This blog is a written version of some of the things that I shall be discussing tonight (Wednesday 10 May 2017) at the British Film Institute in London, where there is a screening and panel commentary on Chinese Roulette as part of the BFI’s Philosophical Screens series, organised in association with the London Graduate School.
The film tells the story of the Christ family, which consists of Gerhard (Alexander Allerson), Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and their crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schobel). Both Gerhard and Angela are having affairs and one weekend Gerhard claims to be going to Oslo and Ariane claims to be going to Milan on business, but instead both go with their lovers to the Christ mansion in the countryside.
As a result, when Gerhard comes back from a roll in the woods with his French lover Irene (Anna Karina), he walks in on Ariane in the arms of his colleague, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). But they are not alone, for Angela then turns up with her mute Polish nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril), implying that their daughter has engineered this confluence of partners and has come to observe the fallout.
What is more, events are also observed by the mansion’s housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who has a mysterious connection with the family, and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), who fancies himself as something of a philosopher-poet.
What is set in action, then, is a lean eight-header, in which various tensions are unravelled and revealed in the mansion, which, together with the objects that fill it, plays a key role in the film, which culminates in a game of the eponymous Chinese Roulette. This is a guessing game in which one group asks questions to another group in order to discover which person from the first group the members of the second group are describing.
The game culminates in an act of violence – as Angela, Gerhard, Traunitz and Gabriel describes Ariane in various ways, including as a worm-eaten apple (if this person were a painting, what would feature in it?), a gilded mirror (what object would this person take to a desert island?), a whore (is this person a saint, a mother or a whore?), already dead (what might be an appropriate death for this person?), and the commandant of Bergen-Belsen (what role would this person have played in the Third Reich?).
Although Kast believes that they must be describing her, as do Irene, Kolbe and Ariane, when it is revealed by Angela that they are in fact describing her own mother, she flies into a fit of rage, takes out a gun from beneath a transparent chess set and aims it at her daughter… before shooting Traunitz.
All good melodramatic stuff!
But what makes Fassbinder’s film all the more interesting is not just what happens in it (which ultimately is not that much given the minimal settings and the restricted cast), but how it is put together.
For although Chinese Roulette only merits a few brief mentions in Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, and while Christian Braad Thomsen seems positively to dislike the film, it is nonetheless a remarkable masterclass in mise-en-scène and cinematography, with the film being shot by Michael Ballhaus, also the director of photophraphy for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (USA, 1990), which was discussed at Philosophical Screens earlier in the year.
(This is not to mention the strength of the acting in Chinese Roulette, which is superb.)
For, although somewhat spartan, the Christ mansion is filled with relatively elegant objects, including a prominent transparent drinks cabinet, which is matched by a second transparent cabinet that contains a high fidelity music system. These accompany the afore-mentioned transparent chessboard in which sits the gun used to shoot Traunitz.
Time and again, these objects take up space in the frame, the camera placing them prominently before us, together with a birdcage in which budgies tweet and flutter. While we are supposed to and in some senses can see through these objects (they are transparent), in some senses they also get in the way, mirroring, distorting, fragmenting the bodies that we see and the actions they perform.
That is, while transparent, they in fact also change our perspective on things, suggesting that any perspective, therefore, is skewed, inaccurate and not necessarily correct. That this takes place in a film lends to Chinese Roulette a self-consciousness that elevates it out of the realm of a typical fiction film, in which events are presented to us as if in an accurate, objective and reliable fashion, but instead a film in which it becomes hard to read what exactly is going on.
There are several things for us to pick apart, since these dimensions of the film relate to larger ideas concerning family, class, history, fascism and cinema itself.
For, if in Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène we get a sense of how all views are potentially distorted, then we also get a sense of how quite possibly we can never therefore access the truth. And yet, in a country that is going through the kind of self-analysis that Germany was doing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the need to get to the truth, the need for transparency is it were, is tantamount – such that is becomes a guiding myth for an entire nation.
The myth might be that in confronting its fascist past, Germany can perhaps move beyond it, becoming so open in its dealings that fascism will never be allowed to rear its ugly head. In some senses, this explains the Christs’ compulsion to ask about the role of the chosen person in the Third Reich: they must acknowledge that they, too, are capable of fascism.
And yet, when confronted by this fascism, Ariane (in this instance) cannot tolerate it, and she is compelled to let out her violent tendencies somewhere – in this instance on Traunitz.
For all of the desire to remove fascism via transparency, it creeps into everyday life in invisible ways. ‘Fascist,’ says Kast as another road user cuts her up as she drives home to the mansion near the start of the film.
