Merchant of Four Seasons
Structures of alientation

by Barbara Leaming

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 39-40
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is certainly the most prolific, and perhaps the most significant filmmaker to emerge from that diverse group now known as “The Young German Cinema.” Fassbinder’s films are the product of the second wave of directors working in West Germany, a group whose cinema is bringing to fruition some of the aspirations expressed by the original signers of the now famous 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto. This manifesto proclaimed the death of the already moribund post-war German film and called for the birth of a new state-subsidized, non-profit-dominated cinema. It eventually animated a striking Western experiment in the possibilities for a cinema largely freed from the ruthless demands of the market. State subsidies were set up according to a system in which a portion of any profits were then appropriated for new productions.

Today, the original law has been severely modified with the addition of a proviso requiring that a filmmaker, to qualify for a subsidy, must present a previous film which has earned a certain percentage of profit. This proviso, of course, has the effect of curbing the more extreme filmic experiments. And, together with other revisions of the terms of the state subsidies, this proviso has largely undermined the most positive aspects of the original plan. However, during the years when the subsidized cinema was operating effectively, the West German cinema was regenerated and the new film makers became firmly enough established that, now, the West German cinema is among the most interesting in Europe.

At the age of 30, Fassbinder is one of a widely diversified range of directors who developed within this context. With a startling number of feature films already to his credit, Fassbinder has continued at the same time to work in the theater. Very often he moves back and forth between the two media with a single work and identical cast. The results of this astonishing productivity have been remarkably and consistently significant.

In a filmic oeuvre as diverse and complex as that of Fassbinder’s, it is difficult to select a single film as representative. One might look closely at the reflexivity of his supremely elegant BEWARE THE HOLY WHORE—a film which explores the semantic limits of the use of camera movement; or one could deconstruct the apparently seamless “objectivity” of his ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL—a film which in fact is perhaps one of Fassbinder’s most highly stylized works to date.

Yet, if one chooses to look closely at a single film of Fassbinder’s, his 1971 MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS seems particularly characteristic of the director’s concerns thus far in a still emerging career. MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS stands as a remarkable articulation of the structures of alienation. Rife with structures of disjuncture, the coherence of their articulation enables Fassbinder’s film to function as a reflection of the alienated subjectivity of the central character, Hans the fruit peddler.

Hans’ story is quite simple: he is excessively mediocre, rather short, fat and quite unattractive. Through the use of flashbacks, we see that his life has been a series of confrontations with pressures imposed on him by various women,. each of whom seems to be either taller, more beautiful, or more powerful than Hans. The women in turn see Hans as an embarrassment of one sort or another. His marriage—to the much taller Irmgaard—is a complex of mutually inflicted injuries. After a particularly savage drunken assault by Hans, Irmgaard takes the couple’s young daughter and flees to her inlaws, thus precipitating the central actions of the film. Hans pursues her there, only to have the heart attack which necessitates his metamorphosis into an employer and, ultimately, his retreat, first into silence, and finally, into death. After his heart attack, unable to continue his heavy work of pushing a fruit cart himself, Hans is forced to hire a man to do the work for him. Prior to his metamorphosis into employer, Hans’ alienation has been largely felt as a purely philosophical or psychological condition; after his transformation into one who purchases the labor of another, Hans’ alienation becomes a felt political and social condition.

Unknown to Hans, his first employee has. had a brief and abortive sexual encounter with Irmgaard. Humiliated and dehumanized, Irmgaard instigates a scheme whereby the man will cheat Hans out of a share of his profits and share them with her. Actually, she is acting in revenge, for she is aware that Hans is covertly observing each of the hawker’s transactions. The man is quickly discovered and fired.

A chance meeting with an old pal from his days in the Foreign Legion, results in Hans’ hiring of Harry, his second helper. Harry works so well that he gradually subsumes Hans’ role at home as well, as Hans sinks deeper and deeper into a silent retreat. As the film ends, Hans has killed himself with whiskey (forbidden after his heart attack)—while his wife and friends, passive and isolated by their alienation, watch him without stirring. Irmagaard then begins the whole cycle anew by proposing to—and being accepted by—Harry.

In its inability to make cause and effect connections, Hans’ consciousness may be read as an illustration of alienation. Like the worker on the assembly line who cannot see beyond the part to the whole, Hans is unable to perceive the connection between the small bit of control he exercises directly and the finished product, which is no longer comprehensible—either psychologically or in actual fact—as the product of his labor. Thus Hans perceives his life as a series of discrete and disconnected events. Unable to perceive any cause and effect relationships, he is thus unable to assert the possibility of control over his own life. Hans, quite simply, is not capable of seeing how he can change the things which seem to “happen” to him. His condition seems “natural” to him—as if it is not subject to alteration. Unable to comprehend history—even his personal history—as something made by people, Hans is doomed by his subjective vision of disjuncture which limits his capacity for efficacious analysis and action.

It is this alienated subjectivity, then, which is reflected—or more significantly, revealed—in the structures of Fassbinder’s film. It is principally a structure marked by a sense of isolations, of connections cut off, of fragments. Stylistically and structurally, Fassbinder refuses wholeness—and the illusion of the natural as well. There is nothing beyond the dislocated fragments which sucessively occupy his screen: Fassbinder does not allow for connections between the successive views of Hans’ world.

