Crazy–Like A Whore!–Fassbinder’s Lola & The Commodity of Love

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is arguably the authority on films about prostitutes, particularly in his later canon of work. Though even some of his mid-era filmography goes so far as to simply include the word “whore” in the title–specifically Beware of a Holy Whore–it wasn’t until In A Year of Thirteen Moons, inspired by Fassbinder’s lover, Armin Meier, that the auteur truly explored the complex depths of love as a commodity. The way in which it’s only natural for a human to want so desperately to feel and seek the attention of and connection to another.

He extended his reach in this realm of exploration with his multi-part series adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. With the introduction of the character Emilie “Mieze” Karsunke (Barbara Sukowa), a prostitute that anti-hero Franz (Günter Lamprecht) falls for and ultimately uses to his financial benefit (a.k.a. he becomes her pimp), Fassbinder explores all the ins and outs of just how fucked up human psychology is when it comes to love. But his truest and tautest examination came with his 1981 film, Lola, which found Barbara Sukowa reprising her role of whore. She had certainly gotten enough of an education in it with Alexanderplatz. Not to mention Fassbinder, like any good auteur, always hung on to those actors who inspired him.

Partially inspired by The Blue Angel, one of Marlene Dietrich’s most iconic performances–and surely one that influenced Sukowa’s portrayal of Lola, also the name of Dietrich’s cabaret singer–Lola once again offers us the classic tale of a fool who falls for a woman of the night. Somewhere beneath all the jadedness and the ire she has for her primary patron, building contractor Schuckert (Mario Adorft), there remains some semblance of hope and innocence within Lola–though it’s marred by her ultimate goal in life: to make herself a part of the petite bourgeoisie (ain’t none of them haute).

Thus, when Schuckert and other pigs of his kind come into the “cathouse” talking up the new building inspector, von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Lola’s interest is naturally piqued. But when she expresses said interest openly, Schuckert balks, “He’s not the man for you.” He says that von Bohm is a modern man in his work and an old-fashioned one in his personal life–the type to kiss a woman on the hand. After enough testing of her nerves, she bets Schuckert thirty bottles of champagne she can get von Bohm to kiss her on the hand in front of witnesses. He laughs, agrees and again insists he’s not the type of man for her. “Did anyone ever stop to think that I might be the woman for him?” she counters in sadness, all too accustomed to being treated like little better than a slave.

In point of fact, one of the things directors rendering whores always do is make their aura of melancholy a source of endearment (see: Fellini’s Cabiria, Marshall’s Vivian). True to her ambition, Lola finds von Bohm in attendance at a ceremony honoring the German army, walks right up to him in her finest attire and extends her hand to him to kiss it. Bearing witness to the event is the drummer in the cabaret, Esslin (Matthias Fuchs). Like everyone else in the town, Esslin has an interior life that is private from his exterior one. As such, he also works for von Bohm. But in between drumming and building, there is his time spent with Lola, during which he reads her poems from the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, specifically “Autumn Day,” from which he recites, “He who has no house shall not build one. He who is alone shall long remain so…” Putting on her makeup, Lola is deeply affected by the words, lamenting to Esslin, “Why do you only read me sad poems?” Esslin explains to her that all poems are sad because they come from the soul, and the soul is sad. “Is it?” she wonders.

Looking at the era Fassbinder chose to set his narrative in–the 1950s, as indicated by the presence of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the opening and closing titles–it’s impossible not to view Lola as a political condemnation. Just like the United States at this time, the repressed form of “wholesomeness” in the post-WWII decade bred with it a seedy underbelly, a hotbed of crooks and, as Esslin puts it, “birds of prey,” willing to swoop in in order to capitalize. Lola knows this better than anyone, and even tries to warn von Bohm to leave before he gets too caught up in it all. Including her.

That Lola uses her mother (Karin Baal), an East Prussian (one of von Bohm’s only weaknesses other than tea from West Frisia) who serves as the cleaning woman and “matron” of the boarding house he lives in, for intel on von Bohm is telling of her ultimate motivations. And yet, like most prostitutes who try to steel themselves against the dangers of love, Lola falls for von Bohm. His sweetness and lack of artifice is what makes him so appealing. As her fellow working girls, including the madame of the establishment, start to notice the change in her, one of the girls insists, “All the others that came before don’t count when it’s true love.” “They paid though,” counters another, rightly cynical “dancer.” “It’s precisely because they paid that they don’t count,” it’s decided. All the while continuing to hide her identity from von Bohm and those in his orbit–including her mother–Lola eventually realizes she’s in too deep when he proposes.

This form of kindness and acceptance is that which she has never known, made evident by comments like, “Why does everyone treat me like I have leprosy? Even my own mother.” However, Fassbinder isn’t one to give his films a prototypical ending, least of all anything that could be deemed a “Hollywood” one. And with the twist in Lola, it’s apparent that no one knows the value of love–specifically when it comes to quite literally commodifying it–than a prostitute. That being said, it’s only second nature for her to get the very most financial gain out of it. For vulnerability has no place in love if you want to survive. Lola shows she’s learned this lesson well when Esslin asks her, “Would you want to live in a world that has lost all morality? Where there’s only evil and depravity and corruption?” She avers, “Gladly.” Lucky for her, that’s just what the world is, occasional men of noble character like von Bohm doomed to sooner or later fall prey (even if only in a roundabout fashion) as well.