previous sub-section
4— Formal and Political Radicalism in the Short Films of the 1960s
next chapter

The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp

It is perhaps testimony to the uniqueness of the period of the "student movement" around 1968 that the political significance of Bridegroom was widely appreciated. In this film, the relation to contemporary politics is not nearly as clear as in Machorka-Muff , and the modernist separation of elements reaches a high point. Yet the film received the award of the Mannheim Film Festival in 1968, not because of a jury decision, but because of the popular


demands of the youthful crowd discussing the films after the festival was over.[52]

The revolutionary political impulse of the film remains even more general than the reference to "resistance" in the Bach and Böll films. As in the earlier work, artistic forms are the means chosen to express this liberation, and the connection to Germany, or any other political entity, remains metaphorical. Aside from the language and locations, the only reference to Germany in the film is in the graffiti of the opening shot, behind the titles, with the words, scrawled in English among other barely legible names and dates on a wall of the telegraph department of the Munich Post Office, "Stupid/old Germany/I hate it over here/I hope I can go soon//Patricia/1.3.68."[53]

As in a musical structure, this time more in the sense of heterogeneous variations on a theme rather than a fugue, a motif is established: a female prisoner who desires to escape. The static, fifty-second shot of the graffiti is followed by a tracking shot along the Landsberger Strasse in Munich. The shot is photographed from a vehicle proceeding with varying but almost constant speed, so that the sidewalk and the businesses facing the street are observed from right to left. Anticipating the driving shots in History Lessons , this tracking shot derives its pacing and "action" from the appearance and disappearance of identifiable elements before the neutral, urban-industrial background—the people who work at night on this street, the prostitutes, walking, standing, talking to each other or to men who pull up in their cars. Aside from these women's ephemeral presence, pace and variety are lent to the shot by the dramatic appearances of billboards and industrial signage out of the darkness—signs generally for steel plants and oil companies, accompanied by several gas stations, the only other location of human activity. To the theme of female imprisonment is thus added the motif of economic production and exchange: heavy industry, energy, and women's sexuality, all presented in parallel fashion to the camera as commodities.

At the same time as these motifs are being presented to the viewer without interpretation, the dilemma of cinematic form is also raised. The camera still has not isolated an image or an action, since its tracking from right to left is constant. Almost two minutes at the beginning of the shot are silent, adding to the evocation of the origins of cinema. Here the question of the "birth of the movies" is proposed: When does one cut the film? While posing this question of the birth of the movies, with all the elements present—human labor, industrial infrastructure, market exchange, light, motion, and commodified desire—the shot avoids the issue by fleeing the cinema temporarily to another source of aesthetic structure, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The music begins in the middle of the shot and is itself an excerpt from the Ascension Oratorio, also with a text praying for deliverance: "Thou day, when wilt thou be / In which we greet the savior / In which we kiss the savior / Come, make


thyself appear!"[54] Once the music begins, however, it provides to the film a reference to time that gives logic to the cut at the end of the shot, simultaneous with its conclusion. This method of calling attention to the artificial connection between real time and cinematic narrative time is echoed at the conclusion of Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) as well. The conclusion of the explicitly timed "seven minutes" of soccer action on the sound track determines the end of the film's narrative with the explosion of Maria's house.

The Bach music supplies a stark contrast to the mundane scene before us. The spirituality of the religious text and the choral singing shockingly elevate the commodity exchange implied by the visual image. The most striking effect, however, is the transformation performed on the visual image by the presence of sound, especially this beautiful and lofty music. First, a dimension of meaning is added, another evocation of the longing for escape; and second, a sense of temporal structure or rhythm is added to the visual track, so that an expectation arises that its eventual cutting will have a meaning. Indeed, the music supplies both to this shot and to the end of the film one very practical requirement: an expectation in the audience that there is a reason to cut the film at the place where it cuts because the musical passage has come to its ending. This, of course, is perceived as the reverse of the actual procedure, since the end of the music is matched to the chosen final image or the end of the film roll. Then the music is laid over the shot from the end to the beginning. The crucial decision is thus not the ending of the visual track, which is the sensation aroused in the viewer, but the beginning of the sound track (a technique similar to that of Introduction to Schoenberg's "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene" ).

