In his relatively brief lifetime of 37 years, Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned out 21 feature films, two TV mini-series (Berlin Alexanderplatz, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day), 11 made-for-TV movies, 1 documentary, several film shorts, and numerous theatrical productions. He also helmed an episode of the quasi-documentary/fiction compilation Germany in Autumn (1978), served as producer on other German films like Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) and appeared as an actor, not only in many of his own films but in those of other contemporaries from the New German cinema like Volker Schlondorff. Fassbinder’s role as the contemptuous anti-social rebel Baal (1970), adapted for television by Schlondorff from Bertolt Brecht’s play, is one of his finest performances (Criterion released a beautifully restored version of it on Blu-ray and DVD in March 2018). Equally impressive but lesser known is Daniel Schmid’s Shadow of Angels (Schatten der Engel, 1976), which is based on Fassbinder’s play The Garbage, the City and Death and features R.W. in a pivotal role.
Despite the fact that Baal was directed by Schlondorff, the movie seemed much more like a Fassbinder film in terms of the look, feel and aesthetic sensibilities and was unlike anything Schlondorff ever did again. Such is the case also with Shadow of Angels from Swiss director Daniel Schmid, a former lover of Fassbinder, whose work is usually a genre-blurring mixture of opera, high camp melodrama, political satire and fantasy. While Shadow of Angels is marked by Schmid’s penchant for unique staging and theatrical tracking shots, the heart and soul of the film is pure Fassbinder reflecting his misanthropic views of post WW2 Germany as a grim allegory.
Ingrid Caven, a familiar face in Fassbinder’s repertory of favorite actors (she was briefly married to the director from 1970-1972), stars as the ill-fated heroine Lily, a prostitute who is even more of an outcast than her fellow streetwalkers. Not only is she constantly abused and beaten by Raoul (Fassbinder), her pimp lover, for failing to bring home money for his gambling and drinking habits, but she is cruelly treated by her own parents. Yet keeping a safe distance from them is a necessity. Muller (Adrian Hoven), her father, is an ex-Nazi currently performing as a female impersonator in a cabaret. He also enjoyed an incestuous relationship with Lily in the past. As for Luise (Annemarie Duringer), her mother, she is a embittered cripple in a wheelchair and despises her daughter because she is young, attractive and can walk. Is it any wonder that Lily feels an overpowering sense of despair?
This is made explicit in a scene where she picks up a stray kitten in the harbor to comfort it and then strangles the cat and drops it into the water so that it will be spared a life of misery. Just when everything looks hopeless, however, Lily experiences a change of luck. She encounters a powerful entrepreneur (Klaus Lowitsch), known as “The Rich Jew,” and his two henchmen, the “Little Prince” (Ulli Lommel) and the “Dwarf” (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). Typical of the film’s sense of absurdity, which helps to distance the viewer from the grim scenario, is the fact that the dwarf is played by a towering bald-headed man, easily the tallest actor in the cast. Even the kitten, which was clearly unharmed in a ‘fake’ death scene, is an ironic prop and shows up later as Raoul’s playmate in Lily’s apartment.
In a rags-to-riches storyline twist, Lily becomes the mistress of the financier, escorting him around town like some expensive fashion accessory, and eventually they marry. Her reversal of fortune sends Raoul on a downward spiral. Humiliation and insecurity over the size of his penis prompt him to embark on a homosexual affair and he is later beaten savagely in a men’s lavatory for his indiscretions. Lily’s street-hustling co-workers also see her marriage as a betrayal and shun her. Even her confessions to God before a candle-lit altar bring her no peace of mind so she begs her husband to kill her. He complies but her murder is reported to the police by the “Little Prince” in the hope that his boss will go to jail and he’ll inherit his business empire. What happens instead is a typical Fassbinder resolution. The “Little Prince” is thrown out a window and killed (offscreen), Raoul is arrested for Lily’s murder, and the financier escapes any blame because he is an essential player in a corrupt bureaucracy.
