The third in his thematic Bundesrepublik Deutschland trilogy, prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Lola is a sumptuous, cynical historical satire, steeped in a fugue of post-war capitalist excess, moral hypocrisy and broken idealism.
Directing over 40 films in less than twenty years, RW Fassbinder was still producing great work in the final years of his life. While Lola is not quite up to the high standard of masterpieces like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, it remains a gorgeously opulent post-war German fable. Schuckert (Mario Adorff) runs the town brothel, whose star attraction, Lola (Barbara Sukowa), draws in virtually the whole community, from anti-war ‘humanist’ Esslin (Matthias Fuchs) to the town Mayor.
When stuffy but kind-hearted town planner Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl) arrives at his new job, he has no idea of the town’s seedy underbelly, and on meeting the beautiful Lola, wastes no time in falling in love with her. Lola‘s gorgeous saturated colours evoke a kitsch eroticism that speaks to a period of exploitation cinema on the wane in 1981, as well as underscoring Von Bohm’s naievty in the face of Schuckert’s obvious cynicism.
Fassbinder lays bare the politics of post-war capitalist opportunism, yet resists the temptation to denounce its obvious pleasures, instead depicting an exploitative yet functional society enjoying the fruits of capitalist amorality – one whose delights echo the hedonism of the pre-war Weimar period. Yet Lola transcends broad satire, too, and as with Fassbinder’s best pictures, finds the raw humanity at the heart of the film’s heightened reality.
Indeed, Lola resists complete cynicism – another recurring feature of Fassbinder’s cinema is his insistence on the humane among the darkness. Von Bohm is the most obvious point of humanity here, but even Schuckert is not cast as a monster, but rather the logical conclusion of a system that encourages his worldview. Sukowa’s Lola is fascinating as the damaged, complicated heroine. Neither a complete victim nor fully empowered, she is instead a complicit opportunist, making the best of her circumstance.
The part she plays in her own exploitation is problematic to say the least, especially given the film’s closing moments. Yet in those moments no one escapes as entirely clean or dirty. Lola’s central thesis is surely that in a capitalist system, morality, just like everything has its price.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell