Despair

West Germany/France

1977


Hermann Hermann: Dirk Bogarde
Lydia: Andrea Ferreol
Ardalion: Volker Spengler
Felix Webber: Klaus Lowitsch
Mayer: Alexander Allerson
Orlovius: Bernhard Wicki
Muller: Peter Kern
Perebrodov: Gottfried John

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Production co: NF Geria II Film GmbH / SFP
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard. Based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Editor: Juliane Lorenz, Franz Walsch, Reginald Beck
Sound: James Willis
Music: Peer Raben
119 mins
16mm/Colour/English
Synopsis
"The former Reich capital Berlin in the late-20s. Hermann, a Russian living in exile, still dreams of birches, horse-drawn sleighs and wolves, but he has long since come to terms with his new home and the monotony of his life is beginning to worry him. His chocolate factory is no longer flourishing as it used to and his highly desirable wife's silliness is getting more and more on his nerves. 'The flowers of your sensuality would wilt with intelligence,' he tells his wife whom he always addresses with the condenscension of a nobleman. In his despair and fear, Hermann long ago learnt to project a different identity and now he suddenly sees himself from the outside: at first he still seems be the man who is 'really' lying beside his wife in bed, while the observer appears as a projection of himself. Before long, however, the perspective has moved further outwards and the silent observer now seems to have taken over his identity while the man in the bed has become a projection. The man from Vienna whom Hermann meets in a pub and who claims to be a psychologist turns out to be an insurance agent and cannot give any guarantee as to his identity. The only thing he can give is a life assurance policy tied to a personality that, in Hermann's eyes, is completely interchangeable. It is the starting point of a supposedly perfect crime in which the assumed victim manages to escape undetected as the perpetrator. Fully believing that identity is a cosmetic matter, Hermann transfers the outer attributes of his factory owner's life to a man into whom he projects his ideas of a double. He then kills the man, escapes to Switzerland and is arrested shortly afterwards in a mountain village."
- Goethe Institut

entire career...
"Unlike some of his European colleagues who've not been able to make the transition to English-language films (I think especially of Alain Resnais and the late Luchino Visconti), Mr. Fassbinder succeeds brilliantly, with the great help, of course, of Mr. Stoppard. The baroque movements of the camera - it never sits if it can stand, and never stands if it can swoop and soar - produce a visual equivalent to the comic fussiness of the prose style of Nabokov's first-person narrative.

"Mr. Bogarde's prissy gestures mixed with expressions of alarm and lust that are always conscious, as they are with someone a little beside himself, beautifully illuminate this seminal Nabokovian hero, Miss Ferreol is dainty, bovine, vulgar and always sweet and Mr. Spengler, a red-haired German actor, is a mountain of unredeemable second-rateness.

"The Stoppard scriot is a joy for anyone who likes the English language. There are very few puns here. Instead he has miraculously turned Nabokov's exposition into spoken dialogue that matches the tone of the original. 'A line has length but no breadth' says Hermann. 'If you could see it, it would n't be a line.' That's pure Stoppard, inspired by Nabokov, and the result is perfectly seamless." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

"Despair, which was to be Fassbinder's most lavish and expensive production... The list of credits is impressive: the film is based on a novel by Nabokov, the script was written by Tom Stoppard, the leading role was played by Dirk Bogarde. The critics were duly impressed. The Germans in particular, flattered no doubt at making what looked like a major international breakthrough, were dazzled by the film's technical brilliance and apparent thematic complexity...

"The film, which begins in the art-deco interiors, the cafes and streets of Berlin, and ends in the peace of the Swiss Alps, traces, according to Fassbinder, 'the itinerary of a man who escapes from the jungle of an honourable existence and penetrates the free and beautiful world of madness.'

"Hermann is a man who is plagued by a confusion of images. He suffers, to use the pat pyschological jargon, from an 'identity crisis': he is an exile, his papers are false, his history invented, his origins unlcear. He suffers from 'schizophrenia.' from a 'split personality,' from 'dissociation': hence his repeated visions of himself looking at himself, and his vision of the tramp as his double. Stoppard and Fassbinder are, however, sceptical of easy psychologizing (as indeed was Nabokov), Hermann's problems are presented ironically, and when psychology does rear its intellectualizing head it is soon cut down to size with rapid strokes of verbal and visual wit. 'What do you know about dissociation?' Hermann asks a doctor in a cafe, and goes on to elaborate the term as 'split personality,' adding 'I'm thinking of writing a book about the subject - maybe two books.' But the 'doctor' is in any case an insurance broker, and it is he who sells Hermann the fateful life policy.

"The mirror imagery that had for some time been becoming an increasingly obtrusive hallmark of Fassbinder's style reaches its apogee in Despair. Here, however, it is no longer merely a virtuoso mannerism, it has instead become thematic, for Despair is a film about reflections, about distortions, about reality and illusion, above all a film about images. And inasmuch as the cinema is the supreme creator of images it is a self-reflective film, questioning the 'truth' it conveys, looking both through and at a distorted consciousness, and defying us to distinguish the two perspectives. Hermann has got the idea of his crime from watching a film - a film about two identical twins; at the end he retreats from the 'reality' of his life into a 'fiction,' the 'fiction' that he is in a film. The house is surrounded by police: 'We're making a film here,' Hermann calls out, 'I'm a film actor. I'm coming out now... I'm coming out.' Thus we are drawn into the 'distortions' of Hermann's 'madness': the 'fiction' into which he has retreated turns out to be our 'reality,' for Hermann is indeed an actor, and this indeed is a film." - John Sandford, The New German Cinema (1981)