Discussions of Despair should probably start with its triple whammy of big-name, High Modern talents: director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, scenarist Tom Stoppard and novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Any of these three would normally be the focus of discussion. To have them slugging it out in our imaginations is an intellectual treat in itself. Add to their participation several obviously heavy themes—psychological disintegration, misogyny, murder, Nazism, to name but a few—and it’s clear Despair is a work to be taken seriously.
It shouldn’t. Not because it’s a failure, but because it is such a patently absurd, wildly baroque success in which recognizing its excesses is central to its impact. Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) is a Russian emigré chocolate manufacturer in early 1930s Berlin. Married to an idiot of a wife, Lydia (Andrea Ferréol, both grotesquely indolent and very charming), he’s having a complete mental collapse. At first, he thinks he sees himself watching himself. When the implications of that get too much to bear, he believes a tramp he finds on the street (Klaus Löwitsch) who looks nothing like him, is his perfect double. From there, he concocts a wild scheme with the tramp’s reluctant participation to defraud his insurance company. It need hardly be said things do not work out well.
Everything in the film is pitched at a high level of ornate exaggeration. Lydia, for example, isn’t just stupid. She is transcendently stupid, with no greater concern than the source of her next “gogol mogol” (an obscenely rich combination of cream, raw eggs and sugar that we see prepared in the opening credits. With characters constantly eating chocolates, hors d’oeuvres, pastries and fried food, Despair is not a film to watch on an empty stomach). The Hermanns’ Art Deco apartment isn’t just in period. Every corner is a jagged, bewildering menagerie of etched crystal, bizarre textile patterns, shiny chrome appliances and Modern, over-stuffed furniture. Even the Nazi threat is reduced to little more than incidental moments, such as Hermann’s assistant Müller (Peter Kern) theatrically wailing about the Allied occupation of the Ruhr.
For all the exaggeration, however, the results are more campy than camp. Hermann’s decline is too pathetic for it to be laughable, with Bogarde affecting as often as he is obnoxious. The ornamental mise-en-scène puts the action in quotation marks through its opulent excess, drawing the viewer’s attention to how ludicrously contrived everything is. This standard Modernist gambit of “laying bare the device” can often be humorless, but here it’s used to create a richly sensuous cinematic equivalent of a Bavarian cream doughnut. To say, then, that Despair is less a profound examination of disintegration than the Modernist equivalent of a lush pastry or a comic contrivance from the ’30s is the highest compliment. Times move on, as do definitions of light, sophisticated entertainment. That’s why the most “serious” way to take Despair is to enjoy it shamelessly: it proves that even Modernists can have fun.