Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a director I have read quite a bit about, but haven’t actually seen anything he’s done until now. Sometimes I think, like Bunuel, this ends up skewing my expectations in a less than favorable way. The criticism ends up overshadowing the films somewhat. Though I do think I understand better what Fassbinder is going for here than anything I’ve seen by Bunuel, the emotional connection I was expecting to find here was missing. However, I was intrigued by the style and did like the film.
Fassbinder was part of the New German Cinema, a movement that flourished after WWII and often struggled to deal with the legacy of that Nazism had left on Germany. Despite having studied German in school for a while, I haven’t seen too many films out of this movement and have always wanted to correct this. So even though I don’t know a ton about German history and had to read up on some stuff, I tried to keep the legacy of Nazism in mind while viewing the film, and kind of had a hard time doing so. I’m not saying this a failure of the film, but rather something that audiences not too familiar with post-WWII Germany might not pick up on while watching it.
Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is a fading actress in 1955 Munich. The film opens with her watching one of her old films in a cinema which foretells her own demise in real life. Like many fictional movie stars, Veronika always seems to be acting a part with her over the top and theatrical personality. She was famous during WWII and the years leading up to it, under contract to the famous German studio UFA; she is also said to have had an affair with Goebbels, so there’s the Nazi connection. Coming out of the theater, she meets a sports journalist, Robert Kohn (Hilmar Thate), who takes an interest in her. Veronika begins an affair with him, and Robert believes he can write a shocking, tell-all article about her, especially after he finds out that she is a morphine addict, and purposefully kept that way by the sinister Dr. Katz (Annemarie Duringer).
The social commentary in this movie really confused me. I get that Veronika is supposed to represent Germany’s Nazi past, and I suppose it makes sense. The weird thing is that she is clearly the victim here, a fragile woman struggling to remain relevant in a society that no longer has any use for her. Dr. Katz’s evil scheme is basically to keep her addicted to morphine until her money runs out, kill her, then steal all of her assets, like her mansion and possessions and so on. She is supposed to represent German society’s forgetfulness, a conscious effort to disengage with the shameful legacy of Nazism. It’s just weird to think of the Nazi character as being the victim in the more literal version of the story. It makes sense in the end though, if you disregard that strange construct, Fassbinder seems to be arguing that Germany should not forget Nazism, even if it is not really a direct threat anymore it’s still part of the country’s past that has to be reckoned with. It’s just that while watching the film, I was thinking Dr. Katz had to represent Nazism right? Because she’s the clear villain in the story. But you have to keep the social context of the time in mind.
There is another interesting aspect to the social commentary that Fassbinder is going for, and that’s represented with an elderly couple that survived the Holocaust only to become victims of Dr. Katz. Not only does modern German society try to sweep Nazism under the rug, but the victims of it as well. The couple’s involvement in the grand scheme of things is mysterious at first, but then becomes clear in a quite tragic way. They almost seem to be in league with Dr. Katz at first, but then are dispatched by her just as Veronika is.
Fassbinder was greatly influenced by Hollywood, specifically the melodramas of the 1950s (his love for Douglas Sirk is well documented). It’s easy to see this influence here, as Veronika Voss plays a lot like a Hollywood horror story in the vein of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. The plot and characters are quite similar and there are even a couple of shots that directly echo that film: Veronika’s dramatic descent down the stairs when she seduces Robert is reminiscent of the end of Sunset Boulevard, and there are big closeups of their faces in mirrors that seem to be specifically designed for us to see how young the main characters look in both films.
The style of the film, in fact, was my main takeaway from it. The film is in black and white, but it might possibly be the most high contrast black and white film I’ve ever seen. This sets it apart from the Hollywood films it seems to draw upon; it seems to be a slightly heightened version of the same look. The whites are whiter and the blacks are blacker with little gray in between. There are also deliberate declarations of artifice in the film: the bright lights shining directly into the camera, almost like stage lights, lights flashing for no discernible reason, and these elaborate wipes that are used as scene transitions. There is even one scene where you can see the lights flashing reflected in a window, which seems to deliberately break the fourth wall. The scene transitions were the only thing I didn’t care for, they reminded me too much of the Microsoft Powerpoint-like transitions in Star Wars.
The attention to light in this film is great. Besides having rather conspicuous lighting schemes, Veronika, as an actress, always pays attention to how she is lit in real life. At one point she instructs the waiter at a restaurant to turn off the overhead lights so she can light herself only with candlelight (almost as if she’s a character in Barry Lyndon or something!), and often remarks upon the lighting in other scenes as well. I won’t pretend I understood why the lights where conspicuously flashing in some scenes and not others, but it was an interesting touch and something to pay attention to for next time.
The only thing lacking for in this film was emotional involvement. I did try and figure out the allegorical aspects of the story, had fun with the lighting and cinematography, and references to other films, but the actual story itself I didn’t care too much about. It was painfully obvious, though to be fair I did already know what was going to happen because I’d already read about the film. I just didn’t really care about these characters very much, making the allegorical aspect of the film much stronger than the personal story it was trying to tell.
This is a longer review of mine, so you can see that Veronika Voss gives you quite a number of things to think about. I think that it’s a marvelously crafted film with a lot of style, and that gives interesting insight into post WWII Germany, but ultimately falls a bit short on an emotional level. That’s quite strange for a director who is so greatly influenced by Hollywood melodrama, a genre that’s whole purpose (basically) is to make audiences weep. Veronika Voss is quite a tragic film, but was far from making me feel that tragedy. I’d be interested to see if that’s how some of Fassbinder’s other films play out as well, but regardless, Veronika Voss is worth checking out for sure.
“Not much of a story, journalistically speaking.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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