Footnotes: A film such as A Man Like Eva

7 October, 2021

It’s a film that, back in its heyday, would have been unimaginable on the screens of Romania, not to mention its film sets. After all, this would have been the film of a complete nobody; and that’s due to the fact that, after leaving the country, on a trip to Cannes with his 1974 Beyond the Sands, and staying there, Radu Gabrea’s name simply evaporated from ending credits and book covers.[1] The Romanian ones, of course, since his career, which at the time encompassed student productions, documentaries, a TV series, and two feature films, marched on in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the United States with yet another seven films, with an output that included an adaptation of Beckett (Black Landscape / Schwarze Landschaft, 1978), one of Caragiale (Do not fear, Jacob! / Fürchte dich nicht, Jakob!, 1982) and this strange entry, A Man Like Eva, the fabulous feature inspired by R. W. Fassbinder’s life, which was still a hot topic in 1984.

It just so happened that this 1974 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which was beyond any doubt a providential one for Gabrea, Fassbinder was also amongst the participants; and not just in any simple way, but in one for the history books, presenting his Ali: Fear Eats The Soul. Less than ten years later, the time-bomb that had been the iconic German director had already blown itself up, leaving behind a number of around forty films, an esteemed theater career and, especially, a mythology. Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly observes that “if the French New Wave of the 60s was mainly about films, the New German Cinema of the 70s was mainly about filmmakers”. And amongst all of them, Fassbinder would end up birthing the most resounding of legends, not only in Germany or in Europe, but at a global level. Beyond his canonical titles, his intimidating capacity to work, or his allure as a controversial intellectual, a handy fuel to inflame any conversation about the filmmaker is mentioning scandals. If one is to believe the testimonies of the ones who collaborated with him along the way – and I tend to do so, myself –, if that particular romantic concept of a cowardly genius, arduous yet magnetic, hurtful yet charming, at last, if that concept had ever to set foot on a film set, then it came while wearing Fassbinder’s shoes.

So, a film about R.W. Fassbinder, but his initials are E.V.A. Is this an ordinary Eva, bearer of a biblical cautionary tale? That might sound suspicious, but I would give this particular idea a chance this time around, because it allows us to take a guess regarding some of the coordinates Gabrea seems to be fond of. Thus, one is the perpetrator of the original sin, and the other is Marguerite Gautier, the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas filsCamille,  since the film’s entire plot is woven around an adaptation of the novel that has birthed the most famous courtesan in the history of literature; but, what is most important to the Romanian filmmaker is the fact that this novel has given the portrait of a woman who arrives at the point in which she wants to repent her previous self, and change her future one. It’s not a coincidence that Gabrea’s protagonist is strapped with two sets of cultural baggage that are meant to break the backs of women; after all, we are talking about the process of fictionalizing a filmmaker who was enshrined especially because of the melodramas that he lived through just as passionately as his fictional heroines did. But there’s more, a final extravagance – E.V.A. is performed by actress Eva Mattes, a sight in Fassbinder’s previous production, albeit in minor roles.

An ordinary house becomes the universe that fully encompasses E.V.A.’s clique; the acts of waking up, eating, drinking, having sex, and shooting all take place under the same roof. The flaming creatures that surround the filmmakers need all but two steps to exit the building’s slimy kitchen to arrive onto the film set which is crowded with set pieces that imitate the opulence of the Victorian age. Everyone present has been here for the long haul, except for young Walter (Werner Stocker), who has seemingly stumbled into his shot at glory – and that is, performing the role of Armand Duval in one of E.V.A.’s late-period productions. Of course, everything plays out in the good old tradition of films that lie behind the screen; Truffaut’s stress, Fellini’s anxiety, Godard’s deception, Fassbinder’s nothingness. These days, it’s a little bit harder to simply swallow up declarations of love towards cinema like this; even a comparison between their passion and Duval’s, however justified it might be here and now, feels embarrassing. But it must be said that Gabrea’s film, which is much more restrained in its cinephile esotericism, has indeed retained a certain type of suppleness over the years.