The use of the sound track to give structure to the film also relates to Straub/Huillet's use of texts for the same purpose. Since the filmmakers separate to a great extent the narrative structure from the cinematic form of their films, the narrative of the texts—or the simple duration of their delivery—provides one method of determining beginnings and endings of shots. The connection to early cinema is made by calling attention to the difference between the two logics, that of cinema and that of narrative. Bridegroom thus functions as a precursor to Straub/Huillet films that juxtapose text and landscape, such as History Lessons, Fortini/Cani , and Too Early, Too Late . It also recalls the centrality of editing to the filmmaking of Straub/Huillet, and Huillet's role is perhaps the greater here. As Handke put it, "Editing is the essence of film." And after giving directing students hands-on experience with editing Empedocles , Straub/Huillet wondered why the students still wanted to study directing at all.[55]

The motif of Bach's Ascension Oratorio returns at the end of the film as the poetry spoken by Lilith concludes with the words "eternal father of lights." Rather than the conclusion of the choral passage from the film's first shot, we


now hear its beginning, signaling an element of rebellion against the constraints of the world as we see it before us. Again, the end of the musical passage dictates the end of the visual track, and the theme of deliverance is repeated. Lilith, another prostitute, has liberated herself from her pimp at the end of the film and, in a gesture repeated in other Straub/Huillet films, turns toward the light of a window.

After the initial driving shot ends, following the cues of the music, another "movement" begins which does not initially appear to take up any of these themes. Rather than the shock of beginning and remaining in the visual space before a moving camera, the next shot returns the camera to the interior, a static camera, and the world of the theater. If the initial shot corresponded to the early cinematic tradition of Lumière, with its documentary emphasis, the second might logically connect with the other early film tradition, Méliès's studio-bound work (minus the magic). Historically, however, the world we see before us is an anachronistic one: The shot consists of the entire performance of the play Pains of Youth (1926) by Ferdinand Bruckner, as adapted and directed by Straub at Munich's Action-Theater in July 1967.[56] Straub had initially wanted to direct Brecht's The Measures Taken , but the Brecht family would not grant the rights. Instead, the group offered Straub the Bruckner piece, which he initially resisted until he had reduced it to a mere eleven minutes. It was performed on the same program as Fassbinder's first play with the Action-Theater, Katzelmacher . The antinaturalism of the performance is obvious, which at least in an abstract sense could connect to the cinema of Méliès. But even more pertinent is the source of the play—the expressionist theater contemporary with the "Golden Age" of German cinema in the 1920s. This—again without the magic—is the cinema of Dr. Caligari .

It would seem that the reduction of a full-length, three-act play to eleven minutes would destroy the original aesthetic impact, but, given the expressionism of the original work, this is not entirely the case. In the filmed performance, the actors walk through their roles, taking positions in relation to each other as they recite machine gun-like the lines that reveal the action taking place. Straub has indicated that it may be impossible to understand all of the content of what is taking place but that this is not a disadvantage, since what one does perceive is a series of constellations. This is not at all inconsistent with expressionism or the Chamber Theater that developed parallel to it in 1920s theater and film: The characters are significant not as naturalistic representations of individuals but as types in dramatic situations or hierarchies. Even in Straub's reduced version of Bruckner, these constellations are clear: the aristocrat, the devil-may-care medical student, the arrogant pimp, the innocent maid from the country. The cynicism of the postwar 1920s and the 1960s in regard to bourgeois culture and power structures is evident in both versions. The threat of the pimp to force any woman he chooses into prostitution


(or marriage), the ridicule of German classical culture (Goethe) as a mere trapping for empty vanity, and the close connection between sex and death (murder or suicide) are striking similarities between both the early 1920s and the late 1960s: "You long for it as for the knife," as the character Freder (played by Fassbinder) says. Only a cryptic fragment of a Mao quotation provides a link to politics of the 1960s in this shot. Most of the slogan is obstructed by backdrop, but as with the drastically cut play, the sense is clear: "Only when the arch-reactionaries are — will it be possible to —." Similarly, Straub called the film "the last judgment of Mao and of the Third World on our world."[57]

Again by way of contrast, this shot develops the theme of temporality initiated by the traveling shot, but in an entirely different direction. In the shot on the street, a sense of rhythm only arises from the random comings and goings of the women and cars, in interaction with the constant motion of the camera itself. Once the music begins, a rhythm is added to the shot from outside that gives it an aesthetic structure without altering its content. In the stage shot, the rhythm arises only from the delivery of the lines and the motion of the actors. At first viewing, most people have assumed that the performance of the film is entirely expressionless, but this is far from the case. Since the delivery of the lines lacks expression, this actually serves to exaggerate two aspects: meaning and time.

Because so few cues are given as to the identity of these people and their projects, we are all the more intent on figuring them out and are all the more shocked by their lack of affect in the face of conflict, violence, and death. Rather than attend to their histrionic demonstration of these experiences, we are able to ignore the necessary walking about in order to strike the poses that reveal the constellations where they take place. Since the attention to the acting is reduced and the concentration on the language is increased, the temporal element is also exaggerated, this time by the speed of the actors' line delivery, the placement and length of their pauses, and the pauses introduced by physical movement from one constellation to another. Far from being monotonous, this rhythmic arrangement of sound and silence is quite musical and dramatic.

