The Niklashausen Journey (1970), co-directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, is a dense political allegory that combines contemporary protests with the true story of Hans Bohm (Michael Konig), a shepherd who in the 15th century began a religious movement after claiming to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. Bohm’s movement picks up followers amongst the peasants, but ultimately it is suppressed by governing powers and Bohm is killed. Past and present collide in a way that is never reconciled: Hans Boehm and Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), his Virgin Mary, appear in full period costume while Fassbinder (playing the Black Monk who advises Bohm’s movement) wanders the landscape with his signature leather jacket and cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips; the police carry machine guns during the raid, and Gunther Kaufmann (playing the peasant leader) makes allusions to Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers who was murdered by Chicago police. The intersection of such distant times is draw parallels between counter-cultural movements: as Fassbinder says in the opening scene, he wishes to find success by understanding past failures.
A tapestry of cultural allusions, The Niklashausen Journey can be seen as part of a movement of politically-oriented cinema along with Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) and La Chinoise (1967), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner (1968) and Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). These films funnel the anxieties in late-1960’s European youth through a variety of lenses: Bertolucci’s film uses Dostoyevsky’s The Double as its source, while Sjoman takes documentary approach to understand the sexual morays in Sweden, though it is with Godard that Fassbinder and Fengler share the most affinities. In Weekend, Godard channels society into a series of car crashes and other surreal disasters that occur on a couple’s weekend getaway, while in La Chinoise a group of students discuss Mao and plan a violent uprising. In both of these films, as in The Niklashausen Journey, violence is handled in a blunt, matter-of-fact manner that reflects a cultural desensitization and resignation. The battle between peasants and police in The Niklashausen Journey shares more in common with television news footage of Vietnam than with the dominant strain of war films that feature an orderly, staged battle sequence.
Co-directors Fassbinder and Fengler stage the film in a theatrical manner: the characters don’t move much, and often the scenes are long dialogues taking place in a single location. Dietrich Lohmann, however, Niklashausen’s cinematographer, navigates these scenes with the utmost mobility. His camera languidly pans back and forth across a field, as characters on opposite sides hold separate conversations; while tracking through a house, the camera zooms in and out, tilting up and down, taking in the full ambiance of the rich décor; or, more simply, the camera performs a long, slow zoom up a long, stone staircase while characters at the top carry on conversation. Rarely is camera movement savored so delectably, yet there is such energy in the delicate kinetics of Lohmann’s photography that the film does not feel slow or ill paced. Like Raoul Coutard’s photography for Godard’s La Chinoise, it is Lohmann’s artistry that makes the political content of the film accessible for audiences: when didacticism and idealism seem more than one can handle, it is this artistry that keeps us attune to the movie.
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