Even in our cars, then, we have a sense of the human who separates themselves from the rest of the world, and thus begins to treat others not as fellow humans with whom one makes contact, but rather as people to use and abuse. That is, the seeds are sewn of seeing other humans as disposable, of the sort that we might thrown into a gas chamber.
If fascism is thus invisible, we might say that fascism is beyond the purview of cinema, that cinema cannot gain access to the inner recesses and the darkness that lurks within all human hearts. And yet, I am not sure that this is quite right – and we can explore this by returning to the transparent cabinets.
For, if the transparent cabinets in some senses get in the way and obscure the reality or truth of what it is that we see in Chinese Roulette, in order senses, those cabinets do not get in the way, but they are the way, with the distortions and reflections that they create not taking us away from a true vision of things, but being the true vision of things.
That is, distortion is the truth (that there is no truth). But more than this, a cinema that claims to offer us an undistorted or transparent image of the world such that we can begin to understand something like the Holocaust does not so much get beyond or allow us to recognise fascism, but it is fascism. In its supposedly objective presentation of the world, cinema is fascist as it reinforces the necessary separation of humans from the world and from each other that objectivity would by necessity require (to be objective, we have to be detached from the world).
If a would-be objective cinema is thus fascistic, then how do we get around this? Fassbinder does this precisely through his distortions, which thus become not so much distortions as a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt that makes us aware that we are seeing not an objective truth, but precisely a constructed fiction.
I shall return to Fassbinder’s cinematography imminently. But here I want to discuss how it is not just cinema that typically separates humans from each other, but perhaps even the concept of family itself – even if family is of course supposed to unite people. For, while families are units, that they are units who seclude themselves off in larger or smaller domestic spaces – i.e. houses – shows how they separate themselves off from the world and then from each other.
On numerous occasions in Fassbinder’s film do we see chandeliers and various other objects (including the feet of a doll whom Angela seems at one point to have hung) jut down into the bottom of the frame. Not only do these render strange the images that we see, in that rather than being rectangular, the frame can take on different, indescribable shapes as these objects are visible only as darkness, but they also suggest the oppression that hems the Christs and their guests in.
This we can compare to Gerhard’s brief moment of happiness in the woods with Irene: he has escaped from the family hearth, but it will be back in the home and with is family that the fascism will recommence.
In other words, the characters of Chinese Roulette clearly want connection – otherwise they would not have lovers and so on. But they find such connection almost impossible to achieve, and the house bears in on them, constricting them to the point where they lash out in violence. Family, then, provides connection of a kind, but it is not enough, so constrained, for the characters to feel free.
Take the opening shots: we see Ariane in one window before we see Angela in another. The two seem to be in the same room as Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Eidenrest plays on Angela’s record player. And yet it is revealed that in fact they are in separate rooms. Both clearly seek the freedom of the outside – hence being at the window; but they in fact are separate both from the outside and from each other – perhaps even wilfully.
But there is more than just a family in Chinese Roulette; there is also Kast and her son and Irene and Kolbe, after all. And yet there seems little connection even between these extended cast members. Separated by objects, seeing each other in reflections, rarely looking each other in the eye: the characters are together, but they cannot connect either, as is made clear when Kolbe, fully clothed, begins to strangle a topless Ariane in bed (although she curiously wears a hairnet), and by the class division that seems to separate Kast and son from the Christs and daughter. Various forms of separation, then, are all at play, suggesting an impossibility of freedom.
With its depictions of bodies, especially heads, in space, gazing off in different directions, Fassbinder’s film is very painterly, with the stasis of the characters here also suggesting in some senses their failure to connect (since they cannot move in order subsequently to connect).
Here Ballhaus’ roaming camera comes into its own. For, if the characters do not move so much, then Ballhaus’ camera roams freely. And if an objective cinema is fascistic, then the remarkable camera movements that Ballhaus has the camera perform may depict a world where people do not connect, but which endeavours and perhaps succeeds in creating a film with which we do connect.
It is important here, then, that these camera movements seem unmotivated – in order to remind us that we are seeing a film, rather than watching but not noticing these camera movements because they are integrated into a clear and objectively presented narrative.
In this way, we understand that if cinema is fascist, then this is because capital is also fascist. For the cinema of supposed objectivity, in which we should not be reminded that we are watching a film, but in which we should instead simply forget about the real world for a couple of hours, is also the cinema of making money, a cinema for profit rather than a cinema of art. If profit and thus capital are achieved through supposed objectivity and separation from the world, and if fascism is also predicated upon a perceived separation of self from world and others (such that one can treat those others as objects rather than as people), then capital is also fascistic, and the capitalist cinema a key tool in promoting this fascistic ideology.