The choice of Eva Mattes as the lead performer has something to do with aging well. Driven, choleric, the actress gives her role the air of a portly and uppity drunkard, like a squeaking rubber ducky, careful to retain her sexuality on the one part, and her gravitas, on the other.  The story on which they are working on, that of tragic, suffering young people, with the she one step ahead of him when it comes to matters of love, and the he above her in terms of social status, opens its doors at the moment in which E.V.A. reigns; “Can I also enter this place, within the realm of Dumas fils’ fiction, amongst you, the actors?”. All is said and done. Marguerite, that is, Gudrun (Lisa Kreuzer), waits for him; his long-time actress and lover, counted amongst the damned who spend their lives in the film set’s vicinity. Through her sphinx-like atmosphere, the tragic tone of her voice, and not to mention her melodramatic outbreaks, Kreuzer offers a second life to Fassbinder’s countless women. But it is not her that the director is seeking – it is Armand, that is, Walter. That is to say, this is what the film is searching for, the way in which the debutante actor turns into the latest victim to fall prey to E.V.A., this modern Dorian Grey whose smile announces a new casualty. And Walter, father, husband, one-time heterosexual, makes no exception to the rule. Particularly, the sex scene towards the end, shared between E.V.A. and Walter, has a remarkable sensual ferocity. And then, when the director kisses the actor amid rehearsals, with the extras dancing all around them – it becomes untouchable.

EV.A.’s superpowers over the debutant are as worldly as they can get; slaps, blackmail, groveling, tight spots, false promises; which is more than what the young actor is capable to refuse. Even more so than Gudrun, he is capable of suffering things, so he pays it back with the same coin – Walter. A fault in the game of stares, which up until that point E.V.A. had been winning on a substantial lead. He is the one who is painfully stared at by Ali, his tragic partner, during his escapade with Gudrun; he is the same one to gaze upon the actresses as they prostitute themselves for the sake of gaining more days on the set, and when he ordered Gudrun to crawl in front of the camera, he remains standing, the first person in her field of view. But now, he is also gazing painfully, for the first and only time. “You’re a whore!”, he tells her the following day. “And what if I am?” – the lady with the camellias starts to burrow herself under Gudrun’s skin. In fact, Gabrea is skillful when it comes to hijacking Dumas’ story; since, if Armand is the man who is willing to indulge in what is shown to be inaccessible to him, and that is a woman who is fostered by others, then the same thing can be said about E.V.A. and Walter.

Amongst the Romanian reviews that the film enjoyed in the nineties, there is one, written by Dan Adrian in Arhitext Design 4/1994, which relieves A Man Like Eva of all of its formal duties towards Fassbinder. Călin Stănculescu takes this idea up again in Radu Gabrea. The Biography of an Oeuvre – “Radu Gabrea makes the choice of paying tribute to the master through a film that is of a completely different type than the ones made by the German filmmaker”.[2] So-so. What’s clear is that a film about the creation of a film is at hand here, like in the wonderful Beware of a Holy Whore / Warnung von einer heiligen Nutte (1971), Fassbinder’s confession and communion. Just as in the case of A Man Like E.V.A., here, too, we have a tyrannical director sowing discord and fear amongst his collaborators. The narrative resemblance of the two invites one to make comparisons, and it must be said that Gabrea indeed didn’t fall prey to pastiche; his film is one of minute framings, steering away from the long, alienating shots of Fassbinder, just as the acting in E.V.A. has nothing to do with the statutory performances of one Marquard Bohm or Katrin Schaarke. But I wouldn’t hurry to declare its independence from Fassbinder’s legacy, since that would imply denying a handful of its sparks of brilliance. For example, the moments in which people intentionally hurt themselves, as if they were remote-controlled to do so, or are throwing themselves at someone’s feet, or those ample traveling shots which imbue a simple house with the feeling of suspense(!).

In any case, until we unearth more details, it might just be that Gabrea is the very first Romanian director to create a film dealing with an overtly bisexual subject, one that, despite the critics that have praised it in passing, didn’t become famous in the eyes of the local audience. It may well be that this all will change, at least for a fleeting moment, once Oskar Roehler’s Enfant Terrible (2020) will be distributed in local cinemas. By the way, Roehler’s biographic experiment, in which Fassbinder’s life is presented in a manner which accommodates the re-enactment of certain famous scenes in his films, would find a stimulating company in the presence of Gabrea’s film: for the moment, the only thing missing is a curatorial spark. And, quite possibly, the courage to have a lucid conversation about a character so small, yet so gigantic like Fassbinder was.

 

[1] Călin Stănculescu, Radu Gabrea. The Biography of an Oeuvre, NOI Media Print: Bucharest, 2012, pp. 19-20.

[2]  Idem., p. 34.



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Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.