One of the most attractive men that ever lived, Günther Kaufmann would have celebrated his 65th birthday today, had he not died of a heart attack on the streets of Berlin just a few weeks ago, on May 10.
He was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s boyfriend for a time, cast in the director’s films long after they split up in 1971; his appearance in Querelle sees him fuck Brad Davis in the ass without mercy and is, naturally, unforgettable.
Below, Bruce LaBruce looks at Whity, a little seen Fassbinder film with Kaufmann in the title role.
Review by Bruce LaBruce
Whither Whity, a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder so obscure that even aficionados of the most famous and famously self-destructive German New Wave director are sometimes oblivious to its very existence? From its opening shot of a prostrate Gunther Kaufmann clutching a flower over which the credits appear - a clear allusion to the opening of Rebel Without a Cause - to the final shot of Kaufmann and Hanna Schygulla dancing their final dance against a bleak desert landscape, Whity remains one of the most unusual, campy and caustic films of the seventies. Shot in Cinemascope and in lavish colour - a far cry from Fassbinder’s early black and white, neo-realistic efforts such as Katzelmacher or Love is Colder Than Death - Whity established Fassbinder as a grand stylist and master of melodrama in the order of Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray.
The title character of Whity, a handsome light-skinned black man who is the masochistic slave/manservant of a family of wealthy white western landowners, is significantly played by Gunther Kaufmann, who was Fassbinder’s boyfriend at the time. Fassbinder, who was born the same year that the Second World War ended, and whose films thereby inevitably reflect all the guilt, shame and emotional rage of the German post-Nazi era, had a preference for male lovers of different races than his own unfortunate Aryan one whom he liked to cast in his movies; another of his boyfriends, El Hedi Ben Salem, a Moroccan Muslim, starred in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his beautiful remake of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Fassbinder had a tendency to blur the distinction between reality and fiction, as in the case of Irm Herman, his long-suffering, emotionally abused wife in real life, who played a similar role as the masochistic servant in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The experience of making Whity with his boyfriend Kaufmann in the lead role became the thinly disguised subject of his follow-up movie Beware of a Holy Whore (also 1971), and the news of the suicide of his former lover El Hedi Ben Salem, received while Fassbinder was editing Querelle, his final film, may have precipitated his own suicide by a drug overdose in 1982.
Whity is a strange mixture of genres which eschews any sense of historical accuracy in favour of blunt family psychodrama. Although set in the American west of 1878, the film is coded as part Western and part Southern Gothic more along the lines of such Hollywood melodramas as Jezebel or even Mandingo, movies about southern plantation owners and their slaves. You know, however, that Fassbinder is playing fast and loose with genres with tongue planted firmly in cheek when in the opening scene Whity’s mother, Marpessa, the family’s maid/cook, played by a white woman in obvious black face, sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but gets the words wrong (mixing it up with “When the Saints Go Marching In”), and spits in her son’s face when he tells her not to be singing “Negro songs”.
As it turns out, Whity is the illegitimate son of the maid and the white owner of the plantation, Ben Nicholson, who also has two sons, Frank and Davy, from his white wife, Katherine. Katherine, a nymphomaniac, beds down with Garcia the Mexican doctor, who tells her that her husband is terminally ill and that she stands to inherit the family fortune. But unbeknownst to her the doctor is an impostor hired by her husband to entrap her. Katherine is a campy harridan, a character that only a Fassbinder could have dreamt up, a woman who, when Whity volunteers to take the whipping administered by Ben to his retarded inbred son, Davy (Whity’s half-brother), can’t contain her excitement over the brutal act, yelling “How divine. Madness!” When Katharine’s son Frank catches her getting fresh with Whity and he later tells her “My mother is a nigger whore”, she slaps him 34 times while Marpessa pins back his arms, another brutal scene that becomes pure camp in its excessiveness and staginess.
Whity operates as a scathing critique of the bourgeois nuclear family, taking Freud’s notion of “family romance” to its logical, absurd extreme. Like Terrence Stamp in Pasolini’s Teorema, Whity has sex with several members of his family, including his own brother Davy, the retarded son, who walks around somnabulistically with a pasty white face, looking like a zombie straight out of Night of the Living Dead. Katharine gets uncomfortably sexual with Frank, her own son, a flaming homosexual who secretly wears a corset, black garters and panty hose, a remarkably similar precursor to Dr. Frank’n’Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). With all the incest and homosexuality going on, the movie reaches a kind of fevered, Grand Guignol pitch, like a Hammer Horror film gone terribly wrong. This culminates in an insane scene in which Katherine finds her son Frank wearing a different kind of drag - a Ku Klux Klan hood - which causes her to laugh for an uncomfortably long period of time, a Fassbinder trademark.
But as always with Fassbinder, the film at its dark heart is about power relations between class and race configured in terms of domination and submission and their inevitable sexual fetishization. The handsome Whity, with his tight red suit and white gloves, is posited as the object of desire from the opening frame, much like the potent, sexually charged Ken Norton in the title role of Mandingo. These black characters may be enslaved, but their sexual power in turn enslaves their white masters. Whity, however, is also an extreme masochist, a fact immediately established when he thanks his Master for striking him. The only person who recognizes and attempts to diffuse Whity’s sexual entrenchment as a slave to the white power elite, his own twisted family, is of course the saloon girl/prostitute Hanna, played by Fassbinder’s most luminous muse, Hanna Schygulla. Dressed like Marlene Deitreich in Destry Rides Again, Hanna sings non-sensical, childish songs about love, loss, and bestiality, serving the same function as barmaid Jeanne Moureau in Querelle, i.e., offering commentary, enlightenment and, finally, redemption. In one remarkable scene, Whity, who is having an affair with Hanna, extends some money toward her while lying on her bed after they’ve had sex, and the two characters freeze. As they hold this tableau, the camera tracks around them (a technique refined by modern technology and now over-used in music videos), freezing the moment in time, yet drawing attention to the mechanics of representation by keeping the camera, and the audience’s eye, moving. When the moment passes, Hanna rejects his money, identifying herself as the only person who loves him without exploiting him. (To see Hanna as the saloon girl passionately kissing a black man evokes a very similar scenario in another subversive western, Blazing Saddles, which was made three years later.)
After Hanna reveals to Whity the corruption of his family, the deceit and lies that they represent, and his collusion with them, Whity returns home and proceeds to slaughter them one by one. He is left only with Davy, who follows him around with a limp like Igor in Frankenstein, for Whity truly is the monstrous creation of this grotesque bourgeois family unit. Whity finally puts Davy out of his misery too, and ends up leaving town with Hanna, true outlaws now. The film ends with the two of them running out of water and destined to die, dancing together obliviously in a western wasteland.
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Stars: Günther Kaufmann, Hanna Schygulla, Ron Randell
Available on DVD - order here
Originally published in Index magazine, reprinted with permission.