Lola, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1981, takes place in 1957 in the small town of Coburg in Western Germany. The senior members of the town, including the head of police and the mayor, are all making money from the post-war reconstruction. At the centre of this town is a brothel owned by a man called Schukert, played by Mario Adorf, at which the title character, played by Barbara Sukowa, offers her services. A new building commissioner called von Bohm, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, comes to town and immediately begins to investigate the corruption involving the officials. The commissioner is a refugee from East Germany and divorced, two attributes that will dictate his reactions to the town and its inhabitants. He moves into a house and employs a housekeeper who turns out to be the mother of Lola, and before long von Bohm and Lola meet. They fall for each other, but the building commissioner has no idea that there is a brothel, let alone what Lola does for a living. The two sides of the town collide when von Bohm is taken to the brothel and finds Lola working there.
There are hints of both Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Josef von Sternberg’s classic 1930 movie The Blue Angel in Fassbinder’s film. In Gogol’s play, an inspector (actually not the inspector in a case of mistaken identity) arrives at town in which corruption is endemic. The play closes with a famous line addressed to the audience: ‘what are you laughing about? You are laughing about yourselves’, cementing the satirical agenda of the story. Josef von Sternberg’s movie focuses on a prudish Professor who falls in love with a sex worker and finds his life falling apart as his obsession takes hold. Fassbinder’s film is a combination of the two with the personal dilemma of the commissioner and his love for Lola is played off against his mission to clean up the town. I’m not a fan of Fassbinder, I find many of his earlier movies, for example his 1976 comedy Satan’s Brew to be too dark and affected.
This movie feels unusual for him though, set at the end of a trilogy of films that included The Marriage of Maria Braun from 1979 and Veronika Voss from 1982 in which the director looked to the past, specifically the period just after Second World War, and charted the reconstruction of the country during the Adenauer chancellorship. Adenauer features in Lola in a still image over which the opening and closing titles occur – the chancellor in a photograph listening impassively to a record. In his previous films, Fassbinder tackled taboo subjects with a contemporary edge: homosexuality in Fox and his Friends, BDSM in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and an inter-racial age-gap relationship in his greatest movie Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In Lola, the taboo subject, the sex work, is a background to the political satire of the story and to the moral conflict between the men in the film. In his earlier films, Fassbinder seemed to be attempting to understand the people around him, in this trilogy he seems to be trying to understand the country around him.
The film is about social climbing in a capitalist system, and von Bohm’s socialist and moral inclinations are the perfect window for Fassbinder to look critically at his subject. The performances are great, Mueller-Stahl in particular is excellent as the austere commissioner, especially when he suffers from a mini-breakdown with the revelations of Lola’s true occupation. You can almost see the cracks appearing in the character’s upright (uptight) veneer of moral indignation as he pays for the woman he loves. Adorf too is perfectly cast as Schukert, the sleazy, fleshy brothel owner. He plays the character as the antithesis of von Bohm, as corpulent and sinful as the commissioner is lean and parsimonious. These two opposing characters seem to act as representations of the divisions between the east and the west of the country, with Lola as a bridge between them. By the end of this film, when the sex worker marries von Bohm with Schukert’s blessing only to bed the brothel owner on the night of the wedding, this bridge become complete.
The film feels different, perhaps more straightforward, than Fassbinder’s earlier movies, but it is still distinctly his work. It is filled with ironic, occasionally camp touches such as the visual style: a mixture of bleached out near-monochrome and bursts of primary 1950s colour palette. Again, this works to cement the contrasts between the two political ideologies at work in the country at the time, and with the heating up of the cold war in the 1980s seeing resurgence. Lola feels like an important film – a snapshot of the state of the nation as well as a nostalgic trip back to a country fresh from defeat and trying to rebuild.