Chinese Roulette is about skeletons in the closet: Ariane and Gerhard are parents to the most uncomfortable family. Underestimated and undervalued, their daughter Angela is constrained to crutches, yet holds power over the entire family, engineering her own game as she asks housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira) to move the table together at dinner. Looked after by mute governess and caretaker Traunitz, Fassbinder communicates immediate creepiness through Angela, reinforced by her large collection of dolls. Angela has no outlet to speak, not even those around her; often, her only outlet is in sign language to Traunitz. Older brother Gabriel (Volker Spengler) spouts pretentious intellectualism, an uncomfortable combination of teenager and adult mothered after as days go by, brewing coffee for guests. Like Angela, Gabriel seeks out the truth, but truth is often elusive. As housekeeper, Kast stands alone, enraptured within routines: mincing meat and preparing food, drinking large gulps of wine. Kast seems suffocated within housework, evoking the same endless role as Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
Where Fassbinder used Fox and His Friends (1975) to explore class difference and vapid human interaction within underground gay subculture, Chinese Roulette becomes an exploration of infidelity within the heterosexual (or bisexual) world. Ariane and Gerhard embody mid-70s attitudes, with increasing economic freedom to travel the world and in relationship formation. Both seek escape: in the opening, they depart at the airport in Munich, flying to Oslo. In the woods, Gerhard finds sexual escape with French mistress Irene (Anna Karina). Shot from above, Fassbinder presents the trees around as though freedom is infinite, fucking and undressing on the soil itself. But Ariane also has another sexual partner in business partner Kolbe. Their arrangement in the grand country house facilitates non-monogamy, switching partners. As he does in Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder beautifully communicates a visceral sexual gaze; each character finds attraction in the other. Fassbinder plays with female embrace and a bond between Ariane and Irene, finding beauty and chemistry; Gerhard and Kolbe cannot accept anything but a cordial game of chess.
As a young girl experiencing early stages of puberty, Angela feels a lack of sexual fulfilment, telling Gabriel no man will ever be sexually interested in her. Just as her existence as a disabled girl is stigmatised, so is sexuality. Angela exhibits underlying guilt and trauma for her existence, feeling responsible for her parents’ collapsing marriage and infidelity. She has a mischievous side, fully comprehending the state of affairs but assumed to be ignorant. She intentionally walks in on each parent with respective partners lying naked and awake as the morning rises, leaving with a wry smile. Acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus makes strong use of the frame, aware of angles and windows within the room itself. As she leaves, sexuality becomes more intense with perhaps the most ferocious hickey in cinema history.
Each partner must reconcile feelings towards non-monogamy, aware both men have slept with both women, and vice versa. The morning after, discussing sexual experiences and partners becomes an easy route towards jealousy. Over their quiet game of chess, Gerhard and Kolbe discuss the elephant in the room. Fassbinder frequently used techniques of melodrama; Chinese Roulette is no exception. Fassbinder follows a conceit that makes for easy melodrama, but approaches a pureness of character and identity. In the confounding closing text, Fassbinder underlines the film as an indictment of the institution of marriage and heteronormativity itself. A bisexual director with many partners over the years, often his own collaborators, Fassbinder never played by the societal rules placed on relationships. But Fassbinder’s approach to marriage cannot be taken as broad brush; each relationship and partner has their own set-ups, attitudes and values. No marriage or relationship is the same. Some fall apart; some stay together; some embrace non-monogamy. Chinese Roulette does not reflect every marital relationship.
Fassbinder extends beyond sexuality to explore norms around gender. Gabriel’s gaze has a sexual component; in the petrol station, Gabriel lies eyes upon male attendants. In their book, Gabriel plagiarises their work as writer, creating pieces making little linear sense. Gabriel sees their work within a literary tradition of philosophy of Nietzsche and Goethe; Angela also names Wilde, adding a queer element. In an extract read aloud, they speak of the son of God walking the earth, and His connection to the sun god; Gabriel embodies man and woman, crossing lines of gender. Fassbinder played with gender throughout his films; Volker Spengler plays trans woman Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). Gabriel sees themselves as an angel walking upon Earth, made obvious by their surname and crosses appearing throughout the film.
Chinese Roulette has no end of games from a deck of cards to chess atop a glass board; sexuality is itself a game. A parlour game played after dinner, Chinese Roulette offers a medium for truth to emerge. The climax to an 80-minute film, the game is the only part that ever drags, but is essential to resolution. Fassbinder presents a Germany struggling to reconcile its recent fascist past, even as the country was split in two. Fassbinder communicates the same discomfort to the war as in Basil’s disastrous mocking of tourists in The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers (1975-79). Angele decries Kast’s role in the war, a silent outsider. Would she have been in the Gestapo, or working at Bergen-Belsen? Fassbinder moves between shocked reactions on each face, struggling to understand the power of what has just been spoken, creating perfect tension. Through the viewfinder on her gun, Ariane becomes a newfound threat, both to Angele and towards Traunitz, one of the few people to ever understand her. But fascism is itself slipping into everyday lexicon: in the car, she decries a bad driver as a “fascist”.
Fassbinder builds the film’s power through both location and music, creating confinement. Each room is a separate realm, embodying different people and identities. Through divisions, hearsay and speculation run rampant; we hear only half the conversation. Gerhard and Kolbe play chess in one room; Ariane and Irene discuss matters in the other, crossing between realms and panning out, creating visual representation of their conflicted relationship. Rooms stretch out as spaces of emptiness. In the opening, Angela and Traunitz sit together, playing a record of a classical piece, Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Erdenrest, Traunitz sitting upon the window ledge. Aware of pace, Fassbinder stretches shots out, immersed within a world of women. Moving into the hallway, the music stops, interrupted by the presence of men. Fassbinder uses a similar technique later on: Gabriel walks between corridors, unsure what he will find as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity seeps out, its delightful, sinister synths penetrating the soundtrack. Traunitz is reduced to a child, hobbling along with Angela’s crutches as the transistor radio plays.
Michael Ballhaus utilises the house’s tacky furniture and décor to create a strong visual aesthetic: clear acrylic cabinets are everywhere, enshrining bottles of wine and a hi-fi in cages; a birdcage is equally a part of the house. Ballhaus uses these elements to reflected and fracture faces across surfaces, lens flares moving across candles at the dinner table. But other scenes suffer, lighting and audio recording not perfectly thought out. The opening titles are an embarrassment, red text scrolling across the screen through a car window. Where Chinese Roulette suffers most is staging. Fassbinder’s output seems largely unmatched; although offering a massive canon of characters and scenarios, it leads to scenes played without enough dramatic gravitas. Through dropped plates and mugs of coffee and visceral arguments, although performances are commendable, we never feel the true, melodramatic power, without proper staging to emphasise these situations to their core. But this is a reasonable price to pay.