Their collaboration in the political theater of this period was also the source of Straub/Huillet's influence on Fassbinder. Most critics limit their influence to the latter's early films, such as Katzelmacher (1969), which in the stage version was performed together with Pains of Youth . In the Fassbinder film, the actors are also arranged in almost two-dimensional constellations against rather static backgrounds, which are then broken by abrupt entrances and exits from the sides. Contrasted with these scenes are tracking shots of alternating pairs of characters who walk toward the camera as it moves backward through a narrow apartment courtyard.


Fassbinder had also dedicated his film Love Is Colder than Death (1969) to Claude Chabrol, Jean-Marie Straub, and Eric Rohmer,[58] and the arrangement of characters to show "attitudes," as was done in the Bruckner play, persists throughout Fassbinder's work. Wilfried Wiegand connects Effi Briest (1972-1974), for instance, back to the "Dreyer-Bresson-Straub tradition."[59] Also, Fassbinder's avoidance of exterior or landscape shots, except to show how inaccessible they are, seems to connect to Stockhausen's description of the camera as "sheet lightning" in Machorka-Muff .

That Fassbinder "learned to direct" from Straub and the evidence for this in Fassbinder's early work confirms the "Brechtian" aspect of cinema they share in regard to work with the actors. Fassbinder's irritation with Huillet as the more "rigid" of the two indicates that she and Straub rehearsed the Action-Theater actors together. In a 1974 interview, Fassbinder confirms this aspect of Straub/Huillet's influence.

Q: Has Straub influenced you?

RWF: Straub has been more like an important figure for me.

Q: But weren't you inspired by him to use a slow narrative rhythm, and a principle of real time in which occurrences on the screen last exactly as long as they do in reality?

RWF: What was more significant for me was that Straub directed a play, Krankheit der Jugend (Ferdinand Bruckner) with the Action-Theater, and even though his version was only ten minutes long, we rehearsed it for all of four months, over and over again, for only two hours a day, I admit, it was still really crazy. This experience I had with Straub, who approached his work and the other people with such an air of comic solemnity, fascinated me. He would let us play a scene and then would say to us, "How did they feel at this point?" This was really quite right in this case, because we ourselves had to develop an attitude about what we were doing, so that when we were acting, we developed the technique of looking at ourselves, and the result was that there was a distance between the role and the actor, instead of total identity. The films he's made that I think are very beautiful are the early ones, Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled , up to and including Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach , though Othon and other films since then have proved to me that what is most important to him is not what interests me in his work.[60]

The third portion of Bridegroom leaves the theater and enters the realms of ritual, love story, and the gangster genre. This section is composed of nine shots, and for the first time, camera motion is coordinated with the movement of a character and with cinematic suspense in the form of a car chase. As with the static shot of the power constellations in the Bruckner play, here we also have only a suggestion of the characters (even less): The woman bids her lover


good-bye, urging him to be careful. The man's motion to the elevator produces the powerful expectation that it will follow him when he reaches the entrance of the building, but instead the next camera placement is from behind the man lurking in wait in a car outside. So the doubling of point of view—our initial identification with the character named James and the second identification with a malevolent pursuer's view of him—creates in a single edit the sense of a gangster film or film noir. The absurdity of the reduction is an added aspect of distance from the drama: A VW Beetle pursues James's BMW. He leaves the car at the end of a reservoir and runs up an embankment (the only energetic movement in the entire film). His pursuer enters the shot from the right, scrambling up an embankment after him, but seems to be daunted enough by James's kicks to slide back down out of the frame as James continues to struggle upward.

With this sequence, crystallizing the drama of a car chase into three shots, we have left the world of Méliès's early cinema to reach perhaps Buster Keaton, for whom the position in the frame and motion into and out of it have existential power. The narrative space of these three shots is abstract but is defined totally by the sense of danger and a chase: James leaves home, descends, enters the street and the public realm (the car), is pursued out of the city into nature (with the sound of falling water). The sequence begins and ends with static shots, but in the intervening shots the camera pans left, right, and left. To escape, he ascends again into an unknown space, but in any case out of frame and in a direction where no camera movement has followed.

The next shot confirms that he has escaped, since it depicts the marriage ceremony between James and Lilith, the woman he had left before being chased. Their vows, conducted in an austerely modern chapel and photographed in a single shot, constitute a different kind of ritualized performance than the theatrical shot. Here there is no dramatic variation of rhythm but only the repetition of the expected ritual, also in the real time it takes to recite them. The only drama engendered by the shot is that of its composition in relation to the camera and a real or implied audience. Here it is quite dissimilar from the Bruckner play, which had been photographed from an angle only slightly to the left of center, and instead related to the performance spaces of the Bach film. The angle of the shot reveals the couple to be married on the right, spaced carefully so that the priest and his attendant are visible on the left. The open space of the composition, however, is toward the front of the church (the left) rather than toward the back where the congregation would be. There is no reason to believe that there would be a crowd, but the ritual does refer to witnesses of the wedding who also commit themselves to support the married couple in the future.

