DVD Review of Pioneers
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/17/10
Prior to watching German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 87 minute long 1970 film, Pioneers In Ingolstadt, I’d only been subjected to one of his films, the execrable Whity. Ok, at least Whity had some outrageous unintended perverse sexual humor going for it. Pioneers In Ingolstadt lacks even that. In fact, it’s really not so much a film as a series of extended blackout sketches. Given the period it was made, and given that many of the scenes take place in a Munich public park, at a bench, at night, in ridiculously poorly lit (or overlit) scenes, that cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann should have been shot for committing to celluloid, my mind immediately flashed back to the ABC television sitcom that ran from 1969 to 1974: Love, American Style. I specifically recall similarly set up scenes between recurring characters played by Arte Johnson and Ruth Buzzi. Now, that show was no great thing, but, at least, there were occasional sketches that were well acted and, well, funny! Not a one of the sketches in Pioneers In Ingolstadt can claim either mantle.
In fact, in researching the film, I found out that it was originally made for German television, was shot in under two weeks, and was one of eleven films that Fassbinder made in a twelve month period at the start of his filmic career. All of this shows, and in spades. Despite being adapted from a 1928 play of the same name, by Marieluise Fleisser, there really is nothing the film offers. The acting is wooden, stiff, and utterly without emotion. The writing is scattered, anomic, and without any point. The characterizations are nonexistent. And, not a single scene or characterization yields anything that shows up in a later scene as a payoff. In short, this is one of the worst films ever made. It is pretentious, dull, poorly conceived, executed with even more of a creative dearth, and is, well….here is a summary of what happens.
The film follows three main female characters as they search for love and sex with incompetent soldiers (the titular Pioneers, for some reason) stationed in a town (presumably Ingolstadt) to build a dinky little bridge. Alma (Irm Hermann) is the local tart, spreading her legs for anyone. Berta (Hanna Schygulla) is a sincere maid, and pal to Alma. She falls in love with a soldier who is as dumb and unattractive as he is uninspiring- Karl (Harry Baer, who does a lousy acting job). The last girl is a blond, Frieda (Carla Aulaulu), who wears too much makeup, and gets constantly put down by the uppity Alma. There is also tension between the soldiers and their Sergeant (Klaus Löwitsch), whom they finally kill. But, not a scene is realistic, nor is it stylized to such a degree that a viewer can say that at least it’s powerful, if affected. No, every scene is stilted and a total disaster. Look at the scenes between the father, Fritz Unertl (Walter Sedlmayr), who employs Berta, and the weak willed son, Fabian (Rudolf Brem), who lusts after her, and wants to blow up the bridge so the soldiers leave (yes, destroy what they are working on so they will only have to spend more time rebuilding it!). There is no chemistry, no wit, no sparkle, not a dram of anything to recommend watching it. It is framed unimaginatively, with the camera going back and forth between the two. This is an obvious nod to a similar scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, but there, the scene was well crafted, and better acted. And, as overrated a cinematic mediocrity as Godard was, he’s an utter master compared to this schlock. I could detail why the scene is bad, in all aspects, but that would waste both our times. A few seconds glance at the film, and you’ll see that not only is it inferior to high budget films like Contempt, but it makes contemporaneous low budget affairs from America, such as Last House On The Left, seem the work of visionaries by comparison.
Also in the film is Günther Kaufmann (from Whity), as Max- a black soldier, who basically plays a lusty coon stereotype, and was a Fassbinder regular. Other than drooling over white women, he basically plays Karl’s second fiddle and, well, that’s about it. Oh yeah, he helps three other soldiers beat up Fabian (in the most poorly choreographed fight scene by a major name director I’ve ever seen) and takes the lead in killing the Sergeant. None of this has any rhyme nor reason (such as Alma’s ending up with Fabian or Berta’s spending the closing credits lying with legs spread open in the nighttime park as a soldier walks by), but Fassbinder unwittingly sets up Max as that demon of white fears- the angry black man who kills white men and wants to fornicate with white women. Great, eh?
The DVD package is about at the same level of competence as the film. Put out by Fantoma, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, it’s a disaster. The print is loaded with scratches, the sound quality comes and goes (although, with the original music by Peer Raben, this is no loss), and there are no special features (save for white English subtitles) on the film- not even a menu. Pop in the disk and it just starts with the film, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Film critic Chuck Stephens has a laughably bad essay praising the film in the insert, but that’s no worse than what one will find online.
You just have to hand it to critics (anonymous and well known) who will trot out their utter ignorance of an art form or work, try discussing themes and symbols, as if that lard of pretense will cover up the fact that the artwork utterly fails in many or all aspects of execution, for, even if one were to grant that Pioneers In Ingolstadt had great intentions, and strove to be great art, but just failed, one could not ignore the factors that caused that failure. That this film does not even try to make itself a thing of art, however, means that most critics utterly gave up on trying to do their job, and instead became mere public relations props. The only real question, when reading some of the pap below, and comparing it with what the film puts out, is ‘Were they actively taking graft or payola?’ They will go on about things like some soldiers dressed as Nazis and others not, the film being set in the past, even as we see modern cars drive by, 1960s slang and looks, and a bevy of other flaws that are swept under the rug and rationalized as art, rather than its failure, because the critic simply likes Fassbinder, or, more likely, agrees with the artist’s ideas on politics or social beliefs. Let’s look at some of this nonsense, from Jim Clark, a critic with his own website, who writes in a review:
Although much quieter than that climactic moment, there is an
extraordinarily haunting murder on a lake at the end of Pioneers
in Ingolstadt. Telling you who is involved would spoil the
moment. But the sudden nature of the homicide is contrasted with the serene,
even poetic, beauty of the images. Moments like this rank among Fassbinder's
most original, unforgettable, and unnerving.
