DVD Review: Baal

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Volker Schlondorff | CAST: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Sigi Graue, Margarethe von Trotta, Hanna Schygulla
RELEASE DATE: 3/20/18 | PRICE: DVD $29.95 Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: discussion between Ethan Hake and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, interview with film historian Eric Rentschler, interview with Margarethe von Trotta, vintage and new interviews with Volker Schlondorff
SPECS: NR | 84 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.37:1 widescreen | mono | German with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie   | Audio  | Video  | Overall

In 1969 Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Fox and His Friends) directed five plays (some of which he wrote himself), wrote and directed four films (three of which he starred in) and he acted in three features for other directors. One of those is this fascinatingly raw adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1919 play Baal, directed by the then-most-famous member of the New German Cinema, Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum).

So, while the 1970 film is indisputably Schlondorff’s from first frame to last, and it is also a striking modern adaptation of a work by one of the key playwrights of 20th century theater, it also clearly winds up becoming a “Fassbinder film,” because of the sheer force of RWF’s personality and the way he transformed every project he worked on.

The film is also a “Sixties movie,” since it transforms its lead character into a radical bohemian (minus the politics, which are here inherent in the storyline) and has some fascinating time-capsule elements in its stylized treatment of Brecht’s play.

All of this is present in the first scene, in which we see Fassbinder affecting his trademark swagger (along with his equally characteristic sneer) as he walks and smokes, and we hear rock music played on an organ (Animals-style) and RWF reciting Brecht’s poetry in the voiceover. It’s apparent from the first that Baal is an antihero and will be as charismatic as he is cruel — as Fassbinder was rumored to be in real life.

Schlondorff both “opened up” the play by shooting in several outdoor locations and remained faithful to Brecht’s original by inserting chapter titles into the film and strictly adhering to Brecht’s dialogue, which was strikingly stylized to begin with. Equally stylized here are the visuals, which were shot in handheld 16mm, with Vaseline on the edges of the lens to create a “dream” aspect to the proceedings.

The plot finds poet-singer Baal (played by Fassbinder, who doesn’t sing but rather declaims the ballads) achieving fame but throwing it away to hang out in pubs and sleep with female fans – most of whom he’s cruel to, one of whom he murders. The piece is so entirely dependent on the Baal character that, in the few scenes where he isn’t present or is in the background, the film nearly skids to a halt. (This doesn’t happen in the one other major film based on the play, Alan Clarke’s 1982 U.K. TV version, in which a dirtied-up David Bowie is centerstage throughout as Baal.)

The supplements included in this package do much to contextualize the play and film, and explains why the film “disappeared” for over four decades.

Magarethe von Trotta and R.W. Fassbinder in Baal.

Ethan Hawke and playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, the star and scripter of the off-Broadway show Clive, a modern update of Baal, discuss how the Brecht play channels the audience’s desire to see certain performers self-destruct in public. They also note that, when it is performed properly, as in Schlondorff’s film, it is a deeply disturbing but still relatable character study.

In a similar vein, film historian Eric Rentschler speaks about the way the play reflects Brecht’s own personality as a young man and how it works against the mythologizing of the artist. Rentschler offers insight into the stylized language of the play, noting that Brecht rewrote it a total of four times over a period of several decades.

Filmmaker Magarethe von Trotta, who co-stars in the film, recounts the film’s pre-production and shoot. She met Schlondorff when he hired her to act in the picture; the two were married shortly thereafter. She also encountered Fassbinder for the first time doing Baal — she notes that, unlike his character in the film, he was entirely disciplined in his work as an actor and filmmaker.

She notes that RWF was indeed working on several projects of his own while shooting the film, and that, while he used her as an actress a few times after Baal, cut her loose after she married Schlondorrf, saying that he could no longer use her as a performer.

Two interviews with Schlondorff are included in the package. The first, from French television in 1973, finds him revealing Baal was intended as his repudiation of the film he made before it (Michael Kohlhaas, a big-budget literary adaptation). He also mentions that Baal, shot in 1969, was filled with the spirit of the May ’68 riots in Paris and explored an artist living in “a primal state of existence.”

A more thorough interview, conducted in 2015 by DVD-supplement expert Robert Fischer, finds Schlondorff speaking in more depth about how he made the film to “find himself.” He talks about obtaining funding through regional German TV and his separate, life-changing first meetings with von Trotta and Fassbinder.

Upon deciding the latter should play Baal he also (at Fassbinder’s request) hired a number of RWF’s “Antiteater” troupe to play supporting roles and Fassbinder’s cameraman Dietrich Lohmann to shoot the film. Schlondorff notes that, while Baal was being shot, RWF was making Katzelmacher, so the actors and crew would often pull double-duty on certain days.

The Fischer interview with Schlondorff supplies the most information about how Baal “disappeared” for more than four decades. Brecht’s widow saw the film upon its first airing on German TV and banned it from ever being shown again. Schlondorff maintains that, after the ban was lifted in 2013, he then had the problem of finding a perfect copy of the film to undergo restoration.

With help from the Fassbinder Foundation, the film was unearthed and restored, and now Fassbinder fans have ready access to this incredible artifact, made when the wunderkind was a mere 24 years old.

Buy or Rent Baal

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”