I Only Want You to Love Me Review
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me was, for many years, a hard film to track down. Made for German television during the final months of 1975, it first cropped up in the UK some nineteen years later. It appeared late one night on BBC2 as part of their fittingly titled ‘Lost and Found’ season. The focus was on films which had either rarely or never screened on British television before; others in the series included Michael Mann’s The Keep, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution and Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp. After that showing it disappeared once more, for sixteen years this time, until production company Bavaria Film undertook a restoration in 2010. The results were premiered at that year’s Munich Film Festival and since then have embarked on an international theatrical tour before arriving onto disc. Germany was treated to a Blu-ray edition, but here in the UK (and also in the US courtesy of Olive Films) we have a perfectly agreeable DVD-only release.
I Only Want You to Love Me was produced in a matter of weeks during a break in the filming of Satan’s Brew. The inspiration came from a book of interviews conducted by Klaus Antes and Christiane Erhardt. Entitled Lebenslänglich (which translates as Life Imprisonment) it offered up a series of case studies dedicated to those serving life sentences. Fassbinder focused on one in particular, that of a young man imprisoned for murder. The film would offer up a reconstruction of events leading up to his crime, intercut with a fictional Erhardt conducting her interviews. One of Satan’s Brew’s supporting players, Vitus Zeplichal, would play the lead, with many of Fassbinder’s regular troupe occupying the other roles. His own mother, under the name of Lilo Pempeit, would also appear, as she did in many of her son’s films.
The family connection is an important one. The subject of I Only Want You to Love Me, Peter, is shown as a young child being beaten by his mother with a clothes hanger. It’s as punishment for stealing flowers from a neighbour which, to Peter, was an act of kindness towards his mother but, for her, is an act of theft. This imbalance of affection - a love for his parents that is never reciprocated - obviously hit a nerve with the director. As a teenager Fassbinder’s own mother and father divorced with his mother’s subsequent relationship pulling her further from her son. They remained on good terms throughout his life, as her regular appearances in his films suggests, but still these events had an effect on him. Fassbinder clearly saw a lot of Peter in himself prompting this particular project to be a highly personal work.
Alongside the flashbacks and the interview sequences, I Only Want You to Love Me also offers up occasional text inserts. These explain events but also provide a little commentary, allowing Fassbinder his own voice within the otherwise quite straightforward dramatic re-telling. In effect Peter was treated by society in much the same way as his mother treated him during that childhood scene. He only wanted the best for other people - especially his wife and child - and yet societal rules and conventions continually kicked against him until he reached breaking point. The Munich in which he resides is a bleak and miserable place (he proposes to his future wife in a quarry!) and yet Fassbinder’s little interpolations let us know there’s a little sympathy out there, one in which we’ll hopefully share. Aside from the intertitles there’s also a wonderful moment in which the camera pans towards two of Peter’s co-workers in order to eavesdrop on a conversation. Both acknowledge him as a hard worker and lament that most of his overtime is going to be eaten up tax. “That’s life,” they say - indeed, it often feels as though life itself is against this man, piling up the woes and miseries without a second thought.
Given Fassbinder’s obvious connection to its subject, I Only Want You to Love Me shouldn’t be considered a minor entry in its director’s filmography, despite its relative obscurity, quick production period and television origins. Certainly, the latter made no difference to Fassbinder at all, as the likes of World on a Wire and Berlin Alexanderplatz so ably show. He appears to be as invested in this film as any other he put his name to. The performances - especially Zeplichal in the lead - are uniformly excellent and the camerawork by Michael Ballhaus is terrific, pulling off the feat of seeming rather non-descript whilst actually being incredibly subtle. There’s a curiosity and a complexity at work that matches Fassbinder’s own.
With that said, I Only Want You to Love Me is decidedly low-key when placed alongside its director’s prolific output. Understandably it lacks the scope of Berlin Alexanderplatz and the extravagant artifice of Querelle, say. It also downplays its dramas, eschewing the more melodramatic impulses of his best known works. Nevertheless it matches many of them in terms of its anger and its seriousness. Less dazzling, perhaps, but no less fierce in its intent. It’s a worthy rediscovery, especially for those - like myself - who missed their previous chance thanks to that BBC screening back in 1994. Of course, the new restoration (overseen by Ballhaus) aids things immensely as does the hour-long documentary that accompanies this release…
That documentary is the main addition to this impressive new disc from Park Circus. The opening seconds may cause alarm given the softness of the image, but this soon settles down into a fine presentation. As noted in the main bulk of this review there has also been a Blu-ray release in Germany, but it comes as no surprise to see Park Circus opt for DVD only. I Only Want You to Love Me didn’t have the greatest of budgets given its television origins and that shows in the picture quality. The image is pristine but also feels inherently a little soft. Similarly the level of detail is good without being exceptional, though I doubt that a Blu-ray presentation would significantly improve on what we have here. Similarly the mono soundtrack (as per its original German transmission) is solid if unremarkable - it copes perfectly well with the dialogue but isn’t asked to do anything more. English subtitles (unlike the US edition from Olive) are optional. Do be aware, however, that the film, although 1.33:1, has been presented in anamorphic fashion (as per Blu-rays, which have a native 16:9 ratio). This won’t affect owners of widescreen television, though those still in possession of 4:3 tellies will have to experience a heavy window-box effect.
The hour-long documentary, Of Love and Constraints, was directed by Robert Fischer who UK audiences may be familiar with thanks to his Starting Out ‘making of’ which accompanied the BFI’s Blu-ray of Deep End. As with that effort this is a wonderfully in-depth piece taking us through all of the main feature’s key talking points. Its origins, its status as a TV movie, its autobiographical elements for Fassbinder, its reception and plenty more besides are mulled over by Zeplichal, Ballhaus and many more besides. The doc is presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio, with film clips shown in their original 1.33:1, and comes with burnt-in English subtitles. Park Circus have also found a place for a stills gallery on the disc consisting of colour production stills and black and white behind-the-scenes shots.