Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Rarely has a film had so many luminaries behind it and been so thoroughly forgotten. One of the greatest novelists of the 20th Century, Vladimir Nabakov, wrote the novel upon which it is based; the great Dirk Bogarde turned in the leading role; screenplay by Tom Stoppard; directed by the legendary Fassbinder, who flamed bright and burned out young; cinematography by Michael Ballhaus (remembered for numerous Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese films, including Goodfellas.)
Fassbinder made 42 feature films, 2 television series, and wrote 24 plays before self-destructing at age 37 from a drug overdose. He was a fierce workaholic who worked hard, lived hard, and loved hard (he was famously bisexual and totally mixed work with his love life). Much like Woody Allen, his screenplays and his films are inextricably interlinked and explore many facets of human inter-relationships, usually more savagely than Woody Allen, and occasionally with gay and lesbian themes (although the films have been both praised and despised by gays and lesbians.) As always, Fassbinder was controversial and seemingly delighted in provoking negative criticisms.
Perhaps Fassbinder’s most famous films are Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), both of which explore inter-racial relationships in post-World War II Germany, both understated but powerful films. Fassbinder was never far from the stage in his work, always had the heart of a playwright, but he waxed more cinematic as he got more experienced.
Despair is more of a treat than central to Fassbinder’s work, given the great performance by Dirk Bogarde and the offbeat story by Nabakov. The original novel, published in 1934, is titled “Otchayaniye” in Russian, which if you say it out loud, really is the sound of despair. While anything by Nabakov is wonderful, some consider “Despair” to be his second greatest novel after “Lolita.”
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD