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Review: Great satire on self-deception, anarchy & fascism's allure
Although Fassbinder uses humor in all of his pictures, Satan's Brew (1976) is his only out-and-out, writhing-in-laughter comedy. Extraordinarily, this is also one of his most probing looks at those frailties, and follies, of human nature which give rise to cults of personality and even, he argues, fascism. He does not spare himself either, since he mercilessly satirizes himself through the self-absorbed, sexually insatiable - and hilarious - major character, pseudo-poet Walter Kranz (Kurt Raab). This is a kinky, wickedly funny, and many-layered farce.
In its flawless and highly musical pacing, it bears comparison with such screwball comedy masterpieces as Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940). Although Fassbinder may not have used a metronome, as Hawks did, you can almost imagine him conducting, instead of directing, his ensemble. There is music in the delivery of every line, in every gesture (most broad, some very subtle), in the blocking of actors as they cross and recross each other, not to mention in every movement of the camera, and in every perfectly-timed cut. To stretch the musical analogy a bit further, the film is almost a fugue, with Walter as the principal theme, and each of his women - ranging from a wealthy masochist to a high-class hooker with shady connections and a penchant for knitting to a groveling groupie to several more, including his longsuffering wife - as a separate but interwoven melody.
Perhaps Fassbinder needed this extraordinary degree of precision to counterbalance the chaos of the film's action and emotions. All of those qualities are embodied by the uniformly brilliant cast, including many of his regular actors. Margit Carstensen stands out as the frantically self-abasing groupie; but she is virtually unrecognizable with eyeglass lenses thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles. Could this be the lead of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha, and Fear of Fear? Yes! But the star turn is multi-talented Kurt Raab, who worked with Fassbinder as designer, actor, co-writer, and more, on over 30 films. Raab is hysterical in the lead role of Walter; his every inflection and gesture pure comic brilliance.
The design of the film is a perfect foil for the action. It is both one of Fassbinder's most stylish pictures, with dozens of striking but subtle compositions, and most seamless, with all the elements working together in harmony. Peer Raben has written another inspired score (although the main title music here was initially heard under the climactic scene in Chinese Roulette). The music has a jaunty yet sinister quality which buoys the film, yet allows Fassbinder complete freedom in "conducting" the cast, camera movements, and editing to his own rhythms. All of these elements help create a sort of skewed parallel universe, where people's tastes in house paint colors and fashions, not to mention ultra-kinky romance, are off, and where sadomasochism, violence, and multiple forms of spewing are blithely accepted as the daily norm.
Satan's Brew? Although initially puzzling, the title is a key to the film, which is both diabolical - a self-indulgent hell on earth - and intoxicatingly funny. For an artist like Fassbinder, it should be noted that a "poet," Walter - with a free-range id - is the prime mover behind all the chaos. As Walter says at one point, "True genius lies in madness." Fassbinder, a genius at complexity and paradox, has created a world that is simultaneously wildly subversive (in its energy, colorfulness and unbridled freedom) yet deeply conservative (for who could live in such an insane society).
It is no accident that Fassbinder made Walter an avatar of the gay German romantic poet, Stefan George (1868-1933). As we know from some of the film's most hilarious scenes, he founded his own influential literary circle (but unlike Walter did not need to pay his disciples). George used symbolic imagery and precisely arranged "harmonious" words to produce aesthetic intoxication; one cannot help comparing that to Fassbinder's meticulous care in arranging the images, sounds, and rhythms in this film. Of course, George's affectations, obsession with power, and sexual hypocrisy undercut his utopian goals - a paradox which fascinated Fassbinder.
Walter, of course, never shared George's ideals; he was thrilled just being a magnet for people eager to worship him. Ultimately we are left not with persons but impersonators - from Walter to his fawning fans and beyond - whose emptiness (emotional, creative, even spiritual) demands subjugation and humiliation - an acting out of their own self-loathing, itself a product of their emotional wounds which they refuse to confront. From that debasement to fascism, Fassbinder implies, is only a small step. Here, The Master is the comically diminished Walter, and nascent totalitarianism is represented by only a small cell. But history shows where else those tendencies can lead.
Satan's Brew seems one of Fassbinder's most audacious creations, simultaneously a deliriously effervescent romp and a pitch-black satire on self-deception, anarchy, and the allure of fascism. From a certain - perhaps optimistically twisted - point of view, it might even inspire some people to imagine a better world than our own, although it would be the complete negation of the one here.