The film is marked by an extremely significant and specific. use of the close up. In MERCHANGE OF FOUR SEASONS the close-up shots, in which the part is viewed in isolation from the whole, are done in such a way as to underline the isolation of the fragment. For example, when Hans and Irmgaard are seen in bed together after his return from the hospital, there is no real sense in which the giant close up of her nipple can be said to exist in any meaningful connection to a “whole” and “human” person. Rather, the nipple, which fills the frame, serves explicitly to undercut the surface impression of genuine eroticism which we might have expected from such a scene. Examined under the relentless microscope of the camera eye, Fassbinder has given us a formal equivalent for the reified eroticism all too typical of our experience. He has replicated the experience of the close up we have all heard spoken of in film histories in which the naive film audience, unaccustomed to the “conventions” of the close up, unable to “read” them, is terrified—here “distanced” is the operative terminology—by the dismembered body it sees on the screen. Fassbinder’s effect, not only with his fragmented close ups of the human body but from the episodic fragmented structure of the narrative itself, is also terrifying—but terrifying in terms of the critique of alienation which is implicit in the very structure of the film itself.

The microscopic blowups of details characterizing the close ups are echoed in the overblown gestures of the actors in the film. MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS is characterized by an insistence on posing, on hollowing of familiar gestures which by being exaggerated are emptied of any genuine meaning. Many are gestures of kitsch and pornography—the woman adjusting her garter beneath the upraised skirt of her dress; the fantastic protective gesture of the brother-in-law who sweeps all of the women behind him to shelter them from the brutish menace of Hans—but most striking of all are the repeated postures of the odalisque. In the desperate scene when Hans makes a last visit to “The Love of His Life,” we see her strip and recline tensely posed on the bed, her hip arched so sharply that the gesture rivets our attention. It moves instantly beyond eroticism, baring itself rather as a subject for our analysis. “The Love of His Life“’s odalisque pose is never a naturalistic gesture, as the hip remains frozen in a gesture of provocation long after Hans has closed the door and left the room. It is a gesture which expects no response—a gesture which never calls out for completion in the way the uncompleted gestures in John Ford often do, for example. Fassbinder’s filmic gestures remain deliberate and brutal disruptions, underlining the absence of connections between characters and events-the ambience of alienation—in much the same manner as his dialogue does.

The clichés, which constitute the only language available to the characters who people the world of Fassbinder’s cinema, force us to recognize the impossibility of communication between these characters. They cannot talk to each other, for they speak only in a language which has been systematically emptied of meaning. They speak words which are never their own—once again there is mediation at every level, even that of words. They cannot name their thoughts, for to name them would be perhaps to begin to act. Instead, the dialogue, which we and the characters themselves expect to serve as a means of breaking out of the terrifying isolation from which they suffer, instead only effects a further intensification of the barriers which separate them one from another. They remain cut off, trapped—and brutally exposed at the same time to the merciless eye of the close up shot and to the brutally unyielding flatness of the very color of the film itself.

MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS is shot in brilliant primary colors of an extraordinary flatness, perhaps most similar to the kind of color used by Alfred Hitchcock in MARNIE. Unlike a rich, dense color film which provides a sensuous background which surround the figures of the characters themselves, the flatness of the impenetrable brightness of Fassbinder’s backdrops seems to force the figures out into our vision. It provides no shadow, no measure of escape from our scrutiny and analysis. It is closed as is the extraordinary spatial construction of the film.

Fassbinder’s characters live in confining fortress or traplike spaces. You cannot navigate the geography of Hans’ apartment. It is a series of boxlike rooms without connecting passages between them. It is an apartment, particularly in the montage of interviews when Hans hires an assistant after his illness, from which people depart or enter only by magic—the magic of editing—and never by ordinary means. It is a filmic space which insists on asserting its theatricality by the refusal to utilize the existing off-screen space. The release which the continuous space might have provided, the sense of continuity, is entirely unsuited to Fassbinder’s world view here, and thus it is denied. There is never any place else to go. Even the dream sequences, the flashbacks, are clearly disjunctive from the trap of the everyday reality because of the utilization of blue tinting which makes them “different”—unconnected — and hence unable to function as “alternative” worlds which might relieve the claustrophobic reality Hans exists in.

The other major spaces of the film, in addition to the confines of the apartment, are the courtyards where Hans and his assistant hawk the produce. The courtyards are too mazelike closed spaces, made more oppressive by the circular pans of the camera which pick up the turns and upwards stares of the peddlers. As the camera points up and turns round and round, it seems to try to climb over the walls of the trap—and almost succeeds. Here again then Fassbinder is deliberately creating an overtly theatrical anti-illusionistic space, going even further, in fact, by actually creating a kind of wing structure as Hans seems to go and come from the “wings” to spy on his worker.

The closed courtyards echo Fassbinder’s much favored shots through doorways or through windows, forcing us, repeatedly not simply to share Hans’ mediated subjectivity but. finally to analyze it. By refusing to allow us simply to “identify,” by his structures of alienation, Fassbinder establishes us the audience as critical observers of what traditionally would be expected to be the most fitting subject matter for the style of naturalism.     For here the stylized acting, gestures, space and overall structure of the film remain in basic tension with the superficial subject matter of the film. A closer reading of this tension reveals that in fact the banality is no more than superficial and that the actual subject matter of MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS is a highly complex investigation of the structures of alienation in modern industrial societies. As we have seen, the formal disjunctures we have located in the film cinematically illustrate that social alienation. Cinematic devices assume the task of social critique.