The Carriers of Natural Dignity, Master Of Life, Overstressed and Feverish Fighters for Power and Wealth, and Those Who Survive on The Master’s Crumbs

For those of us who came to Chicago from Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama… we found ourselves confronted by the hard realities of a social system in many ways more resistant to change than the rural South.
Martin Luther King


Scene of double revenge

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Why Whity and Hanna didn’t move to Industrial North for a better and a more just life, while many people in the South did?

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Katherine (Ben Nicholson’s new wife about Davy, Ben’s mentally deficient son) – We should have him put to sleep. There’re so many ways today. Injections… just a prickle of a needle… He won’t feel a thing… and fall asleep… forever.
Ben – He is also a Nicholson.

Ben – Whity made a number of suggestions, Katherine. (Ben is looking at his elder son, Frank, as if, encouraging him to react on what he just said)
Frank – blacks should be given more rights. Then they won’t be up to so much mischief.
Katherine – I think so too. We need the blacks to do the work. And if there’re troubles, it wouldn’t be good for the work, I mean, would it?
Frank – I’ve acquainted myself with ideas like that, too.
Ben – I shall implement some of these ideas.

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The American Westerns (AWs) Fassbinder refers to and transcends in his “Whity”, try to avoid the issue of “really wealthy” land owners (comparable to Ben Nicholson) and how they are supported behind the scene by Federal and State authorities and feared by the (local) Sheriffs. AWs concentrate instead on petti land owners and the good and especially the rogue poor (louts, cheaters, tricksters, sneaks, thieves and murderers). These last ones and fighting them are the very flesh of (entertaining) Western which never addresses the disagreement of the positive characters with highest strata of power. But Fassbinder is not interested in detective stories built on horses and guns and spectacular shooting and falling dawn. For him crime is a structural phenomenon connected with the topic of “dynamic” social hierarchy in a process of establishing itself. The AWs’ anarchic fighters for wealth are not only carriers of hate for their rivals and envy for more successful than they themselves – they commit most of the crimes. But Fassbinder’s film is a Western which is not about the “wild West”, it’s rather about the “guns-based entrepreneurial” West, and the director depicts its human nucleus, face and soul.

The Carriers of natural dignity


Marpessa is Whity’s mother and a servant in Ben Nicholson’s (who is Whity’s father) household. She learned to like her job in master’s mansion, but sometimes she cannot completely hide her resentment for this strange family she works for. Here we see, how Marpessa looks at her son with a disapproving and even reproachful gaze – she thinks that Whity tries too hard to please the masters.


Marpessa’s knife is not sharp enough for doing the kitchen work. It’s torture to have to cut a fish with such a knife, but her bosses don’t want her to have sharp knife, and her own son doesn’t necessarily agree, but silently took it to himself.


Whity again and again tries to explain to his mother that he likes to work qualitatively – to make the masters happy. He doesn’t share her negative energy towards them. He wants them to really need him and his mother. He wants to be for them a perfect, the best possible butler. He wants them to be in love with the food which Marpessa prepares and he serves. In other words he wants that the food could dance and sing for whom it was prepared and radiate the joy of life. He is completely disinterested and disarmingly idealistic.

The universal masters of the local universes


Here he is – an owner, a commander of moods, a man with power, creator of wealth, a person able to make his sons, servants and workers happy by his smile or miserable by his right to punish them for “laziness”, “sloppiness” and “attitudes”.


Solemnity of power (masterful façade of authority or authoritative façade of masterfulness of being masters)


Ben is punishing his mentally backward son for peeping-tom-ing sexual situation between his father and his stepmother. The reason the father became so furious at Davy is that he, the master, had a problem with having an erection and was trying in vain to reignite a spark – it’s in this very moment he was seen by Davy’s “shameless eyes”. Yes, indeed – power dressed in wealth and wealth dressed in power cannot look not representatively. Power/wealth’s fragility should not be noticed by vain curiosity, or people will not respect it, and then even God doesn’t know what can happen.


