(Eine Riese Ins Licht)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Germany. 1978.

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"Despair comes from the awareness that in everyone's life there comes a point where not only the mind but the body, too, understands that it's over" - Fassbinder

Shot in English on a budget that nearly equaled the cost of his first fifteen films, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Despair has wit and style yet its attempt to recreate the dark, comedic genius of Vladimir Nobokov left me unmoved and uninvolved. Based on Nabokov's novel Despair (apparently intended as a parody of Dostoevsky), and adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard, the film describes the descent into madness of wealthy chocolate entrepreneur Hermann Herman (Dirk Bogarde). Set in Germany on the eve of the Third Reich, scenes of the Nazis assaulting Jewish-owned businesses are sprinkled throughout the film but to no apparent purpose. Herman has left his Russian home to live in Berlin and constantly fantasizes about the beauty of the Russian winters and whispers “Russia, which we have lost forever...” to his wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferreol). He is a thoroughly unsympathetic character: cold, calculating, and cynical and Mr. Bogarde's exaggerated mannerisms do not make him any easier to appreciate. 

Much of the film takes place inside Herman's stately bourgeois home. Shots of the characters through glass partitions keep the viewer at a distance and the elegant interiors look like an abandoned mausoleum. Lydia's and Herman's relationship is unconvincing and Fassbinder's repeated descriptions of Lydia as an unintelligent sex object border on misogyny. "The flowers of your sensuality would wilt with intelligence," Herman tells his wife whom he always addresses with condescension. In addition to Lydia, we gradually meet other vivid supporting characters: Lydia's cousin, Ardalion; and Dr. Orlovious, an insurance salesman whom Herman mistakenly thinks is a psychiatrist and opens up to. 

Herman is convinced that Felix Weber (Klaus Lowitch), a labourer, resembles him as closely as "two drops of blood." though the resemblance is tentative at best (a joke Nabokov wisely saved for his readers until the end of his novella). He has an odd compulsion to observe himself as a stranger and devises a plan to commit the perfect crime, exchanging identities with the worker as a means of escaping his existence. Felix, on the other hand, decides to humour the eccentric Herman with the thought of getting a job. In Despair, Fassbinder constructs a world in the process of falling apart where people march inexorably toward self-destruction and where the journey into light proves to be an illusion. In a world approaching madness, however, Hermann seems to fit perfectly - no more, no less crazy than the insanity occurring around him.

Howard Schumann
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