Germany in the early 1930s. Against the backdrop of the Nazis' rise, Hermann Hermann, a Russian émigré and chocolate magnate, goes slowly mad. It begins with his seating himself in a chair ... See full summary »
Germany in the early 1930s. Against the backdrop of the Nazis' rise, Hermann Hermann, a Russian émigré and chocolate magnate, goes slowly mad. It begins with his seating himself in a chair to observe himself making love to his wife, Lydia, a zaftig empty-headed siren who is also sleeping with her cousin. Hermann is soon given to intemperate outbursts at his workers, other businessmen, and strangers. Then, he meets Felix, an itinerant laborer, whom he delusionally believes looks exactly like himself. Armed with a new life insurance policy, he hatches an elaborate plot in the belief it will free him of all his worries. Written by
R.W.Fassbinder's first film with an international crew has in the German version the subtitle "Eine Reise Ins Licht" / "A Trip into the Light". If someone desires to know where this astonishing subtitle comes from, he usually gets the answer that Fassbinder meant Hermann Hermanns trip into the land of his release, and actually, the movie itself does little to prove that this assumption may be misleading: it shows pictures in which Hermann unifies with his wife Lydia at the border of the Brienzer- or Thunersee, they look like exactly the light-creatures at the Urdasee at the end of E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Medardus". However, these light-figures also switch, and we realize that Hermann Hermann is exchanged with his "double" Felix Weber whom he had chosen to kill because of his alleged similarity with Hermann in order to cash the insurance money that he was hoping to get from Orlovius because his chocolate factory is bankrupt.
So far the outlines of the story. However, one of the most intriguing facts is that "Despair" can be watched in several quite different ways. Taken from outside, it can be seen as a movie about the Russian immigrant H.H., married to his stupid chocolate-binging wife L., having been always a stranger in Germany and going to loose now his company in the beginning of the Nazi era. While he is seriously brooding if the color of the chocolate has similarity with the Nazi uniform and whether the "bitterness" of his Pralinees fits to the Tausendjähriges Reich, he starts to see himself while he is having sex with his wife. In the cinema he sits behind himself, and the movie brings him to the fatal idea to escape bankruptcy by entering a life policy and kill his Doppelganger. However, Hermann does not realize anymore that the man whom he sees, i.e. his real Doppelganger, does not exist outside of his projective brain, he goes out and meets the fairground man Felix who has nothing in common with himself but who is considered by Hermann as his twin-brother.
From this point in the movie on, Hermann Hermann starts his "Trip into the Light", and more and more the audience should become clear, that the use of the word "light" by Fassbinder has nothing to do with the usual metaphoric sense of "light" in the sense of "releaf", but is changed into his opposite. Moreover, Fassbinder uses the light here in addition also in a concrete sense, insofar as he shows the place where Hermann's trips ends as a brightly illuminated Swiss Alpine mountain village. This is by the way programmed: We see a picture of the very same village already at the beginning of the movie, it hangs on the wall in the restaurant, where Hermann and Orlovius meet for the first time. The contradiction to the comforting light in the long tradition from the Bible to Bonaventura becomes now suddenly brutally perverted, when we see Hermann at the end more or less imprisoned in his small, dark hotel room with closed shades, sitting at the edge of his bed like a parcel ready to be picked up and telling the police which is coming to arrest him that he is just an actor and will get out of here.
Finally, we realize that Fassbinder has created with "Despair" a gigantic anti-Bonaventuran Metaphysics of Darkness, his light being the misleading light at the end of the tunnel which Hermann enters at last when he sees himself doubling his individuality. Only in this interpretation of the light as negative pol, but in no ways in the literal interpretation of the light as positive pole, we understand why "Despair" is dedicated to Antonin Artaud, Vincent van Gogh and Unica Zürn, who all ended their light by suicide, thus traditionally spoken in darkness and not relieved by the light of god who explicitly forbids self-killing. The famous sunflower-fields of Van Gogh, the strenght of the theater of cruelty and the opium-illuminations of Artaud, the Zürn's anagrams by aid of which she pressed sense out of combinatorics --- they all are witnesses of a revolutionary new paring of light with the ethical category of Bad and of darkness with the ethical category of Good, and thus the subversion of the logical and ethical correspondences. Was Fassbinder inspired by an often overseen sentence in Unica Zürn's main work "The Man in the Jasmin": "And then I jumped into the light and started to watch myself"?
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