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With: Gunther Kaufmann, Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Bar, Ulli Lommel, Tomás Martín Blanco, Stefano Capriati, Elaine Baker, Mark Salvage, Helga Ballhaus
Written by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: German with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 06/01/1971

Whity (1971)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Five Bullets and One Rose

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The good folks at Fantoma Films have done it again. Last year they released their flagship DVD, Alejandro Jodorowsky's Fando & Lis (1967), which was a spectacular job. Now they're on to their second film, one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's lesser-known films, Whity (1971). Though the disc has less in the way of extra goodies, it's an even better movie than Fando & Lis and the transfer is one of the best I've ever seen.

The movie opens with a shot of the title character (Günther Kaufmann) laying in the dirt with something red in his hand. He could be dead, but the movie is just beginning, so who knows? A song in English plays with lyrics about only needing five bullets to kill a family. It's a peculiar song, oddly catchy with undertones of Ennio Morricone's music from his classic spaghetti westerns. The next shot we see will be a black woman cutting off a fish's head.

And so we enter the world of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The main character, Whity, works as a butler for and is an illegitimate son of the Nicholson family, who are all crazy (they all wear greenish-gray face makeup). The father (Ron Randell) has convinced his wife Katherine (Katrin Schaake) that he is dying so that she'll think she's inheriting the estate. Both boys, Frank (Ulli Lommel) and David (Harry Bär), are completely crazy and neurotic. And each member of the family at various times asks Whity to kill other members of the family. Eventually, he finds a creative solution to the problem.

Fassbinder, who died in 1982, was known for many things. He was a rigid perfectionist, passionate with a vengeance, and a sadist who worked his crew hard. But his crews were also fiercely loyal. David Thomson wrote that he "hurled himself at us with such fury that we have retreated." Indeed, Fassbinder put his very soul into each and every one of his forty-something films. Like Jean Vigo, he both lived and died for cinema. He worked quickly but efficiently. In the year he made Whity he made three other films, including the more famous Beware of a Holy Whore. But Whity looks as if it took months with its complicated setups and shots.

The look of Whity comes courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Fassbinder was trying to test him and called for "impossible" shots, which Ballhaus then delivered. There are two shots in particular that are astonishing. One, in which the camera jumps and zooms around the room, takes place during the reading of a will, photographing the faces of the family as their names come up. The other is a roughly three minute tracking shot which follows Whity and his lover, Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) down a flight of stairs. Whity drinks half (!) a bottle of whisky and joins a card game. Then Hanna sings not one, but two songs. And Fassbinder himself is in the middle of the scene, like a king overlooking his kingdom, dressed as a cowboy in the card game.

The rest of the cinematography is nearly perfect as well. Fassbinder photographs characters peering through windows, bars, bedframes, and doorways as often as possible. Characters are also seen reflected in mirrors.

The DVD contains a commentary by Lommel (who also produced the movie) and Ballhaus, who has gone on to photograph many of Martin Scorsese's films such as the cult classic After Hours (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and GoodFellas (1990). It's one of the best commentaries I've heard because it not only enhances the movie, it also gives you an idea of both Fassbinder the artist and Fassbinder the man.

One telling detail is that Fassbinder was passionately and painfully in love with his leading man, Günther Kaufmann. Kaufmann used this as a power to escape Fassbinder's influence and stayed out of his way, which caused Fassbinder even greater pain. During the last shot, which has Whity and Hanna dancing together in the middle of the desert, Fassbinder apparently had a car waiting. When the shot was done, Fassbinder jumped in the car and drove away, "never to be seen again."

Fassbinder's reputation is slowly growing. Now is the time to start re-assessing some of his better films. Whity is a great film, and deserves to be counted among Fassbinder's best, such as The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). This DVD release is a great way to experience his work.

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