• Fassbinder was moving so fast in the 1970s that some the projects can bleed into each other upon recollection– but not Despair. This is auteur cinema: the inevitable self-destruction of the protagonist paired with the marvelous visual style is pure Fassbinder. But this does feel like a different size scale than most of his work. This is easily the biggest budget Fassbinder was given to play with (it is said it was more expensive than all of his many films made prior combined) and the only film he did not write up to this point in his career (Tom Stoppard wrote this one so do not panic). It is from a Vladimir Nabokov’s (“Lolita”) novel, starring Dirk Bogarde and shot by Michael Ballhaus so there is talent spilling out all over the place.
  • Bogarde plays a rich chocolatier named Herman in early 1930s Berlin. Hitler and the Brown shirts are coming. He becomes obsessed with escaping his life. He fantasizes about a doppelgänger, he sets up a scheme in his mind surrounding his wife and life insurance.
  • The fastidious visual design is wondrously tied to the narrative. Despair has these rich, obstructed interior set-ups. This is even foreshadowed during the opening credits in the rain. Herman’s house has this stylized decal glass with Fassbinder’s active camera diving in and out as characters are partially obstructed. There are mirrors (perfect for Herman’s obsessions with identity) everywhere. Fassbinder zooms around, and even swings the camera like Mizoguchi would in many of his works (including The 47 Ronin). When the interiors aren’t working like a house of mirrors, they are swathed in this canary yellow. Fassbinder evokes one of his cinematic heroes Douglas Sirk with an All That Heaven Allows-like shot with Bogarde in front of the false blue light and the fake snow in the window at the 15-minute mark.
  • Herman uses the murder/merger slip of the tongue decades before American Psycho.
  • Fassbinder will often have a full composition set-up with a deliberately fussy and busy interior and then put the characters in the deep background to let it play out behind the veneer.

At the 30-minute mark there are these chocolate figurines in the foreground bottom of the frame as Fassbinder zooms through a door creating another frame to capture Bogarde’s Herman in the background.

  • Visconti’s use of lamps as part of the mise-en-scene. I am sure Fassbinder viewed the use of Bogarde (Death in Venice) as borrowing from Visconti (another influence on Fassbinder), too.

Was there a better actor at putting on false fronts while coming apart on the inside than Bogarde?

a dissonant score, canted angles—this is a little like Altman’s Images (1972) combined with a noir-like insurance/murder crime.

Decadent interiors- at the 80-minute mark—an arrangement that would make Sirk and Ozu proud.

Like Kubrick in The Shining, Fassbinder arranges the camera to create a receding hallway to the bedroom– it funnels your vision. The hallway is lined with mirrors, this set-up is used again and again in the film.

  • Dostoevsky in the text. This was Nabokov’s “Crime and Punishment”.

There is the devastatingly obvious “there is no resemblance” with his doppelgänger line—identity. Then Herman is left on his own, to rot, with the broken mirrors and venetian blinds.

  • A Must-See film – top five of the year quality.