Whity knows how to satisfy his father-master’s anger when you are being punished by him – to scream as loud as you can. Authoritarians like theatrics because it has a social nature – for the victim to feel pain and shame should not be enough – the victim has to loudly communicate his misery – only then power and everybody around will know that it is recognized as an overwhelming power and respected. Here Whity is being whipped instead of Davy – he volunteered to save his retarded half-brother from the orgy of pain inflicted on him by his father’s fury for losing his genital’s proud face.

The feverishly overstressed fighters for power and wealth


What looks like Katherine’s (Katrin Schaake) touching care for Whity who was whipped by Ben, in reality is a calculated doubly manipulative move on her part. At first, she is not for the first time flirting with Whity seducing him to become her lover, but secondly she wants him to kill her husband – a sort of her obsession. Does she really want her husband killed? Well, yes and no, when “yes” is not denied by “no”, but enriched by it. Her hinted promise to Whity at this point is to marry him after his father’s disappearance from the ranks and to become the owner of Ben’s estate. But it’s quite possible that Katherine doesn’t necessarily want her husband dead. You see, when we are dealing with over-calculating minds it’s necessary to differentiate between a single goal proposal (“I want somebody dead, period”) and an open ended one (dependent on circumstances which can change). But also Katherine may be more interested not in achieving a certain goal but in seeing Whity’s very readiness to kill Ben just because she desperately wants him to get the desire to do it for the sake of her. It is possible that at a certain circumstances she could be willing simultaneously keep Ben (as a husband) and Whity as her lover. Oh, power has its own imaginary logic, like belief. Katherine wants Whity to serve her not only physically but emotionally. Power, like belief, demands from its servant not only service, but sincere excess of fervor to serve, only then it can be really satisfied. In the power’s eyes, sometimes it is even preferable for the hired one to fail, but to be unconditionally dedicated to pleasing the master. That’s how “complicated” the psychology of power-wealth is – it is something like an “expanded-distended” and “dilated-tortured colon”.


Amorous butterfly-ing around Whity doesn’t bring the results Katherine has expected. Whity obviously didn’t become enslaved. It means, that the time came to humiliate him – to show him who he in reality is – “a black cardboard (covering empty bodily)”. Catherine mobilized Ben’s elder son Frank to participate in a séance of showing Whity the truth – that he doesn’t deserve the attention of a “real lady”. His double-refusal of Catherine – to sleep with her and to kill her husband, should, according to her, return him back to his place.


Frank has similar request-order for Whity – to kill his father. Again, it‘s, probably, is not completely the case that he really wanted his father dead, but for him even to think that his father can be killed is such a self-consuming pleasure that Frank can’t resist the urge to verbalize it with the black servant again and again – who knows? – May be, Whity will do it – what a happy idea! This is typical of power in action – it’s ready for various satisfactions – through reality and through imaginary need, and it’s difficult to know exactly at which moment what need is more important – more real or more imaginary. For example, in war pragmatic motivations for using destructive force of maximal power can be weaker than the imaginary side of it. And, of course, human mind is good at inventing, pragmatic justification as a cover for using overwhelming destructive might. History provides ample examples of such magically imaginary/ cognitive equilibristic.


What does Frank (Ulli Lommel) really want from his half-brother Whity – to be willing to kill their father or to be seduced by Frank’s crude and cheaply theatrical homosexual proposal? Or, does he think that through homosexual seduction Whity will be ready even to kill because of Frank’s sexual irresistibility? The baseness of this calculation-manipulation is not surprising – Fassbinder’s film is not about “Spaghetti Western” nor about “Kraut Western”, but about a corny “many-money and my gun-you are gone Western”.


Frank as Katherine before him, both failed with Whity as sexual seducers with obscene business proposal to kill.

Whity’s awkward attempt to be like a white rich gentlemen


Whity never paid Hanna for sex. They loved one another. He was a butler – a servant. She was a prostitute and singer in a saloon. But Hanna had a dream to leave the country life – she was dreaming to go to Chicago. She knew that there she’ll make much more money, and she wanted to go there with Whity who used to his job and even enjoyed serving his family. He, somehow felt, that he shares with his relatives their common belonging to human race. Hanna becomes impatient with him. She couldn’t understand why he is so fixated on his family where he was mistreated and exploited. One time she demonstratively refused to sleep with him. And he, being confused, impulsively, without thinking, offered her money.

