When I think of The Merchant of Four Seasons I think of bodies that bend or extend across the frame in fleeting ecstasy or, more often, distress: the newly abandoned hero’s arm reaching across his kitchen table; his long-bodied wife straddling another man in sexual release; the hero beating his wife on a bed as her legs kick at the air; a woman collapsed on the floor of an apartment building’s foyer before a delicate crossroads of light. Arms, legs, torsos are meticulously arranged in the poses of melodrama, while emotions are tampered, bottled up or bottled down: when I think of The Merchant of Four Seasons I think of our hero, hunched drunkenly over the head of a barroom table, holding court before a huddle of drunken sycophants. This is the story of a breaking man, raised middle class but drawn by dubious sentiments to the working class, unloved and incapable, by lack or by temperament, of loving others.
The Merchant of Four Seasons was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s breakthrough, made and released in 1971, following Fassbinder’s fateful discovery of the Hollywood films of German émigré Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life) and, along with it, the realization that his contribution to this New German Cinema could inhabit an ideal middle-ground where artifice yields deeper truths and audiences could have their hearts moved without sacrificing the stimulation of their critical faculties. The film is now available in a superb DVD or BD package from the Criterion Collection.
Hans (Hans Hirschmüller) returns home following a tour with the French Foreign Legion to an unwelcoming mother. Hans’ career as a police officer was destroyed when he was caught accepting sexual favours from a prostitute and he takes up work as a fruit vendor, the sort that roams the streets, calling out the prices of his wares, filling paper cones in exchange for coins. Rejected by the love of his life, he married Irmgard (Irm Hermann), a woman with whom there seems to be little in the way of real affection, and whom he in turn neglects and turns violent with. He has a young daughter, Renate, who seems always to be bearing witness, absorbing trauma. The film is set in the 1950s, so by the time Fassbinder made it Renate would be a woman about Fassbinder’s age. Perhaps The Merchant of Four Seasons is meant above all for Renate and all the other children of post-war Germany, a generation of fractured families and a fraught national history that no one talks about.
There’s a lot of misery and banality in all this, I suppose, but there’s also the beauty of eloquent storytelling, sudden bursts of vibrant colour, engrossing flashbacks that appear unannounced, filmed exactly the same as the present-tense scenes, collapsing time so that we realize this is all about the now, not the past. The Merchant of Four Seasons is an exquisite film, sad and bold. It’s the favourite Fassbinder film of Fassbinder’s old friend and fellow Münchner Wim Wenders, who supplies Criterion with a very good audio commentary track. Also worth checking out are new interviews with Hirchmüller and Hermann, who tell great stories of how Fassbinder swooped in and changed their lives, and an interview with scholar Eric Rentschler, who speaks well, is very smart and very passionate, and gives one of the strongest, most succinct descriptions of Sirk’s influence on Fassbinder as I’ve come across.