This is reminiscent of the exclusion, but implied presence, of an audience in the Bach film. The composition shifts the weight away from an actual congregation of witnesses, but the text invokes one. Thus the audience is


presented with the possibility of taking the place of the witnesses. But the angle of the shot makes it a conscious tension rather than a "natural" identification with the space of the audience as in the theater segment.

The shot of the wedding is followed by a more dramatic mise-en-scène as we see the car of the wedding couple emerge from the distance and arrive, followed by the panning camera, at a new suburban house. As they disembark, James recites poetry to Lilith, lines from St. John of the Cross, beginning, "The time at last came/For the old order to be revoked, /To rescue the young Bride / Serving under the hard yoke."[61]

Peter Jansen has observed that the film follows an alternating structure of exterior/interior/exterior (although this is not strictly true, since the third section includes both interior and exterior shots).[62] His observation of the use of empty space is of interest, however, although it also assumes a schematic consistency that goes beyond what Straub/Huillet actually construct. Jansen asserts that a space is always shown (regarding interiors) before the people enter them and in the long shots (such as, in Not Reconciled , Schrella crossing the housing blocks that are his childhood home or Johanna's long walk to get the gardener's gun): "The imagination of the viewer has each time already penetrated the scene, is present in it and at home, before the figures of the film join in."[63]

The effect of this seems to be somewhat different from what Jansen implies, however, especially in the shots of approaching cars in Bridegroom . There is the element of almost satirical suspense, since each long shot of an approaching auto could be seen as part of the car chase. It is not entirely true, however, that the spectator is at home in these shots. The suspense created by the car's long approach is perhaps exaggerated by the fact that the spectator's quizzical imagination is already "at home" in the shot, but the approach of the car also disrupts that familiarity. In the first car chase, the loudness of the sound and the fragmentation of the cars as they break the bounds of the frame once they reach close-up are disturbing. The comfortable space set up in the long shot is spilled over by the violent vehicles, and the viewer becomes aware of space outside the frame that had been inviolable for the seconds previous.

The arrival of the car in the final sequence of Bridegroom is another matter. This time the frame is not broken, but instead the camera pans to the left to follow the car and to reveal a house—another narrative space—that had not been visible before. This again builds suspense and disrupts the "at home" feeling that Jansen describes. The result is a dramatic interaction between space, mise-en-scène, and camera movement—which all work on audience perception separately to create an effect.

The shock of the cut reveals Fassbinder, the pimp from the Bruckner segment, already inside and holding a gun. This also goes against the pattern Jansen describes, since the camera retroactively takes on the dual function of narrating and lying in wait, as it had done in shot 2 of the film noir sequence.


The final shot of  The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, 
and the Pimp
 (Lilith Ungerer). Courtesy New Yorker Films.

But here, the narrative structure is carried by forces independent of the threat of the pimp to resubjugate Lilith.

The camera moves quite wildly in this scene, starting with a nearly full shot of Fassbinder threatening, "One doesn't flee our family so simply, Lilith," echoing Inn's claim at the end of Machorka-Muff that no one has successfully opposed her family either. After the pimp has spoken, the camera pans and tilts right to show Lilith and James, then pans straight across to the left, following Lilith in an uninterrupted movement to the window. There she delivers her final speech from St. John of the Cross about the passion of her "heart of clay" that burns with flames that quench thirst and would rise "up to the high peaks / of that eternal Father of Lights." The shock of this second pan, however, is that its smooth, level motion records the "melodramatic" act of Lilith's taking up Fassbinder's gun and shooting him as she walks past him toward the window. Only Lilith and the gun are framed in the briskly moving shot; Fassbinder is not visible even though the pan crosses above the space where he was initially seen. Neither the motion of the camera nor the pattern of the poetic exchange between Lilith and James has been interrupted.

The effect of this camera movement, as one can see in related shots in Not Reconciled and Class Relations , is for the character's liberation to be inscribed across a camera movement that is not dependent on "narration" but that has


a telos of its own. After the camera has come to rest and Lilith recites her last verses, it then slowly tracks in to place her more literally on the edge of the window frame. Outside, the leaves blowing in the wind become even more vivid as the Bach music is repeated to the close. Much like the pans to windows at the end of Not Reconciled and Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach , the evocation of the cinema's essence in light and framing, independent of the character's lot, intimates an avenue of liberation.


previous sub-section
4— Formal and Political Radicalism in the Short Films of the 1960s
next chapter