The Night of the Hunter, R.W. Fassbinder and the Acid Art of Anti-Christ Melodrama

“When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down with their heads back or eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again.”

The Night of the Hunter director Charles Laughton, 1955 (Couchman, 129-130)
In The Ecstasy of Influence, writer Jonathan Lethem crafts a paen to artistic influence – or more accurately ripping each other off and recycling another artist’s ideas – that says “appropriation” is inevitable when it comes to successfully realized, intertextual art (2007). Lethem even dares to suggest this should be viewed as a form of flattery. “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master,” he writes, indicating that art itself is usually the catalyst that causes artists to be born.

In the world of film, the spectator can see this particular form of “adopting and embracing” (Lethem, 2007) at work within the canons of auteurs with wildly self-referential touches that recall their own past filmic endeavors (e.g. Pedro Almodovar’s expansive use of tropes such as the mother, the drag queen or the nun across films and the genesis of future film plots in gestational form played out in his earlier works) as well as the incorporation and allusion to other great artists and works of art. “Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others,” intones Lethem, “but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses” (2007). Meaning: artists steal from one another, and this theft can make their own product even stronger. Cross-arts borrowing of source material can clearly be seen across individual auteurs’ filmographies, across continents, and across genres, and it can most definitely be seen in the body of work of influential German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose films consistently dare the viewer to classify their genre and to spot their influences. Even in a claustrophobic chamber play such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Fassbinder’s usage of classic works of art in the film brings in a totally new dimension to his own work – an element of what Lethem calls “inspiration [that] could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced” (2007). Fassbinder not only literally imports a wall-sized, purposefully cropped image of Nicolas Pouisson’s “Midas and Bacchus”, but he also imparts the myth itself, and its central message: “be careful what you ask for” (Levine, 3/03/2010).

Fassbinder was known by many names during his short but impactful life: anarchist, enfant terrible, drug addict, misogynist, genius. By Lethem’s definition of what an artist is, one could also add proud plagiarist to the list of adjectives that best describe this tyro of modern cinema who died in Munich in 1982 (Töteberg and Lensing eds., 1992). In the introduction to Fassbinder’s 1971 critiques of six Douglas Sirk melodramas (All That Heaven Allows [1955], Written on the Wind [1956], Interlude [1957], The Tarnished Angels [1958], A Time to Love and a Time to Die [1958] and Imitation of Life [1959]), the auteur borrows a quote from Douglas Sirk that audaciously aims to define film. “Cinema is blood, is tears, is violence, hate, death, and love” (ibid.: 197). Fassbinder’s own style of filmmaking certainly embraces and even incorporates elements of films that shaped his directorial style, particularly Sirk’s. The way Fassbinder frames Sirk’s elucidation of the form feels much like a classic description of a monster movie, and it could be argued that many of his own films – from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) to In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) – are reinterpretations of the classic monster movie, an idiosyncratic, post WWII, post Nazi malaise that specifically haunted Germany.

Deeply exploring a similar sense of innocence lost, a key feature of melodrama (Levine, 1/27/2010), it is not surprising to find Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece The Night of the Hunter on Fassbinder’s 1980 list of all time “Best Films” (Töteberg and Lensing eds., 1992; 106), as it fulfills each of Sirk’s requirements of what “cinema” is in a visceral, moving and entertaining way. During Fassbinder’s formative years he watched the influential films of Sirk, Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar), Max Ophuls (Lola Montes) and Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and Laughton’s (Fassbinder, 106). Each of these director’s – and others both on and off his list – very essences would become imprinted onto his brain, and then emerge in own work many years later. The Night of the Hunter did this with a particularly clever, subliminal flourish that I believe is key to fully appreciating the depth of Fassbinder’s filmography.

The influence of Laughton’s single film on the work of Fassbinder’s entire filmography can be abundantly found in the two directors’ treatments of shared themes such as religion, sexuality, age, gender, and class but also stylistically; allusions to great works of art and literature, in visual symbols inserted into the mise en scene, light design; making melodrama the key ingredient of their narratives; and ruthless deployment of both diegetic and non-diegetic sound and music. Another way in which The Night of the Hunter could be read as influencing Fassbinder is simply in the way both directors construct an overall tone and shape that marks the finished products as one of the “indecipherables” (Levine, 3/24/2010) that subvert genre altogether. In my paper I will seek to document the ways in which Laughton’s landmark work would become such a major influence on Fassbinder, trying to unpack precisely how this curious piece of Americana could so permeate and influence a renegade, punk rock German director’s entire body of work. What the two directors have most in common, in my view, is their propensity for unclassifiability, that is, The Night of the Hunter, much like In a Year of 13 Moons, is often seen as an unclassifiable film, making it feel more dangerous, more compelling, even more of an objet d’ curiositie, and thus something very special.

When looking at the similarities between “highly complex visual objects” (Levine, 3/24/2010) such as Fassbinder’s key In a Year of 13 Moons and The Night of the Hunter, the links immediately begin to crop up. Both directors have crossed the simple boundaries of the plastic arts to incorporate literature, the supernatural and the unexplainable with artful referencing and reinterpreting of other great artists’ works in order to produce pieces of film art that are unique in their tone and visual make-up. “Art”, but particularly the art of others, can be found nestled deep within the bone marrow of both directors’ films. Laughton immediately realized the cross-artistic potential of Davis Grubbs’ successful 1953 novel and snapped up the film rights before the novel was even released. Financial success meant a film version would need to be made in quick succession, to capitalize on the novel’s popularity, and so United Artists began production. “United against the artists” was how Hunter producer Paul Gregory referred to the studio (Couchman, 2009: 24).

