The Merchant of Four Seasons (Händler der vier Jahreszeiten)/Beware of a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte) Review

Back in the studio era, there were directors who made several films a year, quite often those who worked on B Pictures. For a particularly extreme example, see Allan Dwan, who has 406 directing credits on the IMDB in a fifty-year career, although many of them were shorts made in the early part of the second decade of the twentieth century, before feature film production in the USA was fully under way. More recently, we have Takashi Miike (ninety-nine IMDB directing credits at the time of writing) is a director who has made more films than he has lived years. And there is Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982).

Fassbinder was one of the leading names of the New German Cinema of the Seventies, others including Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms, all of them apart from Sanders-Brahms still alive and active as I write this. But Fassbinder epitomised the star burning brightly but not for long. His filmography may well be exhausting to read, so perhaps have a lie down after this: thirty-six feature films for both cinema and television, three television miniseries (one of them the fifteen-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz), two early short films, one episode of the portmanteau feature Journey into Autumn, one feature-length documentary. If that wasn't enough, he directed plays for the stage and the radio and acted in his own and other people's films.

This disc contains Fassbinder's eleventh and twelfth film, both shot quickly in 1971 (The Merchant of Four Seasons in just eleven days). Arrow's packaging favours the later film over the former, in that its title comes first and it provides the cover illustration. Merchant was a turning point in Fassbinder's career, being the film which particularly established his reputation, and also the film where he first began to assimilate the influence of the melodramas made by Douglas Sirk in Hollywood in the 1950s. But I'll respect chronological order here.

Beware of a Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte) (103:55)

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Beware of a Holy Whore is a film à clef, inspired by the making of Fassbinder's film Whity the year before. That film was Fassbinder's take on the Western, shot in Spain. So, in Holy Whore, we are in Spain, mostly in the lobby and various rooms of a hotel, with the cast and crew hanging around waiting for the director to arrive – and he does, in the shape of Jeff (Lou Castel). If Jeff is Fassbinder's alter ego, Fassbinder himself plays the assistant director. The star of the film within the film, Eddie Constantine, plays himself. As Adrian Martin points out in his commentary, it's ironic that a film about filmmaking includes in its cast a large number of film directors, or future film directors, including Margarethe von Trotta and Ulli Lommel. Fassbinder acted in the latter's 1973 debit feature Tenderness of the Wolves.

There's not really any plot, just the interactions between the large cast of characters, sometimes sexual (both hetero and gay). Fassbinder's early films have their roots in his work for the theatre, showing the clear influence from Brecht in his staging and the performance style of his cast. By now, he had built up his own repertory company of actors, which along with several regular crewmembers is a reason why he was able to make so many films so quickly: familiarity bred efficiency. Karl Scheydt and Kurt Raab are among the familiar faces, as is Hanna Schygulla, who was probably the biggest star name to make her name in Fassbinder's films. Castel was not one of these, and this is the only film he made for the director. A Colombian-born, Italian-based Swede, he was best known for his lead role in Marco Bellochio's debut feature Fists in the Pocket.

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Beware of a Holy Whore is often funny in its cynical look at the filmmaking process. This and his next feature (below) mark a turning point in his career. While it's certainly essential for Fassbinder aficionados, I'd suggest it's not the best place for beginners to start: they'd best start on this disc with The Merchant of Four Seasons.

Beware of a Holy Whore doesn't seem to have had a British cinema release, and certainly was not submitted to the BBFC before its 2007 DVD release. (Like Merchant it very likely would have received a X certificate from the Board in the 1970s, but it's now a 15.) The trailer included on this disc mentions legal issues which delayed its release, and it may have been the case that by the time it was available quite a few other Fassbinder films had been made and were awaiting their own releases. So maybe it fell by the wayside somewhat. It did have its UK television premiere on 6 August 1987, as part of one of a few Fassbinder seasons Channel 4 showed in the 1980s.

The Merchant of Four Seasons (Händler der vier Jahreszeiten) (88:27)

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Around the end of 1970, Fassbinder took a long break from filmmaking, eight months. He had seen several of Douglas Sirk's films for the first time and enthusiastically tracked down the German-born director, then living in retirement in Switzerland. Sirk had begun his career in Germany, but had left due to the rise of Nazism, finally relocating to the United States. In the 1950s he made a series of films, critically dismissed at the time as melodramatic women's pictures but whose reputation has increased hugely since, including Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. They have been very influential in their use of melodrama as social comment, and directors like Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes and indeed Fassbinder have made use of Sirk's staging and use of colour. Fassbinder made his own version of All That Heaven Allows in Fear Eats the Soul but Sirk casts a big shadow over several of his films from this era, and The Merchant of Four Seasons is where it started.

