Country: West Germany, France
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenwriter: Tom Stoppard
based on novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Music: Peer Raben
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Y Sa Lo
When Fassbinder meets Nabokov, DESPAIR is the former’s most expensive film headlining an international star Dirk Bogarde as an improbable English-speaking Soviet Russian chocolate factory entrepreneur inhabiting an interwar Berlin, Hermann Hermann, the name echoes another salient Nabokov personage, LOLITA’s Humbert Humbert, to whom he is no less delusional in his monomania and self-deception.
Insidiously impinged by the surging anti-Semitism in the capital (both manifested in his own factory and on the streets), Hermann’s well-off life start to crack when he ostensibly has an out-of-body experience watching himself having intercourse with his curvaceous but ditzy wife Lydia (a stereotype emblazoned by a camp Ferréol stimulating cothurnus affectation), who is indulged in chocolate and the cozy company of her painter cousin Ardalion (a ginger Spengler, strangely but innocently lumping along with his Falstaffian and swishy mannerism).
Incentivized by a movie (what is its name, anyone?) about identical twins, Hermann poses as a movie editor and plumps for a hobo Felix Weber (Löwitsch) as his double by professing that they are like peas in a pod in appearance, without too much persuasion, a hard-up Felix plays along in hope for employment, but Hermann’s madcap escapist plan is to start life anew with a completely different identity, which means the old Hermann Hermann must be certified dead.
Hermann’s downward spiral into madness is fiercely accentuated in Fassbinder’s partition-laden interior spaces with glasses often as a metaphor of communication obstacle between Hermann and people surrounds him, his solipsistic existence pushes him deep into the idée fixe when no one else seems to understand his cumulative trepidation of futurity, and in his penultimate cinema role, Dirk Bogarde fits Hermann’s psyche like a glove, he drifts like a disquieted wraith that grows irretrievably disengaged with reality, albeit Fassbinder and screenwriter Tom Stoppard purveys him with undue desire and loquaciousness to expound Lydia of his quixotic plan, she is clueless through and through. With the privilege of his wealth, Hermann manages to coax a grudging Felix on aboard, and everything goes like he plans, but his denouement is preordained because of the glaring catch.
Bogarde, at the age of 57, still oozes matinee handsomeness and entrancingly holds sway in actualizing Hermann’s folly step by step with calculated abandon, and imparts a distinct suave sophistication that doesn’t necessarily pervade in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, and in hindsight, predicating on Hermann’s “I’m coming out” exclamation, it is tempting to guesstimate the conception of that self-reflective line, does Fassbinder put the words into Bogarde’s mouth or there is a tacit acknowledgement on the latter’s behalf? Either way, DESPAIR is a weird child out of the unorthodox wedlock between Fassbinder and Nabokov, fascinating yes, but with some tentativeness and elusiveness underfoot.