Beware of a Holy Whore
aka Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte
Reviewed in August 2008
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Cast: Lou Castel, Marquard Bohm, Eddie Constantine, Hanna Schygulla, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margaretha von Trotta, Hannes Fuchs, Ulli Lommel, Magdalena Montezuma, Marcella Michelangeli, Herb Andress, Kurt Raab, Gianni Di Luigi, Monica Teuber, Tanja Constantine, Benjamin Lev. Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Photo © 1971 Tango Film/Antiteater X
"Alienated even by Fassbinder standards." That's the thought I had about ten minutes into Beware of a Holy Whore, and if you aren't familiar with Fassbinder, this is like saying "mordant even by Coen Brothers standards" or "lyrical even by Terrence Malick standards" or "loud even by Michael Bay standards." Through the opening scenes, the camera frames various characters, often in twos or threes, as they languidly sit on chairs and divans in a large, sterile room, like Purgatory redesigned as a Mediterranean dentist's office. As usual in Fassbinder, these listless and laconic vamps, male and female, stare off to some edge of the frame as though preoccupied by someone they desire but to whom they also feel superior. Their faces tighten perpetually into sarcastic sneers, anesthetized into a kind of arch impassivity, but unlike the beginning of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, where a clutch of hangers-on at a local bar look just this way at a homely middle-aged woman ducking in from the rain (simple enough, shot/reverse), the long, purposely dull first act of Beware of a Holy Whore finds over a dozen characters projecting at least a dozen forms of pity, jealousy, and droll bitchery at everyone else. Names and basic relationships are hard to nail down, and will remain so. The space of this horrible room is sliced up past any hope of coherence: you couldn't possibly draw a map of this room, or of who is sitting where, much less who they all are. When the camera finally pulls back, this doesn't turn out to be a simple irony, a small space where the deceptively fragmented camera work has made everyone seem far apart. They really are far apart; the air really is heavy; this is an absolutely loyal recreation of scabrous, isolated people strewn around an absurd space.

Though the sight-lines and the overlaid personal dramas eventually resolve themselves (comparatively, anyway) the viewer's sense of being stranded among a family of beached whales persists through the movie. Still, the vibrantly colored costumes, the naughty electricity buzzing around Hanna Schygulla, the regular outbursts of anger and resentment keep the film lively. Fassbinder rarely just sinks you in the doldrums of his characters without teasing out the energy submerged inside their stuntedness. Vanity, impatience, art, ambition, petulance, even boredom: all of these states have an energy, and Fassbinder's cinema is special for making them cinematic, bringing them to life and giving them verve, mobility, visibility at times, by suspending and breaking up gazes, pushing apart foreground and background, amplifying his hero Douglas Sirk's penchant for contrasting delicious color with strangled characters and dour implications. They are a strange form of fun, these Fassbinder films, because the tones that would seem rather rigid or histrionic turn out to have surprising flexibility, often venturing at unexpected moments into comedy, pathos, and eroticism.

The organizing conceit of Beware of a Holy Whore is the making of a film on the Spanish coast, but it really does feel like a conceit, since no actual filming happens for well over 45 minutes, and almost no one seems substantially invested in what will wind up on the screen. Jeff (Lou Castel), the director, has one captivating monologue as he describes to one of his colleagues how he wants to film a murder scene; Michael Ballhaus' camera tracks around the room with him as though eager to hang on to this rare glint of artistic aplomb. Much more often, though, Jeff is blowing his top at his crew members and associates, usually for being who they are, and only later for how they do or don't do their jobs. He is also sleeping with most of them, of every gender (there are usually more than two in a Fassbinder film), with the important exception of his fiancée Irm (Magdalena Montezuma), a desperate woman with a face like a squeezed lemon, getting a five-year jump on Orphan Annie's red dress and copper curls. It is a hard-knock life paying for your lover's movie while being overtly and copiously cheated on, and then actively exiled from the set. Soon after this happens, Fassbinder treats Irm to one of the movie's unusual and most beautiful exterior shots, sailing away on azure water from the hotel location, but we never see her again. Who knows if she leaves, returns, makes trouble, or drowns. Oblivion is one-size-fits-all in this world.

