"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)