Released on September 29, 1955, the finished product would eventually become iconic precisely for its sophisticated, adroitly artistic depiction of good versus evil. The Night of the Hunter’s iconicity is largely due to its genre-defying dialectical properties that bring together the edgy with the earnest, a blending of styles ahead of its time. The raw, open-wound quality of Laughton’s film would have no doubt appealed to Fassbinder’s enthusiasm for films that went against the grain, both in their construction and in their spirit, films that transgressed and challenged typical Hollywood mores while simultaneously paying homage to them. An Oscar winning actor in his own right (and Fassbinder’s third favorite film actor [Töteberg and Lensing eds., 1992: 106]), Laughton understood the advantage to having a star in the lead role, and so he brought in Hollywood royalty Robert Mitchum to play Harry “Preacher” Powell (“people who sell God must be sexy,” remarked Laughton to Grubbs [Couchman, 2009: 140]). Laurence Olivier, Joseph Cotten and, incredibly, Jack Lemmon were at various points considered to play “Preacher” (ibid.: 174), a Jesus-spouting, psychopathic serial killer of Depression-era widows, who might also actually be a demon sent straight from hell. Preacher, who has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles to illustrate the classic tale of “good” and “evil” (ibid.: 143), is a flamboyant petty criminal with an insane hatred of women.

This hatred lands him in a jail cell with cop-killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who, fortunately for the wicked, opportunistic Preacher, reveals while talking in his sleep that he has hidden a $10,000 booty somewhere in the vicinity of Cresap’s Landing, where his wife Willa (Laughton’s first choice for the part and former student Shelley Winters) and children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) were left behind destitute following his arrest. Willa, a character that actresses Ann Baxter, Betty Grable and Grace Kelly all wanted to tackle (ibid.: 188), toils in the local confectioner’s shop for the Spoons, the domineering busybody Icey and the compliant Walt (Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe), vacantly awaiting Ben’s execution. Winters, according to Couchman’s assessment, “achieves the delicate combination of sensuality, plainness, meekness and hysteria,” (ibid.: 188) that was needed to most accurately portray the character’s quiet minutiae. The actress approaches the role with a minimalist flourish that clashes beautifully with Willa’s tempestuous highs later in the film when the fervor and fanaticism eventually lead to her climactic, deadly seduction by this reprehensible “man of God”.

Preacher, released from custody, makes his way to the river town to charm and fool both Willa and the zealous Christian townsfolk into thinking he is a “man of God” in order to find the money, which was hidden by Ben prior to his arrest inside Pearl’s rag doll. Disgusted with Willa’s desire to make love, Preacher, in one of cinema history’s most chilling depictions of dysfunctional, pent-up sexual energy orgasmically unleashed since Marylee Hadley’s “dance of death” in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, murders his blushing bride with a gleaming pocket knife and hides her corpse by fastening it to her old Model T, which he submerges at the bottom of the river, in one of the film’s most haunting scenes. The children are now at his mercy, and he continues to terrorize them about the money. Finally realizing Preacher’s murderous intentions, John and Pearl run to the very river their mother was just pulled out of and hop onto a rowboat, recalling the excitement and ominous, impending danger of the boat and water scenes of German director F.W. Murnau’s expressionist Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). The children, whose innocence was taken away long ago by the many traumas they faced, embark on a trip down the glittering black river as the “golden” moon and stars (Levine, 1/27/2010) twinkle above their sleepy heads.

This trip down the river is indeed the very definition of a trip, an acid trip-tinged nightmare where the spectator becomes a part of this dark childhood fairytale sequence as glistening frogs croak along to Pearl’s lullaby and the exasperated, exhausted orphans drift away in a skiff from their stepfather and their past 1. They avoid their murderous stalker at every stop, begging for food and shelter from kind strangers up until their final destination, where they meet a tough, salt of the earth Christian lady who takes in children during “them hard, hard times”. To provide a nostalgic yin to Mitchum’s blustery, fire and brimstone yang, Laughton, who had been intently studying the films of D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation [1915], Broken Blossoms [1919], Intolerance [1916]) in preparation to direct his first feature (Couchman, 2009: 62), then cast Griffith staple Lillian Gish in the role of guardian angel Rachel Cooper after briefly considering Grubbs’ preferred choice of Ethel Barrymore (who Laughton found “rather Hudson than Ohio River Valley” [ibid.: 55]) and Jane Darwell, a Best Supporting Actress winner for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) whose successful turn as “Ma Joad” from that film made her the go-to actress when a morally righteous, kind mother type was needed (ibid.: 179). In the end, Gish was chosen for the pivotal Rachel, a kind-hearted, resourceful woman who takes in orphans with nowhere to go, because of her ability to “appear to be the source of light” (ibid.: 179). The fit of star and role makes perfect sense as the character of Rachel Cooper could be described much like producer Gregory described Gish herself, as a “Dear Little Iron Butterfly” (ibid.: 178).