Fassbinder’s camera accentuated what for a black man in a white society in US during the last part of the 19th century meant to offer money to a white prostitute. This meant that a black man has money to spend in order to possess what he wants to possess, and this, in its turn, meant that he is already, as if not completely black. Money is not a perfect, but still a whitish makeup. To register Whity in this important for his whole life situation Fassbinder uses special shot which soon became famous – when the camera moves around the character in full circle, as if, making a circle in his honor. This use of camera is extremely ironic, even satiric. Did Whity feel great? Of course, not. But white wealthy people feel proud when they demonstrate their wealth, and it’s this instant of megalomaniacal fever of self-glorying is symbolized by the shot around the person. Whity is an exceptional human being uninterested in playing the role of a wealthy and powerful. He preferred to have a modest job, and he wanted to do his work well.


Let’s follow Fassbinder’s long shot around Whity humorously targeted by the camera as if he is a wealthy and a powerful person – able to buy land and property, love and sex, and many other goodies which can make the majority of the people happy.


This shot around the character, as if it is camera-world dancing around the rich and powerful with servility, as simple people around bill-mills (billionaire-millionaires), Fassbinder used in his other films to emphasize the megalomaniacal nature of the orientation on domination. It emphasizes that circled person, as if, instantly loses his humanity, becomes emptied of human emotions, as if, playing statue. Whity, as if, finds himself in the center, becomes as if proudly mute. He becomes, as if, the magnifying focus of social admiration. He’ll never again will repeat this game of centrality in his life.


In the end of camera circling suspension of narration through injection of meaning Hanna (Hanna Shygulla) didn’t want Whity’s money and angrily demanded from him to leave her room. She was insulted, but her love and her intention to persuade Whity to go together to Chicago didn’t become weaker.

Those who live on masters’ crumbs


It happens quite often that sincere love comes together with intense calculation – how to get the person who is loved to do what the lover wants. And Hanna who is able to love disinterestedly, simultaneously started to train her calculating ability in order to successfully manipulate the reality to achieve what she wants in life. She was able to get a very solid sum of money by lying as a witness. And, fighting for Whity she gave all of this money to him with the hope that he will eventually agree to leave the place of agrarian limitations for the sake of a future for two human flowers in the middle of Chicago‘s urbanistic conglomerations.


Whity was hesitating whether to go or not to the North with Hanna, and he took money, though very soon lost all of them in a card games with revolting character played by Fassbinder himself (here, he is in the center, smiling/smirking to his unexpected luck). It was the guy, who not long ago has beaten Whity up and out of the saloon, but who, confronted with Whity’s (Hanna’s) money, instantly became a friend, and in five-ten minutes almost all the money were in his pocket. Pay attention to the fact, that Hanna noticed he end of her money, but, amazingly she forgave and never reproached Whity.

Annunciation of the will


For Ben Nicholson the “sacred” ritual of proclaiming his will was just a strategic maneuver – a business calculation, not more than a manipulative exercise – a performance based on lie. But it’s the ritual which was for him of a decisive importance.


Ben invents that he is terminally ill in order to revenge his wife for not being “completely dedicated to him” (he provoked and trapped her in a casual and superficial sexual affair with a person hired by him).


The characters listening to Ben’s announcement of his will are intentionally kept separated by Fassbinder with long distances (which, unfortunately, reduced by the stills we see here). The traveling camera’s horizontal movements emphasize the exaggerated distances between the characters as signs of their alienation from one another, but also in the same time as signs of them being morbidly tied to each other by their symbiotic rivalry.


Especially, distant and closely tied together are Ben’s wife Katherine and his eldest son Frank who besides their mutual hate for the father/husband, hate one another.


Whity is absolutely alien to hateful mutuality of those who are after Ben’s money and don’t want to share any part of the will, who want it all for their own private gain. Whity, on his part is worried for his mother and for his half-brother – Ben’s retarded son.


