Der Fangschuss: Style & Context

In 1976, Volker Schlondorff released his twelfth film, Der Fangschuss.  The film was based on the novel of the same name by Marguerite Yourcenar, and written in 1939.  Regular Schlondorff collaborators Jutta Bruckner, Genevieve Dormann and Margarethe von Trotta were responsible for adapting Yourcenar’s novel into a screenplay.  Von Trotta not only co-wrote the film’s script, but played the lead in her husband’s film, Sophie von Reval.  Of all the collaborative relationships within the New German Cinema, that of Schlondorff and von Trotta is among the most successful, if not the most successful commercially.  At the time Der Fangschuss was released, only Schlondorff and von Trotta had had any international success among their German contemporaries.

Der Fangschuss (1976) marks a return to a Spartan cinematic style for its director, Volker Schlondorff that had not been implemented since 1970 in his film The Sudden Wealth Of The Poor People Of Kombach.  Schlondorff’s intentional regression in style is emphasized further by the dedication that appears before the opening credits of Der Fangschuss to Jean-Pierre Melville.  The formalist qualities to the visual structure of Der Fangschuss are clearly indebted to the works of Melville, particularly Leon Morin, Priest (1961), on which Schlondorff worked as an assistant director.  In both the cinematic style and the location of the narrative (in time and space), Schlondorff is clearly looking to the past.  Schlondorff becomes even more referential to the history of the cinema in Der Fangschuss by casting Valeska Gert to play Aunt Praskovia.  Valeska Gert had been one of the stars of the Weimar Cabaret, and had performed in three of G.W. Pabst’s most enduring films, Joyless Street (1925), Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929), and The Threepenny Opera (1931).  Gert works as a sort of celebrity signifier as to the time period in which the narrative of Der Fangschuss occurs during the late 1910s, to parallel the textual signifiers that are more commonplace in films such as wardrobe, props and sets.

Volker Schlondorff’s Der Fangschuss follows two distinct trends in both his own filmography and that of the New German Cinema movement.  The majority of Schlondorff’s work, in Germany and America, draws upon literature as its main narrative source.  By the time Schlondorff directs Der Fangschuss he had already adapted a number of significant German novels and plays for the cinema including Heinrich Boll’s The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum (1974), Robert Musil’s The Confusions Of Young Torless (1906), Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1918) and Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas-Der Rebell (1811).  Likewise, Der Fangschuss’ strong female lead was a hallmark of the New German Cinema, during the seventies especially.  Alexander Kluge’s Abschied von Gestern (1966), Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet’s Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1970), The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant (1972), and Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven (1975) are all films that feature a strong and liberated female protagonist.

However, in adapting the novel into a film, the main protagonist was changed from the male lead, Erich von Lhomond (played by Matthias Habich in the film), to Sophie von Reval.  By doing this, Schlondorff is better able to balance what are essentially the two narratives running simultaneously in Der Fangschuss.  The first involves Sophie’s daily life on her estate living with her Aunt Praskovia.  What was once an ideal life of pastoral bliss on the outskirts of Riga has become a base for anti-Bolshevik German soldiers.  Scenes of Sophie’s daily chores and wanderings about the estate are dramatically juxtaposed to the second narrative of the film concerning von Lhomond and his soldiers.  The scenes of military maneuvers and skirmishes become illustrative of the pseudo-surreal turn Sophie’s life has taken.  In one scene, these narrative strands collide, and a leisurely walk that Sophie is sharing with von Lhomond becomes a blood bath as mortars come crashing down.

To keep a balance between these two narrative threads so that the over arching narrative is not lost in the shuffle, Schlondorff carefully cuts back between one and the other so that neither has more screen time.  Of course, this becomes indicative of Sophie’s existence on the estate as well as a means by which to hold the audience in a state of constant suspense.  To aid in transitioning from one thread to another, Schlondorff sometimes intercuts shots of the majestic Baltic landscape.  These visuals, that only aid the sense of atmosphere, are some of the most beautiful compositions in all of Schlondorff’s films.

The other compositions in Der Fangschuss, those that pertain to the progression of the narrative, are designed and composed to recall the photographs documenting WWI.  Using a high contrast black and white film stock, Schlondorff is able to give the film a sense of urgent unreality.  Though the style of the performers is clearly naturalistic, the cinematography by Igor Luther moves the film just a few degrees from what the audience would perceive as actuality.  This tactic was adopted by Schlondorff from Melville, and would be used again in 1979 with a much more disturbing effect in The Tin Drum.  That said, the subtle nuances of the cinematography in Der Fangschuss are unique to Schlondorff’s “stylistic regression”, and would not have suited the politically themed films of the early seventies.  By regressing to the style originated in Young Torless (1966) and developed further in The Sudden Wealth Of The Poor People Of Kombach, Schlondorff essentially brings the style to maturity and conclusion in Der Fangschuss.

Schlondorff does more than juxtapose contemporary film and older films, or Sophie’s domesticity to Lhomond’s militancy; he uses the narrative arch of Der Fangschuss to contrast conservativism and liberalism.  In the first half of Der Fangschuss, Sophie embraces the German soldiers, falling in love with Lhomond in the process.  Once rejected by Lhomond, and after the death of her brother Konrad (Rudiger Kirschstein), Sophie aligns herself with the Bolshevik cause.  Once a Bolshevik, Sophie is free of society’s restraints and enjoys a pseudo-feminist liberty.  Of course, Lhomond captures her and executes her in the end.  Though Schlondorff’s leftist message in Der Fangschuss is hardly as potent as it had been in The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum (1975), it still manages to be effectively subversive without detracting from the lyricism established early in the film.

With all its formalist trappings and visual dreaminess, Der Fangschuss is probably Schlondorff’s great technical achievement of the seventies.  Though this film is often overshadowed by The Tin Drum, with no clear historical context for American audiences to attach to, it manages to be a much more rewarding experience over all.  It’s no wonder Margarethe von Trotta would return to the themes and locations of Der Fangschuss with her film Rosa Luxemburg a decade later.

-Robert Curry


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