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"There's no labor union for what I do. If someone rats on me, I'm finished."
DVD ReviewRainer Werner Fassbinder died too young, in 1982, of a drug overdose; he was all of 37 years old, and one can only speculate as to the work he might have gone on to do. His was one of the first great recognizable voices of a generation of Germans born after the Second World War, and he's best known for films like The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen, and for the epic television miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. What would his peculiar sensibility have made of, say, the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, the changing face of European identity? As those questions can only remain unanswered, we'll have to settle instead for his considerable body of work—he made forty-four films in his short professional life, and one of the earliest now comes to DVD. The American Soldier is the young German filmmaker's homage to the American gangster films he grew up watching, and many of the elements of them reappear here, given a rather eccentric and distinctive spin.
The movie is all about the mood and the style of it, but there's some small semblance of a story: Ricky (Karl Scheydt) is back in his hometown of Munich after spending an unspecified number of years in the U.S., and in Vietnam, and now he's a killer for hire with an immaculately tailored double-breasted suit. The local police engage his services, to rub out some criminal types that they cannot nail by conventional means—Ricky happily goes into their employ, and is especially fond of pushing back the brim of his fedora with the barrel of his gun, a gesture he no doubt picked up while watching things like The Petrified Forest.
The lead, Ricky, is clearly modeled on American movie gangsters of a certain period, exemplified by James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart—women throw themselves at him because he's just irresistible, and though he's got an eye for the dames, he'd much rather cool his heels with a long stare and a good slug of Ballantine's. You can sense that Fassbinder is having fun inhabiting the conventions of American moviemaking, but for U.S. audiences especially, this frequently feels more like a pale imitation than a re-imagining of a familiar genre. It's so slavishly imitative at times that it's in tight shots of things like pornographic playing cards that keep the whole exercise from tilting into the parodic territory of something like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.
The movie is actually at its best and weirdest when it's on less traveled terrain, and dealing with issues that the director found deeply fascinating and disturbing. Ricky pays a visit to his family, and there's more than a hint at an incestuous relationship with his mother; also, his brother has thinly disguised and smoldering lust for Ricky, which seems to have been transferred in his brother's absence to Mom. The inevitable shootout ends with, in death, the strangely writhing bodies of two men, in a bizarre and disturbing fusion of sex and violence.
The director appears on screen as well, in a pivotal role, and Fassbinder's efforts at being a Renaissance man extend even to the soundtrack—he composed a song, with lyrics in English, called So Much Tenderness, but the heavily accented singer makes it sound a little odd to Anglophone ears. One lyric is: "So much tenderness is in my heart," but it sounds much more like: "So much tenderness is in my hat."
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Fassbinder was clearly looking to reproduce the contrasty, black & white style of American pulp gangster pictures, and he's largely successful; there are more than a few scratches on the print, though, and debris interferes with the image quality with some consistency, suggesting both that the negative hasn't worn well with the years and that it wasn't transferred to DVD as carefully as it might have been. It's certainly more adequately presented, at least.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Both audio tracks are reasonably clean, with the 5.1 track sounding a little richer. There's a good amount of ambient noise, though, and some low-level buzzing and hissing, which are made even more pronounced because Fassbinder's use of a musical score is sparing, at best.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Filmographies are provided for Fassbinder and five of the lead actors; weblinks are to five sites devoted to the director, and to the website of Wellspring, the DVD distributor.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsThe American Soldier feels more like a young filmmaker going to school on the old masters than it does like a fully realized work of art in its own right. It does bear Fassbinder's distinctive touch in many respects, though, and fans of the director will no doubt be pleased to see this relatively unknown early work come to DVD.
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