Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s untimely death in 1982 was widely viewed, both at the time and in later years, as the death knell for the (quantitatively and qualitatively) resurgent West German film scene of the 1970s that later came to be known as the New German Cinema. While his individual cinematic tours de forces (Fear Eats the Soul, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Marriage of Maria Braun) will continue to be the bedrock of his legacy as a filmmaker, the sheer scope of his oeuvre, and above all his Stakhanovite level of productivity – 45 films, shorts, documentaries and television series in 13 years, plus numerous stage plays, essays and unrealised projects – justify in themselves his subsequent characterisation as the driving force behind the success of the New German Cinema, both at home and, more often, abroad. In an obituary for the director, who succumbed to a drug overdose aged only 37, Wolfram Schütte wrote that Fassbinder was the movement’s “heart, [its] beating, vibrating core”, without which it was incapable of prevailing further, something that for many critics was proved true in the years that followed.
Among Fassbinder’s many frequent collaborators (and one-time lovers) was composer Peer Raben (above), perhaps the most significant and central musical figure of the New German Cinema. As well as composing or arranging music for more than half of Fassbinder’s filmic output (as well as for several of his theatre productions), Raben also worked with many other contemporary West German directors, including Werner Schroeter, Ulrike Ottinger and Reinhard Hauff, and even found time both to act in Fassbinder’s plays and films as part his antiteater ensemble, and write and direct his own.
One of Raben’s last on-screen appearances in Fassbinder’s films, alongside two other of Fassbinder’s on-off romantic partners in Irm Hermann and Ingrid Caven, comes in 1970’s The American Soldier (Der amerikanische Soldat), the conclusion and, in commentator Christian Braad Thomsen’s view, the apex of what was later dubbed the “gangster trilogy” that comprised a core portion of Fassbinder’s early period, the other “installments” being his 1969 feature debut Love is Colder than Death and the following year’s Gods of the Plague. As the term might imply, a defining feature of these three “gangster” films is the heavy aesthetic and narrative influence of the American noir films of Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller and Raoul Walsh, and if the plot of The American Soldier appears to resemble a hotch-potch of tropes and conventions adapted from these films, it may be because this is almost precisely the case.
Ricky, a German-American gun-for-hire (played with gruff taciturnity by Karl Scheydt), is enlisted by a trio of shady police officers to return to his native Munich and mete out extra-judicial justice on a series of underworld targets. As he carries out his mission, he is allowed enough time to revisit briefly the country he left for the States and the life he left behind for one of crime and murder, but not to recapture or resume either one. Together with the assistance of his close friend Franz (played by Fassbinder himself), he plots to escape the trap that is slowly closing around him, culminating in a double cross and a tense showdown at a Munich train station.
The American Soldier originally began life as one of the many stage plays Fassbinder wrote for the antiteater ensemble, its plot, featuring a killer-for-hire whose “professionalism” falters when he assigned a victim who is a woman, based very strongly on that of Irving Lerner’s 1958 thriller Murder by Contract. While this earlier version bears few if any similarities with the film, the latter displays no less of the same intention as the former, which lies less with telling the gangland fable at its heart than with putting the conventions of the genre on prominent display. Ricky himself, for instance, is a recognisable riff on famous James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart roles, his all-white suit and fedora evoking Bogart in particular as seen in Kid Galahad, Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. The decision to shoot the film in moody monochrome as well, at a time when colour film was commonplace and Fassbinder had just finished work on two previous colour productions, also helps in establishing unequivocally the atmosphere and milieu of the picture.
At the same time, however, these conventions and topoi are often handled precisely as such, with a healthy dose of self-awareness and even off-handedness that marks the film as far more than mere pastiche. It is here that the second great influence on the film, and on Fassbinder’s early work in general, is revealed, namely that of the French nouvelle vague, and particularly its filmmakers’ avowed, if qualified appreciation for Hollywood cinema. The “reinterpretations” of the gangster genre as practised by, among many others, Francois Truffaut (in, for example, Shoot the Piano Player), Louis Malle (Lift to the Scaffold) and Jean-Luc Godard (Band of Outsiders), drew attention to its various tropes by both explicitly quoting them and subtly (even subversively) toying with them. In Godard’s ground-breaking Breathless, for instance, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s main character, as James Monaco writes, is himself less a real-life gangster than someone who enacts in real life the gangster persona he has gleaned and adopted from countless Bogart films.
Fassbinder shared a similar sense of cinephilia with the nouvelle vague filmmakers, honed in large part (if the director’s own account is to be believed) by spending a significant portion of his post-World War II childhood watching films in the cinema, where his white-collar parents would send him in the absence of any better childcare options. Far from merely parroting the stylistic features and decisions of other directors, however, he also applied a similar approach as Godard and Truffaut in filtering them through his own personal filmmaker’s eye.