As the tormented Preacher finds his way down the river, he runs afoul of Miz Cooper’s own particular brand of righteousness: one that includes Jesus and the Bible, faith, perseverance and a shotgun. “I got something caught in my barn,” Miz Cooper alerts the State Police after Preacher skulks away to the structure after an unsuccessful attempt at kidnapping John and Pearl. The cops immediately take Preacher into custody and back to Cresap’s Landing to be appropriately punished for Willa’s murder and for his other heinous crimes. During his trial, where a tortured John must testify against his stepfather, the townspeople, enraged, gather in furious, fervent mobs and rally in the streets outside of his cell for Preacher to hang. Screaming “Bluebeard!” at the fallen angel who is now more like a caged animal in his cell awaiting death, the mob descends on him, and Preacher is deftly hustled into a police car and rushed to a safer location, providing a jarring, anti-climactic transition to the film’s Christmastime coda set at Rachel’s farm, where the “good” children open their meager presents and “evil” (Preacher) escapes an onscreen punishment. It is a profoundly Fassbinderian denouement where there is “no such thing as innocence” (Levine, 4/6/2010) and viewers might be asked to accept an outcome that they don’t necessarily enjoy or even remotely agree with.

Author and film scholar Jeffrey Couchman, an expert on Laughton’s film, says that “The Night of the Hunter reverberates with the voices of other writers“ (2009: 38), much like Lethem points out that artists build upon, reference and otherwise adopt other artists’ classic work in order to create a modern or postmodern work. Just as The Night of the Hunter would play a key role in the development of Fassbinder’s aesthetic, Laughton drew upon a myriad of influences and styles to create the only film he would direct in his lifetime. If “melodrama employs an aesthetic of astonishment” (Mercer and Shingler, 2004: 93) than it could be said that Laughton’s film was similarly an amalgamation of “astonishing” influences. Deeply embedded into The Night of the Hunter‘s DNA, the viewer finds: German expressionist director Robert Wiene’s hypnotically designed film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari‘s graphic, bucolic sets (1920); the Biblical Southern Gothic epic as perfected by Griffith; the family film; the supernatural mystery; noir; melodrama; and serial killer pop art of the 1950s. Critics of the time pegged Laughton’s finished film as belonging to the “horror”, “suspense”, and “Jack the Ripper” movie traditions and the director himself described it as “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale. A beautiful ballad, folk-tale, and real Americana” (Couchman, 2009: 30). Part of the slippery allure of Hunter is that it can be read in so many ways, possessing layer after layer of perfectly placed influences, the beautiful symmetry of which mark Laughton’s blistering 92-minute film as one of the classic, most essential, most influential American works of cinema.

While many of the above terms could also be applied to Fassbinder’s genre-challenging and subversive works, a more concise term for this kind of undefinable style practiced by both directors must be invented: I propose that Laughton’s film should be henceforth referred to as part of the Anti-Christ Melodrama sub mode, a blending of the fever pitched Melodrama genre with stylistic touches of the slow-burning elements of noir, such as purposeful, emotional use of light and shadow to create mood, tension and visual interest. After the mingling of these two genres, the Anti-Christ Melodrama must be branded with the red-hot iron of righteous Christianity and haunted by the foul-smelling sulfuric smoke specter of the Devil himself in order to be fully realized 2. This nickname is a nod to the way each director brilliantly utilizes the core conceits of Christian rituals to undermine conventional religion in heated, aggressive ways that could practically sear one’s flesh. It also directly references the German radical theater which both The Night of the Hunter and many of Fassbinder’s films’ lineages connect back to. The spirited currents in Fassbinder’s use of Brechtian motifs in both the Action and Anti-Theater groups converge somewhere down the proverbial river with Laughton’s real life professional relationship with Bertolt Brecht himself (Couchman, 2009: 12), providing yet another example of how great art and artists overlap, inspire and otherwise re-package each other’s work to create a new, unclassifiable animal.

The Night of the Hunter‘s most artistically knotty roots can be found entangled in the fertile earth of literary tradition. Author Grubbs’ novel on which the film is based, and indeed the film itself, are rooted in fable, myth, Biblical legend, and fairy tale.. At the core Hunter can be broadly read as part Bluebeard story, where feminine curiosity leads to ruin (a familiar theme of Fassbinder’s filmography) and part plain-spoken Southern Gothic in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, whose writing in novels such as Wise Blood (1952) effortlessly blends stern religious themes and dry humor with a decidedly menacing grotesquerie. With its central characters being a young brother and sister, The Night of the Hunter also recalls the distinctly dark Germanic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, albeit with a distinct lack of childhood innocence and an absence of pat nostalgia. Laughton updates The Brothers Grimm to the wild Ohio River beds of a Manichean American Great Depression, where there is no reprieve from evil, not even for the “lambs” – how the children in Grubbs’ story are referred to both in the book and on the screen. Finally, The Night of the Hunter borrows heavily from the Gothic form of literature, the elements of which can be traced back to Horace Walpole’s short novel Castle of Otranto (1764), in which “unscrupulous tyrants; youthful, virtuous heroes; persecuted virgins; forest and crags; the brooding, doom-laden atmosphere; and supernatural interventions” (Couchman, 2009: 30-32) conspire to create an indelible, sometimes dread-filled, sometimes operatically hysterical tone that can be traced to not only Laughton’s directorial triumph but also to Fassbinder films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In these Fassbinder films, as well as in The Night of the Hunter, the protagonists might be referred to as “demons” much like Ann Radcliffe’s “Schedoni” character from her 1796 novel The Italian, or more simply, as Couchman puts it, “monsters” in the vein of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2009: 34-35). It is the reader’s “simultaneous repulsion and attraction at the core of the monster’s composition,” that Jeffrey Jerome Cohen contends is at the heart of stories such as Grubbs’ (1996: 17). “This accounts greatly for its cultural popularity, for the fact that the monster can be contained in a simple binary dialectic (thesis, antithesis…no synthesis)” writes Cohen (ibid.). It is precisely because of this sexualized attraction/repulsion dialectic that the film spectator would be compelled to engage and become interested in watching otherwise irredeemably repulsive characters such as Petra, Elvira, and Franz Bieberkopf of Fassbinder’s world or The Night of the Hunter‘s demented serial killer Preacher. In other words, we become fascinated watching freaks, degenerates, and murderers. Even turned on by it on a subconscious, voyeuristic level.

