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Fantoma Films presents
Whity (1970)

"You're the curse of the family. You know you have to be punished."
- Katherine Nicholson (Katrin Schaake)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: December 07, 2001

Stars: Günther Kaufmann, Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla
Other Stars: Katrin Schaake, Harry Baer, Ulli Lommel
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Manufacturer: American Zoetrope
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, language, violence)
Run Time: 01h:35m:21s
Release Date: April 24, 2001
UPC: 014381701128
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

One has to wonder whether certain artists know that they will die young and thus turn out works at a frantic pace, trying to stay one step ahead of the Reaper. One such was Mozart; another was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made an astonishing forty-plus feature films before his death at the age of 37. While often difficult and obtuse, his pictures nevertheless have a hypnotic fascination and visual flair. Whity never had a proper US theatrical release, and has never been issued on home video before, so the issuance of this beautiful DVD is certainly a cause for rejoicing amongst Fassbinder fans.

In this, his only Western, Fassbinder takes a look at the most seriously dysfunctional family this side of Eraserhead, the Nicholsons, wealthy ranchers in the Old West of the 1870s. Patriarch Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell) hires a doctor to lie to his wife Katherine (Katrina Schaake) that Ben is about to die. Katherine hates Ben and wants to push him into his grave earlier, as does one of his sons, Frank (producer Ulli Lommel). Another son, Davy, is a drooling idiot. A third son, Whity (Günther Kaufmann), is the result of Ben's union with a slave. All of the members of the family (except Davy) try to get Whity to kill off the others so they can have the ranch for themselves. To get a moment away from these maniacs, Whity spends his time with the town prostitute/dance-hall girl Hanna (Hanna Schuygulla), who dreams of the big city. The schemes and machinations eventually take their toll on Whity, leading to a bloody climax.

Fassbinder's technique involves extremely slow pacing and long, langorous takes. Long stretches have no dialogue whatsoever; indeed, the highly stylized performances would have been right at home in a silent movie. The makeup of the Nicholson family is similarly stylized, ranging from normal to pasty-white to a sickly green, depending upon the mood of the setting. The starkness is emphasized by his use of bold, primary colors. There are a number of strange anachronisms, clearly meant to relate the Old West setting to modern racial and social attitudes: Whity dresses in near-blaxploitation garb, and Hanna sings to pop phythms and harmonies completely alien to the 19th century.

The camera work is bravura at times, even to the point of distraction. When Whity offers Hanna money for love, the lengthy silence is punctuated by a very slow 360-degree revolution around the money. When Ben reads his will to the family, the camera never cuts, but tracks and zooms from face to face, emphasizing groupings as the psychological alliances silently form. An incredibly long take with the crane sweeping in, out, up and down bring us from Hanna's upstairs room, down to the bar, over to a card game and through two songs by Hanna, all without a single cut. As is to be expected from Fassbinder, there is a fair amount of homoeroticism, and more than a modicum of perversity. At the same time, there are gorgeous compositions that make the picture surely well worth viewing.

While Whity is ostensibly the focus, it's hard not to get caught up in the bizarre goings-on among the Nicholson clan proper. Religion is also a primary focus, with crucifixes playing a prominent part in the iconography of the picture. Though he offers himself up in a Christlike manner to take a whipping and suffer in place of Davy, Whity ultimately is an avenging angel instead; the religious undertones seem to imply an Old Testament God resolving matters where a turn-the-other-cheek approach has failed. I can't say that I understand this picture, but it certainly has plenty of intriguing content, and is well worth considering for those interested in foreign film.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture looks fabulous. Newly restored, the film looks as if it had been shot last year instead of 30 years ago. Colors are vibrant, blacks are rich and there is excellent detail. A fair amount of grain is present, but considering how much of the picture was shot at night that is certainly to be expected. This looks fabulous.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original 1.0 mono German track is provided, and it sounds very nice indeed. No hiss or noise is present, and the music has excellent range and presence without significant distortion. Don't expect any bass workouts for your speakers, but the audio is certainly sufficient.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by producer/actor Ulli Lommel and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 55m:28s

Extras Review: The only extra is a commentary. Largely dominated by producer Ulli Lommel (who also plays son Frank, and whose wife at the time played his mother, Katherine), the track also features cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. They have plenty of anecdotes, mostly relating to Fassbinder's erratic filmmaking technique and penchant for drink. Sadly, the track tends to become repetitive, as stories are rehashed a number of times. Between their monotonous delivery and fairly heavy accents, this is a slumber-inducing commentary. A question and answer format might have been useful here. Still, there is plenty of interesting information to be gleaned. Chaptering is a little thin.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

An opaque and intriguing picture, given a gorgeous restoration and transfer. The commentary points out a number of useful points of interest, but the film ultimately remains a headscratcher.


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