Rainer Werner Fassbinder died at age 37 in 1982, leaving behind a body of work so improbably large (more than 40 films) and so recklessly packed with big emotions and big ideas that we still seem to be digging our way through it. Last year saw the restoration of the little-known "World on a Wire," a brilliant science-fiction film that he made for German television in 1973, which will have its Los Angeles premiere at LACMA in August.
Fassbinder kept up such a frenetic rate of production that much of his work barely got its due when he was alive. With so many of his films ripe for rediscovery, he has been more or less immune to the calcifying process of canon formation. It's hard to reduce his unruly output to a simple checklist of essentials, which is fitting since his films, in many respects, seem more vital than ever.
Case in point: "Despair" (1978), the first of his three English-language movies — the others were "Lili Marleen" and his final film, "Querelle." Presented at the Cannes Film Festival last month, where it was one of the hottest tickets in the Classics sidebar, it makes its DVD debut this week through Olive Films, which is also releasing Fassbinder's 1976 domestic melodrama "I Only Want You to Love Me."
The relative obscurity of "Despair" is surprising given its pedigree. It's based on a Vladimir Nabokov novel, adapted by Tom Stoppard, and starring the English actor Dirk Bogarde. Nabokov's story of a Russian émigré, written in the '30s, takes place in Prague. Fassbinder changed the setting to early-'30s Berlin, teetering on the abyss of the Third Reich.
The hero, Hermann Hermann (Bogarde), is a chocolatier with a floundering business and a dim, fleshy wife, Lydia (Andréa Ferréol), whom he alternately coddles and regards with detached, scornful fascination. ("Intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality," he coos by way of pillow talk.) Beset by a creeping unease — not unrelated to the ominous atmosphere of fear on the streets — Hermann begins to imagine himself outside his own body, watching himself as he sits in a theater or beds his wife.
"Despair" is perhaps the most explicit elaboration of one of Fassbinder's recurring themes: the alienation of someone who not only "stands outside himself," as Hermann puts it, but also wants to escape himself and indeed flee the trap of identity altogether. When he spies a strapping vagrant (Klaus Löwitsch) who looks nothing like him (and who in fact tells him, "A rich man never resembles a poor man"), Hermann believes that he has found his doppelgänger.
Inspired by an encounter with an insurance agent and a silent movie about identical brothers on opposite sides of the law, the deluded Hermann hatches a doomed scheme to kill his double after switching identities with him.
At two hours, "Despair" has stretches of longueurs and moments of murkiness. But the film's pleasures are ample. The sets are marvels of Art Deco baroque, and the scenes in the chocolate factories, besides allowing for a sly visual rhyme connecting chocolate figurines and Nazi brownshirts, have a Willy Wonka air of warped fantasy.
Michael Ballhaus' sinuous camera capitalizes on the many mirrors and reflective surfaces, and his layered, fragmented compositions are especially apt given the story's motifs of doubling and psychic disintegration.
Stoppard's script, filled with richly insinuating dialogue, matches Nabokov's droll humor, but the movie generally avoids the book's mocking tone. The theme of the double, a staple in art and literature, is closely associated with Dostoevsky, a favorite punching bag of Nabokov's, and "Despair" is often thought of as a Dostoevsky parody.
But even though Fassbinder pitches the movie in a black-comic register, he plainly empathizes with his hero's mental state. The film is dedicated to Van Gogh, the French playwright Antonin Artaud and the German painter Unica Zurn, all of whom wrestled with madness or schizophrenia.
Fassbinder sees Hermann's condition less as a malady than a way out of a diseased social order. He expands on the ideas of liberation and anarchy in an essay he wrote on "Despair," which, down to its very title, doubles as a manifesto for all his work: It's called "Of Despair, and the Courage to Recognize a Utopia and to Open Yourself Up to It."