Aside from being influenced, even abjectly, by Shelley and Stoker, Grubbs’ novel also bore the stamp of other great authors and styles. Influences such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Anderson were all present in Grubbs’ home-spun, crackling prose (Couchman, 2009: 30), but when it came time to write The Night of the Hunter‘s screenplay, the author’s work would be handed over to another great writer of the time – celebrated film critic and part-time screenwriter James Agee (author of John Huston’s 1951 The African Queen [Agee, IMDB]), who produced an initial 400-plus word draft for Laughton (Couchman, 2009: 74) that he would not live to see realized for the silver screen (Couchman, 2009: 82). Every detail in Agee’s script came directly from Grubbs’ novel, and in many cases Agee expanded on themes, characters and scenarios that had the film been faithful to the shooting script would have been more than eight hours long. Laughton revised the script to “eliminate any scene that did not contribute” (ibid.: 92).

To properly accomplish the task of re-envisioning The Night of the Hunter from Grubbs’ prose into cinematic forms that sprung from neophyte director Laughton’s head, a team of experts, including Grubbs himself, was hired. Grubbs in the end provided the cursory sketches that Laughton would later hand over to art director Hilyard Brown, whose resume included such evocative B-list delights as the 1954 The Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Draw what is in your mind,” were Laughton’s only instructions to Grubb when asking him to illustrate his words in a way that felt like a silent film (“It was easier to draw it than tell it,” Grubb famously remarked [Couchman, 2009: 53]), complete with iris and keyhole shots (Couchman, 2009: 84, 135) that contribute to the film’s overall properties as a “complicated visual object” (Levine, 3/24/2010). Once Hilyard interpreted both sketches from Laughton and Grubbs into working sets, cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and who would go on to lens Samuel Fuller’s 1963 Shock Corridor and 1964 The Naked Kiss) quickly synched his visual palette with Laughton’s directorial vision. Both Brown and Cortez acknowledge Grubbs’ artistic contribution of the sketches, but downplay their overall importance to the film’s construction. Brown, in fact, claimed to have never seen the drawings, while Cortez claimed that Grubbs’ artwork “didn’t contribute too much to my own thinking, they were strictly an academic outline, so to speak” (Couchman, 2009: 64-65).

When released, Laughton’s film was a critical and financial failure, and he would never make another film, despite plans to make The Naked and the Dead 3 with the same technical crew. Everybody who was slated to work on the adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel was fired because of the financial failure of The Night of the Hunter (Couchman, 2009: 211-212). Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of complete financial and critical failure with the triumph of artistic impulse and the maverick spirit Laughton possessed that appealed so greatly to Fassbinder. The way in which Laughton and company built The Night of the Hunter and applied layer after layer of artistic varnish is reminiscent of the way in which Fassbinder himself would construct a film with his influence looming largely in every technical element of the production (interests that would culminate in the director directing, writing, producing, editing, art directing In a Year of 13 Moons). “I would like to build a house with my films,” said Fassbinder. “Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house” (Töteberg and Lensing eds., 1992: xv). This architectural way of constructing films is echoed in a similar quote from Laughton’s widow, the Oscar-nominated actress Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein [1935]). “Charles’ chief talent was construction. He really knew how to build a dramatic house” (Couchman, 2009:19). For a film director, the structure, or a dramatic framework, must be sturdy in order to properly fill the cinematic space. I believe that the bones of The Night of the Hunter served as a guide for Fassbinder, a blueprint of inspiration for the director throughout his career that would serve as a reference on how to “build” a movie. Both the physical construction and elusive ethos of Laughton’s work infiltrated Fassbinder’s directorial processes.

Laughton’s film presents a complex depiction of the perverse, alternate sexual lifestyle of Preacher but also an equally complex virgin/whore dichotomy both within the character of Willa, who internally struggles with being a good Christian woman and being a hot-blooded, sexually subservient wife, and also by adding Gish’s sex-neutral, responsible caretaker Rachel into the mix as an arch foil to Willa’s lost, empty vessel. Laughton exposes the “Preacher” and “Willa” characters as being self-loathing when it comes to sex, and as having deep-seated problems around the act of sex itself. The unbalanced Preacher is both repulsed and attracted to women. Willa, it seems, used to enjoy a healthy sex life with her first husband Ben before he was jailed and later executed, and now that she is married to Preacher, she is more than eager to satisfy his carnal desires. Preacher finds the idea of women, sex, orgasm or any of the accoutrements of the act to be repugnant and sinful. His face twists into a snarly scowl at the very whiff of sex. He tells Willa that the only reason to have sex is to procreate for God‘s pleasure, and since she cannot even provide for John and Pearl, they have a responsibility to God to not have sex, though it could also be extrapolated that he is simply impotent and infuriated by his inability to copulate.

