Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lola

There's no way around it: all roads lead to prostitution in a discussion of Fassbinder's Lola. Whether looking back to Joseph von Sternberg's The Blue Angel or to Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun there is no discussion to be had without mentioning the role of the prostitute. For Sternberg the prostitute begins and ends as a strong, independent woman who carries herself through life with a husband who is unable to keep pace with her successes, and the disruption of the patriarchal order seems to force the story toward inevitable tragedy. This same dynamic is found in The Marriage of Maria Braun, although the power dynamics are slightly altered by way of the wife’s change in profession and the absence of the husband. A key difference between the two is that the husband in the first case completely deteriorates while the husband in the latter case simply reappears and expects to establish himself as the breadwinner despite the wife’s established success. This shift is meaningful in the context of the film as a direct commentary on the role of the woman in German society at the end of the war. In the end, though, the result is the same: the breakdown of the family unit. Lola, a film which appears on the surface to be far more directly related to The Blue Angel due to the female protagonist’s identical and iconic career, flips the story’s implications upside down along with society’s taboos. The differences are many, from the role of the prostitute as a cog in the larger political and economic scheme to the secrecy of her profession to the characters’ gleeful embrace of squalor to the presence of a third wheel in the romantic triangle. The central male figures both face a meltdown of sorts, but the conclusions are completely antithetical to each other in both tone and outcome, and I do not think it is a stretch to say that the shift in outcome is meant to reflect a permanent change in social norms, embodied most prominently by the ability of the prostitute to not only avoid tragedy with her own personal success but even to play an integral role in progress.


The comedy in Lola consistently surprises by inverting expectations, but the delivery is always straight-faced, leaving the contrast in expectations to generate the comedy. The contrast which generates the comedy and the contrast of the film’s plot are the integral elements in establishing the film’s social commentary, most readily established by contrasting with the two previously mentioned films. The Blue Angel essentially represents the expectation of the status quo: a capable woman in a disreputable profession is able to sustain herself but she is unable to protect those around her and is incapable of escaping. The Marriage of Maria Braun contrasts the first point, as Maria is able to skillfully climb the social stratum, but falls in line with the second point as she is suffocated by social norms. Lola, on the other hand, disarms the nefarious question of ill repute surrounding prostitution by showcasing Schukert essentially equating himself with a prostitute, quite enjoying the prospect of being nothing more than an opportunist, a piece of meat, or a vulture – ‘A very useful bird!’ The plotline largely mirrors The Blue Angel, a stark contrast to the world-beating optimism of the buildup of The Marriage of Maria Braun, as the prostitutes’ prospects for improvement are never more than a dim, distant hope. Skipping the intricacies of the ending for now, in the final tally Lola achieves a piece of the dream of improvement that she seeks, but only fleetingly as the true beneficiary will be her daughter. Thus, it is neither tragedy nor triumph for Lola herself, but her endless compromises have at least provided a solid foundation for the following generation. At what cost? This question is where the complexity lies, as not everything depicted can be directly interpreted as a commentary on the plight of women. I think the key to interpreting these implications is to note the dramatic difference in implication between the wild economic success of Maria in The Marriage of Maria Braun, which seems to exist more as an artificial climb in order to accentuate a point about the social station of women during her time, and the modest economic successes of Lola in Lola, which seem to be in line with a woman’s hopes and expectations during her time. Maria's situation is an aberration which depicts the situation of women in general relative to men while Lola's depicts the situation of a woman in reality. Conversely, the social situation depicted in The Marriage of Maria Braun seems to be a reasonable expectation of a woman's difficulties in a patriarchal system while the social circumstances in Lola seem to be artificially constructed as pointed allegories for the contrasting roles of the triumvirate represented by Von Bohm, Lola, and Schukert. The implication in The Blue Angel seems to be that both economic and social situations are reflective of the problems faced by actual women, but to read either of Fassbinder's films in this way seems self-defeating.

The allegorical layer of the film lies in this contorted relationship between commerce, government, and the common (wo)man. Von Bohm’s character works within the appearance of an archetype which is contradicted continually until his character is entirely amorphous. He is far more permissive of bribery and compromise than his social conservatism would imply, and thus it is almost impossible to tell what exactly he abandons when he decides, upon being introduced to the multifaceted horrors of the brothel, to fight Shukert. With Von Bohm behaving against type and Schukert the business tycoon also contradicting expectation, by being openly opportunistic and yet totally sympathetic, all notions of black and white and right and wrong seem to be suspended in mid air. Van Bohm’s attempted rebellion provides some gravity to the moral scales which he believes will lead the entire system to come crashing down, especially with the airing of contractual details which favor a small elite group, but instead his arguments spiral into self-contradiction and his appeals find nothing but disinterest. Facing inevitable failure he is offered the ‘debasement’ of Lola, a term which cannot possibly carry the pejorative connotation in a film where every character ignores morality in the most delightful way imaginable, but his attempt merely exposes how pure his personal feelings truly are, no matter the conditions under which she works. In this situation we see that his morals do not apply in the workplace, and yet he cannot abandon them in his personal life. Directly following this is the corollary to this domestic situation: the bourgeois Schukert unabashedly parades his mistress in front of his wife as an instrument to manipulate Schukert for the potential mutual benefit of himself, first and foremost, and potentially everyone, provided that he provides for Lola. All of this might in some strange way be consistent with human behavior, but when the wedding of Von Bohm and Lola leads without a moment’s hesitation to an affair between Lola and Schukert the film's allegorical skirt blows up and we see beneath the curtain: Von Bohm, as the government, works for the good of the people, no matter their faults, by sensible compromise with Schukert, as business, who operates purely for his own sake and seems to owe nothing but what he chooses to give to Lola, as the general populace, who relies on the government to keep tabs on business but also depends on business for her future. That the people are whores, the government is a nebulous, corruptible, and volatile social conservative, and business is a gregarious, handsome, and fearsome comedian fully capable of bribery and duplicity underlines the great black comedy that subtly runs through what otherwise appears to be a simple 'hooker with a heart of gold' story. She’s actually a hooker with a business plan, or at least a pension. To bring this line of thought back to the opening paragraph, the ending of Lola seems to retain or at least provide a foundation for a working family unit, in contrast to both The Blue Angel and The Marriage of Maria Braun, but this is not much of a direct contrast to those films because the family unit established in this case is so clearly allegorical. Thus, while the depiction of the outcome of the social situation of the prostitute changes from The Blue Angel to Lola, the implication of a much broader social commentary means that the differences between the two situations do not necessarily imply a direct contrast to individual women. The economic situation in Lola, which I take to be a more direct commentary on the economic situation in real women's lives at the time as opposed to the social situation in the film, seems to imply improvement in the time period of Lola over the similarly direct commentary on reality in the time period of The Blue Angel, while Maria's great economic success depicted in the time period of The Marriage of Maria Braun seems irrelevant due to its allegorical implications. Thus, the two earlier films provide a sort of codex for dissembling the allegorical and practical implications found in Lola which are brilliantly expressed through comedy but also obfuscated through abstraction. Also, there are pretty colors.

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