I have watched many, many films over the course of my life, from nearly every conceivable nation, decade and across several genres. To this day, I have not seen a film as polarizing as Satan’s Brew (German: Satansbraten). I was left baffled, puzzled at what this film was. I had only one emotion after seeing Satan’s Brew, that of utter curiosity – what was Rainer Werner Fassbinder thinking? After adoring Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, I thought Fassbinder was a provocative but very humane filmmaker. If Ali: Fear Eats the Soul shows Fassbinder at his most socially-conscious, representing the true realism of our society, then Satan’s Brew shows Fassbinder at his most obnoxious, showing society through a lens of grotesque hideousness and cruel dark comedy that serves to make one of the most bewildering cinematic experiences one can ever encounter. I am not sure what to think of Satan’s Brew, other than it being a film so despicable, I found myself being captivated by it, which is odd because I didn’t enjoy this film at all.
Walter Kranz (Kurt Raab) is a famous German poet, or at least he used to be. Known for his revolutionary ideas in bygone days, he is now a middle-aged, vulgar pariah who abuses his wife and mentally disabled brother, and mistreats a bevy of mistresses. He is completely broke, so the entire film follows Walter as he undergoes a process of searching for money, because he is suffering from dreadful writer’s block and cannot seem to find any inspiration – and when he thinks he has, it is rather the work of Stefan George that he is producing, rather than his own. He then starts to believe that he is the reincarnation of German’s finest poet and then makes everyone else in this film victims to his delusional beliefs that the soul of George is living within him, and it is his responsibility to make use of this great blessing bestowed upon him.
Where to start with Satan’s Brew? Perhaps the best way to look at this film is through trying to discern what Fassbinder was trying to say with this film. In all of his films, he tries to convey a message of some sort, a critique or commentary on society at the time. Much of his films were radically successful in being smart and moving films that contained some meaningful factor. In all honesty, I just couldn’t see anything that bore any resemblance to a message in Satan’s Brew – and it wasn’t in the form of a film that is pure escapism, or “mindless fun”, because Satan’s Brew is a film about society, but it fails to make a single meaningful statement about society, other than the fact that there are some really deplorable individuals in our world – but that was done just as well in Fassbinder’s other films, which were far more pleasant and heartfelt, and not nearly as horrifyingly despicable as Satan’s Brew.
Satan’s Brew is about a truly reprehensible individual, and regardless of how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a single redeeming quality in Walter Kranz. He is detestable beyond belief, and perhaps the best part about this film is that Kurt Raab committed so much to such a loathsome character, it became impossible to see where Raab ended and the character began. He truly lost himself within the character, and his performance was impressive. Satan’s Brew is not a bad film, but rather it is a strange film about a very bad man. There is absolutely nothing to like about Walter – and unlike other films that have a nasty character in the main role, there is nothing likable about our “protagonist” (can someone who hateful be considered a protagonist?) – Raab is dedicated to the role, and is the only reason to watch this film. Playing a greasy, awful human being, the audience almost feels compelled to hate him – I hope this was Fassbinder’s intention because I can’t get behind the idea that someone as audacious as Fassbinder would find anything in the character of Walter Kranz likable or endearing. It seemed like Raab was giving a performance made for the audience to hate, but the film around him seemed to disagree, because there are many moments where Fassbinder seems to be provoking empathy from the audience, and I doubt anyone can find any empathy for such an abhorrent character.
There isn’t a single morally-strong character in Satan’s Brew, even if it did feel like Andrée (Margit Carstensen), one of Walter’s mistresses, was somewhat good-natured, but her blind adoration of an abusive, cruel man like Walter made her come off as ignorant and utterly stupid, and only a truly foolish, dim-witted individual could have wanted to be so dedicated to someone like him. I am not entirely sold on whether or not the performances in Satan’s Brew were any good – all of the characters were so hyperinflated and came off as caricatures, constantly over-acting and being excessive in every gesture and statement, it was impossible to see the performances as anything other than outrageous, obnoxious parodies of what a person is supposed to be like. I am not entirely sure in which part of the world people like those in Satan’s Brew reside, but all I saw in this film were actors giving loud and irritating performances as some half-baked version of society.
I am bitterly disappointed in Fassbinder because even if he wanted to make a completely outrageous film like Satan’s Brew, there was no need to make characters that demanded such overly artificial performances. There was nothing in these performances that reflected society – it felt like amateur theater, with a bunch of mediocre actors doing a bad job at showing what they believe these characters should be like. I am particularly disappointed in Helen Vita, who gives a shrill, irritating performance as Luise – and her constant caterwauling and histrionic screeching could only have been an effort by Fassbinder to contrast her career as a singer with a beautiful voice. I want to believe that Fassbinder was trying to make a film with bad performances because he has certainly shown his mettle with subtly and nuance, as evident in his far superior films.
Actually, there is a message in Satan’s Brew, albeit one that is well-hidden until the film ends – the concept of celebrity. Satan’s Brew actually makes a few scathing statements about what it means to be a celebrity in the modern world. Kranz is not an obscure poet, but he is slipping into the territory of being a has-been – yet, even though he is completely useless and uninspired, he has his relentless group of devotees who follow him around, including the aforementioned Andrée, who subjects herself to degrading, rape and even attempted murder simply so that she can say that she is Walter’s mistress. The young men towards the end of the film that become a part of Walter’s posse, following him around and aiding him in his various schemes, adore him so much – but when he shows a side of himself that isn’t reflected in this work, they instantly turn on him and berate him for not being genuine. However, Satan’s Brew doesn’t forget to completely abandon this fascinating plot development for an ending that is so puzzling and unbelievably strange (and not in a good way), it feels like all the goodwill Fassbinder put towards the film falls apart.
What made Ali: Fear Eats the Soul so remarkable was its gritty realism – and Fassbinder’s low-budget, simple filmmaking worked very well in showing the human realities within our society. It felt very fresh and complex to have such difficult themes represented in such a frank and straightforward manner. Obviously, this same filmmaking method went into Satan’s Brew…and it just didn’t work well. There were very few discernable themes in this film, and it just often became unbearably false and revolting at times. I can’t criticize Fassbinder for not having a particularly high budget to make a more visually interesting film – but I can say whereas Ali: Fear Eats the Soul uses its simplicity to create something beautiful, Satan’s Brew just becomes even more grotesque – and if that was the intention, then bravo. It just made for very awkward, uncomfortable cinema that left me cold.
Satan’s Brew is a film I am reluctant to outright criticize negatively because Fassbinder was someone who had talent so he wouldn’t have made something he was dedicated to. I am just in two minds as to where Satan’s Brew stands – either Fassbinder was trying to make something hideous on purpose, a brutally harsh critique of society with excessive and cartoonish characters, or he thought he was making a social masterpiece with great performances and a funny story. There are some moments of dark humor in this film, but the only comedy in Satan’s Brew comes from the uncomfortable interactions between characters. I am really unsure of what to think of Satan’s Brew, but I just think that Fassbinder has such a prolific film career, Satan’s Brew was either a work of genius or simply a rare failure for an otherwise visionary filmmaker. Perhaps it will take another viewing or two to fully understand it, but I can’t get my head around Satan’s Brew, and I don’t really desire to, because in the end, it is a grotesque, uncomfortable and weird film – and whether that makes it a masterpiece or a failure is really up to you. I didn’t love it, but I do have some sort of distant, muted respect for it.