In Günther Kaufmann’s first appearance in Fassbinder’s The Niklashausen Journey, listening to the prophet describe economics in a huge and empty quarry, he cuts a striking figure; as striking as he ever does in any of his film appearances. How great he looked in this era; and better than great — powerful. In fact in 1970, in Europe, Günther Kaufmann must have been the ultimate dude to have in your circle. As the camera shots are all pretty identical in this film – the slow static zoom or the travelling dolly – it helps if you do look powerful.
To get a sense of what the Akton Theater of Fassbinder’s day would have been like, look no further than the scene in which Schygulla and Fassbinder rehearse some revolutionary polemic, out of character and watched by Michael Gordon and Günther Kaufmann. It’s proof that this film will spark crazy thoughts in your imagination, when you see what the possibilities. In a moment very reminiscent of Godard, while Schygulla speaks, Kaufman reads an article from the newspaper, detailing the police shooting of two Black Panthers in Chicago – Fred Hampton and Mark Clarke.
I say Godard yes, but the result is also the type of cacophony that Fassbinder returned to time and again; and it perfectly expresses the nihilism and emptiness of political thought and culture in his day, as he sees it. ‘Of the 100 shots fired, 99 were from police weapons’ – says it all.
Kaufmann found a very powerful place at this time, far from the teddy bear character of himself in In a Year of Thirteen Moons and other films. Kaufmann appears in black, as a militant, and also unclothed, in every essence the man of power; and you’d have to ask why not follow him instead of the limp haired thin blond lad in lipstick that claims to have visions.
Kaufman has the most difficult piece of acting in this. First it is one of the polemical speeches, incredibly hard for an actor to animate; but it is also tagged on at the conclusion of the camp-site massacre and in the same camera shot – so he must get it right!
Although there were meatier parts to come for Kaufmann, I think this is one of his best, perhaps because you have to wonder how much Fassbinder was pushing him into his role simply because of his race. Do you get the sense that Kaufmann cares anything for the Black Panthers? Not Really but Fassbinder cares, and maybe that makes Kaufmann care too, enough that we also care.