Intelligence and Nobility of the Characters With Kaufmann’s Screen Persona Belong to Life (and for That Matter, to Death), Not to Calculating “Survival/Success”

Gunther Kaufmann at the time of his death

This shot from Fassbinder’s “Whity” (1970) that is part of a 360-degree camera’s “trip” around Kaufmann – with sarcastic solemnity registers the radical transformation in Whity’s life and identity – the moment he became a “human being” (according to the American ideology during that time), he is transformed from Whity to the white – to a person who got a purchasing power and is capable of paying for sex (in comparison with being without financial power and for this reason with just a worthless ability to love, to be loved and make love to a white woman).

Pay attention to Fassbinder’s (who plays the role of a rich racist) smile: when a black person has money to spend (is able to buy, pay and gamble it away), racist position towards him quickly transforms into a buddy-buddy collaboration (it is like between the Western global investors and the social elites in African countries). But notice Whity/Kaufmann’s smile. Is that of a person who achieved through surrender? He loses all of his money to his white friends but does he get their friendship? His smile is a bitter smile of a person who recognizes that he will never play the social game of the white masters. He throws away his money because he enjoys being a loser – he feels that he wins when he loses (according to the logic of the white world). He cannot create an alternative to this world, but he is capable not to succeed.

Whity understands the psychological miserability of the members of his white family (his relatives and masters) – their nothingness outside their financial calculations, but even while resisting he is too emotionally involved in what he is resisting (like today’s American stock holders emotionally involved in financial fraud of their masters-schemers). His very resistance is self-denying, not self-affirming.

In “Gods of Plague” (1969) Kaufmann plays a country boy who becomes a criminal not because he is a criminal “by his genes” (conservative cliché) or by “his choice” (liberal cliché), but because all other paths are blocked for him by a too competitive economic system and radical unavailability of education. Kaufmann’s protagonist is goodness in vain.

This shot from RWF’s “Rio Das Mortes” makes moral straightness that we see in Kaufmann’s gaze comic and doomed in this world and his psychological genuineness – clownish and sad.

In “Querelle” (1982) Kaufmann plays a “big boss”, but of course, not of a conservative universe (boss of laborers, soldiers and people’s minds), but the one from Jean Genet’s universe of sailors trying to make their gloomy life – interesting, uplifting, exotic.

In “In a Year of 13 Moons” (1978) Kaufmann plays the servant and bodyguard of a wealthy real estate speculator. Take a look at Kaufmann’s character’s gaze of the conformist/servile admiration for his boss.

Pay attention to how Kaufmann’s personage looks at his master – isn’t it how some American employees today look at their employers or some people at the rich and famous?


If to apply the idea of Chinese Roulette (it is Fassbinder who taught us how to play this game in his “Chinese Roulette”) to Gunther Kaufmann – if he could be a word, would he be a noun, verb, adjective, pronoun, adverb, etc., the answer will be – a substantive, anything in a position of a noun. In some films – “The Third Generation” (1979), “The Niklashausen Journey” (1970) and “Rio Das Mortes” (1970) the silent intelligence of Kaufmann’s characters stopped them from defending themselves (to follow the necessities of the situations), and made them to expose themselves to the extra-dangers and ultimately die but in a condition of staying true to themselves.

These heroes played by Kaufmann, at the first glance are not a big deal. Only step by step we, the viewers, learn to appreciate their not-imposing power (that in American parlance is called “the presence”), their modesty/humility/dignity and the stubborn self-assertion of their quiet and not pretentious self-respect.

In “Whity” (1970) Kaufmann plays the local landowner’s illegitimate son who (with his black mother) is generously allowed to stay on property and to be servant to his enlarged family. Whity has two white as ghosts half-brothers – both are “extreme types” – one with regression to basic complexes – love, sex, voyeurism, life and death (the younger one) and the other with regression to obsessive calculation to dominate over everything and profit from everything as the ultimate goal of life. The reduced nature of the two brothers’ interests underlines Whity as the personification of humankind in its (healthy) normality.

But to be normal is much more difficult (much less natural) than to be mad – you have to be able to monitor and to balance your desires through taking into consideration other people’s difference from you and, on the other hand, not to lose yourself. If “mad“ people are conformists of their own impulses, “normal“ ones are conformists of their bosses, the “deciders“ and the ideological clichés. Whity/Kaufmann is a personality – he stands between and above his passions and his masters like a hill covered with grass that enjoys and endures the sun and the winds. But to be like this means to permanently endanger your life – you are alone and can be easily violated by those who live in packs, prides and clans.

Every position, including that of psychological wholeness and genuineness (absence of situational calculations) has its own inertia, its own bind. Monumentally disappointed with the members of his family – self-centered people who as rivals for inheritance tried to recruit him to kill the rest of the family, Whity puts an end of the “corrupt dynasty” he himself partially belongs, not because he wants to be a judge of immorality but because he psychologically cannot get rid of his past – he loves his family too much (he is not able to separate from them, he had to cut the emotional knot). But he doesn’t believe in his personal future either – he unconsciously cannot allow himself to be successful. People who in their childhood didn’t have role models with disinterested intelligence and positivity, whose parental figures were just examples of yearning for power and wealth, will be forever – an empty potential, goodness in vain.

Gunther Kaufmann is a sophisticated actor who (because of Fassbinder’s presence and guidance) was exceptionally lucky to be free from the despotism of commercial demands, free to create according to his intuitive truth and spontaneous cognition. The subtlety and authenticity of his acting was never advertizing itself – was never rhetorically framed. His characters are exceptional in their very pseudo-commonness. They are mavericks who at the first glance look typically (as sharing group identity).

Kaufmann is Fassbinder’s discovery, who survived the master’s short life to reunite with him too early. But less and less people are interested in Fassbinder’s cinema today, to their own detriment, of course.