The patriarch of wealth (Ron Randell) is solemnly finishing his farcical statement letting him to feel full triumph over his wife and to laugh at her in his soul.

The grief and the wisdom of autistic condition


The life of Ben’s mentally underdeveloped younger son gives Whity the feeling that he is in a way similar to Davy. Hanna told him about Ben’s trick with his will and the money he paid her for helping him to get away with killing. Whity felt himself as an incorrigible idiot – deserves punishment for being a sample simpleton.


Davy (Harry Baer) who cannot talk, is able to observe life and think about what he observes. His thinking is a-verbal – it’s thinking by knots of his feelings, without traces of words. But this feeling-thinking includes some essential information about the external world. Looking at the shot above you cannot believe that Davy is close to imbecility. Sometimes Davy looks as an autistic person with intelligent existential sensitivity.


Davy’s mute and shy appeal made Whity feel tragically similar to his half-brother – both were marked by being incurable outsiders. He understands that Davy from his babyhood was ignored by his mother disgusted by his mental defect, and by his father whose megalomania protected him from an inferiority complex of having an inferior son. Whity understands that Davy for whole his life has lived without even being kissed by anyone in his family.


Whity gave Davy a friendly and brotherly care


Their closeness started with Whity teaching Davy how to care for and groom the horses, meticulously and tenderly, and ended with showing him what he deserved from childhood and never got before.

Culmination


Whity (his real name is Samuel King) made a tormenting but inevitable decision – to kill his family except his mother. He doesn’t have an inspiration of boiling righteousness, like Clint Eastwood’s Westerns heroes, for example. Whity’s punishing shots are for him rather prosaic necessity. Hanna’s information about his father and his own impressions from Katherine or Frank transformed his heart which, as if, fell down from his chest never to climb up again. Davy was with his step-brother to the end.


“Two shots for daddy”


One bullet for his father’s predatory wife, and one for his stepbrother Frank

The way out down


Hanna and Whity end in California’s Death Valley, like two flowers whose destiny is to die immediately after flowering. What Whity and Hanna came to is not triumph of life, but triumph of love instead life, maybe it’s the best they could do in their circumstances. Hanna always underestimated Whity. How unjust she was when she said to him while ago – “I don’t understand you. You don’t want to be free. You like it, when they beat you. You swine. Servile and dependent. You don’t deserve any better.” Of course, in this moment Hanna wanted to insult him. She didn’t understand him. But he didn’t overestimate Hanna. Without her he could have never transform so radically. Live long together by loving each other, Hanna and Whity!


Whity (Gunther Kaufmann) was punishing himself for punishing his family. He was punishing Hanna for lying about his father’s crime for the sake of getting reward from Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell). Whity felt that it’s bad for both of them – Hanna and himself, to go to the North, that life in the South and in the North can only be too similar – in an essential, moral sense. Whity felt a little bit like Davy could without words if he were in Whity’s place – that the difference between life in the South and life in the North is a question of small, purely superficial dissimilarities. May be, Whity believed that South could morally invade the North in the 21st century. We, Americans today, cannot be sure that he was wrong.

Holistic morality (an attempt at apology of Whity’s worldview)

Close to the end of the film Whity changed his whole perception of the world where before he was a small screw trying hard not to be out of tune with the macro-mechanism of existing life. Now, he became outside of the common existential logic, according to which people dream to be on top of other people or at least ahead of and above them. He understood that moral criminality of vicious intentions coloring human actions is the principle of this life where real god is power over others and wealth is a leverage to supersede them. How would you feel, if your step-mother is trying to seduce you and asking you to kill your own father who happens to be her husband, or when your step-brother, again, tries to seduce you and, again, commanding you to kill your and his father? Many would say, that this is extremes of immorality. But what about, when people enjoy injustice when it’s for other people because they hate them more feverishly than before?

What about when people are happy to join the military because in the depths of their souls they will be happy to kill those who are defined by their leaders as enemies, including civilians, and are ready to be killed on the far away planetary spots although nobody is trying to invade and occupy their country? Is it really less immoral than the desire to kill your father or your wife or husband? Is to be a slave worse in principle than to be a wage slave? How with feelings like this Whity (Gunther Kaufmann) could be as naïve and morally indifferent as Hanna (Hanna Shygulla) whom he sincerely loves, who looks at life only from one position of her personal happiness, not from the perspective of how decent, noble and moral is the people’s treatment of one another?

