by J HurtadoNovember 13, 2011 9:10 PM

Despair may not be Rainer Werner Fassbinder's best known or most famous work, but in his all too brief film making career, it may be the film most front loaded with talent. Fassbinder filmed a story by Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), adapted by famous British playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), shot by his frequent collaborator, and future Scorsese favorite, Michael Ballhaus (The Last Temptation of Christ), and got international cinema icon Dirk Bogarde to star. With a team like that, there is no reason that film should be anything less than a classic, yet somehow it managed to fail critically upon it's premiere at Cannes in 1978, leaving Fassbinder even more despondent than usual. Thankfully, Bavaria Media took on a massive restoration, and the film can reach an all new audience with Olive Films' beautiful new Blu-ray edition. Their disc is gorgeous and includes a great feature length documentary on the film's production. This is another winner from Olive Films!
Based on the classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov with screenplay adaptation by Tom Stoppard. In early 1930s Germany, against the backdrop of the Nazis' rise to power, Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde), a Russian emigrant and successful chocolate magnate, starts experiencing mental breakdowns. He soon meets Felix, an unemployed laborer, who Hermann believes to be his doppelganger. He hatches up an elaborate plot, which he believes will free him of all his worries and nightmares. Cinematography by legendary DP, Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, The Departed). Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz).
Films about madness and alienation were the bread and butter of German cinematic enfant terrible, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  By the time of his death at the age of 37, Fassbinder had completed forty feature films and at least as many TV series, stage plays, and shorts. Many of those films are seen as a bit too depressing or even obtuse for a general audience, but by the time he turned 30, Fassbinder was looking to make a big splash, after having grown a bit weary of working so hard for relatively little recognition. Despair was his first opportunity to go big.

With a $6M DM budget behind him, Fassbinder and his producers wrangled the above mentioned creative team and set to work.  The resulting tale of madness and paranoia is a gripping journey into the world of the delusional Hermann Hermann, played by Dirk Bogarde. Hermann is a Russian immigrant in Germany after the end of World War I trying to make a buck. He is married to a delightfully daft free spirit named Lydia, who is constantly seeking sexual fulfillment both inside and outside of their marriage. This doesn't seem to bother Hermann much, as he is too busy spiraling into insanity. 

On a business trip, he spots a general laborer whom he thinks is his doppelganger. He arranges to disguise the man as himself and collect the insurance policy he takes out on himself.  The only problem is that his alleged double looks nothing like him, it is all a figment of Hermann's growing paranoia and dissociation from reality. His wife is so clueless that she barely even notices anything awry, even as the world around Hermann crumbles and his general behavior becomes dangerously erratic. Bogarde's performance as the polished madman is astounding, and characteristic of his late career work when he decided to play the acting game his own way, rather than stick to the safe choices.

Fassbinder's control over the audience in Despair is absolute.  His grasp of mise en scene is quite admirable and we see the film through his eyes. Dirk Bogarde plays Hermann as a man slowly going mad, but in such a way that no one could possibly see it, unless they were omniscient and with him all of the time, luckily, Fassbinder gives the audience that advantage. The dramatic tension throughout the film is nail-biting, and that is due in no small part to the cinematography of Ballhaus and the absolutely astonishing and riveting score by Peer Raben. Raben's score is both classical and modern and presents a very tense juxtaposition of emotions in Despair, which definitely intensifies all of the performances both on and off screen.

This was my first viewing of Despair, and only my fourth or fifth Fassbinder film, but I'm very glad I've had the chance to see it now. Fassbinder was at the head of the New German Cinema in the '70s and his works have remained a stylistic template for European art film ever since.  Echoes of Fassbinder can be found everywhere and on every major European filmmaker of the last thirty five years. This may not be Fassbinder at the top of his game, but it is definitely worth a watch and miles better than much of the crap that passes as art film these days.

The Disc:

The Bavaria Media restoration of Despair is absolutely gorgeous. This is the same organization previously responsible for the admirable restoration jobs on Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz and the more recent Jerzy Skolimowsky restoration of Deep End, which I praised here a few months ago. The image is very lively, and the grain is very natural.  The colors are intentionally a bit flat on the print, but probably truer than they've ever been. The sound is equally impressive, and I found myself riveted by Peer Raben's score in DTS-HD MA audio on more than one occasion. I cannot say enough for this presentation.  Following their Blu-ray released of Amer, Olive Films is definitely on a roll.

There is only one extra on this Blu-ray disc, but it is definitely worthwhile.  The Cinema and Its Double is a 73-minute documentary from Fiction Factory, the same production company responsible for the excellent Deep End retrospective about which I've already written. The documentary covers all facets of Despair from the initial financing and pre-production all the way through the film's premiere and ultimate failure at Cannes '78. Included are interviews with every living major cast and crew member, which sadly leaves out Fassbinder and Bogarde, but the rest have many interesting stories to tell. Though it is worth mentioning that there are archival interviews of Fassbinder around the time of the film's completion. At 73 minutes, the documentary doesn't overstay its welcome and I'll definitely be revisiting it, as it certainly is helpful in appreciating what was accomplished here.

Despair is a very entertaining, and at times draining film. I enjoyed it, and I think that Twitch readers would probably have a pretty positive reaction to it, given a little bit of patience.  Olive Films' blu-ray presentation of Despair is highly recommended!

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