WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK?: An Underrated Film from Young Fassbinder

The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder are consistent in their distaste for everything held dear by the West German bourgeoisie, including the institution of marriage, the desire to climb the corporate ladder, and the obsession with the materialistic trappings that can be acquired with higher wages. That Fassbinder himself came from a bourgeois family in Munich and even married at one point doesn’t discount his strong opinions on these issues; rather, it just shows how deep these desires ran in West German culture. One could be radically opposed to them but still, fall victim to their siren song nonetheless.

One of Fassbinder’s earliest and most potent critiques of what The New Yorker’s Richard Brody aptly described in a review as “the West German version of the American dream” is Why Does Herr R Run Amok?, co-directed and co-written with Michael Fengler, who collaborated with Fassbinder on several other projects. Why Does Herr R Run Amok? is a slow but sure dissection of bourgeois life, peeling back the polished layers of one man’s existence to reveal the ragged unhappiness that lies beneath. The film is newly available on MUBI to commemorate what would have been Fassbinder’s 75th birthday, had a lethal cocktail of drugs not ended his life at the age of 37, and it’s a fitting showcase for a filmmaking genius who was lost far too soon.

Happy Family

The titular Herr R, portrayed by Fassbinder favorite Kurt Raab, is a technical draftsman at a small architectural firm in Munich. His work is sound, but his boss wants him to expand beyond pure technicality into creativity and problem solving, something that Herr R can’t seem to wrap his mind around. Nonetheless, he’s hoping for a promotion, mostly because his wife, Frau R (Lilith Ungerer), is eager for an opportunity to rise in the class hierarchy and — most importantly — to lord it over her nosy neighbors, who judge her behind her back for her expensive taste in furnishings. (Said neighbors include Fassbinder regulars Irm Hermann and Ingrid Caven, who was married to Fassbinder at the time.)

WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK?: An Underrated Film from Young Fassbinder
source: Antiteater-Produktion

The marriage between Herr R and Frau R still contains moments of sweetness and caring, but many of these revolve around nostalgia for the early, exciting days of their relationship, including reminiscing about the days when they used to go out dancing. Their son, Amadeus (Fengler’s son of the same name), has some issues concentrating in school, but his parents are diligent in their efforts to support him, attending parent-teacher conferences and helping him with his homework. All in all, they live a pretty average middle-class life. But it gradually becomes clear that the repetition of it all is weighing on Herr R, and that soon, this quiet and diligent man with his slicked-back hair and three-piece suits may explode.

Running Amok

Said explosion does not come until the last ten minutes of Why Does Herr R Run Amok?. The rest of the film’s 90 or so minutes is constructed from painfully long takes that perfectly illustrate the encroaching ennui in Herr R’s life. Rather than cut to a new shot, the camera will slowly move throughout a scene, often lingering on the faces of the listeners rather than the speakers in a given situation. In one of the more cringe-inducing scenes in the film, Herr R invites his colleagues over for a dinner party and gives quite possibly the most painfully awkward toast of all time; instead of focusing on Herr R during his speech, the camera focuses on the increasingly uncomfortable onlookers as they whisper to each other about the best way to make a quick exit from the party.

Indeed, the listeners, whether they be Herr R silently sitting on the edge of a boisterous family scene listening to Frau R and his mother attempt to one-up each other discussing opera, or Frau R’s neighbors watching her as she brags about inevitably moving to a larger and fancier apartment when her husband is promoted, tell us far more with their reactions (or lack thereof) than the speakers do with their words. Herr R, in particular, is often on the sidelines of these group scenarios, listening impassively to the empty exchanges around him. It’s difficult to glean exactly what he is thinking in these moments, but one thing is clear: his indifference.

WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK?: An Underrated Film from Young Fassbinder
source: Antiteater-Produktion

As Herr R’s days stretch on in their monotony, these scenes grow increasingly painful to watch, trying the patience of the audience as much as the protagonist. Structurally and tonally, it is easy to see Why Does Herr R Run Amok? as a kindred spirit of sorts to Chantal Akerman’s feminist classic, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, with Kurt Raab’s quietly desperate performance as the titular character mirroring that of Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman in its slow yet steady burn. Like Fassbinder, Raab too was lost before his time, passing away from AIDS-related complications at the age of 46. He collaborated with Fassbinder on more than 30 films, but his performance in Why Does Herr R Run Amok? stands out as one of his best.

Conclusion

Despite not being as well known as some of his later masterpieces, such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Why Does Herr R Run Amok? makes for an ideal introduction to the expansive oeuvre of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

What do you think? Are you familiar with the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder? What is your favorite film of his? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Why Does Herr R Run Amok? is available to stream on MUBI beginning May 31, 2020.


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