Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)

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With the 1971 release of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's career-changing satirical Sirkian soap The Merchant of Four Seasons, he achieved his cinematic goal "to make Hollywood films in Germany."

Yet whereas Douglas Sirk's most famous '50s tear-jerkers shone exceptionally bright thanks to Jack Cardiff's romantically lush color cinematography, in Fassbinder's tragic Merchant, lensed by Dietrich Lohmann, even traditionally vibrant, primarily colors like red and yellow look as muted as the overwhelmingly gray palette of a gritty black-and-white work of Depression era realism.

An aesthetic choice he would return to again and again in his enviably prolific career, while it could be considered pretentious in lesser hands, in The Merchant of Four Seasons, it's perfectly suited to the tone of the film, which zeroes in on the pervasive struggles of everyday life.

While simple and straightforward on the surface, once we begin peeling back the layers of Fassbinder's crossover hit, we're bound to appreciate the filmmaker’s rich attention to detail on display.

Grounded by classical framing and bursting with Hollywood homage, the watershed work plays like a filmic mixtape of the Fassbender's favorites.

Relishing the opportunity to champion his exceptional taste as well as the humanistic parallels he's drawing between the titles — regardless of medium and methodology — in addition to honoring Freud and Ozu, in Merchant of Four Seasons, the filmmaker pays special attention to the Bard.

Beyond the overt titular allusion to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Fassbinder reminds us that, much like those tragicomic heroes and villains who can live for love or die of a broken heart, his characters too carry the weight of the world on their backs.

Less romantic than it is angry, Fassbinder's 1950s set Four Seasons centers on a restless veteran who's chronically dissatisfied by society and his surroundings.

Fired from his job as a police officer for succumbing to the temptations of a prostitute under his arrest, although Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) used to make a living putting lawbreakers behind bars, the tables have since been turned as it's now Hans who feels imprisoned by his lot in life selling fruit in the streets on a pushcart.

Just one of a handful of women whom we as viewers realize that the misogynistic Hans feels are responsible for his downfall, starting first and (most appropriately Freudian) foremost with his headstrong mother, the frustrated fruit merchant finds himself unable to let go of past hopes, loves, tragedies, and regrets.

A master of self-sabotage, rather than accept any responsibility for the role he's played in his own misery, Hans takes his anger out on his wife instead, thus setting in motion his own downfall.

Though undeniably fascinated by the emotional lives of his own characters, throughout the film Rainer Werner Fassbinder keeps the viewer at an arm's length, never digging deeply enough into the storyline for us to truly empathize with the people populating Merchant's muted yet intriguing world.

And nowhere is this disconnect better epitomized than in a completely illogical sequence when we watch our "heroine" go from witnessing a heart attack to having an impulsive sexual fling.

Immediately questioning both Hans as well as the filmmaker's own misogyny, which intellectually pulls us out of the movie, not only is this scene completely incongruous to everything we'd seen earlier, it also makes us wonder if vital plot points had been left on the cutting room floor when Merchant was edited together nearly fifty years ago.

An erratic yet vital early effort from Fassbinder, aside from the hiccups in plot, Merchant nonetheless remains a topical and timeless early '70s import that, despite being set roughly twenty years earlier, taps right into the same antihero heavy American fare of the era.

Offering a new angle on the Vietnam era alienation of the 1970s as well as the existential yearning of its original post-WWII setting, the way that Fassbinder's Shakespearean tinged tragedy works well for numerous ages and time periods is one of the most beguiling things about Four Seasons.

Flawed yet fearless filmmaking which has been given a dynamic restoration by the Criterion Collection, the deceptively simple eighty-eight minute movie marked a pivotal change for the typically fast Fassbinder to slow things down and make a more methodical picture this time around.

Seemingly at war with himself to keep the work short while simultaneously squeezing in as much information as possible (perhaps subconsciously), Fassbinder seasons the script with observations by passersby and relatives who hint at plot points that might've enriched the film even further before vanishing from sight. Ultimately this keeps us from getting as emotionally invested in in The Merchant's plight as we could've been.

Yet unlike Hans, with the release of his masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul just three years later, Fassbinder proved he was able to learn from the past and make a vital change, crafting something beyond a "Hollywood film in Germany" and establishing instead the type of filmmaking that would become synonymous with his name.

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