that it wasn’t entirely deserved—although I distinctly remember Schygulla at a Film Forum Q&A as much as saying that the film had been Fengler’s creation. And yet it’s Fassbinder’s name alone that’s in bright red on the DVD spine—one of the cruelest results of auteur hero-worship is to bunch up the privilege of artistry into a manageable little canon. The question of Fengler’s participation is an interesting one for this reason: if this were the only film he’d ever made (it wasn’t), he would deserve mention alongside Charles Laughton and Barbara Loden as a one-shot master.