There is a lot of Jean-Luc Godard in The Niklashauser Journey – probably too much for the self-conscious French-Swiss director, who went into virtual retirement from cinema a few years into the 1970s, presumably feeling that his pioneering techniques were becoming too standard in the films of his contemporaries, and that video was the medium that needed him the most. The long dialogues and bizarrely dressed revolutionary groups on the edge of the woods featured in Weekend, are imitated here in The Niklashauser Journey; as are the sudden manifestations of people from other centuries.
In his early days, Fassbinder was however a great appropriator of other people’s styles, and of course he had to be; he had no film training and yet he was making five or six productions a year. Of course he had to sponge it up from somewhere.
One of the bizarrely dressed bunch playing here is Margit Carstensen, who plays Magarethe, the keenest of the female followers of the shepherd prophet Boehm. Margit Carstensen questions the prophet on the Mother of God and demands that he give up shepherding; she offers him her house and her possessions, and her body is very likely included. It is after all one of the great mysteries of religious life, and has been since time began, how cult leaders and Messianic pretenders attract so many willing female followers.
It’s testament to Fassbinder’s brilliant disregard for so many conventions that he is happy to shoot his quasi-medieval scenes in a field of billowing grass while a truck drives past in the far distance. He is the only director in the world who would not have yelled ‘cut!’ when it came into shot. The simple reason why is that Fassbinder believed in his dramatic content, and although the camera shots are always well composed, continuity and historical details mean nothing to him. It’s amazing that people have criticised, for example, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, because the table cloths and ashtrays are not period – just the sort of shit the genius Fassbinder could do without.
Carstensen’s character very clearly lusts after the visionary shepherd, but is also interested in social advancement too. ‘Will the Virgin appear to you here?’ she asks Boehm when she invites him in to her house. ‘No,’ he says,’ she only appears outdoors, she doesn’t like enclosed spaces.’
And Carstensen, serene, beautiful, dignified and a versatile and composed actress, also does plenty crazy stuff, such as the great God loves me! Fire in my Womb! monologue in which she is Lady Macbeth, Hamlet and Clytemnestra all in one.