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With: Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, Klaus Löwitsch, Volker Spengler, Peter Kern, Alexander Allerson, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, Bernhard Wicki, Adrian Hoven, Roger Fritz, Y Sa Lo
Written by: Tom Stoppard, based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 121
Date: 05/19/1978

Despair (1978)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Double Trouble

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I love Rainer Werner Fassbinder because he lived cinema. He slept, breathed, ate, and excreted cinema. And he died for cinema. The math tells much of the story. He died at the age of 37 having completed over 40 movies and TV shows, including two lengthy mini-series and several short films. One can only guess that he was always working on something. The films I like best of his are the ones that reflect this speed and passion, the ones that feel somewhat reckless; although, in his defense, Fassbinder's films were usually quite beautifully and rigorously shot.

And thus we come to Despair, which is not one of his best. It comes from a Vladimir Nabokov novel, and the playful Tom Stoppard adapted it. That's an interesting combination, and it suggests a movie of twisted humor, but Fassbinder doesn't seem quite tuned into the structure or the precision or the absurdity of it all. Despair is more weird than funny. It seems too airless, weighed-down and lacking in the instinct that drove the filmmaker's earlier films. (It reminds me of another ornate movie he made the following year, The Marriage of Maria Braun, which earned him worldwide acclaim.)

Despair is also filmed entirely in English, which probably didn't help much either. Dirk Bogarde stars as Hermann Hermann, the manager of a chocolate factory in pre-WWII Germany. He's married to a bubbleheaded wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol), and she in turn is presumably having an affair with her like-minded cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler). One day Hermann meets a man, Felix (Klaus Löwitsch), whom he thinks is his exact double. He conjures up a scheme involving insurance money, which of course, goes terribly wrong.

Oddly, what would have been the best joke in the book is totally lost on the screen, and there's not much left but long scenes of talking, though set in gorgeously detailed rooms (photographed by the great Michael Ballhaus), as if that's all Fassbinder could think to do. I would have loved for this to have been shot in German, so that perhaps subtitles would have helped the dialogue sound better. As it is, the thick accents and lack of subtitles on Olive Films' new DVD make it difficult to follow the conversations. Perhaps if the film had been less fussy and more visual, it could have been sharper and funnier.

Anyway, I had been interested in seeing this film for years, and it has been notoriously unavailable for just as long. Thanks to Olive Films for making it available on DVD, and in a very fine transfer besides (too bad about that lack of subtitles, but viewers will have to make do). There are no extras. Olive Films also released Fassbinder's I Only Want You to Love Me.

As of November, 2011, Olive Films has followed up with a Blu-Ray edition.

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