It’s Children’s Human Right Not to Be “Perfect” In the Eyes of Parents and Society – Not to Be a Copy of Adults’ Image of Them


The pedagogy of self-respect


This poster of “Chinese Roulette” symbolically refers to the psychological situation (and spiritual ordeal) of the film’s heroine Angela, the intellectually precocious adolescent daughter of a wealthy and very intelligent couple. Here we see Angela on her way out of the gilded castle of her parents’ love and her family’s prosperity. The point of the film is that for exuberant existence amidst parental care and support you have to pay a very high price: you have to correspond to their perfectionist expectations and demands. For Angela it’s too difficult to achieve, so, she decides to question the unconscious megalomania of her parents’ dream about what their child should be. As the poster of the film suggests, the way to freedom is not easy – too many doors you have to go through on your way out of the place, where even the floor, as if, glues to your feet not to let you step out of un-freedom (blind obedience, the inability to question and analyze parental and social authority).


Angela’s parents are exemplary in terms of love for their child, their distinguished social status and personal charm. Angela’s well deserved love for them is beyond doubt, but amidst their dedication to her, she feels something particular in their love for her – some kind of a shade, and this triggers her inquisitive curiosity that step by step, the older she becomes, transforms into a kind of research about her parents’ psychological particularities. Angela is a child of exceptional intelligence, and what she was able to understand about her parents became (with Fassbinder’s help) of a universal importance. Angela is lucky to have a governess (a distant relative) who understands her predicament and tries to help her to confront the truth about her parents and herself. This shot depicts an important moment in Angela’s life when she feels she must act to spiritually save her future. The composition of this shot points to her closeness to her governess whose style of helping is not giving direct advices but creating a kind of emotional music in Angela’s life in order to support her belief in her human value.


Angela’s dolls are as if horrified and even dead children. These dolls are multiple versions of how Angela feels herself in life since she discovered that her parents cannot accept the fact that she is physically not perfect. Their suffering (that they hide from her behind their compassionate and spoiling love) is not only that they as all the parents want her daughter to be in perfect health and condition, but that their child’s inherent physical “defect” as if reflects their hidden “moral” imperfection. For Gerhard and Ariane it is almost unconscious torment that they never in any way expressed to their daughter, but Angela feels that it is always there, inside them. It is, indeed, their complex, and it makes Angela depressed and self-reproachful for not being able to make her parents happy. Of course, Angela’s physical crippleness is for Fassbinder a pure symbol, a signifier. For some parents it is that their child doesn’t believe in god, for some his/her “unnatural” or “sinful” sexual orientation, for others if their children are unsuccessful as a money-makers or social success achievers, etc. – all this signified by Angela’s invalidity.


The film starts with Ariane, Angela’s mother (Margit Carstensen with her philosophically sharp acting style), feeling melancholically contemplative in front of the window into a “public opinion”. Ariane’s suffering because of her daughter’s condition is inseparable from her compassion and care about her child, from her guilt for not being able to give birth to a perfect child. Fassbinder’s point here is the opposite of the philistine logic: that Angela’s future social success will compensate for her physical handicap and that it will be a great victory of the human spirit over the error of nature. He emphasizes the inhumane logic of the very feeling that a person with “defect” deserves compassion and needs to “overcome inferiority” through some “heroic effort”. His point is not the necessity “to achieve” success” in spite of the “defect”, but how not to feel inferior if you are not like everybody else.


By a compassionate and simultaneously expressing repentance gesture of the mother who is as if asking for her daughter’s forgiveness, Fassbinder and Carstensen iconoclastically challenge the psychological point of Christian ethics (compassion hides a condescending posture and, therefore, unintentionally legitimizes inequality that is based on perfectionism of the “successful” people with disrespect for the “poor” or “deviants” who are being judged as distant from the “ideal” by the reason of being unable to yearn for perfection that stimulates the achievers to achieve).


Why Gerhard and his mistress when they meet at the airport are obsessively laughing? – Because they both feel emptiness in the exact place in their souls where their love for each other could be. It is like a similar laughter between Hans, the hero of “The Merchant of Four Seasons” and his military buddy when they meet again after serving together in foreign legion – while in “Merchant…” their laughter points to something problematic in their “unconditional” friendship, a similar laughter in CR refers to the fact that Gerhard and Mlle Cartis “fall in love” by other reasons than love.