Watch the murder scene, and try to contain a guffaw. It’s impossible. Nor is the murder sudden. The whole film telegraphs the killing from the first few scenes between the Sergeant and Karl, And there is not an ounce of serenity, poetry, beauty, nor originality in that scene, or any others, that will unnerve one, or stick in the mind. Try this one on for size:
An even more tangled mess of relationships come about when sex, and
one-sided love, are thrown into the mix with class and power. The scenes between
the soldiers and the women in town provide the dramatic spine for the film, even
as they allow Fassbinder to explores the connections between love and war (or at
least the men who practice it). The focus is on two (symbolically, of course)
contrasting women, both superbly played by arguably the two greatest actresses
he worked with (between them, they appeared in most of his pictures).
Dramatic spine? In sub-American sitcom scenes? And, to explore ‘the connections between love and war (or at least the men who practice it)’? First off, there is no war in the film, and the soldiers are bored stiff, and incompetent idiots. They are practicing nothing. Then, there are all the comparisons to other artists, like Bertolt Brecht (a bad playwight and even worse ‘poet’), Jean-Luc Godard (an overrated, but still much better filmmaker), and, of all people, to American filmmaker Douglas Sirk, maker of 1950s Hollywood melodramas.
All of these wild and silly claims evidence the ‘critical cribbing’ I’ve long derided. This is where a critic regurges the stuff (often wrong, itself) written by others, with slight changes, just to disguise the fact that they barely engaged the art, or where they merely rework publicity material given, and act as a ‘critic’ only to get favors from those they ‘criticize.’ Perhaps the worst of those online, is from Jeffrey M. Anderson, a critic for Combustible Celluloid, who gave the film 4 out of 4 stars. Here’s his review, in toto:
his hero Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder explored the dark side of human
sexuality in Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1970, Fantoma Films, $29.99), the
story of a group of soldiers building a bridge in a small town during peacetime.
The town’s women, including a loose tart (Irm Hermann) and a naïve maid
(Hanna Schygulla) begin to flirt with the soldiers, one to have sex, the other
to fall in love. The soldiers play with the power of their uniforms and ranks,
often making decisions based not on what they themselves want, but on what they
don't want others to have. It’s a powerful film, shot quickly and economically
with incredible cinematic poetry.
Ok, let’s dissect this nonsense. On the plus side, Anderson does get the fact right that there is no war in the film. Then there’s….well, that’s it for such an in depth take. Let’s see what he got wrong. The obligatory dropping of the Douglas Sirk name- only because others have mentioned it, despite no evidence in this film. The film explores no sexuality. Sex just occurs; there is no meditation on it, much less is it from the ‘dark side.’ Callt he cliché cops on that. There is no power play, it’s not powerful, and while shot quickly, there is no technical economy to the film, Its 87 minutes could have been squoze to a short film’s 7 or 8 minutes of length, with no dramatic loss. And ‘cinematic poetry’? Aside from the cliché, there is none. There are some technical details that the website conveys in its formula, but, essentially, Mr. Anderson just copied his ‘review’ (dare I call something of that brevity ‘criticism’?
Still, Anderson has nothing on old Jim Clark:
The film’s structure revolves around a complex intertangled web of
connections between the (profoundly disconnected) characters. Although the film
explores a static world, with performances which sometimes border on the
somnambulistic, it derives much of its energy from Fassbinder’s eclectic tone.
He pointedly veers between perverse comedy, melancholy, and violence. The
film’s explosive climaxes are made all the more shattering by the lethargic
pacing of earlier scenes.
Yet, in one sense, Mr. Clark is far more honest than most of the fellatric critics for this film, because, even within his nonsense, he does, if one reads between the lines, reveal much about the film with such words as profoundly disconnected, static, performances which sometimes border on the somnambulistic, perverse, and lethargic. Translated, that means badly structured, dull, poorly acted, poorly written, and boring. In short, when even a bad film’s staunchest defenders out themselves by not even being able to subconsciously control the impact and meaning of their words, you know you are dealing with a very poor work of art, and I use the term loosely. Pioneers In Ingolstadt is a bad film, and a cheap looking one, at that; one that if you watch any five minute section of, you know what the other 82 minutes are like. Fassbinder may have improved with age, but, as Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel never did, my hopes are not high for Fassbinder’s ‘art.’ Forget this garbage, and buy a DVD of the Love, American Style tv series. It may be only a little better entertainment, but I guarantee you it’s surely not worse.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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