By Mike Dub
A precocious adolescent concocts an elaborate plan to expose the secrets of her family in Chinese Roulette. It sounds like it could be the plotline of a heartwarming Christopher Columbus movie, but this is a film by legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and in his hands what could have been a crushingly saccharine tale of emotional fence-mending becomes a deeply haunting story of cruelty, hatred and revenge.
The film begins with a practically screwball setup – a spunky twelve-year-old girl, Angela (Andrea Schober), tricks her parents, Gerhard (Alexander Allerson) and Ariane (Margit Carstensen), who have been cheating on each other for many years, into arriving at the same vacation house at the same time, each with their illicit partners. The foursome’s sense of sophistication compels them to ignore the difficulty of the situation, opting instead for bohemian hipness, where the men shake each other’s hands and the women politely compliment each other’s appearance. They even have dinner together, as if to rebel against their fate by enduring the awkwardness of each other’s company. When someone finally asks about what the sleeping arrangements should be, Ariane replies coolly, “Same as planned.”
Though, when Angela, who suffers from a structural disorder and requires crutches to move around, arrives at the house with her nurse, the self-assurance of the adults disappears, as they realize that Angela has somehow conjured them together. We learn that Angela blames herself for the collapse of her family, probably because her parents blame her, too. She explains to the housekeeper’s adult son, Gabriel, that her father first began his affair when she developed her crippling disorder. Fittingly, her mother started her affair when doctors concluded that her condition was no longer operable.
As the two couples, the child, the housekeeper (Fassbinder regular Brigitte Mira) and her son, all engage in superficial meanderings, burying their hatred for each other in simple gestures, Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ camera displays characters with the intricate precision of a Romantic artist. At times, the camera is distant, the characters almost frozen, as though in a painting.
But Fassbinder also often allows his camera to move through the space of the characters, revealing three or even four reflections of faces in the same shot. This image not only illustrates the characters’ duplicity but also gives them ghostlike transparency, as though they are so empty inside, even their bodies lack substance.
Throughout the first three-quarters of the film, Chinese Roulette is a dark comedy, allowing us the pleasure of watching terrible people squirm in sexually awkward situations. In the last act, though, even that sense of black humor evaporates. Angela demands everyone play a party game that allows for unprecedented truth, which of course leads to profound cruelty. “I’ve already divided us up,” she says meaningfully. Perhaps out of a long-ingrained, guilt-laden habit of acquiescing to her wishes, they play along, and eventually, Angela’s real plan gets revealed, one of many perception-altering twists that lead to the predictably tragic conclusion.
In the early 1970s, Fassbinder underwent a drastic change in his approach to films after he famously watched a Douglas Sirk marathon. From then on, he was a master of melodrama. He embraced the elegant visual style of Hollywood, capable of eliciting strong emotions through powerfully beautiful images, as well as Hollywood’s tradition of using melodrama as a tool of social criticism. In Chinese Roulette, Fassbinder has created a vicious, chilling story and framed it within a stunning array of brilliant colors and striking images. Fassbinder learned from Sirk a vital element of melodrama: violence, whether physical or emotional, is even more disturbing when it gets delivered in an attractive package.