Lola, from 1981, is the finale of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy and his third to last film before his untimely death in 1982. It is also a carousel of exhilaratingly sugar sweet visuals and impish tragicomedy, saccharine in its artifice and its pervasive cynicism. In a career lasting less than fifteen years, Fassbinder is a sort of German Beatle — his Wikipedia states that his short artistic boom left behind “forty feature-length films, two television film series, three short films, four video productions, twenty-four stage plays, four radio plays, and thirty-six acting roles.” Keep in mind that the man only lived to be 37, that his personal life was always a melodramatic wreck, and that he preferred hard drugs to lasting, healthy relationships. How he had time to make cinematic masterpiece after cinematic masterpiece is a triumph. An enfant terrible, they call him.
His legacy is massive, and yet Lola makes for my first time immersing myself in one of his films. I suppose I should have started somewhere more fixated on, like the dramatically hefty Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) or the Ebert adored Veronika Voss (1982). But Lola, despite its preference for textures and moods rather than for story and character development, is a thrilling experience all the same, part Sirkian melodrama, part Kaurismäki black comedy.
It finds its humor by planting a moralist in a corrupt 1950s town in Germany, the results being dynamically quirky yet astutely socially conscious. Our moralist is Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a responsible and deeply caring building commissioner who plans to fix his coworkers’ unethical behavior through gentle urging rather than outright firing. But for a city long recovering from WWII, bribery and sneaky deals have only proved to be successful, even if the town itself seems to vibrate with a sort of sleazy glee. Von Bohm is disgusted but not disheartened — so it may be a problem that he has begun falling for the local favorite lounge singer/hooker Lola (Barbara Sukowa), who steals his heart as her profession remains unknown.
Lola is one of those rare films in which every frame is a delicacy; Fassbinder’s innovative usage of stage lighting gives nearly each scene a lushly theatrical feel, as if the performers were living in a world where everything quite literally is a part of a massive, candy-colored stage. The set design, old-fashioned but David LaChapelle-peculiar, only heightens the piquant contrivance; the score, bumbling and sly, hints that the near Sturges tonal inclinations are much darker than what meets the eye. Sukowa gives a star-making performance.
But where Lola is breathtaking optically and tonally, it falls flat in its story, which is trite and uninvolving. So much visual splendor is afoot that, after the first act concludes, it becomes increasingly apparent that where the cinematography arouses the plot bores. It’s like a particularly flamboyant fashion magazine photoshoot: excitable, incandescent even, but empty once you realize that what’s on display is more surface than depth.
But Lola is still a stimulating experience, beautifully conceived and sumptuously directed. If I were better versed in Fassbinder’s filmography, I’d call it minor — but my interest in his work is now more fomented than it ever was. With the right screenplay, I can only wonder just how much he’ll move me in the future. B