Richard Combs

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

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Since Fassbinder's message about oppression, and its social and emotional forms, was intended for a mass audience and not a coterie of cinephiles, his self-ordained task was to 'create' that audience by recreating the communal style of the greatest popular cinema in history. Although Chinese Roulette (1976) still relates to that tradition—it is a melodramatic chamber piece, in which the romantic triangles of four haut bourgeois characters tensely overlap—it pointedly introduces 'foreign' elements into Fassbinder's usual stock company of players, and its political references (the Nazi past, contemporary political terrorism) supply not so much a message as teasing clues to the games its people play.

[Both Chinese Roulette and Despair (1978)], in fact, are dominated by an intellectual, puzzle-making mood. But if the key to the acrostic in Chinese Roulette is Fassbinder's familiar disgust with bourgeois institutions, and in Despair his prescience of fascism in the identity crisis of poor, mad Hermann Hermann, the answers never satisfactorily account for the structures that contain them. This whiff of formalism might also have something to do in both cases with their peculiarly literary conceits. (pp. 258-59)

Artificiality, as a theme and a stylistic strategy, has been common to all Fassbinder's films in the 70s. The rhetoric of melodrama boosts the emotional content of his material, while it highlights by schematising all the social mechanisms of repression and control. Chinese Roulette … pushes such artificiality up a few stops, until it arrives at an hysterical intensity and formal extravagance not far removed from the horror movie….

The customary implications of Fassbinder's bourgeois melodramas are at once intensified and abstracted by the horror movie milieu. A familiar kind of hyper-naturalism prevails in those scenes where characters and camera seem to be conducting a delirious dance of death—circling each other through the vistas of glass and coldly glittering bric-à-brac. But where this thoroughly excavated naturalism shades into a more menacingly opaque expressionism, Fassbinder slyly manages to generalise his disgust and his desire to épater le bourgeoisie. He might be jabbing at a state of mind that cannot be precisely located in present-day Germany, seeking broader metaphors behind his local targets, while turning inward (abandoning the communal mythology of his 70s films) for his ammunition. Private meanings appear to cluster about the film, and even the concrete political clues deepen rather than elucidate the air of mystery….

Oddly enough, much of the black humour of Chinese Roulette, particularly its relish for casting a crippled child as its wicked master of ceremonies, might have been invented by Vladimir Nabokov. Exchanging references, as it were, Fassbinder's adaptation of Despair … occasionally sallies some of the horror imagery … more successfully incorporated in Chinese Roulette. If consistently carried through, however, such a style would not have been inappropriate to Despair, since it is part of Nabokov's riddling way with fiction to call for just those kinds of 'dramatic' effects that emphasise the author's presence. And if anything accounts for the failure of Fassbinder's version, for all the decorative brilliance with which he reproduces some of Nabokov's trompe l'oeil imagery, it is his inability to find any overall 'holding' metaphor for the novel's shifting levels of fantasy. (p. 259)

For a while, the film confidently operates in the same sardonic key as its source, piling on levels of unreality…. But it forever fixes Hermann in the same sharp, crystalline perspective as its splendidly artificial décor, never allowing one to relate to the other except in the ghostly, geometric patterns created by the ceaselessly roving camera, which might be looking (as in Fassbinder's more prosaic dramas) for the real toad at the centre of this baroquely unreal world. The objective view freezes to rather solemn, pedantic effect the subjective layers of the novel, which Nabokov steadily peeled away, disclosing in this act his true subject. Ironically, the cosmopolitan origins of Despair are belied by Fassbinder's determination to anchor it in local circumstances, and a parochial stylistic sophistication, while Chinese Roulette is freed from just such constraints by its rather Nabokovian playfulness and lack of formal inhibitions. (p. 260)

Richard Combs, "'Chinese Roulette' and 'Despair'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 4, Autumn, 1978, pp. 258-60.


Jan Dawson


John L. Fell