Elsaesser describes how Chinese Roulette can best be understood by the title of an essay that Fassbinder wrote on Claude Chabrol. In ‘Insects in a Glass Case,’ the director criticises Chabrol for simply looking at but not really getting involved with his characters, with the result being that his work is superficial (much as Fassbinder otherwise likes the work). Compared to an objective view, then, Fassbinder shows how the case (the transparent cabinets, the house, the cars) shape the behaviour of the insects/his characters, while also not being afraid to have his camera move freely inside the case rather than simply observe from beyond.
And yet, if the characters pose as if in paintings, static and separate, perhaps it is because they want this. They want separation and they perhaps even want the humiliation of knowing that they want separation and can do little to overcome the tendency towards it. This is why the Christs laugh upon discovering each other’s affairs, as well perhaps as in how they supposedly started those affairs when it was revealed that Angela was a cripple: faced with an imperfection, they simply adopt an illusion in order to turn away from that imperfection.
And yet this imperfection only marks the imperfections, the fascisms, that lie within and which are embedded via a history of war and exploitation that extends far further back in time that World War Two.
The Christs are clearly wealthy and international jet setters: they travel for work, have a house in Munich, the mansion in the countryside and a place in the mountains (that Gerhard mentions at one point). As much is also made clear by the names of their business acquaintances, whom we also hear about as the film progresses. Gressmann, Farucci, Petrovich, Ali Ben Basset: this is an international lifestyle that they have.
But how did the Christs get here? For it is never quite clear how they make their money, although at one point Gerhard speaks with Kast about the murder of Ben Basset – seemingly a reference to Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan freedom fighter who disappeared in Paris in 1965. ‘We are the only two left,’ he says to Kast, as if they were now the only dissidents remaining.
But what kind of dissident owns at least three houses, one of them a mansion? What would the Christs’ interest be in something like Moroccan independence?
Conceivably the answer might come in the form of Traunitz. Towards the end of the film, when Ariane has shot her daughter, Kast calls for an ambulance, telling it to come not to the Christ mansion but to the Traunitz mansion.
At the start of the film, Angela turns to Traunitz and says ‘your great-grandfather should have won the Battle of Katowice.’ It is unclear to which battle Angela is referring, while it is also unclear where exactly the mansion is – but one gets a sense that the Christs have acquired the mansion from the Traunitzes, much as Katowice historically was occupied by the Germans and then liberated by the Polish.
What is more, Macha Méril, who plays Traunitz, was born and died in Morocco, meaning that her mute subservience as Traunitz to the Christs obliquely speaks also of a history of North African colonialism and exploitation, which in turn suggests a world of capital in which the rich are empowered through exploitation, an act of separation from the exploited that the capitalist does consciously and for which they must therefore atone through occasional bouts of self-humiliation and abjection – the search for connection when they know that this will be fruitless because they cannot let go of their sense of superiority towards others as a result of their capitalist separation from them that is the necessary precondition for hierarchies.
It is fittingly cruel, then, that it is Traunitz who should pay for Angela’s insult to Ariane – since it reaffirms Traunitz’s role as a voiceless victim to this history of exploitation – even if the film’s closing gunshot over a frozen image of the exterior of the mansion suggests another act of violence, perhaps Ariane now shooting Angela or shooting herself.
Fassbinder opens the essay on Chabrol with a quotation from Theodor Fontane, whose novel Effi Briest Fassbinder later famously adapted (West Germany, 1974).
‘Every debt must be paid on this earth, even that of showing shadows or half-shadows as human beings,’ the quotation reads (although I do not know its source).
Fassbinder would seem to suggest, then, that the debt owed by exploiters to the exploited may one day have to be repaid – perhaps here with the blood of Ariane, who cannot in the end tolerate the prison that she has made for herself in separating herself from the world.
More than this, in discussing the presentation of shadows as human beings, Fontane also predicts cinema as a debt – the fascistic tendencies of cinema that must also at some point be paid back. In his self-conscious cinema, Fassbinder would seem to foretell a cinema that does pay back this debt, or which at the very least shows us not shadows as human beings, but shadows as shadows. More: it is not that the shadow is separate from the human being such that one can be presented as and taken for the other. Rather, the shadow is perhaps always with the human, entangled and touching each other, much as the human is not separate from the world and from other humans, but inevitably also entangled and touching, even if we deny it and even if we deny denying it in such a way that our separation becomes unbearable, leading from repression to abject release and self-humiliation.