Demented, kinky even, but very similar in tone to the serpentine sexual proclivities that slither their way into Fassbinder’s ouevre like the shape-shifting Devil in the Garden of Eden. Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons, for example, needs assistance from a bit of auto-erotic asphyxiation in order to achieve climax and limply attempts to buy sex from a rough trade prostitute in a seamy park, while Emmi from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), while seemingly fat, benign and sexless can actually be read as a sexual slave holder, possessing everything her new husband Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is, and actually trying to make him into a possession by also sexually objectifying him for her charwoman friends who pinch, caress and ogle the man as if he were an erotic object, a strongman in an exotic freak show. The much older Emmi seems to get off on controlling him and showing him off.

The one-two gut punch of complete sexual depravity and paranoia is delivered into Fassbinder’s world by reptilian actress Margit Carstensen, the star of both The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha (1974). In both films, the actress is required to test the conventional limits of the cinematic discourse on female sexuality by playing two very different characters with equally complicated erotic lives. It is in the title role of Petra von Kant that she is able to synthesize into a dynamic, sexually perverse creature. “He stank. He stank of man,” Petra hisses about her last husband, thoroughly disgusted. It can be surmised by analyzing Petra’s divorce narrative that she resents men, even loathes them, both sexually and also in the business world. She is a successful entrepreneur but there is still a prevailing, traditional feeling that she needs a man to be a complete success. To compensate for not having a penis in the real world, Petra takes on the masculine – or “butch” – role in her sexual and romantic relationships with (younger) female partners such as Karin. It is in these private lesbian relationships that Petra is able to assume the more powerful roles she feels elude her in her more public lives as an executive, a mother and a daughter. She holds more power than her younger female lovers and assumes a more masculine, powerful posture, despite her attempts to don the über-feminine drag of her fashion-world profession (the reverse of Elvira’s misguided attempt at reclaiming her manhood at the beginning of In a Year of 13 Moons but every bit as ghoulish). Like a lecherous old man mooning over a pert cocktail waitress, Petra seems to have a vampiric taste for much younger women.

This fusion of unconventional gender and sexuality portrayals with perversion and hopelessness is a main tenet of the Anti-Christ Melodrama, and the melding of Fassbinder and The Night of the Hunter creates these tensions in spades. To accurately portray these particular kinds of tensions around gender identity and sex, Fassbinder relied on a staggering range of women – from his wives, ex-wives, and untrained professionals to his own mother – to convey the distinctive female points of view written into his scripts. This range of femininity can also be seen in the way Laughton sketches the women of his small river town. Pearl, Icey, Willa, Ruby and Rachel in The Night of the Hunter showcase a multi-generational cross-section of working-class female experiences and perspectives that would not be out of place in Fassbinder’s world.

The fluid definition of “female” is another commonality shared between The Night of the Hunter and Fassbinder’s expansive filmography, but again, the similarities between Hunter and In a Year of 13 Moons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant provide the most telling illustration of how Fassbinder was more specifically influenced by Laughton’s film. Petra applies makeup to her corpse-like, yellow-grayed skin with a gilded hand mirror as her old friend Sidonie (Katrin Shcaake) watches, fixated. Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus” is again featured prominently in the background as Petra’s extended scene of getting dressed and made up, combined with her occupation (fashion designer), signal to the viewer that Fassbinder believes that much of a woman’s charm lies in the exterior and in deception, or in her “drag” performance of gender. Much like an actress, complete with towering, volatile emotions to match the implacable, impenetrable superficial details of hair, makeup and wardrobe, Petra is able to mask the exterior of who she really is with little trouble. In fact, it seems as though none of the women in Petra’s life really know her.

In a Year of 13 Moons features the extreme juxtaposition of artificial, Frankenstein-esque womanhood in the form of the fallen Elvira (Volker Spengler, presenting a polar opposite version of “female drag” than Carstensen as Petra) with the angelic Red Zora (Fassbinder’s ex-wife Ingrid Caven) and the audacious presence of Fassbinder’s mother Lilo Pompeit playing Sister Gudrun. It is clear that the director is attempting to redefine and reinterpret womanhood for the screen by using archetypes such as “the mother” or “the whore” or “the good girl” and “the bad girl” much like Laughton does in presenting his own female characters. While Rachel in The Night of the Hunter can be seen as a similarly angelic, nurturing female presence as Red Zora with the gender queer Elvira much like a distaff Willa, the links can also be seen across Fassbinder’s filmography in such films as Martha, where Carstensen plays the title character with a jittery, girlish, naive sexual paranoia and adolescent instability that recall the frantic, teenaged Ruby in Laughton’s film. In the epic adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz Mieze (Barbara Sukowa) and Eva (Hanna Schygulla, again) are both prostitutes with hearts of gold, yet the director presents a complex virgin/whore dichotomy within the trope by having Mieze appear more like an innocent child who throws screaming tantrums to get her way and Eva like a Lady Macbeth figure, ruthless and calculating. Finally, in his reworking of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder renders a portrait of the working class Emmi, a simple charwoman. Much like Rachel, she is, on the surface, salt of the earth, but with a prickly and complicated, antiquated inner life tinged by growing up under Nazi rule. The range of ages in both directors’ work is also commendable, with multi-generational characters.