This description of Shadow of Angels makes it sound like a despairing wallow in a sordid and perverse universe but the film itself is an elegant and highly stylized ensemble production in the style of The Three Penny Opera or The Lower Depths, something that is closer in spirit to a stage play than a realistic slice of life. The grim trajectory of the plot is quite bracing in its cynicism and encompasses all of the themes that Fassbinder loves to critique and flog in his films – bourgeoise society, morality, religious hypocrisy, government corruption, German guilt and the concept of love. Everything is under attack in Shadow of Angels but nothing is really resolved in the end except for a defeatist acceptance of the world’s injustices. Fassbinder seems to be saying if this doesn’t outrage you, then maybe you’re already dead.
Both Fassbinder’s original play and Shadow of Angels were attacked in Germany by some critics who accused it of being anti-semitic for its depiction of the so-named “Rich Jew.” What seems obvious is that Fassbinder has taken some of the outrageous stereotypes perpetuated by the Nazi party against Jews in propaganda films like Veit Harlan’s infamous Jud Suss (1940) and forced viewers to reconsider them in contemporary Germany where they are clearly presented as absurd caricatures. Lowitsch’s entrepreneur may be little more than a refined version of the urban slumlord but his success is integral to the survival of the city and those who would have demonized him in the past are now his willing business partners. He is the one to emerge victorious from the ashes of Germany while former Nazis like Muller are relegated to the sidelines. No one escapes Fassbinder’s bleak view of humanity, gentile or Jew, and the only character in the film who is actually sympathetic is Lily, who exists at the lowest rung of society.
Like most of Fassbinder’s work, Shadow of Angels is chock full of quotable lines and acidic bon mots:
“What would the truth be without lies? A lie itself.”
“Don’t think. Thoughts kill pleasure.”
“Beating means love…so I beat you when I love you.”
“Once you have money, madness will soon follow. That’s what I always say to console myself.”
“He who loves loses all his rights.”
Sometimes the dialogue is straight from the gutter, particularly when Raoul is fixated on private parts and sex acts, and other times the wordplay can get laughably pretentious as in this monologue from Lily: “Decay becomes my prayer book, loathing my desire. And if I sang songs defying the abyss, I’d be a ghoul devouring the brains of monkeys while they’re alive. And if I do, I’ll be devoured myself.”
Even quoting lines like this, Ingrid Caven is consistently entrancing as the lost, forlorn Lily. She has a truly haunting presence that embodies both decadence and fragility. Caven, who was so memorable in such Fassbinder films as The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972) and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), also made several critically acclaimed films with Daniel Schmid like La Paloma (1974). The Swiss director was also instrumental in launching her international career as a cabaret singer.
Other actors from Fassbinder’s repertory who stand out in Shadow of Angels are former matinee idol Adrian Hoven as the former Nazi turned transvestite entertainer (one of his most unusual roles), Irm Hermann (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972) as an philosophical whore and cameo walk-ons by Peter Chatel (Fox and His Friends, 1975) and Harry Baer (Gods of the Plague, 1970).
The music score by Fassbinder favorite Peer Raben (Berlin Alexanderplatz) and Gottfried Hungsberg incorporates songs sung as harmony duets by some of the street prostitutes along with an aria performed by a black opera diva. There is also the incongruous use of Cuban dance tunes and German pop songs from the fifties. Sometimes the music is used to punctuate the open or close of a scene or to provide the perfect ambiance for a bizarre shift in tone like the scene where Muller performs a Marlene Dietrich-style cabaret number.
When director Schmid was questioned about Shadow of Angels, he said, “I’ve always understood it as a strange, sad fairy tale. It’s also a movie about Germany after the Holocaust, and I think the reason Fassbinder wanted me to adapt the play for the screen was that I was not German. He said he was too close to the whole thing.” In another interview he added that he and Fassbinder viewed the film as a vision of “a Germany where no one is starving and no one is scared anymore, and the only two people who are still sensitive are the prostitute and the Jew, because both of them are outcasts.”
For Fassbinder fans, Shadow of Angels is essential viewing but it is not available on purchase on Blu-ray or DVD in the U.S. at this time. There is a very murky copy (most likely a third generation VHS dupe) available for viewing on Youtube but this is a film that deserves a major restoration rescue.
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