The Psychology Of Traumatized Ontological Authenticity

The main responsibility for making amiable Hans Epp feel isolated falls on a repulsive family modeled closely on Fassbinder’s family, while the story derives from events which actually occurred. His mother was amazed by the accuracy with which he recalled them. When his favorite uncle set himself up as a fruit and vegetable merchant, peddling his wares from a cart, the family gave him no emotional support. As a boy, Fassbinder had been unable to protect his uncle or even to protest, but the adult Fassbinder punishes the family by exposing its vindictiveness.
Ronald Hayman, “Fassbinder, Film Maker”, Weidenfeld, 1984, p. 9

What appears to be defeatism or mere self-abandonment, in fact founds another truth of selfhood and this corresponds to a different… and in present society unlivable – morality. Death, unbearably pointless as it may seem, is not a defeat… but the memorial to a victory.
Thomas Elsaesser, “Fassbinder’s Germany (History, Identity, Subject)”, Amsterdam U. P., 1996, p. 250

We are not capable of accepting the opposite of things as they are. So we’re nowhere near freedom. If the certainty that he had to die became physically palpable for the individual very early on, we would lose the existential pains – hatred, envy, jealousy. No more fears. Our relationships are cruel games we play with each other because we don’t recognize our end as something positive. It’s positive because it’s real. The end is life in concrete form. The body must understand death… Destruction isn’t the opposite of what exists… The terrible, wonderful moment that forces its way into the consciousness of some like lightning bolt and into the subconscious of others like sacred pain, the moment when you recognize the finitude of your own existence. But… paralysis… comes over us simultaneously with the longing for a utopia of our own. So the terrible recognition instead of liberating us, which is actually could and should, rather shores up our tormented pursuit of pleasure, our happiness in our mediocre unfreedom. R. W. Fassbinder, “The Anarchy of the Imagination”, 1992, p. 173 – 174

Hans’ mother (opening the door, seeing Hans after more than a year of absence and turning away) – Joining the Foreign Legion is your business. But dragging in a nice boy like Manfred Wagner… I had no end of trouble with his parents. They gave me the blame. Has he come back too?
Hans – No, he is dead.
Mother – It is always the same. The good die young, and people like you come back.
Hans – I’ve changed, Mom.
Mother – Once a no-good, always a no-good

Fassbinder on the difference between “realistic” and “thinking” cinema

Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmueller) likes his job as a fruit peddler. He is his own boss and master. What he is belongs to him. His job is his profession – to touch and to give people vegetables and fruits

The composition of this and previous shot emphasizes Hans’ human appeal to other people from the bottom of the social hierarchy, but it is appeal without any servility, even dependence, without any advertising intensity. It is an appeal from down up but that of equality, unity of humanity in spite of a hierarchical world. Hans is what he is, without pretense. He is like the pears or the tomatoes he sells. But his wife Irmgard (Irm Hermann) burns with jealousy (widespread but not a natural reaction – it’s rather an obsessive feeling) because before relationship with her Hans was in love with another woman, whom she now noticed up at the window upstairs. So, in this moment we see Irmgard theatrically demonstrating her own bodily attractions – “challenging” the husband’s previous mistress (pretending she is ordering her stockings – jealousy is acting itself out).

Permanent accusations in infidelity Irmgard puts Hans through, makes him drink and complain to the barmen about impossible nature of women. Of course, his drinking also has demonstrative element in it (as Irmgard publicly arranging her stockings in the second, above, picture of Hans peddling fruits) – it’s behavioral metaphor of his suffering. So, the spouses are more and more swallowed by symbolic behavior – each demonstrating to the other how they are mistreated inside marriage, and this everyday theater fills their life and farther spoils their relationship.

For Hans to love means to marry. He loved Ingrid (Ingrid Caven) very much, and he was shocked that her family rejected him because of his low social status and a modest income.

After Hans’ “Grosse liebe” (big love) refused his proposal (because her father didn’t want a mechanic or street vegetable seller for a son-in-law), they became secret lovers because “she herself liked him a lot”. But, of course, this “consolation” didn’t soften Hans’ psychological trauma. For human beings as the social creatures recognition of society is more important than intimate triumph.

Hans’ mother was disappointed with his inability to make more money and have better a position in society. Her refutation of him gradually changed into contempt for his stubborn authenticity – for him agreeing to be like he is, instead of trying to achieve, for his wholeness (instead of being a competitive fighter in life).