The Anti-Christ Melodrama would be nothing without religious zeal, and it could be said both Laughton’s and many of Fassbinder’s films are, as Flannery O’Connor succinctly puts it, “Christ-haunted” (Couchman, 2009: 37). Fassbinder and Laughton both used strict Christianity as a springboard from which to bounce more interesting ideas about gender, sexuality, class, and age. In Laughton’s work the links between sex and religion are virtually everywhere, but are most cannily represented in the visual link between the way the patrons of the burlesque show are shown faceless in silhouette with the way the parishioners are shown in similar tableaux during the riverside revival scenes, in the flickering light of torches with shadowy, obscured faces that indicate shame and a “tormented relationship with God” (ibid.: 36). Sister Gudrun’s very presence amidst the carnage in In a Year of 13 Moons is the most obvious religious reference in Fassbinder’s world, but Laughton’s film and Fassbinder’s canon share one chief religious parallel with one of melodrama’s major facets: the use of deus ex machina to advance the plot. Deus ex machina, or “an act of God” (Levine, 2/17/2010), “suggests that such narratives are essentially unrealistic in the sense that the succession and course of events is unmotivated (or under motivated) from a realist point of view” (Mercer and Shingler, 2004: 80). In The Night of the Hunter, the timely appearance of the Rachel character at John and Pearl’s most desperate hour can be seen as a form of divine intervention as she is able to provide them with exactly the kind of assistance – motherly, spiritual and otherwise – that they need as they outrun Preacher. A more abstract instance of “chance happening” in the film can be seen in the way the river currents carry the children directly to Rachel’s doorstep. Deus ex machina is all about perfect timing resulting in “pathos” and/or “tears” (ibid.: 81). Fassbinder shows this most succinctly in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul both immediately in the beginning and also, symmetrically at the end. As Emmi is brought into the cafe by a howling rainstorm for her initial meeting with Ali, the storm itself not only signifies a turbulent, ominous beginning to the film, but also tragically foreshadows the doomed relationship of the central characters themselves, which will end because of another uncontrollable act: Ali’s bleeding ulcer that lands him in the hospital. This ruthless final act of deus ex machina will ensure Emmi gets her ultimate wish, to have control over Ali, becoming his caretaker, much like Rachel becomes caretaker to John and Pearl because of the “sensational developments” in Hunter‘s plot.

Another intersection between Fassbinder and The Night of the Hunter that can be seen in the Anti-Christ Melodrama sub mode lies at the crossroads of visual symbolism, where impact and implicit meanings collide to create synthesis. One major symbol present in both directors’ films is the spider and the spider’s web, which can first be picked out in Hunter as John and Pearl drift through the Darwinian woods that surround the river. Laughton and Cortez choose to shoot from the spider’s point of view and the spectator, in a long shot, looks down on the children as they ethereally float across the waters glistening below the web, as though they are being watched by the spider. The spider can be seen most prominently in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz in the sequence where the dead bodies of Franz Bieberkopf (Gunther Lamprecht) and Mieze are lying dismembered and bloody and a large, spindly-legged black creature shimmies across the corpses and into the decapitated head of Bieberkopf. More abstruse depictions of the spider and its web can be seen in In a Year of 13 Moons where Elvira quite patiently waits like a spider for the day she can talk to her reclusive former crush Anton Saitz (Gottfried John) and also in the pattern of light and shadows cast from the ceiling fixture in Elvira’s apartment that could provide an interesting interpretation of Elvira’s slippery psyche, which is spidery, as intricate and delicate as a cobweb.

There is an old African proverb on spiders that says “when spider webs unite, they can tie up lions” (Lee, 1999: 23), which could signal that here, as seen from the spider’s point of view, the “lambs” (John and Pearl) will be kept safe from the “lion” (Preacher) by the almost Biblical protection of their newfound friends. This also alludes to the Bible and the book of Isaiah (11:6) where the alarm is sounded for predators as “wolves, leopards, lions and other predators would often feed on young animals like sheep, young goats, calves or other livestock”. Of course the very mention of “livestock” brings up memories of the slaughterhouse in 13 Moons and the passage of Isaiah 65:25 that reads “the wolf and the lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox; and dust will be the serpent’s food They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain”, meaning that in God’s kingdom, man and animal will live beside one another as happy vegetarians. The verse is simply saying that there will be neither death, nor any predators.

Though the animals and their symbolism remain relevant and interesting links, the river and the water itself provide perhaps the film’s most striking visual symbolism as they function as both places of death (Willa is submerged there after she is killed), and also of life (as the children’s only avenue of escape from Preacher). As described by the author in the novel – “The dark stream of the river flowed like the blood of the earth itself: old, dark Time coursing to the oceans and never stopping” (Grubbs quoted in Couchman, 2009: 116) – the Ohio River brings to mind Mark Twain’s exaltation of the mighty Mississippi and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, which describes “the river, the dark, immortal river full of strange tragic time” (ibid.). Wolfe’s words provide an apt encapsulation of sentiments behind both the enigmatic final scene of Lilli Marleen and the spliced-in backdrop of choppy waters that dominate Bremen Freedom (1972). Certainly Fassbinder’s presentation of a quite different riverside – filled with Eastern European hustlers and rent boys – in In a Year of 13 Moons could be seen as a continuation of the watery themes first introduced by Grubbs, Laughton, Twain and Wolfe. The river in this film ripples to reflect the morning light and is as murkily opaque as his lead character Elvira, who goes to the river, much like John and Pearl, for an escape or a release.

