Veronika Voss (1982)

Crime, Drama

Rated R

105 minutes

Rainer Werner Fassbinder premiered “Veronika Voss” in February 1982, at the Berlin Film Festival. It was hailed as one of the best of his 40 films. Late on the night of June 9, 1982, he made a telephone call from Munich to Paris to tell his best friend he had flushed all his drugs down the toilet — everything except for one last line of cocaine. The next morning, Fassbinder was found dead in his room, a cold cigarette between his fingers, a videotape machine still playing. The most famous, notorious and prolific modern German filmmaker was 36.

Does this film represent a premonition of his own death? It tells the story of a German actress who worked tirelessly and achieved great fame, but began depending on drugs and alcohol and eventually became so addicted that she sold her body and soul for drugs. Her fortune spent, her marriage destroyed, she began to live as an inpatient in the clinic of a sinister Berlin woman who billed herself as a psychiatrist but was also a Dr. Feelgood who strung along her patients on morphine and controlled them by withholding their supply. Their arrangement was that after Veronika Voss’s death, her suburban villa and its art treasures would be inherited by the doctor.

The film opens in 1955 with Voss (Rosel Zech) looking at one of her own pre-war classics (that’s Fassbinder himself in the audience, leaning on the seat-back behind her). There was a time when she was welcomed in the offices of producers, greeted by headwaiters, recognized on the street. That time has passed, and it is painful to hear her remind people who she is — or was. One night, drinking without funds in a cabaret, she falls into conversation with a soft-faced sportswriter named Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), who is old enough to remain under her spell. She grandly says she will pick up the check, then “allows” him to do it, and invites him to come home with her. All the furniture in her villa is covered in white sheets, the electricity is disconnected, and she has them light candles “because they are so much more flattering to a woman.” The star struck journalist has without realizing it walked into the last act of Veronika Voss’s life.

Ending their evening suddenly, Veronika demands to be taken to the clinic of Dr. Katz (Annemarie Duringer), one of the stylish lesbians often found in Fassbinder films (“The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant”). This clinic could be imagined as the setting for a bizarre Fred Astaire dance number. It’s all blindingly white — walls, floors, furniture, grand staircases, everyone’s clothing. In an eerie touch, a wall of windows looks upon a waiting room, where other patients peer in needfully. Katz lives with a woman apparently her lover, and another constant companion is an African-American G.I. and drug dealer (Günther Kaufmann). This man is in the background of countless shots, never says anything, lurks when needed like a security guard, and was Fassbinder’s sometime lover and an actor in many of his films (including the one he made just before his one, “The Marriage of Maria Braun”).

We observe Veronika’s frantic relationship with Katz, who berates her sadistically, and extracts details of the hours with Robert Krohn. Finally Veronika is shown to her narrow, cell-like room, and given the drugs she craves. In this room, and throughout the clinic, we hear incongruous American country & western songs (“The Battle of New Orleans,” “16 Tons”). In “Maria von Braun,” where Günther Kaufmann plays Maria’s G.I. lover, similar music is heard, probably via Armed Forces Radio, a reminder of the presence of American occupying forces in postwar Germany. At Veronika’s own “farewell” party, she performs “Memories Are Made of This,” in a low, throaty torch-song voice perhaps intended to remind us of Marlene Dietrich. Indeed, Fassbinder’s focus on Rosel Zech’s reminds me of von Sternberg’s Dietrich in “The Blue Angel.”

When Robert Krohn returns that day to his own apartment and girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess), he is almost proud to tell her where he spent the night, and she, also a writer for the newspaper, accepts this as an expression of his nature; she wants to know what Voss was like. Krohn, whose beat is hockey, convinces his editor he has lucked upon a major scoop about the decline and fall of a star.

Throughout Fassbinder’s work we find such figures, great stars, mannered, decadent, in various stages of their decay. This film was inspired by the real life of Sybille Schmitz, a German star of the 1930s who also fell athwart of a clinic supplying drugs. Many critics look at Veronika Voss and are reminded of Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.” Perhaps the association is intentional. When Veronika finally, with great difficulty, wheedles a bit part from her former agent, the director of the scene (Volker Spengler) wears glasses and has his hat pushed back on his head, Wilder-style. She only has two lines in her scene, but blows them again and again. She’s rattled and craves a fix. She is watched by Robert Krone and by her ex-husband Max Rehbein (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who wearily explain to the sports writer that his former wife is a hopeless addict.