Whity wanted to be a good and decent person – live modestly, respect others and work honestly and productively. But when he learned about how disgusting his father is and how immoral Whity’s relatives are he understood that to care about his own personal success in a society of indifference, immorality and hate is nothing other than blindness and self-castration – an existential absurd – to dance the dance of your private happiness on the island of egoism, alienation and symbiotic pseudo-unity amidst the ocean of hate towards rivals. Whity is a kind of a philosopher – he cannot live if he cannot believe anymore in the society he lives in. For him it’s like to breath without air of life, to inhale emptiness.

It’s at this point of his philosophical feelings Whity started to think about the Californian Death Valley instead of Chicago – city of buildings, philistines, petti crimes and murders, and tireless and feverish money-making and social success-squeezing by any price. Sometimes death seems to him a savior from life, not because his life was physically unbearable, it wasn’t the case with him, but because it was unbearable morally. Whity is not only a kind of a philosopher, but also a kind of an aesthete – for him moral decency is something which he perceived as beautiful, sublime and natural. Is he a “beautiful soul” from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, asserting himself by emphasizing in front of himself his moral superiority over the world and living by this “moral megalomania”, or is he especially sensitive exactly towards the predicaments of others who suffer from abuse by their neighbors, and because of these very abusers who are themselves tormented by their sins and vices in the very moment they enjoy following them? How could such people continue to live while transforming themselves into robots of moral crimes? What kind of a society can be made of these successful criminal robots?

But even if a person like Whity thinks that there is no way out of a regrettable world – out of its nasty aspects, yet some openings are… possible, even if temporary, even ephemerally, without guaranteed results, because human mind doesn’t know everything. It’s necessary to be more than your mind, even if this more is not really more than your mind, but just something else, something other. Is it necessary to be able to live in real world even when you’re disgusted by it, even when it means to be sullied by it, which is unavoidable and almost always the case? Is it really necessary to always choose the world? Does existence have a right to be irresistible only because it’s existence?

We’re moving to the end of amazing psychological mutation in the life of son of a black servant mother and the wealthy landowner in California at the end of 19th century, depicted in Fassbinder’s parody on the Western as a part of American mass-culture. This Fassbinder’s parody at the same time is Western’s sublimation and resurrection, its new life beyond itself.

Whity wanted to go with Hanna to the North, but if he could he would feel that he is betraying the holistic morality of his life. His relatives including his father wanted to use him against each other with hope that he because of love for them will participate in their schemes. He refused and when he really understood how ugly they are in their immorality he felt that he must punish them, but pay for it with his own life, because this punishment includes a crime, and in this sense it makes him similar to them. But Whity didn’t want to be similar with them. When he realized that human civilization as it is uses evil to punish evil – for example, in trying to be stronger in destruction during the war than the enemy, or teaching people how to be ahead of one’s rivals in wealth-appropriating, he felt that he cannot be part of this civilization because it’s a form of barbarism. Whity has refused to accept not just the evil, but the very alliance between good and evil – when good uses evil because it believes that it is necessary to keep itself stronger and crueler than the enemies.

Whity understood that North is as poisoned with immorality of its orientation on inequality and injustice as the “South”. His intuition told him, that the spirit of slavery, probably will resurrect in future with anti-equality agenda, obsession with power of wealth and recklessness and cruelty of this power with austerity measures for American population.

We, Whity’s not born children see today what is happening in his country. And we feel, that, may be, he was right to overwrite his and Hanna’s hopes and not to go to the North and instead end their love in the California desert. He knew his American father, he remembered his father’s next generation – his half-brothers, and he decided to act according to what he knew although he also knew that any knowledge is limited. Whity’s experience is not unfinishable because of his untimely death, it’s unfinished.

Posted on 5/6/’18 –   “Whity” By Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970) by Acting-Out Politics