DVD Review Of Whity

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/24/06


  In 1970 the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote and directed a German language American Western film that, unlike the Spaghetti Westerns of that era- also filmed in Almería, Andalucía, Spain, was not played straight, but more like a silent era Expressionistic film, replete with melodramatic music, cartoonish face makeup, and over the top acting, especially in the physical movements of the actors’ bodies. It’s one of those films that is so highly stylized, so earnestly trying to be deep and/or profound that it is instead really, really bad; but in the best possible sense of the word bad. It’s so bad a film that it is often hysterically funny. This starts from the very notion of Old American West gunslingers sprechen in Deutsch, as well as having them speak German even though all of the signs and Wanted Posters are in English. It’s absurd, but wonderfully so.

  To say that it is absurd or bizarre is, however, an understatement, yet the film is obviously a satire; unlike, say, Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small or Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. In a sense, this film also reminded me, in terms of lighting and stillnesses, of Kubrick’s 1975 costume epic Barry Lyndon, crossed with some of the manifestly fake Western sets in American television shows of that era, especially those that were not Western based shows, but those that had Western themed special episodes, like Star Trek or The Prisoner. Then, added to that, there is mental retardation, transvestism, homosexuality, prostitution, racism, Ku Klux Klan hoods- wholly displaced in the Old West (something a German likely did not know, thinking it merely the American equivalent of the swastika), incest, bestiality, bleached eyebrows, green-white cake makeup, and sadomasochism. Yet, what makes this film so uproariously funny is that Fassbinder’s camera and style seem to be oblivious to how truly and uniquely bad and funny the film is. One might even believe that he was a German version of Ed Wood, if this film is any indication of his talents, for true camp comes unwittingly, when an artist is being serious and is oblivious to the worst aspects of his work.

  The tale follows the Gothic Nicholson clan somewhere in the Old West, in 1878. The clan is led by father Ben (Ron Randell, an American B movie actor)- who is dying (or not?), and is an impotent sadist who is wont to violence, such as killing in cold blood the tan painted ‘Mexican’ he hired as a doctor to fool his wife into thinking he was dying, but who took to balling her instead. Then there’s the young wife, Katherine (Katrin Schaake), who also lusts for Samuel ‘Whity’ King, the Uncle Tom-like mulatto slave and star of the film, played by Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder’s gay lover for many years. There’s Frank (Ulli Lommel), who’s a transvestite bisexual, with vampiric airs, who lusts for both his mother and Whity. In one of the most funny scenes, although played for Sturm und Drang effect, thus heightening its humor, when his mother laughs at his Klansman’s hood, he tries to stab her, slowly (but not in slow motion), as she refuses to move, until Ben disarms and beats his son. Then there’s retarded Davie (Harry Bär), who is Frank’s twin, who drools, slurs, and likes animals in a morosely sexual sense. For some reason, Whity likes him sexually and even accepts a whipping for him after Ben decides to teach his son a lesson for peeping in on his impotent attempt to have sex with his wife. In fact, every one of the Nicholsons at one time or another wants to physically hurt or sexually coddle Whity. It’s as if Fassbinder cored into one of the most pathetic American sexual myths, while trying to exploit it for different reasons, and rode it for all it’s worth.

  This love/hate relationship extends to the two other main characters- Whity’s lover and his mother. There is his lover Hannah (Hanna Schygulla- who actually won the German Academy Award for Best Actress for this film), the local hooker who also lusts for Whity, and wears dominatrix outfits that were a half a century ahead of their supposed time, and walks around one scene with her breasts exposed, without seeming to notice nor care. She’s the only cast member in normal makeup, and, yet, if hers is the only award winning performance it’s only because all the rest of the roles are so poorly acted that hers stood out by contrast. Hers is the least over the top role, but its mostly the sort of forgettable phone-in role any actress could have done, unlike the twins or Whity. The whole film seems like Bonanza, but Through An LSD Looking-Glass; that most American of family television westerns, whose patriarch was also named Ben. The last character is Whity’s mother, Marpessa (Elaine Baker), a charcoal darkened woman (is she really black?) who seemingly resents her son, is a clear mammy caricature (or homage?), and merely shakes her head, and sings Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! Many reviews imply that she was Ben Nicholson’s lover and that Whity is her son, but I could not find that claim nor relation in the actual film’s text. It may be a good assumption, but it’s also one of these ‘facts’ likely gleaned from a pres release that got taken as Gospel through repetition.

