There are two widely-entertained speculations about how civilization might collapse: the first is warfare, the second is boredom. The two seem to be intertwined: when people get terminally bored and disenfranchised, they drift into things they would never have considered otherwise. Terrorists kill, or so the theory goes, because nothing the civilized world has to offer them compares with blowing themselves up on a bus along with a dozen innocent people. But what about folks who one day “just snap” or “go postal” — people with marriages, jobs, friends, children, careers, everything the world could offer them?
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? handles this question by giving us one such man and scrutinizing his life with such exhaustive and fetishistic closeness that by the time it’s over and he has indeed done something horrible we want to snap as well. In that sense, it’s an exercise in empathy, but set up and played off in a way that probably works best on a second viewing. The film stars the boy-faced Kurt Raab (a veteran German actor) as Herr R., “Mr. R”, an upper-middle-class German with no outward reason to do anything horrible. He wears a floral tie and a well-cut dark suit, and spends his days bent over a drafting table inking architectural designs. He is married, has a child, enjoys the company of his colleagues, and seems likely to be promoted.
The film watches Herr R. with disturbing closeness at his job, and at his interactions with his
co-workers — both of which are as sterile and uninteresting for us as they are for him.
Then we dig deeper. His “creative”-seeming job is mindless tedium, done in a room where no one utters a word; his sole exchanges with his co-workers are banal pleasantries and dumb jokes; his conversations with wife and family and cohorts are barely above the level of mindless gossip, and often below it. There is no sense that anything in his life exists beyond the moment — no real ideas, no greater personal plans or projects, not even any politics or social identities. “We don’t think of ourselves as ‘stuffy middle-class’,” says Raab’s wife one night. “Well, what would the opposite of that be?” Raab speculates. There is a pause, and then laughter. Nobody else has an answer. “Well, it’s not interesting talking about us anyway,” the wife grins, and opens another pack of cigarettes.
No, it’s not interesting for them to talk about themselves, and as Fassbinder demonstrates, not interesting to listen to them either — but that’s part of how the movie works. Our irritation is his irritation; our boredom is his boredom. By the time something happens, he is probably just as shocked as we are, and Herr R. stacks the deck so subtly in favor of Raab’s misery that we might never realize it at first. There is an early scene, at first banal and then weirdly upsetting, where Raab goes into a record store and tries to describe a song he heard on the radio to the two shopgirls. He goes on in great and earnest detail about this song, while the girls snicker up their sleeves (and, eventually, snicker in plain view) at him, and we feel our own temples pound in anger at their immaturity and insincerity. Raab, if he feels anything, doesn’t show it — not yet, anyway.
His marriage is outwardly solid, but inwardly dead, and we see that
whole weeks can go by without a word above the perfunctorily banal.
The only time Raab seems happy, or at least content, is when he is working; all thought is extinguished, and he doesn’t have to do anything other than move his pen. But the few times he tries to come up with a creative solution to a problem — like his son’s speech impediment — he fails miserably, because he has no idea how to do something that lies so far outside of his chosen métier of dullness. Later, when he attends a company function and says all the wrong things (thanks to alcohol), we get a hint at how truly aimless and sad he is, and how he’s not equipped to do anything with it except choke on it. The rest of the time he’s either polite, or just silent — shilling for sullen. The only time he shows any real happiness is when an old friend shows up, whose company his wife does not savor.
Herr R. was one of the earlier films directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, although it was technically credited as a collaborative effort between him and his then-cohort Michael Fengler. Fassbinder, a workaholic who cranked out 44 movies in 14 years before dying of a drug overdose, never made a movie I found uninteresting. Some of them are as great as any movie ever made: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, for instance, or The Marriage of Maria Braun, probably still the best movie I have yet seen about post-WWII Germany. Herr R. has many of Fassbinder’s hallmarks — a squirming contempt for “normalcy” being one of the biggest and most difficult to swallow. From many other directors such attitudes might seem gratuitous, but from Fassbinder — homosexual and unattractive and a bit of a pariah even among what few social circles he could travel in — it was merely honest. Granted, it’s no longer hip to attack bourgeois normalcy, just tired and safe, but the movie’s real strength doesn’t lie in that anyway.
Nobody really knows what makes R. run amok, but by the end of the movie,
we have a much better idea than the people around him did.
Fassbinder shot Herr R. in a semi-documentary style, with a handheld camera and many long, uninterrupted takes. It’s exactly the style the movie needs: the scenes have no particular beginning and no particular end, and soon the complete lack of anything resembling a narrative becomes suffocating — the same kind of suffocation that Raab feels, when he sits and waits for other people to stop talking so he can start, only to discover he has nothing to talk about. And so one night he finally acts out, once and for all, and finds after that he has nothing more to say, ever.