Hans’ sister, Anna (Hanna Schygulla), the family “intellectual”, was ashamed that their mother despised Hans for not becoming an entrepreneur or a promising specialist. But she was satisfied with her critical view of her family – with her understanding the truth (in spite of their mother’s passionate denial that she doesn’t appreciate her son). She never tried to change the family’s position towards Hans. She has her own friendly and caring relations with him but she never tried to encourage him not to be hurt by his mother’s contempt, to recognize it as a sign of their relatives’ limitations. Anna’s very manner of cognition is, as if, impersonation of social stance of modern social science – objective (impartial), facts-ridden, dry, “without human passions”.

Hans, Irmgard and their daughter attend the family meal where everybody except Anna were encouraging Hans to try harder in life and politely praising him for making efforts, as if, he is a child and not an adult with his own ideas how to live.

Once when Hans was drunk and didn’t, of course, beat up Irmgard, but made some gestures similar by appearance with physical abuse, she made a big deal of it, left with the child to stay at Hans’ mother and created a loud theatrical case for divorce in front of Hans’ family. Anna tried to mediate between sides, but passively and distantly – she, with all her rationality, is subdued by the reality of life (by Sartrean abyss inside existence). She looks at the world as she is represented in this shot – she is as a half of a person: she thinks but cannot act in agreement with her own thinking. She is paradigmatic of today’s armchair intellectuals.

In this shot Fassbinder shows Hans’ family (including Irmgard) as a solemn family photo in order to emphasize the miserable standardization of these people’s (trapped by conventional social structures) ideas and feelings and their readiness to always take side with the established over existentially ambiguous.

Hans who came to his mother’s place to beg Irmgard to return home, had a heart attack and spent time in hospital.

Anna explains to Renate, Hans’ daughter, who is frightened by her father’s illness, that her father was mistreated by people in the past. Appreciate Anna’s posture in this still – she is, as if, defeated in advance in her very attempts to help the father and daughter’s relationship. Several times in the film Fassbinder shows Anna in variant of this posture of withdrawal from active social role.

After convalesing in the hospital Hans was depressed but desperate to be able to return to work. His periods of apathy didn’t create much compassion in Irmgard – she believed that Hans was just displaying a depressive posture to send her a message about how bad he feels in their life together. Irm Hermann’s many facial expressions in this film are parodies on religious iconicity. One of her iconic expressions represented in this shot is when her gaze is, as if, covered by fog – when Irmgard doesn’t want to see what she sees – the condition of the world (here, Hans’ depression, which, she thinks, is fake and is only directed to undermine her image as a kind and a caring wife).

Hans is afraid not to recover after a heart attack to be able to work and provide for the family, but Irmgard skillfully returned him to life by awakening in him the power of sexual optimism. She seduced him back to life. Hans, with gratitude, he felt he doesn’t deserve, tried to follow.

Hans burdened by his doubts about his ability to provide for his family followed Irmgard’s advice to hire a man as a help in selling, without ever imaging what change this decision will bring into their life.

The person Hans was able to hire, by chance appeared to be a man with whom Irmgard (when Hans was in the hospital) was led by a chain of innocently trivial circumstances to “sin”. To suddenly see this casual person again as family’s future partner in business was for Irmgard an impossible torment – as if, Providence itself wanted her to suffer for her ephemeral transgression (which was a result of her chaotic feelings connected with fear for Hans’ life).

Irmgard could ignore and “forget” her one-night stance, and Anzell (Karl Scheydt) couldn’t mention a word. But she was obsessed with the issue of who is morally better, she or Hans, and really suffered because of “the reappearance of her sin in her conscience”. She decided to get rid of Anzell by inventing a crude financial intrigue – she persuaded their new worker to share a part of the profit with her (to hide this part from Hans).

Irmgard knew that Hans will find Anzell’s cheating, and when it happened, the poor hired worker became furious at her and created scandal (although, to his decency, even then he didn’t mention about his amorous episode with Hans’ wife). He just told Hans relevant truth – that it was Irmgard who asked him to hide some money from Hans and that he did it for her, not for himself). He could revenge Irmgard by telling “whole story” but he didn’t want to – he is not a villain but just a human being.

Of course, Hans behaved as he had to – as if, he trusts his wife and is sure that Anzell has invented story of his wife’s financial trickery, but he understood, that Irmgard, by some reason, may be, could create ridiculously petty financial machination behind his back without any sense by following some kind of absurd irrational impulse. But, sure enough, this experience didn’t help him to overcome his more and more pessimistic view on human life.

