There’s no Hollywood story quite like that of a director run amok. Francis Ford Coppolla tap dancing on the edge of the abyss while making Apocalypse Now is probably the most famous example of this for Americans, but all of these stories are wild in their own way. Werner Herzog famously came a hair’s breadth from ordering a hit on Klaus Kinski on the set of Fitzcarraldo, and based on how that guy was running around the jungle terrorizing production assistants, the crew would have probably given him a trophy if he did it. Sam Peckinpah made some of the best action movies you’ll ever see and he spent most of his career trying to pull an extended Leaving Las Vegas style booze binge.
Something draws us to the idea of a tortured genius. It’s been that way since Lord Byron and modern celebrity culture hasn’t exactly pumped the breaks on that particular phenomenon. Cinema history is rife with the trope of the self-destructive hero. Rebel Without a Cause, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, damn ear every western and noir film all have heroes that we root for, despite their patent inability to get out of their own way. They’re going to be crushed by the societal forces around them, but we root for them anyway.
Notice a pattern in those movies from the last paragraph? They’re all American films, sure. More importantly, the leads in those movies are all insanely hot. The ones not starring James Dean and Marlon Brando statistically starred someone like young Clint Eastwood or hotter. That’s an American thing. Our self-destructive, hard living heroes need to look like male models, even when the very lives they lead would probably end with them looking like crap at a young age. Most self-destructive geniuses are going to look more like older Marlon Brando than 60’s Marlon Brando. Anything else is a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience.
Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal is one of the few films I’ve seen that doesn’t pull that particular punch. Story-wise, it’s a straight up retelling of Bertolt Brecht’s 1918 play, Baal updated with the aesthetics of 1960’s West Germany. Think of it as the great-grandpappy of any story of a societal rebel you’ve ever encountered. It tells the classic story of a tortured genius/A-hole known only as Baal. He’s a poet. An anarchist. An iconoclast. A drunk. Most importantly, this version of the character Baal, played by a young Rainer Werner Fassbinder, looks like a dirtbag. He’s pale, paunchy and greasy. Fassbinder looks like a normal guy cosplaying as The Fonz, but compared to what most audiences are used to, he’s a scowling, double chinned doughboy with a wispy mustache. Which is exactly how this kind of character needs to look. Combined with the attitude Baal brings to those around him, he should be repellent. Hell, most of the characters he interacts with throughout this movie at one point or another tell him point blank that he smells bad. Fassbinder crushes this role because he has the charisma to make you believe Baal is such a unique presence that people put up with his bullshit.
Take the opening scene of this movie. Baal is walking through a field on a cloudy day, smoking a cigarette with his flabby ass falling out of his jeans. Over the various close-ups of Fassbinder’s face, there’s this awesome rock/jazz chord playing while some narrator recites a poem about how kickass Baal is. It sets up his whole personality: He’s a loner, he’s brilliant, he likes fighting and screwing only a little less than writing poetry and he’s dangerous. God bless Fassbinder, he makes you believe it. The way he walks, puffs his cig, the defiant scowl on his face paints a picture of a man who truly does not care about the society around him or his place in it. Fassbinder doesn’t say a word this entire scene, but you believe every last thing the narrator says about him.
From there on out the movie takes a pretty predictable series of movements that you’d expect from this kind of film. Baal is basically a German Bukowski. There’s a scene where he stuffs his face and ruins a dinner party thrown by rich jerks in his honor. There’s a scene where he tries to get a three-way going with two teenage girls. He abuses women, badmouths religion, knocks up a woman he hates and drinks pretty much constantly through every scene. Of course this ends with him alienating every one he meets. Of course he ends up stabbing someone. Of course he ends up dying alone in a bush while a bunch of Bavarian lumberjacks talk smack about him. All these stories end like this and you don’t put this film on looking for it to be any different. You’re there to watch the star of the show be awful. This movie lives and dies on Fassbinder’s should because Baal is the only interesting character. Everyone else is depicted as an object for Baal to use and abuse. Slaves to a society that Baal rejects. Baal thinks he’s better than everyone else, and he treats the sheep like sheep. Browbeating and physically beating anyone he feels like whenever he wants.
Baal isn’t a great looking movie. It’s a German television film from 1970 and it looks exactly how you think that would look. Grey, grimy and 100% fitting to the story it tells. It’s unpolished and mean just like the anarchist poet that leads us through this tale of self-destruction. It’s a showcase for a single actor to bring to life to a character you’d cross the street if you saw based on smell alone. It’s an incredible piece of acting.
Fassbinder does so well in this movie because in many ways, he’s a real-life Baal. Dude made something like 50 films before he died from drug use in his 30’s and by all accounts, the man was a tyrant. He rubbed people the wrong way, banged whoever he wanted and wasn’t above torturing people to feed his obsessive drive to make movies. He was like 24 when he starred in this movie, and was just about to start his directorial rampage that would leave him in pretty much the same state Baal leaves us at the end of the film, burned out and alone. I can’t think of another film that succeeds almost totally on the ability of a single actor. Fassbinder’s performance alone is worth the price of streaming, just to try and see where Baal the poet ends, and Fassbinder the director begins.