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The great - and frequently controversial - German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a dominant figure in world cinema from the 1970s through the early 1980s. Films like Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Fox and His Friends (1975), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) and nearly two dozen others (not to mention his many pieces for stage and television) enthralled and irritated art house patrons and critics alike with their complex stories of power relations, love (two sides of the same coin for the prolific writer-director), social and cultural turmoil, betrayal and politics that managed to alienate both right and left at various times.
Querelle was Fassbinder's last film, coming just after Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982), the final entries of the BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy begun with Maria Braun, an ambitious look at Germany's postwar history and culture told through the lens of the vintage Hollywood melodramatic style exemplified by Douglas Sirk and others. Querelle, however, proved to be a significant departure from those acclaimed films and from his earlier work.
Announcing itself in the opening credits as "a film about Jean Genet's Querelle de Brest," the film is clearly not so much an adaptation of the French writer's novel, which Fassbinder didn't particularly admire, as a meditation on and response to it, "a fetishistic fantasy of the novel," according to Claire Henry's 2016 Senses of Cinema essay. Because his career was cut short at 37, we don't know if the highly stylized, non-naturalistic sets, costumes, performances and lighting (with garish colors that went beyond the Sirkian cinematography of the BRD Trilogy) signaled a new direction for Fassbinder, but the style of this film certainly led the way for other queer film artists who have emerged in the years since, among them Todd Haynes (who made his own Genet-inspired film Poison, 1991), François Ozon (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 2000, based on a Fassbinder play), Pedro Almodóvar, Derek Jarman, Tom Kalin and Gregg Araki.
The title character, a beautiful and depraved French sailor caught up in drug dealing, murder and rough sex, is played by American actor Brad Davis, winner of a Golden Globe for his acting debut in Midnight Express (1978). The cast also features legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau, who is tasked with repeatedly singing a song adapted from an Oscar Wilde poem, "Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves," and another, "Young and Joyful Bandit," for which she wrote the lyrics. Both were nominated for Razzie Awards as Worst Original Song.
The colorful and dramatic cinematography is credited to two frequent late-career Fassbinder collaborators. Xaver Schwarzenberger shot Lola, the black-and-white Veronika Voss, and Lili Marleen (1981), as well as Fassbinder's monumental TV mini-series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Josef Vavra served as assistant camera operator on all of those pictures.
In addition to the director himself, the editing is credited to Juliane Lorenz, Fassbinder's companion in his last years, one of several women who partnered with him while also accepting his homosexuality. It was Lorenz who found Fassbinder dead in his apartment from a drug overdose. His death was likely unintentional but not surprising, given the quantities of drugs and alcohol he used more and more frequently while juggling a superhuman creative schedule. He was in the midst of editing Querelle at this time and died with notes for a planned project about the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg at his side.
The picture is dedicated to Fassbinder's former lover El Hedi ben Salem, star of the director's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), in part an homage to Sirk's American melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955). After the break-up of their tumultuous, often violent relationship, a drunken Salem stabbed three people, none fatally. With the help of Fassbinder and others, he fled to France but was jailed there and reportedly committed suicide in prison. The news was kept from Fassbinder until shortly before the director's own death.
Querelle was released just a few weeks after Fassbinder's death to a decidedly mixed reception from critics and audiences. It was a big success in its first weeks in Paris, prompting Genet biographer Edmund White to declare that this was the first time a film with such a strong gay theme had seen such commercial success.
On the other hand, the picture perplexed many reviewers. New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it "a mess, and of value mostly for the ways in which it defines the particular strengths and limitations of the most important European film maker of his generation."
Querelle was selected to screen in competition at the 1982 Venice Film Festival. Its loss to The State of Things (1982) by another leading light of the New German Cinema of the time, Wim Wenders, prompted venerable French director Marcel Carné to withdraw as head of the festival jury. "I would love to express my disappointment in not having been able to convince my colleagues to place R.W. Fassbinder's Querelle among the winners," Carné wrote in a statement. "As a matter of fact, I've found myself alone in defending the movie. Nevertheless, I keep on thinking that, although controversial, R.W. Fassbinder's final movie, want it or not, love it or hate it, will one day find its place in the history of cinema."
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Producer: Michael McLernon
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Burkhard Driest, based on the novel Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet
Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger, Josef Vavra
Editing: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Juliane Lorenz
Art Direction: Walter Richarz
Music: Peer Raben
Cast: Brad Davis (Querelle), Franco Nero (Lt. Seblon), Jeanne Moreau (Lysiane), Hanno Pöschl (Robert/Gil), Laurent Malet (Roger Bataille)
By Rob Nixon