Review: Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, 1976)

chinese roulette

I’m no expert, but that game doesn’t seem any fun at all!

Written By: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Directed By: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Psychological drama or blackest of comedies, which defines Chinesisches Roulette? As is often the case with a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film neither of those aptly describe Chinesisches Roulette because this film is both of those labels and then so much more. The elements of psychological drama, social commentary, black comedy, and minimalist drama are all very much present in Chinesisches Roulette. This is the sort of film that feels like it’s on wheels. It slides back and forth between genres and between labels. Herr Fassbinder never shows a care in the world for where he is taking his film because he is always sure of the destination. He’s also very trusting of his regular troupe of actors to do what he wants with the material. The result is a film that is many a thing, but most importantly it’s one great motion picture.

It took a while for Chinesisches Roulette to get going, and I was initially ready to attack the pacing of the film. However, as the film progressed the tempo became more evident. More than that, the reason for the romantic lulls of the opening twenty or so minutes crystallized in the social terrorism of the final act. Perhaps family terrorism would be a better term, or maybe family warfare. Either way, the pacing of the film reflects its characters who are like glaciers slowly moving towards one another. It takes a bit for them to get going but every time they make contact the world shakes because of the ferociousness of the impact.

I spoke of the actors earlier, and boy were they exactly in line with what I believe Herr Fassbinder was going for in Chinesisches Roulette. I’ve expressed in the past how highly I think of Margit Carstensen, and her performance in Chinesisches Roulette is another example of her brilliant ability as an actor. Going back to the glacier motif, that also describes her emotional state during the film. She is crazy, funny, dark, scary, loving, and aloof at the drop of a hat. I have no doubt that Frau Carstensen took her place, the camera was pointed at her and she nailed the scene every time. That’s how in tune she is with what Herr Fassbinder is aiming for in Chinesisches Roulette. The rest of the cast feeds off of her, and I dare say that without Frau Carstensen as the anchor of the film the endgame would not have worked as it did.

Said endgame was difficult to pull off but Herr Fassbinder found a way. The momentum of the film grinds to a halt and a jarring change takes place. No longer are the characters dancing around one another, now their mixed words are directed towards one another. They are all bitter, somewhat naive, and hostile in the way they play the game. The game represents a form of assassination or terrorism. On the outside their game of Chinese roulette is just a game, but it slowly reveals the true natures of the players. As more of them is revealed they slowly destroy any relationships that may be present, to the point where it becomes clear this family cannot and will not function anymore. A simple game takes on the form of fratricide, and all the while I was laughing, cringing, and smiling.

Chinesisches Roulette is a little more open than what I’ve come to expect from Herr Fassbinder’s more minimalist films. It’s still a great film, and that is something I always expect out of a Herr Fassbinder film. Herr Fassbinder trusts his actors and he trusts his audience and because of that Chinesisches Roulette is one heck of a motion picture to watch. It feels odd to say that I enjoyed watching a movie full of so much hate and anger, but I did. That’s the Rainer Werner Fassbinder effect, as he has once again taken a socially uncomfortable situation and made it into a magnificent film. The scary thing is, Chinesisches Roulette isn’t even top tier from Herr Fassbinder and it’s still so darn great.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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