Film Essay – Veronika Voss
Veronika Voss, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is a morose, yet highly effective tale of addiction and exploitation. Fassbinder is considered by many to be the most famous member of the cinematic movement known as the “New German Cinema”. This revolution in filmmaking sprang forth in the 1960s as a reaction to the fluffy escapist cinema that West Germany had descended to in the wake of the Third Reich, and as a means of taking a stand against the political climate of the time, and against those in power. Veronika Voss was released in 1982, towards the end of Fassbinder’s tragically short life, when he himself was struggling with an addiction that soon killed him. Filled with striking black and white photography, the film harkens back to Hollywood movies of the 1950s, and is the last of a trilogy of films by Fassbinder regarding the supposed “Economic Miracle” that was West Germany after the war. Though the film is more accessible than some of his earlier works, Veronika Voss still contains many of the themes prevalent throughout Fassbinder’s career, and indeed, throughout the New German Cinema in general. These themes include a distrust of authority, the exploitation of the less fortunate, and the abuse of power.
The film’s title character, Veronika, played by Rosel Zech, is a washed up movie star from the Third Reich, who is now unable to find work, and has become a morphine addict. Rumors abound that she had an affair with Goebbels during the war, and like many of Fassbinder’s characters from previous films who cavorted with the Nazis, she is being punished in the karmic sense. Isolated by her fame, she desperately seeks “shelter and protection” from the world. She feels hunted and helpless, having completely lost her anonymity. In one scene, she is essentially stalked by a pair of women in a jewelry store, who advance on her relentlessly, seeking an autograph, as she attempts to retreat. The “protection” she seeks is found in two people: Robert, played by Hilmar Thate, a sports journalist who offers her an umbrella upon seeing her standing in the rain, and Dr. Katz, played by Annemarie Düringer, her neurologist, who prescribes the very morphine that Veronika is addicted to.
The Doctor is the root of the corruption in the story, as she not only provides the narcotics to Veronika, she exploits the situation by feeding the former star’s addiction and using that dependence to coerce and blackmail her. So powerful is Dr. Katz’s grip that she forces “her best girlfriend” Veronika to sign over her money and property. The corruption runs even deeper however, and as Robert later discovers, the Doctor has been doing far worse to some her other patients. Once the victims run out of money, they “accidentally” overdose on sleeping pills, and “graciously” leave all of their possessions to the Doctor. Katz and her cohorts in turn, live extravagantly at the expense of the addicts that they’ve created. Her office is particularly garish for a medical facility with expensive decoration and furniture. Through this corruption, Fassbinder strongly asserts that authority figures must be questioned and kept in check, or those in power will exploit the weak and vulnerable.
Robert is taken with Veronika immediately upon meeting her, and believes that he can help her to overcome her problems. He uncovers the plot, but finds that not only is he unable to help her, but he ends up making things worse, and hurting those around him. He is outsmarted at every turn, mainly because the corruption is far deeper than he first believes. Upon discovering Dr. Katz’s scheme, he goes to a narcotics administrator for help. Unfortunately this administrator is in on the scam as well, and the schemers are able to foil Robert completely, and even go so far as to kill his girlfriend, Henriette, to hide the truth. The police, another authority figure, are completely unhelpful, and do not believe anything Robert tells them. So thorough is Robert’s defeat that he loses both women in his life: his girlfriend, and Veronika, who falls victim to one of Dr. Katz’s “accidental” overdoses. Though this seems to imply that Fassbinder feels that fighting against corrupt authority is futile, the opposite is true. Fassbinder is asserting that the public must not be naïve, and must understand the level to which corruption can reach, and the measure to which they must be vigilant in protecting their freedoms. Unfortunately this message is lost in the unhappy and morbid tone of the film.
The 1970s was a tumultuous time for West Germany. With widespread fears of terrorism and communism, the government took extraordinary powers, which many, including members of the New German Cinema movement, considered to be too extreme. Many believed that the government was corrupt, and could not be trusted. This climate of fear and distrust of authority is reflected clearly in Veronika Voss.
Fassbinder also takes issue with the American presence in West Germany in Veronika Voss. The sole American character, a soldier, is a drug trafficker in league with Dr. Katz. In addition, American music always plays in Dr. Katz’s office, but nowhere else in the film, providing clues early on that something is not right. The implication is that the American involvement in West Germany is a large part of the corruption of power that abounds, and further, that the Americans are exploiting the Germans for their own ends, and profits. As the post-war years progressed, many in West Germany began to view the United States as an Imperialist power, pulling the strings, and Fassbinder dramatically presents that sentiment in this film.
Veronika Voss truly is a film of light and shadows. This is apparent even from the opening credits, as the black words float across a white surface, casting shadows as they pass. Fassbinder’s use of black and white photography is skillful and beautiful, and each scene is exquisitely and deliberately lit. The film is stylish, and the contrast between black and white is used to its full effect, creating a look similar to that of a classic film-noir. An excellent example of this is the flashbacks, as Veronica reminisces of better times in her life. They are dramatically over-lit, surrounding the characters with auras of light, and giving each scene an almost heavenly feel. Veronika’s memory of her time on the film set at the beginning of the film is the best example of this. The difference is striking when these flashbacks are contrasted with the present day, as Fassbinder does in her house. In the past it is warm, and bright, with distinct lights and darks, while in the present the room completely dark, with covered furniture. Dr. Katz’s office is another example of how Fassbinder uses light and darkness to tell his story. The office is completely white and incredibly bright, yet unlike the flashback scenes, there are no shadows whatsoever. Even the furniture and appliances are white. This creates a cold feeling, as if someone is trying to conceal the evil within, under a veneer of sterility.
The weak point in this film lies with the characterizations. While the acting is strong overall, none of the characters are likeable. Veronika is weak and helpless, completely dependent, and always looking for someone to protect her. This combined with her self-pity does little to endear her to the audience. Robert is cold and emotionless, only mustering a minor outburst at the frustration of no one believing him. He cheats on his girlfriend without a second thought, and does not hesitate to put her in harms way. In many ways he is as exploitative of her as the other authority figures he is fighting against. In turn, his girlfriend is submissive, allowing Robert to cheat without consequence, and basically doing whatever he wants her to. Veronika and Robert’s relationship is also sorely underdeveloped. There does not appear to be a great deal of chemistry between the two, and, indeed, they have little time onscreen together. It is difficult to imagine what Robert sees that convinces him to put his own life, and the lives of others in danger.
Despite these weaknesses, it is easy to recommend this film to anyone interested in Fassbinder or New German Cinema. The film is beautifully shot, with masterful use of lighting in black and white. The themes presented are strong and present a compelling portrait of the concerns of many West Germans at the time it was made, particularly those filmmakers of the New German Cinema. Overall the film is tightly plotted, with a solid mystery, a compelling story, and strong thematic base.