Two other patients of Dr. Katz figure importantly: A sweet elderly couple named the Treibels. Their story figures tragically in the history of Germany, as you will find. The psychiatrist, indeed, seems poised at the center of a cynical web of postwar corruption, including drug authorities and the police; when they twitch the web, she senses it immediately.

Fassbinder (1945-1982) was an immensely productive filmmaker. In his 37 years he directed 40 features, 24 stage plays and two long TV miniseries (notably “Berlin Alexanderplatz”). His death seems to have interrupted this flow in mid-stream. Powerfully influenced by the heavily stylized works of the German-Danish-American director Douglas Sirk (“Written on the Wind”), he may have worked at a feverish pace but his films always look carefully planned. In this film, for example, he evokes period b&w with a diversity of wipe shots, iris shots, pans, tracking, and the careful positioning of foregrounds. In other films he often uses zooms-in to underline dramatic points. His films are visually mannered, formal, and far from seeming improvised; the visual strategy of “Veronika Voss” suggests he was moving even closer toward the classic Hollywood style.

What an impression he made when he was alive! At Cannes every year he seemed to have at least one film, and you would see him at Le Petit Carlton, the famous bistro behind the Palais du Festival, on rue Felix-Faure, behind the Hotel Carlton. Fassbinder and his posse would be gathered inside, close inside the doorway. looking as discontented as usual. In August of 1983 at the Montreal Film Festival, as his close friend the director Daniel Schmid and I both served on the jury of the World Film Festival, the ghost of Fassbinder seemed almost like another presence in the city, Fassbinder had attended the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, nine months before his death, I remember him at dinner, unshaven, defensive, always smoking, ignoring the food and ordering a bottle of Cognac to be placed before him.

During the last weeks of his life, Schmid said, during those sad telephone calls at three in the morning, Fassbinder often repeated the same thing. “He would shout at me: How are you able to just sit there and look outside the window? How can you? How can you just sit on a rock and look at the sea? How can everybody else be so lucky?”

“Veronika Voss” is on DVD in the Criterion Collection, and streaming on Hulu Plus. Also in my Great Movies Collection are reviews of Fassbinder’s “Ali — Fear Eats the Soul,” a re-working of Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” and Sirk’s “Written on the Wind.” At least a dozen other Fassbinders are reviewed on this site.

Seven (1995)

Directed by
Written by

Action, Drama

Rated R

127 minutes

It is almost always raining in the city. Somerset, the veteran detective, wears a hat and raincoat. Mills, the kid who has just been transferred into the district, walks bare-headed in the rain as if he’ll be young forever. On their first day together, they investigate the death of a fat man they find face-down in a dish of pasta. On a return visit to the scene, the beams of their flashlights point here and there in the filthy apartment, picking out a shelf lined with dozens of cans of Campbell’s Tomato Sauce. Not even a fat man buys that much tomato sauce.

This grim death sets the tone for David Fincher’s “Seven,” one of the darkest and most merciless films ever made in the Hollywood mainstream. It will rain day after day. They will investigate death after death. There are words scrawled at the crime scenes; the fat man’s word is on the wall behind his refrigerator: Gluttony. After two of these killings Mills realizes they are dealing with a serial killer, who intends every murder to punish one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

This is as formulaic as an Agatha Christie whodunit. But “Seven” takes place not in the genteel world of country house murders, but in the lives of two cops, one who thinks he has seen it all and the other who has no idea what he is about to see. Nor is the film about detection; the killer turns himself in when the film still has half an hour to go. It’s more of a character study, in which the older man becomes a scholar of depravity and the younger experiences it in an pitiable and personal way. A hopeful quote by Hemingway was added as a voice-over after preview audiences found the original ending too horrifying. But the original ending is still there, and the quote plays more like a bleak joke. The film should end with Freeman’s “see you around.” After the devastating conclusion, the Hemingway line is small consolation.

The enigma of Somerset’s character is at the heart of the film, and this is one of Morgan Freeman’s best performances. He embodies authority naturally; I can’t recall him ever playing a weak man. Here he knows all the lessons a cop might internalize during years spent in what we learn is one of the worst districts of the city. He lives alone, in what looks like a rented apartment, bookshelves on the walls. He puts himself to sleep with a metronome. He never married, although he came close once. He is a lonely man who confronts life with resigned detachment.