  The filmic narrative is virtually nonexistent, as the film follows a slight Beckettian arc until the final scene, where Whity methodically shoots all the zombified Nicholsons- who refuse to move or fight back, as if wanting to be slaughtered for their perversions and sins, after Ben becomes the final family member to order Whity to kill the others, but becomes the first to die. Whity then takes off to the desert to die of thirst with Hannah, as they bizarrely dance in the sunset’s dust till film’s end. The fact that none of the actions in the film make rational sense puts this film in almost a dream category, like Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, or even Carl Theodor Dreyer’s emotionally somnambulistic Gertrud. When reading some essays on the film it’s even more hilarious that the critics do not seem to get how bad and funny this film is instead trying to rationalize its bad acting and terrible screenplay by plumbing faux Freudian depths in the so-called ‘relationships’ between the main characters. Most of this bad analysis focuses upon the fixations of the white characters with Whity, and their desires for him sexually, and to also be the one who murders their father. These themes are immanent in many classic westerns, such as homosexuality in Red River and Johnny Guitar, the racism of The Searchers, and the violent ending of The Wild Bunch. Yet all of this is so over the top, so stagey, so ridiculous, that none of the satire has any bite. Its akin to claiming Roger Corman’s Little Shop Of Horrors has any deeper meaning. It doesn’t, and neither does Whity, although that makes it none the less funny.

  The DVD, put out by Fantoma Films, comes in a 2.35:1 aspect ration, and lacks an English language dubbed track, although it does have English subtitles in white. It comes with an engaging commentary by actor Ulli Lommel, who played Frank, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who later struck Holywood gold by filming such movies as GoodFellas, The Last Temptation Of Christ, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, among many others. Interestingly, he says that the woman who played Katherine, his mother (Katrin Schaake), was really his wife at the time of filming. The rest of the commentary is really one of the better ones around, as it engages and informs, even if both speakers are blissfully unaware, it seems, of how bad their film really is.

  Whity was filmed in garish color, in Cinemascope, where the palette leaps out at you, and this is in keeping with the rest of the over the top nature of the film, and suggest Fassbinder must have known he was making a Carnivalesque romp, if not an outright burlesque. This gaudiness includes the art direction of Kurt Raab, which also won a German Academy Award. While a bit too much, there is no denying that the color palette used by Fassbinder sears into the viewer’s head, on an emotional level, and the film seems almost like an Impressionist painting- especially a Monet watercolor, come to life, with its rich reds, ripe oranges, sensuous yellows, burnt browns, and other lesser colors that texture the film like some narcotic fantasy. Also, Ballhaus provides some interesting camera movement that makes the ill written and acted scenes at least interesting to watch, if nothing else; and since film is a visual medium, this is worth noting, even if there’s no intellectual reason behind it. For example, in the scene where Ben Nicholson reads his last will and testament, the rest of the actors are standing still, as if composed out of something from one of Ingmar Bergman’s hyper-composed 1960s filmic experiments. The camera slowly sweeps over all of them for minutes at a time, while weird music by Peer Raben, who scored the film, and remanent of the just passed psychedelic era, drones on. Some critics contend that this is meant to allow the viewer to ponder the psychological bonds between all the family members, but really it’s a funeral dirge for any remaining health the clan might have had, and the filmmaker taking stock of the coming body count.

  Thankfully, Whity does not push its tenuous humorous likeability by being too long. It’s only 95 minutes, and its manifest flaws lead one to believe that part of the problem was that Fassbinder probably did not spend enough time crafting the film, which was shot in only thirty days. Before he overdosed in 1982, at the age of thirty-seven, he would make forty-three films, direct fourteen plays, write four radio plays, and direct twenty-four television projects. It is interesting to note these flaws and compare them to the flaws that followed him across the films of his career. As for Whity, it’s simply a bad, bad film, but more in line with Robot Monster or Plan 9 From Outer Space good bad than with The Hours or Brokeback Mountain or Crash bad bad. As for whether Fassbinder realized he’d made a camp classic, a film that is funny enough to give Blazing Saddles a run for its money? I don’t know. Nor do I care, just as I so not care how one labels this film- satire, camp classic, Neo-Expressionist masterpiece, black comedy, melodrama; for funny is funny, and the hour and a half of laughs I got from this dreadful little film was worth something. Perhaps even what little I paid for it.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]

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