In other words, rather than attempting to recreate or remake a Hawks or Fuller thriller in the conspicuously conservative and bourgeois environs of southern Germany and with an ensemble cast who had for the most part (including Fassbinder himself) enjoyed a regular middle-class upbringing, Fassbinder instead exploits these incongruities in order to bring the conventions of the genre to the fore. Ricky, for example, despite displaying most of the typical mannerisms of the classic hard-drinking, lock-jawed, cold-blooded Hawksian gangster, not only cuts a conspicuously out-of-place figure as he drifts through the back alleys of Munich, as if transplanted into the film straight from prohibition-era Chicago, but is made to look even more so by his interactions with the environment around him: is it possible, for example, to imagine Tony Camonte from Hawks’s original Scarface stepping inside a telephone booth in order to call his mother, as Ricky does?
This notion of things being altogether a little “off” for a gangster film is enhanced on a musical level by Raben (whose cameo comes as the concierge of Ricky’s hotel), arguably as masterful a manipulator of viewer expectations and responses as Fassbinder was. While, for example, the latter’s (openly) unidiomatic English lyrics to the two original songs featured in the film provide for a great deal of this in themselves, Raben’s treatment of his musical material resembles Fassbinder’s of the gangster genre in general, namely occupying a constantly fluctuating middle ground between outright parody and outright pastiche that never quite settles into one or the other.
The relative quirkiness, for example, of the faux torch song “With My Tears” is in one sense typical of Raben’s output as a prolific composer of cabaret songs, which frequently bears the considerable influence of the repertoire established by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. In The American Soldier, however, this comes into much starker relief, immediately recalling as it does such similar classic film songs as “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca or “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This effect is enhanced no end by the deliberately non-naturalistic delivery of singer Ingrid Caven (as a distinguished cabaret singer in her own right, playing somewhat against type), in heavily stilted English and at times almost comically out-of-sync, yet whose excessively breathy tone communicates a vulnerable fragility as much as it cocks a snook at the viewer’s expectations.
The film’s closing “theme” “So Much Tenderness”, sung by Günther Kaufmann (yet another of Fassbinder’s on-off romantic partners), suddenly lends the film a far more contemporary edge, evoking the opening credits of a popular American television serial rather than the sleazy back streets of Chicago. As well as Kaufmann’s performance bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jim Morrison, the song’s melody and composition are similarly laced with a liberal dose of Doors-esque melancholy (indeed, right from the off in its angular opening guitar riff), emphasising its minor key harmony and contrasting somewhat with its energetic back beat. Coupled with Fassbinder’s lyrics, which externalise even more explicitly the isolation that Ricky supposedly feels as an archteypal lone wolf gangster (“So much tenderness is in my head/So much loneliness is in my bed”), the song is simultaneously subdued and sprightly, both capturing and questioning the youthful “flower power” optimism it evokes.
The fact, however, that the song marks the viewer’s introduction as well as farewell to Ricky, having first appeared upon his arrival in Germany along with the film’s title card that marks him out unmistakably as its eponymous “American Soldier”, also draws attention to his “role” not so much as an individual character as a functionary within a film plot, effectively book-ending his life both within the events of the film and in the sense that he is only really “alive” as long as the film itself is playing. His backstory, for example, as a child emigree to the United States and then a Vietnam war combatant, is discussed only in a cursory and even desultory manner, as if mentioned only to add flavour to his character. When Franz, for example, asks him about what it was like in Vietnam, his reply is merely that it was “loud”. This notion of Ricky being, in a similar sense as in Godard’s Breathless, a character who is less a gangster than someone who “plays the role of [the] Gangster”, is lent an added edge by Raben’s music.
Previously written for the stage version of The American Soldier, the recurring theme “Memory” has a lightness that at first makes it a peculiar accompaniment to a standard gangster flick, a lilting and understated bagatelle in 3/4 time with a simple arpeggio accompaniment on guitar and cello – more Georges Delerue’s Jules et Jim than Max Steiner’s The Big Sleep. Yet the melody that enters successively on hammered dulcimer, viola and cello, while perhaps suggesting more a Greek taverna than the Chicago (or even Munich) underworld, also exudes a melancholy moodiness that is thoroughly becoming of Ricky’s own existential malaise. The brief flashes of period 1960s beat music interspersed throughout the composition, meanwhile, disrupt this air of contemplation in as unsubtle a manner as possible, the harmony switching abruptly from minor to major and the irregular pattern of the drums contrasting with its previously steady, swaying pace.
What is equally, if not more significant about this composition, however, and becomes increasingly more so as the film progresses, is the time and nature of its repeated deployment, coming to be associated not only with Ricky as the protagonist, but also with his inability or unwillingness to escape the existence that will ultimately decide his fate. “There’s no union in my profession,” he remarks at one point. “If someone betrays me, I’m dead.” Appropriately, the first few iterations of the piece serve to underscore the life and memories that Ricky has left behind, heard as he and Franz revisit the tenement where they grew up (left) and then again later as he walks to the house where his mother and younger brother Kurt still live.
