CHINESE ROULETTE (Chinesisches Roulette)

(director/writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editor: Ila von Hasperg; music: Peer Raben; cast: Margit Carstensen (Ariane Christ), Andrea Schober (Angela Christ), Anna Karina (Irene Cartis), Alexander Allerson (Gerhard Christ), Ulli Lommel (Kolbe), Macha Meril (Traunitz), Volker Spengler (Gabriel Kast), Brigitte Mira (Mrs. Kast); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; New Yorker Films; 1976-West Germany-in German with English subtitles)

“A very gloomy melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rainer Werner Fassbinder directs and writes a bleak psychological drama which was made after Fassbinder let go of his regular actor troupe. The film plays as a bourgeois satire, where it is said “eavesdroppers often hear the wrong truth.”

Ariane and Gerhard Christ are a wealthy Munich couple whose polio-stricken embittered adolescent daughter Angela, who still plays with dolls, plans an embarrassing confrontation at the family’s country house between her father and mother. Both lied about their travel intentions for the weekend–he was going to Oslo on business, while her destination was Milan. Instead Gerhard arrives with his French hairdresser mistress Irene Cartis and Ariane is accompanied by her gentleman lover Kolbe. Angela soon arrives accompanied by her trusted mute governess Traunitz. Also present are the housekeeper Mrs. Kast and her twentysomething pretentious writer son Gabriel.

The atmosphere is tense and all the neurotic characters are filled with different degrees of hatred, jealousy, disappointment and mutual dislike. After dinner, the lovers chose to spend the night together. The next day Angela proposes they play a truth-telling game, tinged with cruelty, called Chinese Roulette, where two teams have been chosen by Angela and one team tries to guess which of them the other team is thinking of by the questions asked. The deadliest question posed is “What would this person be in the Third Reich?” Caught off guard by the hostility of Angela’s response of saying she would be a commandant of a concentration camp, the mother shoots Traunitz–which turns out to be only a superficial flesh wound. The film ends in mystery as a second shot is heard in the darkened house, but the identity of the shooter and the victim is left to the viewer’s imagination.

This is a very gloomy melodrama despite the bright colors in the technicolor photography. It constantly shifts points of view in its intent to establish ’emotional honesty,’ as all the main characters get a chance to express what is eating away at them. For instance, the crippled girl believes she’s used by her parents to blame for their messed up life. The overall theme centers on deception, where no one has the truth on their side. In Fassbinder, there’s no safe ‘position of knowledge’ whether in ‘personal experience’ or ‘objectivity.’ Chinese Roulette, in its odd sadistic humor, points this out in the guise of a game, where the stings of others is just as painfully felt as it is in real life.