Purple Television

[April 8 2020] : film

Purple Paradiso: “Chinese Roulette” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976, Your Movie Of The Day Curated And Reviewed By Savannah Nolan and Olivier Zahm

Purple Paradiso: “Chinese Roulette” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976, Your Movie Of The Day Curated And Reviewed By Savannah Nolan and Olivier Zahm

Chinese Roulette is a 1976 West German psychological drama written and directed by the brilliant filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It stars Margit Carstensen, Ulli Lommel, and Anna Karina.


The plot follows a wealthy married couple and their disabled daughter, who has been crippled by polio and walks with crutches. The strange, devilish and innocent-looking daughter — accompanied by her stylish, deaf, blonde nanny — attempts to expose her parents’ infidelities. She finds a way to destroy the perfection of their lifestyle and the hypocrisy of their bourgeois conventions in postwar West Germany. She prepares a nasty trap and connives to get herself, her parents, and their respective lovers to a country house all at the same time, for a weekend of intense embarrassment and emotional games. This highly aesthetical film is a cruel, obstinate mechanism that eventually reveals the truth orchestrated by the young daughter — much resembling Pasolini’s film Teorema (1968), where a young man seduces all the members of a bourgeois family one by one. While the film is in large part a child’s fantasy of revenge, it is also a complex analysis of marriage and other emotional relationships among adults. It’s also a Marxist deconstruction of the German bourgeoisie ideology, which refrains from speaking about a recent Nazi past. It’s Fassbinder’s poetic anarchist statement against society.


The character of the mother represents pure vanity. She’s frigid, without the slightest spark of warmth. The first time we see her, she is putting on makeup, which will remain unscathed throughout the movie. Her look is always managed and planned. Every scene with the mother includes a mirror or is shot through a mirror. I could go as far as saying that she isn’t even having an affair for sexual pleasure — she’s having an affair because she wants to get even with her husband, purely out of vanity. The partner she chooses, her husband’s business associate, gives off a completely asexual vibe; he wears a turtleneck most of the time, even when they are in bed together having sex. He could even be bisexual or gay and having a secret affair with Gabriel, the bisexual poet-anarchist. The mother isn’t actually interested in sex, but rather in what it represents or brings.  Her vanity prevents her from loving anybody, including her husband, and leads to the creation of an emotional fucking Frankenstein named Angela, a.k.a. the daughter.


Chinese Roulette is Fassbinder at the height of his powers as a stylist and an observer of human beings struggling to maintain control in the face of their own powerlessness. This film, like many of Fassbinder’s, is about reconciling with a recent Nazi history and questioning the German identity. By the ’70s, Germany was still not even its own country — it was still divided. There was a lot of crisis and guilt about national identity. In the film, one interesting, ambivalent character, Gabriel — a young sexy proletarian (son of the countryside housekeeper) — certainly portrays Fassbinder himself, a plagiarizing bisexual poet.


Chinese Roulette is ambitious and challenging even on a technical level. The camera, rarely static, constantly moves around objects and actors, changing the perspectives between them. We have beautiful shots through glass and transparent furniture, and people are blocked by transparency or by reflections. This is a film where everyone sees each other, but they keep so much to themselves. The film keeps shifting point of view to establish the subjectivity of experience. The camera is continuously in motion, which was a big deal at the time, considering the Steadicam was not widely used in cinema until the ’80s (one of the most famous early use of the Steadicam was on Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining with the shot of the little boy riding his bicycle throughout the hotel). It was probably extremely difficult to pull off, considering the equipment that was available at the time. Most shots in this period of film history are locked off on a tripod and are mostly made up of simple pans and tilts. This amazing cinematographic quality has to be credited to Fassbinder’s renowned cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus (who let the film be shot in his own private country house, where the story takes place). This film made him famous, and Ballhaus went on to shoot many of Martin Scorsese’s films, including the legendary opening scene of Goodfellas, which takes place in one impressive continuous moving shot that follows its characters entering and advancing through a nightclub. Paul Thomas Anderson, in turn, copied the shot in Goodfellas and used it for what would become yet another iconic shot, in Boogie Nights: he even made the “continuous moving camera” a signature in all his films. However, it is Ballhaus who first invented the look, with Fassbinder, that inspired much of modern filmmaking.

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