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Fassbinder DVD boxset

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Rio das Mortes
cast: Hanna Schygulla, Michael König, Günther Kaufmann, Katrin Schaake, and Harry Baer

director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

84 minutes (12) 1971
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
This mannered piece is a comedy only in the sense that Chekov's plays are comedies, and it's unlikely that audiences were rolling in the aisles, even in Munich. Over the 84 minutes, the feeling that cultural barriers and the passage of 30 years have made the thing impenetrable disperses and the deliberate absurdities become apparent. Fassbinder uses Brechtian devices to highlight the artificiality of what is on view but it's arguable whether the rather shallow political points he makes merit the dialectical effort. Remarkably enough, the film develops a certain amateurish charm and the gorgeous Hanna Schygulla (Effi Briest) lights up the screen as always.

The film opens with Hanna (the four principal characters share the actors' names) fielding a telephone call from her mother while getting ready to go out for the afternoon. Hanna poses fetchingly in quite sturdy black underwear while lying to her mother about her lifestyle. Later she practices a hackneyed maxim about the importance of the early uptake of education for young children. Hanna meets her friend Katrin (Katrin Schaake, What's New Pussycat, The American Soldier) at a café�. Katrin is planning on marriage, and Hanna says that she and her boyfriend Mike are to be married too. Mike arrives (Michael König, The Niklashausen Journey) but, while talking to Hanna about their future, he knocks over the saltcellar, a portentous moment signified by ominous chords on the soundtrack and significant looks between the actors.

At home, later, Hanna is visited by a salesman, G�nther (Günther Kaufmann, The Marriage Of Maria Braun), who Mike attacks, and it turns out that Mike and Günther were childhood friends planning to do their national service together until Günther joined the navy. The fight between the two is slightly ridiculous, with Mike's punches clearly failing to connect and with no sound effect to pretend otherwise; one can only assume this is deliberate, but the effect is of a spoof 1970s' cop show where fists miss by miles and athletic ladies are clearly stuntmen in ill-fitting wigs.

Mike and Günther reveal that they possess an ancient map showing the location of a Mayan temple in the jungles of Peru. The two reconciled friends determine to mount an expedition, and an assistant in a travel agency works out that they will need to raise DM40k. Mike is an apprentice tiler, and Günther has his salesman's job, and the rest of the film shows their efforts to raise the capital.

Mike and Günther's fantastical notion is set against the banality of their existence and the mundane business of trying to raise the money for the expedition. Hanna suggests they get her businessman uncle to finance them, on the pretext that they are going to farm cotton in Peru. Researching in a local library provides the opportunity to question a spokesman about radicalised clergy in Brazil and Columbia. Mike sells his beloved MG sports car; the salesman can only offer him DM2k but marks the car up for resale for a thousand more. Scenes go on for longer than they merit, while at the centre of the drama Hanna and Mike are becoming estranged.

Finally overhearing a conversation in a bar, Mike and Günther find a benefactress. Mike visits his parents before the morning flight to Paris, on the first stage of the expedition, and Hanna takes Günther to her bed, making him promise to take her to Paris with them.

The stilted dialogue, static performances, and unlikely plot of Rio das Mortes, function on the Brechtian level to keep the spectator emotionally detached, but whether this provokes the next stage of critical self-examination is debateable. Furthermore, the positively hormonal presence of Hanna Schygulla, whether in black underwear, near naked, or shimmying and shaking in a little red dress with the director himself, would rule out emotional detachment in anyone except the recently deceased. One for Fassbinder and Schygulla fans only.

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