It is not a depressive condition connected with Hans’ recent disappointment in life was afflicting him, but rather a kind of a withdrawal from life, a contemplative step back from it. Even his seldom visits to his “grosse liebe” (big love) was touched by this alienation.

The casual appearance of Hans’s friend from the Foreign Legion – Harry (Klaus Lowitsch), who now was new worker for the family, was quite timely. Harry could attend Renate and help her with her homework.

By seeing that life is less and less cathected by Hans, Irmgard discovered new side of her “Madonnaness”. Now it is not only unbearable for her to see the human “fallen” condition, now she openly and unstoppably suffers because of it. And thick Virgin’s tears flow from her icon-painted eyes.

Sometimes, two expressions of Holy Virgin: one, when it is unbearable for her to see the human (Hans’) condition and the other, when she suffers, come together as a duet of theological passion.

At this point, the story of Hans’ life moves to its end quite quickly. Hans invited his wife, best friend Harry and his drinking-buddies for the last time – he decided to violate doctor’s categorical order not to touch alcohol after his heart attack and – drinks for health and future of everybody who deserved to be mentioned before his death.

As Hans’ best friend in the Foreign Legion, Harry “professionally” verifies Hans’ death.

Hans’ “grosse liebe” (big love) appeared at Hans’ funeral

Marriage as a humane business deal – Irmgard and Harry decide to team up together – Irmgard “for the sake of Renate” (Harry is very good with her), Harry for the sake of Hans’ memory (and their mutual memory of service in Foreign Legion).

Hans’ last memory before collapsing to his death was the painful episode from his military service, when he was captured, tortured and almost killed by the enemy, and betrayed by his best friend Harry (who could rescue him right away, but waited just to see what will happened between “Arabic terrorist” and Hans – was postponing the shooting the enemy until the last second).

Fassbinder and Heidi Ben Salem (playing in the film one of the enemy soldiers fighting Hans’ military unit)


Hans Epp’s emotional conflict with the world culminated around several points in his life when his incompatibility with his family and social environment became too obvious for him and in a very hurting way. The first most traumatic discovery for Hans was that he doesn’t have the right to be by profession what he wanted to be – he wanted to become a mechanic but his mother disapproved and shamed him for ordinary taste and plebian interests. This Hans’ “vice of simplicity” hurt him again when he fell in love. He wanted to marry the woman he admired, but while loving Hans (she said so many times and proved it) she refused to marry him under the influence of her father (he was shocked that his daughter would marry a “bare ass”). Feeling himself alienated in his own family (openly expressing “disappointment” in Hans’ inability to acquire more prestigious social position), Hans volunteered for Foreign Legion, in spite of disagreement of his sister Anna, the family “intellectual”. After returning as a legionnaire from the North Africa, Hans got a job in the police force, but a shameful (and psychologically very significant incident with a prostitute) forced him to settle on being a street vender. He married Irmgard who was helping him to sell their produce, and they had healthy and beautiful daughter. In spite of this little success Hans continued to be a pariah in his family and felt himself on the margins of the world. On top of it, his wife who learned about Hans’ grosse liebe (big love), gradually became impregnated with mad jealousy. She, probably, couldn’t forgive Hans for not being taken by him as greatest love but just a partner in everyday life, a kind of seller-assistant and “just a womb for his child and vagina for his sexual drive”.

Of course, there is nothing exceptional in the traumatic points of Hans’ destiny, nothing unusual or strange or extreme. Almost everybody has problems with social identity imposed on us or with our ideal love which creates jealousy in others, or almost everybody can be forced to lose a worthy job. But Hans perceived/felt the moments of conflict with the norms of reality as signs of absolute incompatibility between himself and the human world (without being conscious of it), as a kind of a “metaphysical” messages about the moral unsuitability of this “fallen” world as a dwelling place. As we see Hans is a simple but a pure soul, as the plums and the pears he sold every day. He is simpleminded in his emotions, but very sophisticated in his sensitivity, straight in his needs and dreams but amazingly “radical” in how deeply and broadly he took his conflict with the world – to the ontological borderless-ness of life. Trivial but traumatic violations of Hans’ personality on part of the world create his three suicidal episodes – joining the Foreign legion, heart attack and, finally, the result of Irmgard’s strange financial intrigues with Anzell, the worker employed by them (which in reality were not that at all but connected with Irmgard’s obsession with her virtue) – his suicide. Repression of his identity by his mother created in Hans ontological inferiority, the fiasco of his dream of ideal love killed his imagination, and the collapse of his family life destroyed his existential dream – his belief that it is possible to have a normal human life not poisoned by moralistic rivalry between spouses based on who is more “moral” and “more right” than the other.

