In Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven Irm Hermann plays the heartless and soulless wife Helene. ‘Father is sick of your salads,’ says Brigitte Mira to Irm Hermann at the start of the film, introducing yet another frosty and unbearably unloved character sketch by Irm Hermann. Hermann is without doubt, Fassbinder’s favourite cold lady, expressing disdain, stupidity, and all the worst of local gossip and public opinion – and she does it so well that we are also quite terrified of her.
Surprisingly, Helene’s complaints (concerning for example the amount of chemicals in sausages) are quite topical – more so today that I would expect in 1975. But diets, we realise, are the same as politics and everything else – people just don’t realise what is good for them, so just like the fireside communism we see later in the film, we are dealing with the dangers of philosophical purism, which is completely ugly. The subject of meat is telling, especially with ex-butcher turned actor and Fassbinder lover, Armin Meier sitting at the table in the same scene. But Fassbinder knows that meat is a great metaphor, and one that can be turned to all kinds of ends.
Not only this, but Hermann nags the others about pollution, and pregnant as she is, we know this is an aspect of her unhappiness, not her maternity. I enjoy the ensemble setting of the table for several reasons. First, it is typical of Fassbinder’s relations with his cast that they can perform fluidly like this, but it also allows him one of his famous doorway frames, and has them all stop dead at the same time when the doorbell rings.
Irm Hermann’s tiresomesness is compounded by the fact she is pregnant – it just makes her all the more hard-hearted. She is great at war with the siren Ingrid Caven, sniping and putting her down, and not only is she hard hearted and spoiled, but she gets her own way through threat and blackmail, often using her unborn child to great effect.
You have to feel sorry for Irm Hermann, with these constantly nasty roles, and of all the Fassbinder regulars, she is the only one that didn’t ever get a lead or title role – and that can hardly be fair, given she was the most long-serving of the crew. She has a great smile too, but we only see it when something bad happens to someone else, which is a perfecting touch in the acting indeed – and her stare is purely basilisk – enough to petrify the bravest of us, I am sure.
You have to love how she calls her husband to follow her – ‘Ernst?’ – with half a question mark and one hand on her pregnant tummy – and the way Armin Meier hangdogs after her, head low, arms like those of an ape. She is funny — but yet nobody is laughing — more likely hiding behind the sofa — and she is monstrous, more than any other Fassbinder actor, always delicately displaying the worst of people, in herself and others.