One day I hope to revisit all Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films. In the present climate it’s so refreshing to be tipped back into Fassbinder’s world – it’s as invigorating as a cold shower.
Chinese Roulette dates from 1976, around the high point of Fassbinder’s output. Thomas Elsaesser, in his book Fassbinder’s Germany (1996), places it at the end of the ‘melodrama period’ of his work and the start of the ‘German history period’ suggesting that it also represents a first attempt by Fassbinder to establish himself as a European auteur. This is most evident in the casting of Anna Karina and Macha Méril (both associated with Jean-Luc Godard) alongside stalwarts of Fassbinder’s ‘stock company’ such as Margit Carstensen and Brigitte Mira. Eric Rohmer’s company Les Films du Losange was a co-production partner.
(Some spoilers follow, but only in terms of the set up.)
The scenario is straightforward and resembles the ‘country house’ melodrama/farce. A wealthy German couple in Munich have a teenage daughter, Angela who is disabled. She has a home tutor who is dumb and communicates through sign language. When the husband announces that he is going on a business trip to Oslo, he is actually meeting his lover and then taking her to his country mansion. But when he gets there, his wife is already in residence with her lover. Eventually, the daughter and tutor arrive as well – and it seems that Angela has contrived the whole thing. Everyone decides to be civilised and settles down to a weekend house party, completed by the presence of the cook/housekeeper and her son, a rather precious would-be writer.
What follows is an edgy sequence of social intercourse leading up to a game of ‘Chinese Roulette’. This involves dividing the household into two. One group decides between themselves who to choose as the ‘subject’ in the other group. They don’t reveal their choice and it is up to the other group to ask a set number of questions in order to work it out. The thrill of the game is in the questions – which follow the kinds of psychological profile type questions such as “If you were the central character in a novel, would have written the novel?”. Inevitably, given this was Fassbinder in 1976, one of the questions involves references to the Nazis and the Third Reich.
I won’t spoil any more of the plotting. If the scenario sounds rather restricted, it is. The ‘action’ is largely confined to the house. But this doesn’t mean that little happens. This is a visual treat. Fassbinder, his cinematographer, the great Michael Ballhaus and designers Helga Ballhaus, Peter Müller and Kurt Raab stage the scenes beautifully with mirrors, windows, doorways and staircases dividing up the narrative space and cutting off characters or allowing them to half emerge. There are fantastic compositions in depth through doors and glass panels etc. The playing is excellent and the whole thing moves at a brisk pace – a concise 85 mins in the cinema.
As we watched this my companion raised Chabrol as a reference and this was something that I felt as well – along with Buñuel and possibly Bergman, though I know his work less well. Almodóvar might be a more contemporary reference, especially for the gay subtext, but I find Almodóvar, even at his darkest and most surreal to be gentle in comparison with Fassbinder who could roll out films like this every few months. They are all worth seeing and he made a staggering 41 films and TV series over his all too short a career of 13 years.
(This was the Arrow Region 2 DVD)