The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder / West Germany, 1971):
(Händler der vier Jahreszeiten)

The prologue sets the blank-pugnacious timbre, introducing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Job (Hans Hirschmüller) as a sad legionnaire back from abroad only to be bathed in his mother’s scorn: "The good die young, and people like you return." Loudly hawking peaches in a labyrinth of gray tenement courtyards, he suggests a sawed-off minotaur; someone calls from a window, and the action briefly freezes into a high-angled tableau (peddler in his rolled-up sleeves, wife adjusting her garter belt, cart full of produce diagonally between them) that would have excited Edward Hopper's jealousy. Later, when the protagonist dashes off to the tavern to escape his nagging wife (Irm Hermann) and then lumbers home to slap her in front of their daughter, the frenzy is recorded in a simultaneously brutal and distanced long take capped by a slow zoom on the lumpy, sloshed figure. A society of quotidian prisons, of worth measured in money and characters taking turns oppressing and being oppressed, everything faced head-on with an uncanny mise en scène that squeezes hyperrealism out of Hollywood melodrama. Douglas Sirk is there when the distraught Hermann is framed against the mannequins on a display window as she’s mistaken for a hooker, yet Fassbinder pushes further: Discovered in flagrante delicto with another bloke, the nude, gangling hausfrau can only hide behind the bedroom curtains to weep. (Elsewhere, Hirschmüller’s leisurely pirouette of a heart attack adduces a parodic note from Ray’s Bigger Than Life.) The family of vipers at dinner, the dream lover (Ingrid Craven) who rejects his bouquet of roses, the old comrade (Klaus Löwitsch) who usurps his place with almost helpless inevitability -- the grinding process is followed through all the way to the merchant’s saloon seppuku, facing the camera and ritualistically gulping down shot after shot of deadly liquor. An unforgettable cantata, raspy and plangent, every composition attuned to circles of torment and frustration. It’s merciless, but, as Hirschmüller’s miserable-comforter sister (Hanna Schygulla) puts it, Fassbinder is "not aggressive, just frank." Cinematography by Dietrich Lohmann. With Gusti Kreissl, Andrea Schober, Karl Scheydt, and Kurt Raab.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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