The Night of the Hunter‘s entire story hinges on $10,000 hidden inside little Pearl’s doll. The symbolism of the doll extends into the scene of Pearl cutting up the money into the shapes of paper dolls, as well as the casting of the Kewpie-doll faced young actress in the part of Pearl. Laughton wanted the girl who played this character to appear “doll-like” with a “plaster stare” (Couchman, 2009: 61). The permeation of the doll imagery in Hunter can be seen echoed in Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, where in a flat littered with hollowed out mannequins and age-inappropriate baby dolls, Marlene (Irm Hermann) becomes the ultimate doll: Petra’s own personal marionette. The dolls, mannequins, seamstress dummies and puppets are all easily controllable, their owners posing, dressing and treating them as beautiful possessions. This is what Petra wants from Karin, a nubile young woman with a desire to be a model. Petra, in her own way, is also doll-like, in the respect that she is packaged in a “box” of sorts – her apartment. Here, in her hermetically sealed plastic world Petra tries on couture and changes her wig to assume new personae, posing her own translucent, waxen limbs in a way that is very mannequinesque and fixing her expressions in a way that mirrors the vacuous stares of her dress dummies.

The final significant link of shared visual symbolism between Fassbinder and The Night of the Hunter is the representation of masculinity and heterosexual manhood through indexical use of switchblade knives as stand-ins for erect penises. These knives are wielded by Fassbinder’s Querelle (Brad Davis) and Preacher, men whose limp proclivities are atypical to standard testosterone-fueled heterosexual male sexuality and who both have dysfunctional sexual relationships with and to women. The use of the knife as a phallus in Fassbinder’s and Laughton’s films can also be seen as complicatedly connected back to the overt, ironic use of phallic symbolism of Sirkian melodrama. The spectator in Written on the Wind is practically violated by all of the phalluses Sirk puts on display, from the virile Hadley Oil corporation jet that Kyle (Robert Stack) flies to compensate for his impotency, to the rigid gold oil derrick that Marylee (Dorothy Malone) clutches like a weeping porn star in the shadow of a painting of her dead father cradling the same object. These Sirk scenes remind the viewer of the patriarchal order being destroyed in the end by the very person who threatened it, the nymphomaniac Marylee. Similarly, in the beginning of Laughton’s film, the spectator is confronted with another stylized image of blonde-bouffanted, loose womanhood at a raunchy burlesque show. Preacher’s blade springs to action through his pocket at the climax of the dancer’s racy routine and provides him with an orgasmic release after the glittering, garish foreplay of the dancer swinging her hips onstage for shadowy, faceless men arouses his anger rather than his libido. Fassbinder’s depiction of the aggressive, deadly use of the knife as a substitute for a functioning penis in Querelle connects the Anti-Christ Melodrama’s origins back to both the Freudian traditions of Sirk and The Night of the Hunter‘s depiction of Preacher’s gleaming pocket knife as a phallus.

Aside from the symbolic imagery, Laughton’s film also influenced Fassbinder from a purely technical standpoint, with R.W. borrowing liberally from The Night of the Hunter’s striking chiaroscuro light design for films such as Lola (1981) and Lilli Marleen (1981), which similarly use light and shadow to evoke emotion in the spectator. In his 1982 review of Lola, Vincent Canby of the New York Times suggests that “scenes are sometimes shot in the subtle ways of chiaroscuro and sometimes with the blatancy of a piece of Pop art” (Canby, 1982 ), which is a sentiment that could be applied to Laughton’s film as well with its masterful deployment of dark and light to create a bold visual statement, such as in the scene of Preacher just before he is about to kill Willa. His face slips in and out of a pronounced, sharp, ink-black bank of shadow and the contrasting, hot white light virtually splits the screen as Mitchum gestures ghoulishly in profile. This lighting effect makes the actor’s gray eyes virtually twinkle with psychosis, a technique that can be seen in the sometimes-jarring way Fassbinder lights actor Volker Spengler as the emotionally troubled Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons.

Critic Harlan Kennedy says that “Fassbinder allows visual associations to steal into your head so slowly and subtly that the high-point moment of discovery is stunning” (Kennedy, 1981) and this is something that The Night of the Hunter is adept at as well, maximizing each element of the impactful mise en scene, but particularly the visual links, much in a way that Lilli Marleen does.

Fass­binder deploys it not to swathe the movie in aimless film noir atmospherics but to build a tenaciously symbolic counterpoint of light and shade. In scenes of menace, Fassbinder borrows a leaf from Fritz Lang and crowds down bars of darkness over the characters’ heads. In night scenes, points of light are consistently diffused by the camera lens into crisscrosses which suggest the double threat of the star and cross.

“Laughton as a director is intent on moving the story along with surprising cuts and dissolves,” according to Couchman (2009: 93), which is another connection to the inventive way in which Fassbinder explored these techniques in Lilli Marleen but also in Veronika Voss (1982), where the number of transitional dissolves nearly matches the number of scenes in the film. Perhaps this is a lesson Fassbinder learned from studying The Night of the Hunter, where the director stressed both an economical narrative and visual style. When you are working with a specific set of restraints such as budgets and a tight shooting schedule, every scene counts, every moment must have nuance and significance and this is a particular challenge both directors brilliantly worked around in their careers. Hunter has an artful, spare, and meaning-filled mise en scene as does much of Fassbinder’s canon, but in particular Laughton’s film seems to have most influenced Fassbinder on Querelle, where the theatrical proscenium nature of the sets allows for a cunning blend of surrealism and realism to create visual tension for the viewer, a tension cinematographer Stanley Cortez claims was the result of many collaborators working together to ensure the film’s success, technically speaking, as Laughton’s knowledge of a film’s construction was lacking as a first-timer (Couchman, 2009: 101).

