Querelle; Blue Thunder; Parsifal


Querelle Pretentious, ambiguous, and symbol-laden like the rest of his films is Fassbinder's last work, Querelle. Filmed in English, dubbed into German, it is now visible on American screens in German with English subtitles.

The story concerns a naval enlistee (Brad Davis of Midnight Express) whose secret desire for his brother's love becomes so all-consuming as to exclude emotionally his brother's mistress (Jeanne Moreau), who recognizes at last that she is an outsider to where the real love is. So far, the story is unusual and plausible, but it is overlaid with an affair between Davis and another navy man whom he then reports to the police for a murder in order to "sanctify his crimes." This particular plot twist is hardly believable unless the informant is consumed with guilt and turns the other man in to prove that "he's not one of them," something of which the film fails to convince us. Nor is "redemption through humiliation" a theme likely to titillate American audiences. There is so much in the plot that is never cleared up that its final impact is diffuse and less than satisfying.

The trouble is not so much with Fassbinder as with Jean Genêt, whose work Fassbinder tries to follow too slavishly. Genet's strange combination of sex, guilt, and masochism is not likely to be shared or even understood by most audiences, and his purple prose uttered by the off-screen narrator does nothing either for the viewer's comprehension or for the cinematic qualities of the film. It would have been preferable if the director had set forth on his own rather than tie his story to a literary piece so full of murky plot twists and far-out motivations that, to audiences accustomed to intelligible characters, the whole thing will reek of deliberate mystery mongering.

Blue Thunder Blue Thunder is one of the most visually exciting films in years. Most of the shots are of helicopters (presumably taken from other helicopters) flying above Los Angeles by day and by night: some are frightening, others beautiful, all of them fast-moving and suffused with kinetic energy.

The film also raises certain moral issues, although these are not pursued. The police are there to protect the citizens against criminals. But the futuristic technology exhibited in the film—computer printouts of everyone's history available right there in the helicopter, devices for hearing conversations miles away and for seeing close-up (from a great distance) the perpetration of criminal acts, missiles that spot targets through heat (it is announced at the beginning of the film that all these are already in use in the armed forces)—all this is scary; while it facilitates the instant apprehension of criminals, it can also be used to violate privacy in many ways and even to get rid of those whom the police may consider "undesirable." In the film, the good cop (Roy Scheider) is pitted against the machinations of the bad cop (Malcolm MacDowell) in an attempt to foil a plan to use aggressively the very technology that was supposed to be used defensively. The implicit moral of the tale is: there is no weapon of defense that cannot also be used for aggression.

Exciting as it is, it's really an old- fashioned cops-and-robbers film. From the moment a helicopter with the new equipment is discovered taping the ongoing conspiracy being hatched, we know that it is to be a battle of good against evil. That evil does not win is not the result of any antecedent probability but of the plot gimmickry by which the hero ends up with the best luck and the best equipment.

Parsifal Five hours is a long time to sit still in one's seat. But five hours is the length of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, and German filmmaker Hans Syberberg's decision to provide an uncut version of the opera, rather than play God with Wagner's score, is wholly admirable. Most opera lovers do not reside in large cities where opera is performed, and even those who do could wait for years without being able to witness a single production of Parsifal. Now they can see an excellent performance of it on film, with translations on the screen.

This is much more than a filmed version of an opera: Syberberg uses visual devices that would be virtually impossible on the stage. Some of these—such as the watch tower of a concentration camp and Parsifal viewed against a ridge that is actually Wagner's face in profile—have more to do with Syberberg's personal associations with the opera than with Wagner's work. The viewer will either find these enhancing his experience, enriching the stream of associations, or find them irrelevant intrusions into the story. In any case, it is the music that is supreme.

Many listeners who enjoy Wagner's more-extroverted and melodic operas, such as Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Meistersinger, are bored by Parsifal. At first hearing, much of it does seem dull or unintelligible, and one waits for the familiar themes heard in selections from the opera, such as the "Prelude" and "Good Friday Spell." But to ignore the rest is, I think, a mistake. In the case of Parsifal, the threads of melodic connection do reveal themselves to repeated listenings. It is the most intricately textured of Wagner's works (including his equally long, penultimate opera, Götterdämmerung). A single exposure to it does not yield up its treasures, but repeated listening more than justifies the initial effort. Those who come to Parsifal for nonmusical reasons, such as readers of last year's provocative book Holy Blood, Holy Grail and those fascinated by Knights Templar and the history of secret societies, will unfortunately not grasp the intricate musical structure on which the aesthetic effect of the opera largely depends.

This is not a film for everyone. Those who are not tuned in to classical music will simply be bored by it. Those who like classical music but have never had an opportunity to hear full operas of Wagner may find a single exposure to it insufficient (as explained above). Moreover, the film, by bringing everything close up, does not always improve the operatic experience. The great communion scene of the Knights of the Holy Grail is more awe-inspiring in the opera house than on the screen: it must be seen as it was intended to be seen, as live theater in the hushed silence of a darkened auditorium. The intimacy of close-ups often destroys the magic. Still, there is plenty of magic to go round in this film.

John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.