Rainer Werner Fassbinder Jan Dawson - Essay

Jan Dawson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

More than any other of Fassbinder's early films noirs, Gods of the Plague is primarily a mood piece, its narrative impressionistically sketched and expressionistically recorded. Each scene achieves a near-absolute existential immediacy, and the causal connections between them, only thinly suggested (expository dialogue, even more than the film's other conversations, is minimal and monosyllabic), remain the subject of speculative reconstruction rather than of any self-evident logic. The relationships between the characters themselves similarly elude definition, projection, retrospection and permanence…. Though the country-outing sequence, with its freewheeling aerial shots of the car moving down empty lanes, and the absurd reunion punch-up which leaves the underworld underdogs piled up, winded and semi-conscious, on top of one another, recalls the nouvelle vague and some of the ephemeral joy of Godard's bande à part, the charm of Fassbinder's petty criminals is considerably less evident, largely because, despite certain marked moral delineations …, he deliberately refrains from personalising them. If Johanna and the policeman, both guilty of guile …, carry the weight of the film's moral opprobrium, its sympathies are less easy to pin down; or rather, they comprehensively embrace all the pain and compromise of all those characters merely trying to 'get by' in a society (glimpsed only in refractory images) which consistently frustrates their effort…. [If] the film's women betray the rules of love, friendship and the inexorable present tense, they are also capable of a truly Christian charity. Their relationship to larger-than-life Hollywood archetypes is defined, not just by the stark contrasts of Dietrich Lohmann's lighting, but by the framing and composition. What lifts the film above its variously signalled sources is the audacity with which Fassbinder combines a strictly behaviourist approach to his characters with an elaborately baroque visual style. The movie's many mirrors function, however, not just decoratively but also cruelly: a halfway house between dream and reality, they end by offering those who gaze into them, as into the great beyond, merely a different, usually a harsher view of the reality they yearn to escape. (pp. 113-14)

Jan Dawson, "Feature Films: 'Götter der Pest' ('Gods of the Plague')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1978), Vol. 45, No. 533, June, 1978, pp. 113-14.