Further illustrating Cortez’s central role in The Night of the Hunter‘s complicated assembly is just how essential it was that the director of photography use music as a starting point in his own visualizing of the film’s look. “I have always used music as a key to many of my interpretations,” said Cortez, who conceived the murder sequence as “following the macabre tempo of a death waltz, with a chiaroscuro-soaked lighting style while listening to Jean Sibelius’ ‘Valse triste’” (Couchman, 2009: 162). According to Couchman “just as the design [on Hunter] and lighting for the murder sequence convey multiple points of view, the music presents different viewpoints through its complex weaving of themes” (ibid.: 163), which can also be said of Fassbinder’s intellectually rigorous use of music in his own films to convey mood, theme and tone. The best examples of Fassbinder’s own circumspect use of music, which link back to Laughton’s influence on his filmography, of course include using The Platters, The Walker Brothers, and Verdi’s “Un di felice” from La Traviata on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to create an emotional outlet for his characters and accompanying those traditionally “musical” sounds with the unique aural tempo of Marlene’s constant clicking on her typewriter, which is that character’s only audible mode of expression. In a Year of 13 Moons transposes the girl group sounds of Connie Francis with the avant garde punk of Suicide and most shockingly, the juxtaposition of a traditional Christmas carol sung by a children’s choir as Elvira chokes herself while masturbating. Laughton, too, in his film, equates the “pure” voices of religious children with something far more sinister. Couchman points to “the taunting children’s song – ‘hing hang hung/see what the hangman done/hing hang hung/now my song is done’” (ibid.: 86) and Pearl’s lullaby as the children go down the river as being key musical moments that link the surreal to the real in the film, where the world of the child is invaded by death and innocence is lost. Even in the film’s key hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” it is clear that music is not a place of solace for John and Pearl, not even a place of release as it is for Elvira or Petra, but a warning sign that something bad is about to happen, a signal to viewers that they should brace themselves. As Couchman says, the church staple indicates that “the night once more belongs to the hunter” (ibid.: 138). The author also cannily points out that “music” can be found in Laughton’s film in the form of the musical quality of the actors’ voices delivering lines – and musical notation is actually written into the script purposefully in key segments (e.g. Preacher’s refrain of “chill-dren!” required Mitchum’s voice to jump octaves and this was explicitly noted above the line in the script [ibid.: 23]).

Elements that are shared between The Night of the Hunter and the ouevre of Fassbinder are numerous, but there is one more elusive element that can link the work of the two directors together and that is in overall tone, the mood of nihilism both directors conjure that begs the viewer to believe there could be hope, but ultimately points to the futility of goodness and the sheer uselessness of love. In a Year of 13 Moons and Berlin Alexanderplatz are again the closest successors to Hunter‘s unpredictable disposition. These films are filled with a high-wire mix of sexual malady, sick, cutting humor, surrealism, literary referencing and Daedalean elements of composition that combine dreadfully tense surrealism with hardscrabble realism. More often than not, the films include deliberate, often gruesome images of violence such as the murder of Hunter‘s Willa or Alexanderplatz‘s Ida (Barbara Valentin) or the slaughterhouse scene in 13 Moons, where the viewer is meant to see the transience and fragility of life through the screams of the woman and the animals, whose bodies are fundamentally just meat. The screaming, in effectively creating a mood again points to another of the similarities shared by these three films: a similarly “lyrical” delivery of dialogue can obviously be seen. In a Year of 13 Moons has Elvira screaming her monologue while cows are slaughtered and a river of ruby red blood flows as ligaments, sinews and flesh tear like paper, while Berlin Alexanderplatz uses Mieze’s screaming to similarly jar the viewer, announcing that the film is going to take you somewhere completely unpredictable just when you think you know what it is and where it is going. One of The Night of the Hunter‘s most deliciously deranged moments comes from Preacher as he lets loose with a guttural primal scream as the children float away from him in their rowboat. Both directors rely on a tangle of sounds – ambient, musical or otherwise – to appropriately punctuate the action and create a singular mood.

It is this circular pattern of artists recycling one another and referencing each other that ultimately culminates in enfant terrible Fassbinder being forever marked by Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter like a prized branded steer having the initials “CL” sautered onto his skin in the orange glow of a molten metal prod. Both directors revel in the unexpected, in the literary and in the trafficking of intensity and what is left are finished products that can be read as pieces of art that remain improbably ephemeral in their construction, yet inextricably linked at their cores by a sweet and sour intellectual artistry that sets them apart from all other films.


1 Once upon a time there were three pretty flies,
They had a pretty mom, these pretty flies,
But one day she flew away,
Flew away…
She had two pretty children,
But one night these two pretty children,

Flew away,
Flew away,
Into the sky,

Into the moon…

2 The Anti-Christ Melodrama sub mode could include such films as Pedro Almodovar’s Dark Habits (1983), All About My Mother (1999) and Bad Education (2004), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), and his Faith trilogy – Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), Luis Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1970) and Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

3 Raoul Walsh’s 1958 version of the film is Fassbinder’s second favorite film of all time (Töteberg and Lensing eds., 1992: 106).

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