Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1976 film Satan’s Brew begins with a quote from Surrealist Theater theorist Antonin Artaud: “What differentiates the heathens from us is the great resolve underlying all their forms of belief not to think in human terms. In this way, they are able to retain the link with the whole of Creation, in other words, with the Godhead.” With this quote, Fassbinder sets up the premise for his film: Is the heathenization of man, the loss of rationale, the reversion to a primitive state of animalistic being, a way to liberate our souls?
Artaud also believed that without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the Theater was not possible. In Satan’s Brew, cruelty, acts of despair, and violence, are endless; starting with the film’s cold opening, where we meet a desperate, angry Kranz (Kurt Raab), a self-righteous poet, demanding a cash advance from his publisher (for a book he has yet to write). Threats, provocations, lies, are exchanged between Kranz and the Publishing Company’s secretary, before he is kicked out of the office, and told to return, once he has written something/anything.
Once a famous and acclaimed revolutionary poet, now a washed-up, money-hungry writer (who won’t write), Kranz has lost any sense of self-worth. And, in a post-war world where God is Dead, and nihilism prevails, what won’t a man do, how low will a man sink, when his internal chaos and despair have drowned out social responsibility, morality and ethics? This is one of the many questions Fassbinder raises in this underrated masterpiece.
Fassbinder’s film establishes itself as a grotesque, hyper-realistic exploration of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (the Superior-Man), in this case, exemplified in the character of Kranz, who’s sentiment of superiority and entitlement, set him off (with no direction) on a journey to get cash, ass, and whatever else he pleases. Our unlikeable hero, the shameless, and most self-righteous Kranz, loosely exemplifies Raskolnikov (a man who deems himself superior and murders for money in Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment), exonerating himself and justifying the degenerate, and cruel actions he takes against his wife, his mentally ill brother, his multiple mistresses, his impoverished parents, and any other fool that stands in his way from getting the things he desires. Unearned Money, Sex, and Fame.
At first, glance, for a viewer unfamiliar with Fassbinder’s work, Satan’s Brew may come across as self-indulgent; it’s Director – cruel for subjecting his cast (and audiences) to this maniacal debauchery of brutality. But, if Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty theories are correct, (which is what Fassbinder seems to be suggesting), then audiences will naturally be captivated by this dark masochistic exploration, that externalizes the hidden suppressed desires of the subconscious; exposing the audiences’ destructive, and anarchic fantasies. But is the divulgence of so much visual violence and hatred justified? No. And I don’t believe Fassbinder intends it to be.
While there is mayhem, and chaos, Satan’s Brew’s ingredients are carefully concocted, and
executed with utmost precision, to express a prevalent socio-political distress of its time; the violence, the vulgarity, and the inherent sickness of mankind.
As for Women, the film is filled with submissive, domesticated roles. They are objectified, fucked, spat at, vomited on, sat on, hit, pushed, raped, cheated on, ridiculed, humiliated, lied to, black-mailed, and worse. In their domination, these women enable Kranz’s character to continue down a path of perversity, violence, and self-absorption.
Watching Satan’s Brew, as a feminist filmmaker and critic, I found myself cringing, at times offended, and appalled. Showing women under any different light however, would be inauthentic to the world of the film. In any lawless society, the privileged will rule over the oppressed.
A fantastic feminist film dealing with the experience of women in a nihilistic world, is Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1967) where Marie I and Marie II, will do just about anything to survive in post-war Czech Republic. Also filled with irony and destruction, the big question that many of these filmmakers were exploring: What will godless humans do, in a world where they have nothing, and nothing to lose. While in Chytilova’s work, the women are both, the victim, and aggressor; in Fassbinder’s Brew, the spectator never sees Kranz as a victim; we are disgusted by him (and also seduced by him), but we don’t actually feel any empathy for him. All very intentional by Fassbinder, we lack the same empathy as an audience that the character lacks for humanity.
Released in 1976, during the heart of the New German Cinema period. This film is a well executed example of the Movement’s desire to revolutionize the medium of Film. Their manifesto emphasized the rejection of the existing German film industry, and the intent to radicalize, and redefine the medium. Echoing Artaud once again, whose 1938 book of essays Theater and Its Double, was an attack on the theatrical conventions, and a call to transform the spectator into an active one, rather than a passive observer.
Fassbinder presents us with a well-composed, complex, showcase of unruly chaos, of a new godless world filled with Nietzschean references, where nothing matters, and where the only thing that is constant, is that everything is random, and illogical. This is both an angry world, and a fearful one.
In his earlier film, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), starring the fabulous Margit Carstensen as a successful, smug and arrogant bitch, Fassbinder also explores these traits of entitlement, of human cruelty; all of which amount to one conclusion: Kranz and Petra’s overconsumption, sadomasochism, and over-indulgence, is a way to hide the truth of their self-hatred and personal dissatisfaction.
In Fassbinder’s Fear of Fear (1975) a made-for Television movie, released a year prior to Satan’s Brew, Margot, a character the spectator empathizes with (also played by Margit Carstensen), loses her grip on reality, and medicates herself with booze, and drugs, to numb herself from the disconnect she feels with her family and the world. Unlike Kranz and Petra, Margot is a victim of this violent and un-empathetic society.
Other films, from the same time period dealing with a post war, nihilistic chaos, include Pasolini’s Salo (1975), Godard’s Week-End (1967), and even Luis Buñuel’s surrealist soap opera The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). All these films present the world as a doomed, scary place, of perversion, murder, and repressed sexual desires, where no one is accountable for their actions.
In Satan’s Brew, all the trademark elements of the auteur prevail: the utilization of humor, hyper-realism, and melodrama, to raise powerful questions about society, without taking itself too seriously. In other words, a bitter sarcasm deeply entrenched in every element of his films. From the cuckoo music (by Peer Raben), to the excessive, and overindulgent production design of loud muted colors, patterns, and knick-knack furniture, the exaggerated hair, make-up, and costumes; to the incredible commitment of the actors, who are convincing participants in Fassbinder’s world.
The characters seem to be ‘acting’ with one another. As if aware of the spectacle they were participating in, yet without seeming false or inauthentic. Fassbinder teeters on the line of role-playing and outrageous but without crossing it. The actors have excellent timing, rhythm, and choreography; all of which is enhanced by (Ballhaus’) artful cinematography, giving Satan’s Brew a fluidity and harmony, that carries the spectator, willingly along for the ride. The genius of Satan’s Brew, lies exactly in its ability to satirize reality, while still maintaining its sincerity; proving that a film about chaos and disorder, is hardly chaotic at all in its methodical construction.
This film is not for the faint-hearted; it is not for a passive audience, who wants to sit back and be taken on a journey, without having to do any internal work. Mass audiences may be repelled by its vulgarity, and reject the repulsive violence. Many may exit the theater mid-way through, refusing to engage with the boldness that sweeps, and destroys the spectator’s comfort; challenging the passivity of conventional filmmaking.
But for those who are willing to subject themselves to discomfort, for the sake of an active experience, this film will deliver great rewards. Thought-provoking, Illuminating; and (from a technical stand-point) beautifully executed. Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew is a successful homage to Artaud’s theories, where the spectator is no longer alienated from the work she is experiencing, but rather expected to engage/emote/ and actively exist within it.