Why is the lover of Angela’s mother crying? – Because Angela’s “intrigue” destroyed his illusion, that relation between him, a Gerhard’s secretary, and Angela’s mother is a “real love”. Truth hurts everybody, not only the one who delivers it but also those who hide behind “bad faith” (behind love as a cover up). Angela’s point is that her mother started to have an affair with the secretary of her husband not because of love but because of Angela’s imperfection! The nasty connotation here is that the other, younger man could be more capable to be a progenitor of the perfect baby.


As a non-conformist (free-thinking) child, Angela doesn’t want to “prove” anything – she just wants the recognition of her right to be who she is.


Angela’s mentor tries to show Angela how to dance with her crutches to awaken in her the joy of life, the feeling of being not worse than anybody else.


We see Angela’s father with his French mistress, affair with whom is irrationally connected with his daughter’s illness. Pay attention to Mlle Cartis’ surrealistic reflection (entangled with other optical effects) referring to the second (less obvious) reason for Gerhard’s falling in love with her (beside Anna Karina’s intelligent charm).


For years Gerhard unconsciously burdened his mistress with expectation of relieving him from his consciousness of having a sick child. Angela’s face signifying her father’s need to compensate himself with a rewarding affair for his narcissistic wound, can be seen reflected near the bottom of the shot – out-of-focus (it belongs to the unconscious of Gerhard and Irene’s relationship and it only broke out to the surface because of Angela’s unexpected “psychotherapeutic session” ). But you can notice an almost triumphant expression on Irene’s face, her gaze surrealistically multiplied as if underlying her victory. It is as if Irene intuitively has always known that Gerhard’s proclaimed “great love” for her is not without other reasons but because of good taste she pretended she believed in it to be (and to make him) happy. But now, after the lesson all three of them got from the child, she looks at her lover as if making point about lack of courage in his intimacy and faint-heartedness of his desire.


Angela’s mother feels the need to be “cheered up” by her young lover after their affair was exposed by her “demonstratively disrespectful” daughter.


Ariane feels guilty in front of her boyfriend because of Angela’s rebellious behavior and is afraid of losing him.


Why is it so difficult for Angela’s parents to swallow that their secret affair is made “public”? – Beside the obvious: that most parents don’t like to be outsmarted by their children who are capable of discovering what parents prefer to hide, Angela with one strike managed to destroy two personal myths as hypocritical – of Gerhard-Ariane’s impeccable love and of their affairs as genuine and unique. Soon during the game of Chinese roulette she will openly debunk her parents as perfectionist narcissists with racist overtones and super-human pretensions.


It looks that contrary to his “rival” Kolbe, Gerhard was able to realize his male prowess in spite of the psychological blows inflicted on him by his daughter. The dominant males can even be reinforced in their status by the unexpected destabilizing surprises.


As it is always the case with “intellectual” film directors (who dare and are capable of going farther than clichés allow, the composition of this shot communicates a lot about the characters’ social and psychological situation. On the left we see a decorative chess set with shiningly glorious pieces. The dark object lying under the chessboard is a loaded gun that will be finally used. The two queenly ladies towering over the chessboard (the wife and the mistress) are two chess queens. But we have only one king. It is Gerhard standing on the right while looking at them. Ariane’s lover stands near the mirror in contemplation of his defeat – Gerhard is hierarchically stronger male, especially after being exposed as having two women, while his young secretary in spite of his good look as if has lost his mistress (the boss’ wife). Behind Gerhard we see a part of Gabriel’s body (he is the house keeper’s son who as if stands next in line) – he is extremely envious of the master’s wealth and success. But he is reduced not only to his body, but to a part of a human body – he doesn’t have any chance to become as successful as Gerhard.


Through the composition of this shot and his craft of visual connotation and symbolism Fassbinder analyzes not only personal rivalry between Ariane and Irene (mistress of Ariane’s husband), but them as personifications of the competing socio-historical trends. Margit Carstensen‘s (Ariane) face is beautiful and also very strong – but in the hands of Irene (a professional hairdresser and owner of a beauty salon in Paris) it loses all its power, it became just a pretty face (we see this transformation in the right mirror). In the central, the largest part of the 3-part mirror we see Irene remaking Ariane. The impression is that Irene (with her body towering over) dominates but not personally. Ariane in the film personified megalomania (signified by her suffering for not being able to produce a perfect child) while Irene represents – conformism (her agreement to have an affair with Gerhard without flame). Then Angela signifies spiritual alternative to both these positions (her orientation on truth by the price of losing emotional complacency).