As an existential man, Hans refuses to fight for a higher place in the social hierarchy – the basic motivation of the majority of the people (whose socio-morphism took the place of their thawing religious belief). But everyday survival of the so called “normal” people occupied with social success includes their tireless pretense before other people. Philistines build the appearance of “decent” life instead of living – they try to be more proper, more financially successful and “more established” than others. This pathological pretense which Fassbinder especially emphasizes in the scene of a family dinner at Hans’ mother, is the engine of “working hard” and becoming, indeed, more successful and therefore more “respectable” than others. Hans was born in such a family and was liberated only through his psychological traumas as a result of his authenticity. But the very psychological traumas that made him more and more authentic also made him more and more hopeless. While Hans is represented in the film mostly through straight frontal filming, Fassbinder uses decorative picturesque compositions to characterize Hans’ relatives by parodying the tradition of family photos when people are (intentionally) posing to look imposing and solidly happy. Fassbinder uses similar over-articulated shots to depict Hans’ sister Anna (Hanna Schugula), for whom understanding of life became independent from any attempt to apply this understanding to the reality. She has a position of a specialist in philosophy.

“Merchant…” is a good illustration of a fundamental difference between Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder’s perception of the human situation. If the protagonists of Sirk’s films can be seen as, essentially, ordinary people with sincere charismatic pretentions – who are able and willing to act as heroes, the main protagonist of Fassbinder’s film Hans Epp is a person without any charismatic ambitions who personifies the angelic element in human nature while being as human as anybody else. Hans’ incompatibility with the reality of human condition is a result of his awkward angelism, while in Sirk’s films the protagonists’ ability to act heroically is not only sentimental (and for this reason is an ideological, dogmatic solution), but, indeed, utopian, not a real way out of the inhumane situation. Sirk’s heroes belong to situations and to their communities, while Hans is individualistic and has cognitive autonomy. In Sirk the heroic situation is possible exactly because the hero corresponds to the world while for Hans the impossibility of a heroic challenge to the world emphasizes the moral abyss between him and the human world. The heroic action against “the carriers of evil” (scapegoats) are psychologically hierarchical – a form of fight for domination, while the psychological separateness from the world is an ordeal without reward, pure torment, heroism of confronting the truth of human condition.

Hans knows that his “best friend” Harry (whom he wants to become a husband of Irmgard and father of his daughter after his death) betrayed him while they served in the same Legion, but he kept this truth to himself until the last seconds of his life. He understands the immorality inducing condition of human life but never succumbs to scapegoating other people. It is here the social and political role of art in Fassbinder’s frame of reference becomes clearer. The role of cinema is not the creation of psychological and behavioral examples for viewers to imitate them with admiration and adoration. Cinema for Fassbinder is a tool of creating understanding of what’s happening with people in real life. That’s why Hans Epp’s suicidal death can become a stimulus for the viewers to think about life more dedicatedly and passionately. At this point Sirk’s political naiveté becomes obvious in comparison with Fassbinder’s political sophistication. Sirk is a revolutionary by heart – he believes that heroic actions (for men) and sentimental genuineness (for women) can change history. Fassbinder who spent his childhood on the disappointment in a fascist absolutization of heroic acting out is a believer in culture and humanistic education. For Fassbinder what can help is thinking about life, understanding of human problems through culture including non-commercial (not obviously or mainly commercial) cinema, but in no way impulsive political actions, a mythical quick fix which always excites the bored crowds into meaningless destruction. Fassbinder’s is a third way between Hans and his sister Anna – to try to influence life through understanding, not stop at understanding.

Fassbinder doesn’t endorse “sainthood” as such. Fassbinder is with Hans Epp not more than he is with Sirk’s heroes. If Hans could have the courage not to stay on the level of his traumatized sensitivity, and could systematically study the etiology of his personality and, on the other hand, human society, he could help human life by helping its gradual democratization.

Posted on April 4 2015 –   “The Merchant of Four Seasons” (1971) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Acting-Out Politics