We're set somewhat non-specifically in the 1950s. Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller) joined the Foreign Legion when his one true love (Ingrid Caven) rejected him. He lost his job as a policeman when he was caught receiving a blow job from a prostitute. He's in a loveless marriage with Irmgard (Irm Hermann) and they have a daughter, Renate ( Andrea Schober) and he owns a stand selling fruit.

Merchant is a tragedy of a man thwarted at all sides by the society he lives in. Hans should be completely unlikeable: he drinks and beats his wife. Add to that a hefty dose of Little Man Syndrome: Irmgard is noticeably taller than him, as is pointed out partway through. And Irmgard gains a lot of sympathy, trying to hold together her family despite everything. But Fassbinder makes us care as Hans goes on his downward plunge.

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Hirschmüller (who isn't actually that short – 5'7", Hermann being in fact only an inch and a half taller) had acted in some of Fassbinder's earlier films and continues to do so to this day, but this was the last time they worked together. Irm Hermann was a close collaborator with Fassbinder from his early short film The City Tramp until just before his death. Ingrid Caven was another regular, and had been married to Fassbinder for two years. Hanna Schygulla has a small role. Appearing late on in a flashback is El Hedi ben Salem, who became Fassbinder's lover and played one of the lead roles in Fear Eats the Soul before his death in 1977.

The Merchant of Four Seasons was released in British cinemas a little belatedly in 1974, released after some of the films which followed it. It had its UK television premiere on Channel 4 on 14 July 1983 as part of a Fassbinder season. It has had previous VHS and DVD releases but here makes its Blu-ray debut.

(Thanks to Sheldon Hall for the details of the television showings.)

The Disc


The Merchant of Four Seasons and Beware of a Holy Whore is both a standalone release and part of the ten-film, seven-disc limited edition Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection blu-ray box set. The latter is available from Arrow here, though may have sold out by the time you read this. All the seven discs have been or will be released singly. The box set has a 192-page hardbound book exclusive to it. All of Fassbinder's films are receiving 4K restorations from the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, and the ten in this set are the ones now available. Needless to say, there are a lot more for them to work on. Both films were released on DVD by Arrow in 2007 and were reviewed by Noel Megahey here.

Both films are transferred in 1.37:1, or Academy Ratio. In the West, that was a ratio that had been made obsolete in commercial cinema with the coming of CinemaScope and conversion to widescreen that had taken place in 1953. However, the ratio looks to be correct for both films, though I don't doubt many cinemas showed them in 1.66:1 – but no wider than that, hopefully. The cinematography of Michael Ballhaus in Holy Whore and Dietrich Lohmann in Merchant really benefit, with the colours strong and grain natural and filmlike. There's a curious checkerboard pattern on the sky at the start of the flashback featuring ben Salem, though I'm not aware if this is on previous releases, let alone the original film. Both films fade to black with no end titles, though these transfers follow this with restoration credits.

The soundtracks are in the original mono: German dialogue for Merchant and a mix of German and English with some untranslated French and Spanish for Holy Whore. The results are clear and well-balanced between dialogue, sound-effects and (mainly diegetic) music. English subtitles are optional, if your German is up to the task.

Both films have audio commentaries. If you're wondering why all the commenters are Australian academics, this is explained by the fact that they originated on Madman's DVD releases. On Holy Whore we have Adrian Martin and on Merchant we have Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Christian McCrea. Both are very informative, with the pair on Merchant pointing out little touches of mise-en-scène (such as a table cloth and wall matching the colours of Hans's plaid shirt, so he's effectively disappearing into his environment) that might be miss. They also seem to be going out of their way to knock other Fassbinder experts they disagree with: Christian Braad Thomsen comes in for some stick.

Also on the disc is "Castel as Fassbinder" (9:53) a newly-produced interview with Lou Castel, who talks about the making Holy Whore and Fassbinder's methods. He says he didn't see the film until some time later, with French subtitles as his German wasn't good enough. He speaks in French, with English subtitles available. The final on-disc extra is the German trailer for Holy Whore (2:41).

That's it for the single release, but the relevant part of the boxset book have essays, "The Enigma of Filmmaking" by Gertrud Koch on Holy Whore and "The Dead Weight of Things", by Michael Pattison on Merchant, both of which claim their film as among the director's masterpieces. Also in the book are film credits, colour stills and transfer notes.

More on

Film
8 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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