Irene Cartis understands how painfully her lover and his wife are entangled in their family situation, that they by their mutual mental pain (connected with their daughter’s condition) belong together. She is grateful for Angela’s psychodrama.


The difference between Angela and Gabriel, as Fassbinder suggests by their names, is that Angela represents a new kind of “angelic” creature – oriented on existential truth, while Gabriel is conformingly oriented on heavenly hierarchy of earthly success – he exists only if he is appreciated by those on the top. Angela is becoming a human being while Gabriel is doomed to stay dehumanized and impersonalized.


Gabriel’s plebeian orientation on the rich and influential people is expressed in his tendency to eavesdrop to “big people’s” chats. It’s not that he wants to find out something – he just wants to absorb their glamour, to be elevated by being close to them, his gods. In this (like in the previous) shot we don’t see Angela’s upper part of body – Fassbinder equalizes Angela’s crippleness with Gabriel’s whole being.


Kast is Gabriel’s mother and Gerhard and Ariane’s house keeper. As this shot suggests, her existence is a combination of unreality – she lives in a world of appearances: (reflected nature, interior, possessions which are not hers). Her reflection in the mirror is more solid than she herself. She as if tries to grasp what she is by looking at her own reflection in the mirror. Many people are like this – just an incarnation of customs, norms and expectations.


Angela is going to achieve her task – to make her parents to become conscious why their souls need compensation in the form of new sexual partners. According to this shot, it is the most important moment in Angela’s life, only what’s happening to her is important here (will she able to insist on truth?) Other personages are out of focus. Whatever will happened, it is Angela’s responsibility.


Angela contemplates on her “super-human”: existentially spiritual task.


A tough moment during the game of Chinese Roulette (third from the left is Angela’s helper Traunitz) – adults are either like extras (father and his mistress) or are in a supportive role (governess), but it is Angela who move the plot and the meaning of the film.
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Fassbinder starts the film with a magnificent, imposing, self-reflecting, omnipresent and self-aggrandizing music of Gustav Mahler which is in counterpointed manner juxtaposed with Ariane Christ (Margit Carstensen) melancholically dreaming with a cigarette in front of a window. We see how her gaze full of love is turning to her pretty and intelligently looking daughter. When music subsides we understand that her daughter is crippled. Up to this moment we are in the kingdom of the noble archetypes – beauty, perfection, compassion, love. But music stops, and Fassbinder pushes us into the everyday reality of human life: business, bustle, vanity, passion, suspicions, lies. The contrast here is not between spirituality and ordinary life, but between fallen spirituality of self-aggrandizement and the need for it in fallen human beings who react on frustration of loosing glory with pleasurable earthly compensations (like consumerism, searching for money-power, finding scapegoats – those who, we think, are guilty for our problems, or secret sexual affairs stabilizing or destroying marriage, etc.).

Fassbinder takes the basic motif of “Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (an important Hollywood film based on Edward Albee’s play – 1966) about perfectionism (the perfect progeny-complex) of the main character Martha (Elisabeth Taylor) whose obsession with the perfect marriage that must be verified by a perfect progeny, creates a delirious dream of having an impeccable (angelic) son. In “Chinese Roulette” the point is a deep seated (semi-unconscious) psychological trauma of parents having a crippled daughter – the fact that shatters their being in spite of their genuine love for their child, and makes them behave in an irrational manner.

The demanding posture toward children often expresses the hidden megalomaniacal psychological constellation in the parents. It is as if children didn’t have the right to be free – to follow their own inclinations and must be viewed by the parents as vessels for projection of parental (and societal) expectations. Isn’t this a form of child abuse – a dismissal of the need of child to develop its own potentials and proclivities regardless of parental narcissistic projections? For many Soviet Communists their children had to be exemplary carriers of so called “moral code of the builder of Communism” and self-sacrificial fighters for Communist idea. For the dedicated Nazis their children should be model carriers of Nazi ideology and racial values. For American worshippers of money and social success their children have to learn “business”, have “clients” when they are ten-twelve-years-old and become millionaires in their twenties. For Christian believers their children have to be the personification of Christian belief and ideology of their brand of Church affiliation. In too many cases this position leads to child abuse (including corporeal punishment) as a result of parental frustration about “under-achieving” offspring, or child neglect because parents suffer about their child’s low value in the eyes of public opinion. Endless emotional conflicts between parents and their children can be connected with parents’ frustrated expectation about their child’s lack of social success and admiration.

