Daniel Schmid's elegantly directed stroll through the lower depths is indelibly stamped by the personality of his co-screenwriter, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who adapted his own controversial play, Garbage, the City, and Death). SHADOW OF ANGELS has clear connections to Fassbinder's
earlier, more theatrically-stylized, films.
Warmed in Germany's chilly night air only by the companionship of other whores, consumptive streetwalker Lily Brest (Ingrid Caven) fails to catch the eye of most of the lustful johns passing her by. Primed by beatings from her kept lover Raoul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Lily seems headed for an
early grave. One evening, the disenchanted hooker captures the fancy of The Broker (Klaus Loewitsch), a powerful real estate developer who trusts no one except his bodyguard associates Little Lord (Ulli Lommel) and Dwarf (Jean-Claude Dreyfuss). Finding Lily's self-destructiveness alluring, The
Broker transforms her into his glamorous nightclub accessory.
Lily's upward mobility challenges Raoul's concept of his manhood and ruins their relationship. Simultaneously, The Broker spitefully throws Lily before her father, Herr Muller (Adrian Hoven), a drag performer who was once Lily's incestuous lover. Pining for Raoul, whose latent bisexuality surfaces
and nets him a vicious beating, Lily convinces The Broker to end her misery by strangling her to death. This mercy killing by the town's wealthiest benefactor is overlooked by police until power-hungry Little Lord snitches on his employer. Intent on allowing the town's money-greased machinery to
continue grinding, the police toss Little Lord out the window and pin Lily's murder on expendable Raoul instead.
It may be an exercise in futility to try to determine whose authorship SHADOW OF ANGELS bears more strongly--that of director Schmid or his co-screenwriter Fassbinder. Together, they flesh out a bleak universe of human commodities whose destinies are predetermined by money, an asset viewed as the
20th century equivalent of fate. But the obvious symbols Fassbinder and Schmid brandish in this polemic against post-WWII Germany can't undercut the searing intensity of the underlying melodrama. While the film picks at the scabs of social diseases left over from WWII (such as anti-Semitism), it
succeeds as a redemptive tragedy rather than as an overly schematized diatribe. Although some literary flights of fancy taken in the dialogue come off as bad poetry, other stilted turns of phrase work eloquently and contribute to the film's stylized air. If Lily emerges tellingly as a symbol of
Germany's post-WWII malaise, it's not entirely clear what the other characters represent. No matter; the downward spiral of Lily's life holds the viewer rapt even when Fassbinder and Schmid's heavy-handed social criticism weighs a ton.
Flagrantly disregarding Cinema School 101 rules, director Schmid poses his actors in theatrical tableaux (reminiscent of such Fassbinder films as THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT). By creating an environment of entrapment within the frame (through moving the characters from foreground to
background and vice versa), Schmid manipulates his mise-en-scene without relying on cinematic movement through editing. Using theater-derived visual techniques on screen as formally as the traditions of Greek tragedy recycled by Sophocles, he creates a fiercely hopeless landscape of the soul. This
striking film views pity as a luxury in Germany, where paying for the sins of the father parallels the damnation of Lily Brest, set in motion by childhood sexual abuse.
In SHADOW OF ANGELS, Germany's history repeats itself so cruelly that no punishment in any afterlife could begin to compare with it. (Graphic violence, sexual situations, adult situations, substance abuse, extreme profanity.)
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- Released: 1976
- Rating: NR
- Review: Daniel Schmid's elegantly directed stroll through the lower depths is indelibly stamped by the personality of his co-screenwriter, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who adapted his own controversial play, Garbage, the City, and Death). SHADOW OF ANGELS has clear c… (more)