Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, and Hanna Schygulla in Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (1969)

LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH (Liebe ist kälter als der Tod)

(director/writer: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; cinematographer: Dietrich Lohmann; editor: Rainer Werner Fassbinder; music: Holger Münzer/Peer Raben; cast: Ulli Lommel (Bruno), Hanna Schygulla (Johanna), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Franz), Howard Gaines (Raoul), Hans Hirschmüller (Peter), Anastassios Karalas (Turk), Monika Stadler (Waitress); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Peer Raben/Thomas Schamoni; Wellspring; 1969-West Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“Incredibly assured debut film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Incredibly assured debut film that was shot in b/w on a shoestring budget. Writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder tells a simple crime story that follows the conventions of the Hollywood gangster film. Fassbinder manages to critique the crime genre, experiment in his own signature style that was not confining or a copycat from other influential directors such as Godard and weigh in about topics such as love, death, betrayal, friendship and alienation that will follow him through his forty-one films that came to an end in 1982 upon his suicide at the age of thirty-six.

The plot has surly leather-jacketed career criminal Franz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) recruited by a ruthless crime syndicate to join their organization and benefit from their protection, but he refuses despite receiving numerous beatings by saying he only works alone. While there Franz befriends the felt hat and suit wearing Bruno (Ulli Lommel), also a low-level hood recruited by the syndicate, who might have joined the syndicate (it’s never made clear) and isn’t released from their charge until much after Franz. In a casual friendly way, Franz gave Bruno his Munich address and told him to look him up when he gets out. To his surprise the provincial Bruno finds him through his floozy prostitute girlfriend Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), as small-time pimp Franz was on the move to a different location from the address he first gave Bruno. The three hookup and go on a shoplifting spree in a department store. After they purchase a machine gun and some revolvers from an illegal gundealer, they senselessly kill him. They then kill Franz’s rival, a Turk, because he mistakenly was after Franz for killing his brother and Bruno suggested instead of hiding from him let’s knock him off first. They also senselessly kill the waitress in the coffee shop, rather than chance having her identify them. The trio then plan a bank robbery, but Johanna is not comfortable with this arrangement–wanting Franz all to herself–and tips off the police so they nab Bruno while she escapes with Franz. By the film’s end six people are needlessly gunned down, which resembles a typical tabloid crime story.

The intention is to show that the criminals do violent things because that’s all they know and that’s what’s expected of them, that they are therefore left with no other options. There’s a rage that has been building-up inside Fassbinder over the everyday oppressions people experience which he wants the viewer to feel, even as he shoots the film in an icy matter-of-fact tone without emotion and with a static camera. The scene that might exploit that best is the one where the criminal trio are just walking alone in silence along the highway and nothing seems to be happening for at least three minutes but inside their heads we can see the wheels turning as they are stuck with what they have become and can’t change (Can you imagine Hollywood green lighting such an actionless scene!). It’s a notable and courageous scene, especially for a young director in his first film. It gives us his unique comparison with his hoods and all those hero gangsters from the American B-films (Cagney, Bogie and others) who are pictured as loners because of genre convention. Whereas Franz is a loner because he’s so primitive and not because he’s heroic. Bruno can’t be a loner because he needs someone else as backup; Johanna can survive alone but she aspires to be bourgeois and needs others to get there; it’s only Franz who is grounded so completely in anti-social criminal behavior and can relate to the title because he’s the only one in the film that has a clue about his innermost feelings. To understand this is to recognize that the politics of Fassbinder was from the beginning to the end of his brilliant and prolific career based on the notion of knowing and acting on one’s imagination.