Whity - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Günther Kaufmann

1971, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

There’s a moment in Whity where Frank, the slightly more cognizant of the two Nicholson brothers, is kneeling before a crucifix while wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. His stepmother Kate catches him in this ridiculous position and bursts into hysterical laughter. In a way this summarizes the movie, which puts racism in a deeply unflattering perspective. Of course there’s nothing funny about the effects of racism, nor is laughter the most insightful response to the sickness of a racist mind, but this scene expresses the basic point of Whity – that racism is weird.

That point needs to be qualified a bit, because the argument of Whity is not reduced to plain mockery. In fact the film goes out of its way to bring the argument down from the emotional plane where it’s usually waged. It’s tricky to make a film in opposition to a wrong as obvious as racism, precisely because it’s so obvious. The usual fallback is to declare racism “evil”, but apart from that word’s nebulous meaning, it’s also weak. No one uses the word “evil” except in a position of helplessness. It expresses frustration, an inability to mollify the problem, at least without brute force. This explains why people are never insulted by the word. They may object to it, but it doesn’t offend the target’s pride because it signals the speaker’s impotence. In fact “evil” and its synonyms – “bad”, “monstrous”, “wicked”, etc. – are often perverse badges of pride.

Whity - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Ulli Lommel - Katrin Schaake - Harry Baer - Günther Kaufmann - Frank Nicholson - Katherine Nicholson - Davy Nicholson

To call racism “weird” instead of “evil” is more effective, and Whity portrays the weirdness of racism in a way that rings true. The Nicholsons may be caricatures, but anyone who follows the politics of race will surely recognize their hypocrisy, their hidden skeletons, and their overall weirdness in real-life people who traffic in prejudice and racial supremacy. When a cut to a new scene catches Frank in bed wearing over-the-top lingerie, most audiences will understand that it’s not his sexual deviance that makes him weird (Fassbinder is one of the last filmmakers who would mock anyone’s sexuality), but rather the incongruence of that outfit on the favored son of a 19th century American rancher family who’s so openly contemptuous of his black servant.

Still there’s another difficulty in arguing that racism is weird, namely that it’s not unique in its weirdness. Under every Ku Klux Klan hood there’s doubtless someone as twisted as Frank Nicholson, but beneath our social masks virtually any “normal” person could also be described as weird. Whity is exceptionally well attuned to the universal weirdness of humanity, yet in this sea of weirdness we’re still left to feel that racism transgresses an accepted social order. Not only the Nicholsons and the riff-raff in the saloon, but also the sympathetic characters – Whity, his mother Marpessa, and Hanna – are weird in their own ways. The lyrics to Hanna’s first song are so outlandish:

I have to wait for him
Him is Jim
And Jimmy loves animals
Loves an-iii-mals!

…that they would sound bizarre anywhere, let alone at a rough saloon in the Old West. Her dance near the end, when Whity gambles with the cowboy type played by Fassbinder, is almost equally weird, and so is Whity’s extreme subservience which he’s evidently internalized.

Whity - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Hanna Schygulla - Günther Kaufmann

Marpessa is made up in exaggeratedly dark blackface, and the Nicholsons in turn wear whiteface that, more than accentuating their whiteness, gives them the pallor of illness. In either case it’s as if the characters are turned inside-out, wearing their inner selves on the outside, and the movie follows this same strategy in almost all of its characterization. Everyone’s private thoughts and proclivities are exposed for all to see – Davy’s hunger for tenderness, Frank’s self-loathing, Kate’s inability to love, Ben’s manipulations. When Ben announces he’ll divorce Kate, the judge flips from polite inquiry to saying he always knew she was a “she-devil”. He doesn’t even bother to hide his inconsistency, knowing it doesn’t matter as long as he agrees with his client. Because all the characters are so transparent, Whity manages to be weird and true to life at the same time. The characters’ weirdness reveals their inner truth.

The weirdness in Whity‘s portrait of racism goes hand in hand with inconsistency. The Nicholsons agree to give more rights to their black servants, then they turn around and abuse Whity. Kate slaps Frank back and forth across his face, and in their next scene they’re laughing and hugging each other. Ben resolves to exclude Kate from his will, but then she’s included. Fassbinder’s character beats Whity up then later laughs with him while playing cards. Movies often try too hard to keep their characters consistent, but in real life people are full of inconsistencies. This is especially true of racism. Prejudice can flare up in the most liberal people, yet even the most hateful racists may sometimes feel warmly toward the objects of their hatred.

Whity - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Günther Kaufmann - saloon - gambling

The ending of Whity takes the inconsistency of human nature to its fatal conclusion. After killing his masters, Whity crosses the desert with Hanna, who’s been offered a job as a singer in Chicago. Whity splashes the last water from their canteen over his face, and Hanna calmly tells him they’ll die of thirst together. Instead of panicking, the couple then circles around in a slow dance. The obvious questions no longer matter: Why didn’t he at least drink the water? Why does she embrace him? Their fate is sealed, and they make a better lot of it than most people would.

Whity thus avoids the naive oversimplification of human behavior that plagues so many movies about social problems like racism. It treats its characters fairly, exposing the weirdness in everyone, yet when all is done the weirdness of racism stands out. Whoever is powerful or privileged here is also pathetic. Everyone comes to a bad end, but the characters without social standing, including Davy, at least have a voice in their destiny. Davy assents to Whity shooting him, and the two lovers, a prostitute and a servant, will die in freedom on their own terms. Hanna drives the story: she kisses Whity and he gets beaten; she makes love to him and he takes a whipping for Davy; she complains that he’s too pliant and he starts disobeying; and finally he kills the Nicholsons at her suggestion.

Whity - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Hanna Schygulla - Günther Kaufmann - desert - ending - horse

Just as important as the trap of naivety, Whity also avoids the trap of dramatics. It’s easy for a movie about racism to manipulate its audience, pulling viewers by their emotions, but Whity slows the action down, draining it of its emotional effect. The emotional reality remains, but it’s there for us to witness instead of participating in. In contrast to the revenge fantasy of a movie like Django Unchained, Whity kills the Nicholsons without anger. In fact he’s still doing their bidding, because each of the three speaking members of the family had already asked him to kill one or more of the others. In another sense he’s putting them out of their misery – not that that justifies it, but it dampens the sensational effect of the killing. After Hanna tells Whity he’s too servile, and he offers to pay her, thinking she’s rejected him, the camera revolves slowly around the bed, examining Whity from every angle while he stays put. This slow movement magnifies the emotional effect of her reproach without requiring Whity to overreact, and it sets up the following scenes where he will take her advice and liberate himself.

Whity - Rainer Werner Fassbinder - Ron Randell - Ulli Lommel - Katrin Schaake - Harry Baer

Leaving aside the ending in the desert, the drama of Whity is bracketed by two characters flinching, each set in an unnaturally slow passage. In the kitchen when Whity’s mother spits in his face, disgusted at his slavish attitude, he flinches ever so slightly and wipes his cheek with his gloved hand. In the stable near the end, when Whity aims his gun, Davy also flinches for a split second. In these two moments, respectively, a sensible man has failed to understand anything – he’s duplicated his external chains inside his mind – and a mindless man has just understood something for probably the first time in his life. Between these two symbolic points lies an arc of understanding. The slowness of each scene should help us to understand what’s going on, to see the moment separate from its dramatic value. In the same way, the film as a whole should help us to look at racism, not with the usual outrage, but in all its pathetic reality.


L’avventura – Action slowed down to drain it of dramatics and enhance the audience’s vision

Marnie – Humans universally twisted beneath their social masks