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The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) 1972


    The harmful strains of capitalism strike again in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s volatile 1972 melodrama The Merchant of Four Seasons, though this time instead of chewing up one of the members of a fringe subculture, they set their sights on Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), a straight, middle-aged working-class average citizen. The disappointing black sheep of a haughty bourgeois family, Hans starts the film working as a fruit peddler, a job he’s landed in after being fired from his job with the police force of a behind-the-desk sexual dalliance. With a wife and a child to support and hours of strenuous labor waiting for him each day, he’s too focused on the task at hand to have much time for self-examination. The best he can hope to do during the day is to grab a drink at the pub while traveling from alleyway to alleyway or to have a flirtatious moment with a female customer while making a delivery (while his suspicious wife keeps track of the time he spends inside her apartment complex). Eventually, however, the daily grind wears him down, prompting an episode of rebellion in which he steps out of line in a way that leaves him unable to continue his job duties. The presence of free time brings about in him a search for an identity that he’s spent much of his life attempting to suppress in pursuit of money and survival.


    In the capitalist German society where Fassbinder’s film takes place, occupation and identity are intrinsically tied, and the disdain that Hans meets when confronting his family is obviously rooted in their disappointment that he has failed to live as a member of the class that he was born into. It’s plain to see that his wife is rather disappointed with him as well, and one of Fassbinder’s greatest achievements here is the way he convinces us that their sexual fidelity is as much a financial consideration as an emotional one. He does that mostly by introducing us to the characters on their terms and showing their business to us so we can better understand the scale of this drama. The noncommittal emotional distance that Fassbinder takes from most of the action is contrasted with the frequent exaggerated zoom shots, which coincide directly with some of the emotional heights that the characters feel, and as a result he places the audience where they can be at once sympathetic to the characters’ plights yet are able to be analytical when considering their actions. The way the film is structured, audience sympathy shifts a bit from Hans’ wife to Hans himself before it becomes apparent that both are victims of the economy. Their actions aren’t exactly excusable, but the immediacy of ruin gives them few alternatives. The seemingly simple thesis of the movie, which is that the pursuit of personal happiness and the possession of ideals are impossible in a capitalist society, is adeptly demonstrated, and each character’s presence adds further layers to that observation. By the disheartening, but not disingenuous, end of the film, Fassbinder stacks the deck so that Hans’ pathetic rebellion seems the only brave act possible, since it seems his only escape from a life of suffering.


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Jeremy Heilman