Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Fassbinder’s films seem to be about the despicable things we are capable of doing to each other, and in this case it’s about the despicable things one man is capable of doing to himself.
Hans Epp runs a pear stand with his wife, Irmgard. It’s a struggling operation that brings them no joy and barely allows them to survive. When we first meet them, with Hans yelling “pears for sale!” from a courtyard to surprisingly un-annoyed apartment dwellers, one woman calls for him to come up. He looks to Irmgard who tells him not to, then he does anyway. When he returns she accuses him of conducting an affair. That’s because he is.
After work Hans drinks with his friends and laments how he used to be a cop. In a flashback we see that a young woman, in order to get out of a ticket of some sort, propositioned him to which he accepted. He was then caught in the act and fired. Hans says he doesn’t blame the police, who need to enforce a high standard, but he does blame the woman, whom he slapped in the flashback.
Hans is just as violent with Irmgard. When he returns from the bar, he brutally attacks her and then is surprised when he wakes up the next morning and she and their daughter are gone.
We watch Irmgard with her family, where she is understandably emotional and frightened. They discuss Hans’ worth as a person, in a strange conversation, and then he comes over to get his wife back. When she stands her ground and tells him she wants a divorce, he falls to the ground as the result of a heart attack.
While Hans is in the hospital, Irmgard will attempt to prostitute herself to make money, but she becomes distraught when her daughter walks in on her with another man. She then comes up with a plan with Hans, after he does a little soul-searching, to expand their fruit operation by hiring an employee.
This reinvigorates her husband and bonds the two, somewhat unexpectedly considering what we’ve seen go down between them. It’s not the first or last time these characters make a decision that goes against our expectations. Hans is introduced as a violent, repressed, temperamental man and Irmgard as the damsel in distress, but they will each grow in different directions, with her taking control of her life but keeping him involved and him wilting in a Leaving Las Vegas kind of way.
To backtrack, Irmgard is quite tall, and Hans is noticeably shorter. It’s something they will both comment on and which makes Hans insecure. It’s an insecurity that explains much of his dreadfully poor behavior to open the film and, it seems, explains such bigotry in characters in other Fassbinder films.
I should say that at this point I’ve only seen two of his other movies: Katzelmacher and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, both of which involve a great deal of watching people say and do awful things to an outsider just because he’s different. The side characters in those films act with an intense, unexamined anger, and The Merchant of Four Seasons puts that anger under a microscope.
After the initial high of their successful enterprise, Hans falls into a deep depression from which he never emerges. Irmgard will struggle to reach him, though she tries, and her sister too will reference some of Hans’ virtues. Well scratch that, she doesn’t say anything positive about him, but she does criticize Irmgard’s brother who says something negative about him. Irmgard’s sister actually just points out to her brother that maybe he’s more like Hans than he realizes.
Eventually Hans will drink himself to death. It becomes inevitable at a certain point, but before then The Merchant of Four Seasons is an unexpected, complicated roller coaster. You probably come away from this viewing experience with little more than concern. Hans isn’t exactly someone who inspires our empathy, but his sadness doesn’t restore some kind of cosmic balance of right and wrong in the world of this movie. His suffering can be seen as him paying for his own crimes, but no one will experience any corresponding joy, certainly not Irmgard.
Hans’ suffering is just suffering, and it’s uncomfortable to watch. Such despair does color in much of his initial behavior, and it points out that such characters in real life (and certainly in Fassbinder’s films) are suffering some kind of crisis. With Hans it has something to do with his height and feeling small, and for other characters it might have to do with a similar sense of low self-esteem. These are small characters who don’t understand how to handle their own emotions and take it out on others or themselves. Fear eats the soul.
Up Next: Groundhog Day (1993), Aquaman (2018), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)