Monday, January 31, 2011

Tell Them Ricky Rezzori is Here: Fassbinder's The American Soldier (1970)

Assassin for hire Ricky Rezzori has been surrounded by death for as long as he can remember, even before he was in the business of collecting cash for killing. Returning home to Munich after a stint in America and Vietnam, Ricky can’t escape the shadow of his murderous past for long as a corrupt police unit enlists him to kill 3 specific targets. Depressed and sexually frustrated, Ricky attempts to find solace in porn and prostitutes but he can’t escape the obvious fate that awaits him.

The American Soldier is an effective if fairly little discussed early offering from legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Released in 1970, along with a whopping four other major productions for film and TV including Gods of the Plague and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, The American Soldier isn’t one of Fassbinder’s finest films but it’s much better than the footnote status many fans have given it.

Shot in black and white by prolific German cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, who would end his 30 year career behind the camera on such Hollywood offerings as The Peacemaker and Deep Impact before his untimely death in 1997, The American Soldier is a startling looking work clearly inspired by Fassbinder’s love for American Gangster films, Noir and The French New-Wave. It also shows Fassbinder’s obsession with cinematic mavericks like Fuller and Godard and lovers of both will delight in spotting references to such works as Pick-up on South Street and Breathless. Fassbinder would recall a year after the film's release that, "it was larded with quotes from Hollywood films as well as French Gangster films and above all from the films of Raoul Walsh and John Huston." Of course, as with all of Fassbinder’s remarkable films, The American Soldier feels at once similar to the works that inspired it and yet totally unique. Fassbinder clearly loved his influences but, even at this early stage of his career, he already had a totally distinctive voice that was pitched quite unlike any other in cinema.

From its long and relatively static opening focusing on a gamblers playing with a deck of pornographic cards, to its haunting slow-motion closing that stands as one of the strangest moments in all of Fassbinder’s filmography, The American Soldier is never less than compelling even though its hindered by an extremely quick shooting schedule (with typical brevity, Fassbinder shot it in under two weeks) and small budget (which admittedly was the largest Fassbinder had had up to that point). Fassbinder’s astonishing creativity wins out in the end though and ultimately The American Soldier’s technical faults are more endearing than distracting.

While I was watching The American Soldier I noted the connections to the many classic gangster films Fassbinder clearly adored, but my mind kept connecting it to Bob Chinn's Johnny Wadd series that premiered a year later and stretched throughout the seventies. Like Chinn’s work, Fassbinder’s film has the same stagy (yet inventive) feel and the technical limitations (highlighted throughout by the shadows of camera rigs, lighting equipment and even crew members) remind us that this is essentially a very low budget film made by a group of artists with not quite enough time on their hands or funds at their disposal. Professor Thomas Elsaessser would note as well that the actors in Fassbinder's films of this period had, "the exhaggerated gesture of self-conscious make-believe, not unlike the performances in a pornographic movie."
While many will scoff at the connection between someone like Fassbinder and Chinn they had both soaked up the American Gangster film and Noir, and they were attempting to pay homage to those classic genres with their works. The biggest difference though is that the Wadd films were all about sexual release (with John Holmes' title-character ultimately capitalizing on the hinted at sexual-appetites of the characters that Bogart, Cagney and Robinson were known for) while The American Soldier is all about frustration and its title character's inability to perform, outside of killing.
It is that wall of frustration that might prove the most difficult aspect of The American Soldier for many modern audience members to accept. Ricky seems positively obsessed by the prospect of bedding any lady who might be at his disposal, keeping very much with the idealized Hired-Killer, but when we finally find him in bed with someone all he can do is lay there in almost total stillness as if he is waiting to be interrupted, which he finally is. Ricky finally only achieves a truly passionate embrace in death, via the film’s mesmerizing closing shot that has to be seen to be believed.

Fassbinder would call The American Soldier, "a synthesis between Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague", and it remains a key work among his early films. Many Fassbinder regulars pop up in The American Soldier, including Fassbinder himself and future filmmakers Margarethe von Trotta and Ulli Lommell. As the title character, Karl Scheydt is quite compelling, as is Elga Sorbas as the doomed call-girl by force Rosa. The film ultimately belongs though to the haunting score of Peer Raben, the photography of Lohmann and to Fassbinder’s altogether original visual eye.

The American Soldier is available from Wellspring on DVD with a sharp looking print. Sadly no extras, outside of some Fassbinder related liner notes by Elsaessser, are included.

While not one of Fassbinder’s major films, The American Soldier is essential viewing for fans of the legendary director and modern German film in general.


NYFA Photography said...

Great article!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thank you very much!

Erich Kuersten said...

Nice! That Neptune Factor poster is so awesome you just KNOW the film's going to be crappy. I remember being so excited about 'The Land that Time Forgot' for the same reason as a kid.