Rainer Werner Fassbinder premiered “Veronika Voss” in February 1982, at the Berlin Film Festival. It was hailed as one of the best of his 40 films. Late on the night of June 9, 1982, he made a telephone call from Munich to Paris to tell his best friend he had flushed all his drugs down the toilet — everything except for one last line of cocaine. The next morning, Fassbinder was found dead in his room, a cold cigarette between his fingers, a videotape machine still playing. The most famous, notorious and prolific modern German filmmaker was 36.
Does this film represent a premonition of his own death? It tells the story of a German actress who worked tirelessly and achieved great fame, but began depending on drugs and alcohol and eventually became so addicted that she sold her body and soul for drugs. Her fortune spent, her marriage destroyed, she began to live as an inpatient in the clinic of a sinister Berlin woman who billed herself as a psychiatrist but was also a Dr. Feelgood who strung along her patients on morphine and controlled them by withholding their supply. Their arrangement was that after Veronika Voss’s death, her suburban villa and its art treasures would be inherited by the doctor.
The film opens in 1955 with Voss (Rosel Zech) looking at one of her own pre-war classics (that’s Fassbinder himself in the audience, leaning on the seat-back behind her). There was a time when she was welcomed in the offices of producers, greeted by headwaiters, recognized on the street. That time has passed, and it is painful to hear her remind people who she is — or was. One night, drinking without funds in a cabaret, she falls into conversation with a soft-faced sportswriter named Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), who is old enough to remain under her spell. She grandly says she will pick up the check, then “allows” him to do it, and invites him to come home with her. All the furniture in her villa is covered in white sheets, the electricity is disconnected, and she has them light candles “because they are so much more flattering to a woman.” The star struck journalist has without realizing it walked into the last act of Veronika Voss’s life.
Ending their evening suddenly, Veronika demands to be taken to the clinic of Dr. Katz (Annemarie Duringer), one of the stylish lesbians often found in Fassbinder films (“The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant”). This clinic could be imagined as the setting for a bizarre Fred Astaire dance number. It’s all blindingly white — walls, floors, furniture, grand staircases, everyone’s clothing. In an eerie touch, a wall of windows looks upon a waiting room, where other patients peer in needfully. Katz lives with a woman apparently her lover, and another constant companion is an African-American G.I. and drug dealer (Günther Kaufmann). This man is in the background of countless shots, never says anything, lurks when needed like a security guard, and was Fassbinder’s sometime lover and an actor in many of his films (including the one he made just before his one, “The Marriage of Maria Braun”).
We observe Veronika’s frantic relationship with Katz, who berates her sadistically, and extracts details of the hours with Robert Krohn. Finally Veronika is shown to her narrow, cell-like room, and given the drugs she craves. In this room, and throughout the clinic, we hear incongruous American country & western songs (“The Battle of New Orleans,” “16 Tons”). In “Maria von Braun,” where Günther Kaufmann plays Maria’s G.I. lover, similar music is heard, probably via Armed Forces Radio, a reminder of the presence of American occupying forces in postwar Germany. At Veronika’s own “farewell” party, she performs “Memories Are Made of This,” in a low, throaty torch-song voice perhaps intended to remind us of Marlene Dietrich. Indeed, Fassbinder’s focus on Rosel Zech’s reminds me of von Sternberg’s Dietrich in “The Blue Angel.”
When Robert Krohn returns that day to his own apartment and girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess), he is almost proud to tell her where he spent the night, and she, also a writer for the newspaper, accepts this as an expression of his nature; she wants to know what Voss was like. Krohn, whose beat is hockey, convinces his editor he has lucked upon a major scoop about the decline and fall of a star.