Despair: When Werner met Dirk

Dirk Bogarde in Despair

Park Circus is reissuing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s strange and mesmerizing 1978 psycho-thriller Despair at cinemas in the UK in a lovely new high definition digital transfer. That’s because at Park Circus we see the cracks between the cult and the classic, the psychedelic and the profane and we want to mine these exposed seams for cinéaste pleasure and encourage the slow descent into madness that so much time in the dark will ultimately bring.

Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s book of the same name, Despair is all about insanity, it’s about madness born of disassociation from one’s homeland, madness born of delusion, excess, sexual confusion, cuckoldry, chocolate and the drip effect of placating fundamentalist regimes. Adapted by Tom Stoppard, Despair was Fassbinder’s first English language film but more importantly it was the one and only film that former British film idol Dirk Bogarde made with Fassbinder. For both men it was a watershed experience.

Part of Despair's layered cinematographyIn 1978, despite having forged a post pin-up career with controversial roles in Victim, Darling, The Servant, Death in Venice and The Night Porter, Bogarde was still closeted about his homosexuality and his relationship with long-term partner Anthony Forwood. Fassbinder’s virulent, nihilistic and casual approach to his sexuality would have been a total anathema to Bogarde, and yet these two men, in the twilight of their careers, loved the experience of working together.

Despair was the most well-financed film Fassbinder ever made, but by all accounts the real rewards of making Despair for Fassbinder were all about the creative partnership with Bogarde. Working in a psychedelic register that budgetary restraint had usually denied him, Fassbinder and his brilliant cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (The Departed, Gangs of New York) filmed Bogarde with an investigative intensity usually reserved for ingénues and muses. As deluded chocolatier Hermann, Bogarde seems to be caught in a cinematic smooch, albeit one delivered by a hairy, bespectacled Teutonic madman.

Fassbinder and Bogarde never worked together again. Despair was to be Bogarde’s last great film role and for Fassbinder, Despair marked a moment of rare creative indulgence before the workaholic insanity of his last few years which included the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz and the commercially successful The Marriage of Maria Braun. Of Despair, Fassbinder said ‘It is the most hopeful movie I’ve made.’ Bogarde maintained Despair was the highlight of his acting career to his dying half-paralysed day. Theirs was a friendship snatched from the filthy rubble of post-war European cinema history.

Despair will be released at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas from Friday 6 January and on DVD later in the year.

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