Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a director known for his explorations of alienation, madness, and a lack of belonging. Often, these personal feelings are mere placeholders for his commentary on Germany’s past, present, and future. Restlessness has always made it onto the screen (especially in Fassbinder’s female characters), and Despair (1978) exemplifies the palpable confusion of its main character, Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde). Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s 1934 novel, and adapted for the screen by another literary genius, Tom Stoppard, Despair follows Hermann, a chocolatier bored with his life and wife.
National Socialists are gaining more power, and Hermann’s simplistic wife, Lydia, is oblivious to what might happen to Hermann since he’s Jewish. Hermann has done a good job in hiding his real identity, and despite the success of his chocolate factory, he’s dissatisfied with the way his life has turned out. He doesn’t really know why he married Lydia and he uses the excuse of complete opposites to justify his marriage. Hermann doesn’t seem to mind that Lydia has a rather close relationship to her cousin, Ardalion, a constant presence in their life.
His identity is split and he begins to see a doppelgänger while being intimate with Lydia. This man is closely watching him, but reasons for this are unknown. Is Hermann losing his mind or is there really another figure that looks exactly like him? He becomes intrigued, and in order to escape the bourgeois restlessness he has created for himself, he hatches a plan to disappear.
Hermann finds a poor tramp, Felix Weber, to impersonate him and he promises a good amount of money. Felix is amused and accepts the offer. Felix is also unaware that Hermann plans to kill him. In the meantime, Hermann purchases a life insurance policy, which Lydia will cash after the police find Hermann’s (Felix’s) body, and then the pair can move to Switzerland and live happily ever after.
It doesn’t exactly work out that way, and this is partly because Felix doesn’t look like Hermann at all. Naturally, the police know that is something is amiss, and begin to look for Hermann. Ragged, tired, worn-out from constant run from the authorities, Hermann is eventually captured.
The plot stays mostly true to Nabokov’s book, but the execution is incoherent. It’s not easy evaluating a film of this kind of quality made by this director. This was Fassbinder’s first film made in English, and perhaps this was the reason why the production of the film suffered. We have before us a series of images that appear to be connected but that are difficult to follow.
Fassbinder indulgently revels in extreme artificial quality of the film that takes precedence over the plot and actors themselves. The idea of double identity is a philosophical one, but Fassbinder opts for stilted dialogue in which characters are overly dramatic and tragic, yet comical. This is an existential cabaret. It carries within it traces of Fassbinder’s masterpiece Martha (1974) but, unlike the brilliance of Martha, the film is loose in its execution. Despair draws less of a comparison with Fassbinder’s other films and more with Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), which was unsurprisingly Fassbinder’s favorite film. The characters are static, saying perfect lines while showing no verve, energy, or humanity. Lydia looks and makes gestures befitting a Weimar Germany’s whore that occasionally dances on a cabaret stage to make herself more “respectable.” Hermann is fastidious and punctuates words at strange moments, as if he’s reading an incoherent poem rather than trying to engage in dialogue with Lydia. Fassbinder has frozen them in the celluloid, and time or cinematic fluidity has no meaning or place in this project.
Yet in all of this dream-like mess, it is Dirk Bogarde that emerges triumphant. He has perfected a Prussian accent for the film. Despite Fassbinder’s efforts to metaphysically imprison his actors, Bogarde is continuously free and in control without making a visible effort. Even Fassbinder’s static imposition is not strong enough to annihilate Bogarde’s fluid movement from one identity to the other as he descends into a pathetic beast that emerges out of hiding. He escapes Fassbinder’s clutches.
This wasn’t an easy role for Bogarde. In the third volume of his autobiography, An Orderly Man (1983), Bogarde reflects on the difficulties of filming Despair. Right from the beginning, Fassbinder presented himself as a persona that would be unreachable, both linguistically and metaphysically. This was taking a toll on Bogarde who thought that the entire production was created out of madness.
“If Rainer had a fault, “writes Bogarde, “it was that he found it completely impossible to concentrate, think, or create, in anything which remotely approximated to silence. He had to work in a vortex of sound: torrents of sound; it was something with which one quickly came to terms/Or perished. From the moment that he [Fassbinder] roared up to the set (wherever it was) in his vastly expensive motor car, until the moment that he left… he worked in a shuddering blast of music. Maria Callas at full pitch in both ‘Tosca’ and ‘Norma’…”
No matter how much incoherence and uncertainty there is in Despair, we can be sure that Hermann is indeed going mad, yet he doesn’t elicit compassion. There’s a great sense of indifference that we feel because the deeper motives of his actions remain unknown. Bogarde too almost went mad. Although he accepted the role of Hermann, it was also “the nearest thing to a complete mental and physical take-over that [he] had endured since Von Aschenbach.”
Bogarde was an actor who took his art seriously. Not many actors wholly and eerily become someone else. “Actor has to empty himself of self,” writes Bogarde, “completely, and then encourage the stranger he is to be into the vacuum created.” The roles become different forms of alter-ego, or even worse, the person who’s an actor and an artistic entity becomes a stranger to himself. He further alienates himself from the interior self that he usually occupies and begins to lose whatever shred of authenticity he has left. (When he played the role of Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio remarked that that he developed a level of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—the very aspect he portrayed in his role as Hughes—and that it took him months to get rid of it and go back to his normal self.)
At the end of Despair, the police are pointing guns at Hermann. He’s arrested for the murder of Felix Weber. Hermann holds his hands in meek protest, barely speaking the words that are meant to justify his actions: he is but a mere film actor, implying that none of it’s true. It could be that this is every actor’s thought, absolving himself of any artistic guilt or responsibility for the work that’s created.