The Criterion Collection: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Love Is Colder Than Death”

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Thanks to HuluPlus and The Criterion Collection, several films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder are now available to stream, including his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death.

The New German Cinema director passed away at the age of thirty-seven in 1982, but only after directing forty-four films and acting in forty-three. Fassbinder was a prolific filmmaker, and certainly lived his life on the edge.

The cinema of the French New Wave is a major inspiration of mine, and after learning of Fassbinder’s style, I decided that it was time to check out more of his films beginning with the first. I went cold into Love Is Colder Than Death, and was immediately struck by the stark cinematography and an early scene in which Franz (Fassbinder) beats down a man.

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Leather Jackets. Cigarettes. Stylized cigarette-smoking. The Mob. Love Is Colder Than Death delivers with French New Wave cliches, but unfortunately it all comes across as an ode to¬†Le Samourai. The character of Bruno is such a blatant rip-off of Alain Delon’s Jef Costello.

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The beginning of Love Is Colder Than Death is memorable simply because of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s performance. He has an interesting on-screen presence, but his chubby body squeezed into tough-guy clothing is a bit strange.

Love Is Colder Than Death is unbelievably boring at times, but always picks up when Fassbinder is on screen. The plot focuses on two gangsters who like to smoke in public places and generally do anything that is anti-establishment. Franz, a pimp, is hired by a crime syndicate along with a contract killer named Bruno (Ulli Lommel) and the two become pals. Of course there is a dame in the mix, Franz’s lady Johanna (Hanna Schygulia), who falls in love with Bruno.

Dietrich Lohmann’s expressionistic cinematography in Love Is Colder Than Death is fantastic. The early scenes have a coldness that sets the film apart before Fassbinder goes all-in with the French New Wave style. The overall feel is pure art-house, but the film loses power when Ulli Lommel’s Le Samourai-wannabe character is on screen. The wardrobe is the most obvious reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential gangster film, but the character of Bruno even has the walk of Jeff Costello along with the cold-hearted gaze. The tip-of-the-hat is admirable, however the look suffers from a supreme lack of unoriginality.

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Ulli Lommel doing his best Jef Costello impression.

I don’t buy Bruno as a contract killer, and Ulli Lommel doesn’t own his role like Fassbinder does. Franz seems like a legitimate pimp looking for trouble, whereas Bruno is just a French New Wave cliche.

Love Is Colder Than Death is an impressive piece of work, especially given that Fassbinder was only twenty-three years of age at the time.

Check out this video I made a few years ago for Le Samourai, and watch Love Is Colder Than Death on HuluPlus (subscription required/$7.99 per month).

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