There are plenty Fassbinder actors who can say that they’ve played strange roles, although the crown must rest on Volker Spengler, who beats the band with his portrayal of Ernst, in Satansbraten. Ernst is not just retarded and perverted, but he is consumed with a unique sexual problem – his urge to have sex with houseflies.
This film being what it is, we are of course brought further into this world, and brought to the roots of this bizarre malaise. As we are introduced to the subject – shortly after Ernst empties the Kranz family kitchen dustbin – Walter speaks to his wife to remind us we have to stop seeing everything from our own point of view. There are guys out there trying to get it on with houseflies – yes – but don’t be judgemental and rude about them – they have their own logic and we must understand and work with it.
He looks even more ridiculous, especially with the suspenders and lederhosen, traditionally worn by German children; but these stupidities make him look and seem harmless, a fact that gives him a lot of leeway – allowing him to molest women, for one thing.
Spengler is also the one in the film who takes up the baton for the intellectualising of the WDR and its people, by reading aloud from textbooks (Godard style) mid film, a ridiculous counterpart to his maltreatment of the insects.
The houseflies are one of the great internal logics of Satansbraten – because although people are disgusted by them at first, when Spengler’s character hands them over as erotic gifts, and they are told what an honour it is, they are generally pleased. Everything is on its head, where it can be. “Enjoy your food, I didn’t spit in it,” says Luise to Lana; and in this fashion the grossest of negatives are made somehow positive by their absence. Much to Luise’s amusement Ernst tries to rape Lana the prostitute – how could he but not in that house? But it when it comes to his subsequent beating he loves it more and more – well, any sexual attention counts.
There is a strange clue to Ernst’s fly obsession just after the tailor arrives to work on Kranz’s belle époque style traditionally crafted suit. Ernst has just taken to killing flies at this point and as he stands to attention to announce this new policy in the hall, his mother spits at him the words – Uber Sturm Fuhrer – Storm Troop Leader. Ernst’s madness is not at all innocent, and it is a very good thing that he is never permitted out of his house, because remote to his mania is that German spirit of 1940, when people began to look like flies in the eyes of certain other madmen. When Ernst is on screen the comedy is older than that too, harder; such as when he pops his penis into the hand of Margit Carstensen when they are preparing the Thursday canapés for the Stefan George circle – it’s almost like a humour beyond our time, sophisticated somehow in its baseness.
So the flies? It’s great that Luise is given a dead fly before she herself dies – it’s the movie’s internal logic – and it’s fitting too that Ernst should outwit Kranz, who tries to frame him for the murder which began the film. At the end of the picture the characters each have their own dead fly, signifying something else dark and twisted about the production. The end of the film indeed, reorganises which dead flies are on the stage and which off, which are crushed by a teacup and which are in the pile – all arranged by tweezers. It’s that kind of life.