Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Tony Rayns

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

The most striking difference between [The Merchant of Four Seasons] and earlier Fassbinder movies is the immense gain in simplicity and clarity, qualities about which there is nothing deceptive. As the chronicle of a man whose dreams and aspirations are systematically denied him by his petit bourgeois environment, Merchant could hardly be more straightforward: its linear narrative … is a step-by-loaded-step catalogue of the betrayals and humiliations that Hans suffers, while occasional fragmentary, dream-like flashbacks serve to expose the roots of his oppression. The other main change is the nature of the mise en scène; the Godardian unpredictability and genre permutations of the earlier films are replaced by a kind of hypernaturalism, still very stylised in its deployment of the actors and locations and in its use of dialogue, but absolutely keyed to mundane realities…. The fascinating tension between this wish for a 'transparency' of style and the formal innovations intrinsic to the process of realising it—a tension that later forms the very substance of movies like Martha and Effi Briest—is here kept very much in check. Merchant consequently achieves an extraordinary reading of 'ordinary' events, and does so with apparently effortless ease…. The film's theme is double edged. The sympathetic portrayal of Hans' suffering is intensified by the character's own inarticulateness, Fassbinder takes pleasure in speaking 'for' a man incapable of doing so himself, just as Petra von Kant's theatrical outpourings of grief spell out emotional responses that are commonly repressed or understated. At the same time, though, Hans' eminently understandable withdrawal into resentful silence tends to redirect attention the more strongly on to the other characters, whose actions and attitudes caused his plight, and as it proceeds the film develops an extremely thorough-going critique of petit bourgeois society in terms much less equivocal than, say, Chabrol's. Fassbinder sharpens his critique by locating it historically…. [The] inexorable quality of the exposition is sometimes blackly humorous in the manner of later Fassbinder, without in any way compromising the director's commitment to his stance…. Merchant of Four Seasons stands up strongly as an all-but-exemplary product of Fassbinder's theory of political film. And although it evidences a much greater authorial control than many of its predecessors, a major factor contributing to its success is the admirably unified ensemble playing. (pp. 175-76)

Tony Rayns, "Feature Films: 'Der Händler der vier Jahreszeiten' ('The Merchant of Four Seasons')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 499, August, 1975, pp. 175-76.

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