1 Hr., 22 Mins.
October 7, 2019
ave you ever been in Hell?” Gabriel (Volker Spangler), a wannabe writer, asks a gas-station attendant. The attendant dispassionately says yes. We cannot imagine, though, that the attendant’s hellish experience is worse than the one portrayed in Chinese Roulette (1976), an unnerving ensemble psychological drama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Hell, in the movie, is a
game of Chinese roulette. Russian roulette, which might be considered a close relative, is, in comparison, a placid pond-dip.
In Chinese roulette, a party is split up into a couple of teams. What unfolds is an exceptionally cruel guessing game. Whoever is “it” must pose a poisonous question — “What would this person have been in the Third Reich?” is the climactic one in the movie — and whoever is responding must either share something ugly about themselves or make a grotesque opinion about someone else known.
Why would anyone play such a game? For its organizer, a disabled girl named Angela (Andrea Schober), it’s an act of revenge. She has known, for years now, that her wealthy parents, Ariane and Gerhard (Margit Carstensen and Alexander Allerson), have been cheating on each other. Ariane with Gerhard’s high-foreheaded assistant, Kolbe (Uli Lommel); Gerhard with Irene (Anna Karina), a glitzy and spirited French hairdresser. Early in the movie, Gerhard and Irene arrive at the former’s countryside mansion for a weekend away. But on entering the living room, they discover Ariane and Gerhard on the floor, in a tight embrace. The sight initially brings everyone queasy relief — this marriage is unhealthy, but at least one person isn’t more guilty of sabotaging than the other — but then unease washes over them again.
At dinner, it's revealed that Angela has wickedly worked behind the scenes to ensure that her parents and their illicit lovers come to the home at the same time. When she essentially forces everyone to play Chinese roulette before dessert can arrive, she’s fundamentally aiming to introduce herself as a premier relationship-destroyer. Her vitriol, she claims, stems from her belief that her disability (she is unable to walk without crutches) flared up around the time she discovered that each parent was being unfaithful.
There is not an inch of fat on Chinese Roulette, which, in addition to being a concise 82 minutes long, is a sage and to-the-point exploration of emotional, romantic, and familial ruin. The film is a message movie of sorts — a karma-driven semi-thriller about the ripple effects of infidelity. But characteristically for Fassbinder, it’s also emotionally naked without being blatant about it. The dialogue is frank and unflashy; the writer-director more often stresses the disquiet on the faces of his actors, the anxiety traveling through their bodies. That doesn’t mean subtly rich lines don’t come to the front line: at one point, Ariane tells Irene, “It’s the days that count — the nights are all the same.”
Scenes and sequences build not off long takes but instead incisive, sometimes-roaming brandishes of careful composition. Fassbinder knows where to put his actors and how to configure his set decoration to evoke ideas of painterly photographic perfection. The visual diligence and conversational terseness allow the inescapable tension of the film to really rumble. The characters look everywhere for a catharsis in their elegant and delicately quiet shared world, but they can’t come up with anything substantial. Sure, there are two cathartic-seeming shootings in the film. One forces the game to conclude; the other breaks a stretch of silence at the end of the movie. But the first one leaves a character only with a slight flesh wound. The other takes place off screen. What exactly has happened isn’t disclosed. Chinese Roulette is unnervingly Sartre-like: Here, Hell is indeed other people.
The film has undoubtedly been made by a filmmaker preternaturally in touch with his sensibility. But I would argue, unless someone were to cogently convince me to think differently, that Fassbinder’s decision to back almost the entirety of the eponymous game with Peer Raben’s score — which sounds like classic Vivaldi covered in flaky Sour Patch Kid sugar — is an inimical one. The game is otherwise overpowering in its discomfort. But the music, which isn’t confined to this one scene, is tuneful to the point of giving us something of a melodious way out — a sensation that contradicts with what makes the movie great