“It’s like looking in a mirror”
Germany, the early 1930s. Against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism, Hermann Hermann, a Russian émigré and chocolate magnate, goes slowly mad. His life takes a dramatic turn when he meets Felix, an itinerant laborer, whom he believes to be a mirror image of himself. A audacious plot of murder, fraud and flight leads Hermann further into despair.
Despair is Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s defining statement on the individual’s loss of agency, identity, and sanity amidst a world of political extremism and mass conformity. Despair is an engrossing, if occasionally slightly nauseating, visual feast. The fluid movements of Fassbinder’s camera and lush cinematography of Michael Ballhaus delight in the multiple layering of glass, mirrors and other reflective surfaces which aptly conjure the hypnotic effect of psychological fragmentation. Dirk Bogarde‘s poised portrayal of this mental disintegration commands the screen, in what certainly must be the most enigmatic performance of his career. The production design, an inspired flight of Art Deco baroque, also reflects this ever shifting psychological landscape. The scenes in Hermann’s chocolate factory, where endless lines of chocolate soldiers that echo the relentless march of Nazi Brownshirts are dominated by a particularly unsettling shade of lilac – all suggest a world of distorted Willy Wonka fantasy. Despair is Fassbinder’s declaration of contempt for the bourgeois decadence of the German Wiemar era that allowed the rise of the evil of Nazism. Hermann Hermann’s blatant rejection of reality then becomes a perfect metaphor for the response of a healthy individual when confronted with the sickness of a corrupt society .The film is dedicated to artists Vincent Van Gogh, Unica Zürn and poet Antonin Artaud, all of whom struggled with their interaction with society, and descended into mental illness. Despair, though perhaps not for everyone, is a singular vision of rich and passionate insight. It is a high point of New German Cinema.