On the whole, Beware of a Holy Whore is the film you would make if you spent the previous ten years on a steady diet of Godard and Warhol, with occasional afternoons cleared for Antonioni and every night reserved for hard drinking. The movie's ulcer is much bigger than its funny bone, and bigger than its heart, but at least it has all three, which is a hat-trick many films can't claim for themselves. The formal arrangements get more interesting as the film proceeds, without becoming any less austere. Fassbinder (who casts himself as an apoplectic production manager with a gallavanting wife) eventually starts cutting more and more quickly, reprising identical shots and bits and pieces of conversations that we thought had been concluded. The voice of a Fassbinder film is so insistently present-tense that this temporal vortex adds an interesting layer of resonance. The physical violence also increases, easily trumping any necessity for the often blunt dialogue. "If I can't smash things up," says Jeff, after tossing a whiskey tumbler over his shoulder at a bar, "I might as well be dead," shortly before a scene where he shouts about his project, "It's a film about brutality!" Fassbinder films always feel uncomfortably direct, even when they brim with surprising subtleties, like Ali and Fox and His Friends do, and I take it as a sign of Holy Whore's earliness in Fassbinder's career (only five years along at that point, though he already had eleven films under his belt) that he hasn't yet trusted his ability to let his images, edits, soundscapes, and actors communicate his ideas without such blatant underscoring. The vastness of the cast also poses a bit of a problem, not because Holy Whore isn't making a concerted point about the gratuitous explosion of persons and personalities on a movie set, but because his paradoxically upfront style always requires time to tease out the deceptive complexities of his outcasts and misfits. Dividing his attentions to this degree keeps several characters and threads of action at the level of the snapshot.

They're strong and evocative snapshots, though, especially as lensed by Ballhaus, and the luscious impudence of Schygulla, the slow burn of ambivalent star Eddie Constantine (playing himself), the dissolute abandon of the acting coach (Herb Andress), and the bitter patience of Jeff's steady lover Ricky (Marquard Bohm), born of sexual openness as well as sexual fatigue, all make a pungent impression. Director and cinematographer keep the beautiful outdoors in brilliant abeyance, often as ironic contrast to character behavior but rarely in a simple or purely sarcastic way. And Jeff's fury and dyspepsia takes on Sisyphean proportions by the film's second half. Initially, he couldn't even be bothered to arrive to his own shooting location, which is why everyone is waiting with nothing to do but carp, drink, and rut in the distant background during the opening. Eventually, whether he wants to or not, he pops up at the center of each scene—no sooner pounding away atop Margaretha von Trotta's wittily sketched production intern Babs, the wife of the Fassbinder character, than—in the light-speed of a single cut—he's racked with artistic frustration and ulcerated loneliness on the scarlet carpet of one of his sets. And then he's taking a head-clearing walk down some grotty stairs, and then he's getting punched in the gut by one of his fed-up collaborators, leading to one of those prototypical Fassbinder shots where everyone dances or drinks or marches to their own drummers while someone lies prostrate and possibly dead on the ground.

You never know what to feel at these moments: horror? sadness? relief? bemusement? If Beware of a Holy Whore were as straightforward or purely repetitive as it occasionally feels, I'm sure we'd have a better, simpler idea. Fassbinder's conclusions (and this isn't the absolute conclusion) don't sign off with the helpless confusion of bad movies but with the sozzled burden of too much feeling in too many directions, very little of it rewarded, and almost none of it received in the way that it was given. Day for Night fans should stay away, but budding filmmakers should take notes: not of any of the on-set behaviors, but of the slow surety with which Fassbinder builds his tale and gives us impalpably, incontestably more than he seems at first to offer. Grade: B+

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