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Fassbinder DVD boxset

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Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven
cast: Brigette Mira, Ingrid Caven, Irm Hermann, and Armin Meier

director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

143 minutes (18) 1975
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven (aka: Mutter Küsters Fahrt Zum Himmel) is one of Fassbinder's most arresting creations and has, as is usual for him, several angles of attack. The main thrust is directed against political hypocrisy on the left, but it also walks over capitalism and the atomisation of the modern family to get there. If some of the political targets have aged themselves out of existence, then surely the comments on celebrity culture are more apt now than ever.

The film starts in the Küsters' working-class flat. Emma (Bridgette Mira), the other, is doing piecework (assembling electrical plugs) while conversing with her son, Ernst, and his pregnant wife, Helene (Irm Hermann). There is obviously a power struggle over the control of Ernst, at least in Helene's mind. The couple are discussing their upcoming holiday to Finland while the radio plays music in the background. A newsflash announces that a worker at a chemical plant has killed his boss and then killed himself. The family are wondering whether Emma's husband's tyre factory could be considered a chemical plant (the unreliable nature of the press being one of the motifs of the film) when the doorbell goes and a man briefly announces that it was, after all, Hermann K�sters who committed the murder/ suicide. Soon, the flat is filled with pressmen who are busily photographing the family and asking them leading questions. The impression that we get is that Hermann was ordinary to the point of invisibility, but that does not make for good copy.

Meanwhile, Corinna Coren (Ingrid Caven playing the Kusters' daughter) hears of the tragedy while she is at work in a sleazy nightclub in some other city. She decides that she has to return home despite a cynical attempt to persuade her to stay by her boss (a superb cameo from Kurt Raab) who produces some wonderfully nihilistic arguments. It's probably no coincidence that Raab also co-wrote the screenplay with Fassbinder. Corinna flies home and is picked up at the airport by one of the reporters, Benno (Gottfied John), who offered to drive Emma out to collect her. It soon becomes obvious that Corinna views the sensational death of her father as a publicity opportunity, and she falls into a relationship with Benno. Her looks are fading and, on the evidence provided, she never had much in the way of talent anyway, so she is keen to grab at every chance offered.

Ernst and Helene, however, do not even cancel their holiday to attend the funeral. Aside from Emma, Corinna and the press pack, the only other people to turn up are a middleclass communist couple (well played by Margit Carstensen and Karlheinz Böhm) who are the only two people to take the time to listen to Emma's woes. She is under no illusions that like the press, they don't have their own agenda, but she believes that they will do something to clear his name after the mudslinging tabloids have done their bit. Eventually she joins the Communist party, which leads to one of the highpoints of the film. Karl (B�hm) is addressing a meeting with rousing rhetoric and the camera slowly starts to pull away from him, moving backwards through the crowd and the hall. His words cease to register with the viewer as the perspective of him alters subtly again and again. It's an incredible shot. Then Emma Küsters goes up to give her first speech to the party. The camera remains on a close-up of her while she delivers a dignified and moving speech. The communists reveal themselves to be paper tigers (or armchair revolutionaries, as some of the characters had warned Emma previously), and she finds that the anarchists, led by Horst Knabb (Mathias Fuchs), are the only ones who are offering the chance of change through direct action and the offices of the local newspaper.

Here is where the film splits - literally. The re-shot ending is here and there is also the original 'happy', ending that featured only on the American release. Both make the anarchists look very bad, but in two totally different ways. Fassbinder felt obliged to go back and revisit the climax, and it must be said that he made the right decision. In one, the anarchists are revealed to be insane, and in the other little better than the communists. For my money (and this is very hard to write without overt spoilers), the original ending feels like a betrayal of Emma's character. The new ending is, however, uniquely effective. The film freezes on the look of horror on Emma's face as she realises what is unfolding, and then the succeeding action is printed, script-like, over the picture. It is to Fuchs' credit that both endings fit with the role that he has been playing.

Possibly a little more care could have been taken with the mix of the monaural soundtrack, but otherwise it is almost impossible to fault it on a technical level. Bleak? Yes, it is, from some angles, but it is a compassionate film that offers up the possibility of hope and redemption.

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