The heroes of Fassbinder’s film are not like all these categories of people – they are emotionally refined and intellectually sophisticated. They don’t have any conscious expectations from their child to be the wunderkind. But when Angela became sick with no life-threatening condition, even these refined and educated people couldn’t resist taking this fact as an act of primordial self-judgment. They got a secret life as a reaction to their, mainly unconscious, grief. This “secret life” in no way intervenes with their marriage or love for their child, and if Angela could be just identical with her condition the problem couldn’t even be noticed. But this girl has an extra-ordinary intellectual sensitivity that made her try to read her parents’ internal world, to research their behavior only finally to discover their secret. She is emotionally helped by her governess Traunitz (Macha Merril), an exceptional person whose sensibility and pedagogy are incompatible with the values dominant in today’s society.

Gerhard and Ariane’s secret became a focus of Fassbinder’s (reinforcing Angela’s) investigation of the exemplary couple’s personal sensibilities. Angela challenges her parents’ axiom of perfectionism acting beneath their mind – with all the rebelliousness of a young passion. Angela wants to blast not only her parents’ megalomania, but their hypocrisy and cowardice – right in front of them to make them conscious about their complexes, conformism and weaknesses. She creates with their parents a tough psychodrama only to find that their unconscious megalomania (activated by their psychological trauma that was created by Angela’s physical handicap) is made them psychologically entrenched. It is as if love for their child frustrated by their disappointment in her, returned to them in form of extra-narcissistic energy. In the end of the film their pain of failure as procreators (multiplied because of their mutual identification), became a pseudo-psychotic construction of their super-human suffering.

Angela’s parents could not discover the possibility of loving the child as she is – Angela’s psychodrama is failed (they love her only consciously – only her potential of perfection, while meaninglessly reproaching themselves unconsciously). It is this self-reproach and vain suffering connected with it that Fassbinder challenges in “Chinese Roulette”. Many parents in different historical periods and various nations have this megalomaniacal projection to their children instead of loving them with all their difference from their “creators” and the norms of obligatory perfection.

By giving the surname Christ to Angela’s father, Fassbinder deconstructs the pop-Christian sensibility and parodies pop-Christian “suffering” about the “fallen” condition of the world (suffering that becomes a cover-up for hating the human body, alive matter and this world in general). Religious perfectionism is like wealth/money-perfectionism – it is a model of maniacal obsession with god of wealth and any ideological “truth”. In this sense Angela is a fighter with our inability to discover the ultimate beauty of being a living human being (without antagonism to life in the flesh). Angela’s crippleness is a metaphor of being human, and her cruel lesson to her parents is a punishment for their possessiveness and consumerism as a facet of a perfect life. Angela is a child who victoriously survives the ordeal of Hermann-Hermann [from Fassbinder’s “Despair”,] who while searching for the truth of his existence deliriously “found” himself in other person to avoid the truth about his own life. Angela (with the help of her tutor) is able to define herself where Hermann-Hermann covers up the truth by the illusion of creating a totalitarian psychological trick of a common identity to mask his failure as a human being.

In “Chinese Roulette” Fassbinder examine how people react on truth. Only Irene Cartis is able to “join the truth” in spite of the fact that this exposed her as a participant in existential lie. Ariane and Gerhard became even more entrenched in their trauma, while Kolbe (mother’s lover and Gerhard’s secretary) is left mute in his conformism. Do the film characters’ reactions on truth sociologically predict/model the reaction of the film audiences on “Chinese Roulette”? Fassbinder’s classification of the five female and six male characters of the film creates a sociological matrix for analysis of the population in Western societies.

Posted on Jan 6, 2015 –   “Chinese Roulette” (1976) by R.W. Fassbinder  by Acting-Out Politics