When he realizes he’s dealing with the Seven Deadly Sins, he does what few people would do, and goes to the library. There he looks into Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It’s not that he reads them so much as that he references them for viewers; it is often effective in a horror film to introduce disturbing elements from literature as atmosphere, and Fincher provides glimpses of Gustav Dore’s illustrations for Dante, including the famous depiction of a woman with spider legs. Somerset sounds erudite as he names the deadly sins to Mills, who seems to be hearing of them for the first time.

What’s being used here is the same sort of approach William Friedkin employed in “The Exorcist” and Jonathan Demme in “The Silence of the Lambs.” What could become a routine cop movie is elevated by the evocation of dread mythology and symbolism. “Seven” is not really a very deep or profound film, but it provides the convincing illusion of one. Almost all mainstream thrillers seek first to provide entertainment; this one intends to fascinate and appall. By giving the impression of scholarship, Detective Somerset lends a depth and significance to what the killer apparently considers moral statements. To be sure, Somerset lucks out in finding that the killer has a library card, although with this killer, thinking back, you figure he didn’t get his ideas in the library, and checked out those books to lure the police.

The five murders investigated by the partners provide variety. The killer has obviously gone to elaborate pains in planning and carrying them out — in one case, at least a year in advance. His agenda in the film’s climactic scene, however, must have been improvised recently. “Seven” draws us relentlessly into its horrors, some of which are all the more effective for being glimpsed in brief shots. We can only be sure of the killing methods after the cops discuss them–although a shot of the contents of a plastic bag after an autopsy hardly requires more explanation. Fincher shows us enough to disgust us, and cuts away.

The killer obviously intends his elaborate murders as moral statement. He suggests as much after we meet him. When he’s told his crimes will soon be forgotten in the daily rush of cruelty, he insists they will be remembered forever. They are his masterpiece. What goes unexplained is how, exactly, he is making a statement. His victims, presumably guilty of their sins, have been convicted and executed by his actions. What’s the lesson? Let that be a warning to us?

Somerset and Mills represent established fiction formulas. Mills is the fish out of water, they’re an Odd Couple, and together they’re the old hand and the greenhorn. The actors and the dialogue by Andrew Kevin Walker enrich the formulas with specific details and Freeman’s precise, laconic speech. Brad Pitt seems more one-dimensional, or perhaps guarded; he’s a hothead, quick to dismiss Freeman’s caution and experience. It is his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) who brings a note of humanity into the picture; we never find out very much about her, but we know she loves her husband and worries about him, and she has good instincts when she invites the never-married Somerset over for dinner. Best to make an ally of the man who her husband needs and can learn from. Watching the film, we assume the Tracy character is simply a place-holder, labeled Protagonist’s Wife and denied much dimension. But she is saving her impact until later. Thinking back through the film, our appreciation for its construction grows.

The killer, as I said, turns himself in with 30 minutes to go, and dominates the film from that point forward. When “Seven” was released in 1995 the ads, posters and opening credits didn’t mention the name of the actor, and although you may well know it, I don’t think I will either. This actor has a big assignment. He embodies Evil. Like Hannibal Lecter, his character must be played by a strong actor who projects not merely villainy but twisted psychological complexities. Observe his face. Smug. Self-satisfied. Listen to his voice. Intelligent. Analytical. Mark his composure and apparent fearlessness. The film essentially depends on him, and would go astray if the actor faltered. He doesn’t.

“Seven” (1995) was David Fincher’s second feature, after “Alien 3” (1992), filmed when he was only 29. Still to come were such as “Zodiac” (2007) and “The Social Network” (2010). In his work he likes a saturated palate and gravitates toward sombre colors and underlighted interiors. None of his films is darker than this one. Like Spielberg, he infuses the air in his interiors with a fine unseen powder that makes the beams of flashlights visible, emphasizing the surrounding darkness. I don’t know why the interior lights in “Seven” so often seem weak or absent, but I’m not complaining. I remember a shot in Murnau’s “Faust” (1926) in which Satan wore a black cloak that enveloped a tiny village below. That is the sensation Fincher creates here.