Rainer Werner Fassbinder creates a portrait of a warped, cruel family. Info
One of the more obscure films in West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's huge oeuvre, Chinese Roulette (1976) depicts bourgeois family life as a series of games and power struggles. By the time the ensemble cast finally plays the titular truth-guessing game in the third act, the plot has already built up many layers of cruelty and trickery. A rich industrialist, Gerard Christ (Ulli Lommell) means to bring his mistress (Anna Karina) to his country estate. Unfortunately, his daughter Angela, who blames her need for crutches on her parents' infidelities, has arranged for his wife (Margit Cartensen) and her lover to secretly vacation there as well. When the four cheaters meet, they all laugh before an awkward silence falls, and Angela announces herself as the puppetmaster.
The adults try to make the best of it, and spend the weekend together, all the while disturbing the housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who pushes her son to publish his vapid writing with help from Christ. Finally, there is the daughter's mute maid, Traunitz (Masha Méril) who is the only source of tenderness in the film, as she cares for the lonely child even as she lashes out at the people who have abandoned her. Chinese Roulette would have the feel of a play, almost completely taking place within the mansion, if it weren't for the exceptional camera work of Michael Ballhaus (who also worked with Coppola and Scorsese). The camera often zooms in on faces barely holding back rage, and doubles, refracts and distorts the characters behind panes of glass as they reconsider themselves under the harsh judgment of others. For an additional treat, the soundtrack features an early Kraftwerk single, which Traunitz dances to on Angela's crutches. —Reid Kurkerewicz