Tellingly, however, having briefly reconnected with these remnants of his former life, the idee fixe quality of the constantly repeating theme comes to mirror in many ways the compulsion urge that seems to drive Ricky away from a more secure and – dare it be said – happy domestic existence towards one fraught with danger and isolation. Having cut off abruptly as Ricky arrives at his mother’s, the piece returns once again as Ricky leaves, as if picking up where he left off. A similar book-ending effect happens towards the end of the film as Ricky meets with Rosa, the lead police officer’s girlfriend with whom he has begun to form a sort of romantic attachment and who has just been revealed as his final target. As before, the “Memory” theme accompanies Ricky on his grim approach to Rosa’s apartment, stopping again as she opens the door. Faced with the opportunity to follow through on his plan to abscond with Rosa to Japan, however, Ricky instead chooses to follow his professional instincts, and the music strikes up again as he leaves, reminding the audience of the self-imposed nature of his isolation in his willingness to adhere to the gangster code.
At other points, Raben is far more overt in playing with genre conventions and the expectations they provoke within the viewer. Having sought to establish (at least on a surface level) a suitably “gangster” setting, both narrative and music suddenly veer off briefly in the direction of another of Fassbinder’s cinematic loves – the Italo- or “spaghetti” Western – as Ricky encounters his first target, the gypsy Tony el Quitano. As the figure below demonstrates, while the background of Tony’s wooden shack or the garb of his two bodyguards strongly suggest in themselves the frontier milieu of a Leone or Corbucci film, this suggestion is highlighted further by the contrast that Ricky creates in his pristine white two-piece suit, as if, in true Blazing Saddles style, he has wandered onto the set of an entirely different film.
As Tony, true to stereotype, gives Ricky an impromptu palm-reading, however, prophesying simply that Ricky’s prospects look “very bad”, the music heard is an unaccompanied and wistful harmonica melody that hints immediately at the classic “spaghetti” Western soundtrack established and popularised above all by Ennio Morricone. As well as reinforcing the scene’s “Western” aspect, and detracting further from the viewer’s perception of a typical gangster film, the tune’s intrinsically melancholy quality serves to designate Ricky as something not only of a lone wolf renegade or rootless desperado, but also a marked man for whom the clock is ticking.
This note of subdued portent, however, is almost immediately flipped on its head, and furthermore to almost comic effect. As Ricky steps out to use the bathroom, the camera pans right to follow him and reveals another of Tony’s henchmen in the act of playing this tune on a harmonica, having apparently been doing so off-screen all along. While this ostensibly unusual trope (christened “Left the Background Music On” by TV Tropes) had appeared in previous, no less serious films of this kind, such as Fritz Lang’s Fury and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, the effect is doubly jarring in a film such as The American Soldier that wears its artifice so prominently on its sleeve.
Yet this sensibility is itself reversed and brought full circle later on in the film. As Ricky takes a leisurely (if somewhat awkward) stroll alongside a less than picturesque lake with Rosa, he recounts an anecdote about a zoo elephant whose apparent intense loneliness drives it into a rampage, resulting in the deaths both of its keeper and of the creature itself, ultimately shot by police. It is at this point that the harmonica theme previously heard in Tony’s shack re-enters, although this time, with no visible on-screen player to defuse the tension, the association for the viewer is instead an echo of Tony’s previous dire prognostications: not only is Ricky thus equated with the unfortunate elephant of his story, unable to escape the isolation demanded of him by his profession, but he is now also doomed to share the same fate. Furthermore, the shift of this music from the in-world diegetic to the external non-diegetic soundtrack also reverses the relationship of control between the two scenes: whereas Ricky was previously unquestionably in charge of events, his fate is now no longer in his own hands.
As well as rounding off the director’s unofficial “gangster trilogy”, The American Soldier also marked the end of Fassbinder’s more experimental and aesthetically austere early period. His attention would henceforth turn away from gangster films in favour of the melodrama for his later work such as The Merchant of Four Seasons and Fear Eats the Soul, before moving on again to the big-budget spectacles of his later years. Indeed, it is remarkable to think that it is the space of just over a decade that separates The American Soldier, his twelfth film overall, from his forty-fifth and final film Querelle, whose unbridled decadence is fully matched by its sensuous cinematography and outrageous set design. In amongst his ever-revolving focuses, passions and circles of collaborators, however, it was Raben who was most often along for the ride, not only forging one of the greatest director-composer partnerships in film history, but making his own contributions to an already incredible body of work that remain, much like Fassbinder himself, irreplaceable.