Saturday, 4 September 2010

Veronika Voss and fascination

Veronika Voss is the last film in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's BRD trilogy, following The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola. All of the films are set in West German in the 1950s and each features a central female protagonist at the centre of a nexus of economics, history, survival and desire. Yet Veronika Voss, Fassbinder's penultimate film before his death in 1982 feels somewhat different to the other two BRD films. The titular protagonist does not find and make herself during the economic miracle - as do Maria and Lola - but has already spent the best part of herself during the war years. Voss is based on the last years of UFA star Sybille Schmitz, a hugely popular actress and favourite of Goebbels whose career never recovered once WW2 was over; she committed suicide in 1955. Using her life as a springboard, Fassbinder creates a glorious black and white noir in which a soccer journalist is drawn into a web by a faded actress, a web which leads to death and despair; it bears some similarities to Sunset Boulevard in the same way that Braun does Mildred Pierce or Lola does The Blue Angel.

The received wisdom about Fassbinder's BRD trilogy is that they are in some ways allegorical portraits of the West German economic miracle (Thomas Elsaesser deals with this critically in his excellent book Fassbinder's Germany: History Identity Subject). Voss feels different because, although it is grounded in a particular time and its lead character has been shaped by a particular historical period, the subject matter of the film leaps beyond history into something more dazzling and dangerous. Veronika Voss is a film about desire and fascination, subject matter which is far more compelling (to my current eyes) than allegorizing history for socio-critical purposes. Voss seems like the last station for Fassbinder before his extraordinary final film Querelle, whereby he jettisons Germany history and all pretence at social realism to give a deeper, wider-ranging vision into fascination, disavowal and the forming of the socially gendered self (see Steven Shaviro's chapter on Querelle in his The Cinematic Body).

The journalist in Veronika Voss becomes fascinated by VV after meeting her after a screening of one of her Nazi era films. He becomes embroiled in her life as she tries to make a comeback, tries to deal with the past and maintains her present morphine addiction. The journalist's girlfriend also gets involved with Voss, leading directly to the girlfriend's death. This fascination of the couple with Voss can be taken as an emblem of audience fascination with stars and celebrities. Whether it is Voss on the silver screen, Voss as public celebrity or Voss as lost cause, at all times the woman is completely compelling and the couple are driven, we and they are  never sure why, to involve themselves with her. From whence does Voss's fascination derive? Fassbinder answers this question partially in the film's mise-en-scene, where she is made available to us through a highly stylized use of black and white cinematography – a film star's appeal is provoked in us partially by their manufactured cinematic presence. Yet this only goes some way to explaining why a star becomes fascinating and continues to be fascinating even when they are no longer doing the things which made them a star. There seems to be a deep need within the central couple, it almost might be deemed a void, which Voss feeds and fills. Yet even as I type this, I am advised by a voice to clarify – Veronika Voss does not criticise the fascination that its protagonist holds; it wallows in it. To merely criticise would be a puritan's pose; Fassbinder was better than a puritan. There is a scene, near the end, where Voss stands at a piano and sings Memories Are Made of This; other characters watch her as the audience do, fascinated even as the performance falters, each experiencing it in a peculiar, personal way. Rosel Zech brings a quality of watchability to this moment which is extraordinary, convincingly conveying that this person is the only person who can perform the song in this way, that we are experiencing the presence of a daring singularity. The idea that an individual can be a singularity, perfectly unlike anything else, is dangerous to the Democratic ideal. This makes fascination a subject which an artist explores at his or her peril, especially in ages such as ours, in which art is supposed to have a socially valuable qualities. Fascination has little to no positive, progressive social value, yet it is difficult to imagine life being as intriguing without it.

Fascination is a quality we most associate with film, music and sports stars; politicians might also fascinate and this is where the subject causes most unease. Yet fascination is not solely the preserve of the (in)famous. How many people owe their relationships and their careers to the fascination they exert over others? Only this week, the Tory politician William Hague has been unable to quite explain why he gave one Christopher Myers a job as his Special Advisor; it could be that Myers fascinated him in the way that, for example, George Villiers the first Duke of Buckingham fascinated James I and his son, Charles I. There is not necessarily an active sexual component to fascination – having sex with the fascinator might be a part of the deal or not – but what is central is that fascination brings a kind of mystery into our lives, the kind of mystery the Saints felt when they pursued their God, even unto their annihilation. Fascination and annihilation go together, the one leading inexorably to the other – perhaps we are fascinated because we wish to lose ourselves, or because we believe that we are lost and wish to find ourselves; in either case, the fascinator is believed to be the one in which we can be lost or found.

To be a fascinating person is a lifelong occupation. Those who fascinate are as addicted to being fascinating  as those fascinated by them are addicted to the fascination. Fascinators often come to bad ends – Voss commits suicide, a death arranged by the morphine-dealing health "carers" who are picking over the last remnants of her wealth in the film; in the age of Kings, favourites like Gaveston, Hugh Despenser or Villiers were killed by political rivals. It is doubtful whether a fascinator can ever stop casting the spell of fascination; the best they can do is become a recluse, like Garbo. One might break the fascinator's spell on oneself, although my suspicion is that life would be then given a fine coating of grey (unless one found another fascinator).

Fassbinder's Veronika Voss is one of the few contemporary, "respectable" works which deal with fascination. It is a lucky coincidence that I watched it in the same week as I re-read Howard Barker's small book Death, the One and the Art of Theatre. Barker is one of the few contemporary theatre artist who takes fascination as a subject. Odd, given that fascination is all around us but then, fascination is, as I suggest, an invitation to death. I write this blog not as a definitive statement but rather as a declaration of interest in fascination as a field of meditation, as a subject area (I am researching the life of the above mentioned Villiers for a film script).  I inch forwards a case that we consider fascination…

1 comment:

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