Rainer Werner Fassbinder Penelope Gilliatt - Essay

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven"] is like Brecht's plays and poems in declining open sensibility, but all the same its coinage is care for people, with a guttersnipe wit about the self-deceptions that slaughter intent…. The film has a melodramatic plot, but it is no melodrama. Any work of fiction is beyond melodrama when its logic is clear and large enough. The picture tells us that rhetoric is no escape; that a guru-disciple relationship between sexes or classes is damned; that primitivism of expression—losing one's mind, having a tantrum, using emotional bribery—makes savages of us all; that, since no film artist would hand you the keys to character, the only thing to watch is outward conduct. Mother Küsters does not, of course, go to heaven, as the title bitterly states. But she has made the best choice with her sausage and dumplings, and to have choice is, indeed, a sort of heaven on earth. The Communists were not the answer: they were hilariously hemmed in by their inherited classiness, and someone less lonely than Mother Küsters would have broken down their well-bred walls to find out what they really felt. The anarchist was not the answer, either: he seemed made for the oddly baleful fête champêtre of the magazine-office sit-in. And the pugnacious pregnancy of Mother Küsters' daughter-in-law was certainly not the answer: no new way of life was going to be born from that. The film, like Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," has sins of hypocrisy on its mind: play-acted phone calls, plagiarized sensitivity. Fassbinder's style paradoxically makes an ideal of theatricality rather than of naturalism. In his attitude toward his characters, he is like a burglarious child shaking a piggy bank to get out the hoard: rattling them upside down and from side to side to try to get the truth out of them. (pp. 272-73)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Exile" (originally published as "No Sadness that Art Cannot Quell," in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 6, March 28, 1977), in her Three-Quarter Face: Reports & Reflections (reprinted by permission of Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.; copyright © 1980 by Penelope Gilliatt), Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980, pp. 235-82.∗