A devastating life-ending event happened. Then all was silent. Then thick vertical ice, glistening like a snake, covered everything. At some point, the ice melted. The people who had been in it and were temporarily dead were exposed and resumed living temporarily.
The Merchant of Four Seasons, a film by Rainer Fassbinder, begins.
Poor doomed temporarily alive Hans Epp spins about in the darkness of his fall. He looks up at the houses on the square as he spins. His eyes roll upward like someone about to faint as he calls out, “Fresh pears! Fresh pears! One fifty a pound.” His wooden fruit-vending wagon is next to him.
There is little talk in the film, and just one outburst of physical violence, when poor doomed Hans Epp assaults his wife. His young daughter – 8 or 9 years old – tries to protect her mother by flailing at her father with her thin arms. Hans’ assault was not preceded by anger. After the assault, Hans’ wife Irmgard leaves him.
Then Hans and Irmgard reconcile and there is an astonishing, passionless lovemaking scene that triggers poor doomed Hans Epp’s descent into his second death. The scene is the opposite of pornography, the opposite of love, the opposite of intimacy. Locked in close-up, their legs move with effort, entwining, sluggish, slow, hesitant. Like large wooden sticks, they arrange themselves into a tableaux. The camera pauses a beat too long on their dirty feet. Before they reconciled, Hans Epp had a heart attack while trying to get Irmgard back. The heart attack was immediately preceded by his sad eyes rolling upwards towards infinity.
The people in the film go through the motions of life structured by the same life-ending devastating event followed by the wall of ice that preceded the beginning of the film. Every frame of the film has been selected to convey Rainer Fassbinder’s personal world view of death in life. Do not, he says, be under any illusion that this film is an illusion masquerading as reality. I am not trying to trick you into thinking of it as reality. I am the director of this film and I made it to be the carrier of my attitude towards my life experience.
There is a balm of a moment when a customer buys some fruit and asks with a kindly smile if Hans is feeling alright. The only other smile in the film was when a streetwalker smiled trickily at poor doomed Hans as she unbuttoned her blouse. The smile offered to perform a friendly sexual act on him. His eyes rolled up dreamily in that frame, followed by his boss’s opening the door and seeing Hans and the streetwalker. That’s how poor doomed Hans was fired as a policeman and came to be a peddler of fruits and vegetables.
Hans drinks himself to death, literally, in the unforgettable next to last tavern scene. His wife puts her head to the side and watches. Tears too clear for tears appear and stream slowly down her sad face. They are droplets, ice crystals that could have come from the too clear, beautiful waters flowing away from him the day Hans Epp left his home and walked to the streaming inviting river.
In the final scene, Hans Epp’s Great Love stands in the cemetery that had been under ice before the film began. Poor doomed Hans’ wife had asked her to come. The Great Love holds a too clear, too red rose, and then turns and walks slowly away through the cemetery.
Then Hans Epp’s wife and daughter drive away with the man who worked for them. Irmgard asks the man to live with her and be her business partner. She tells him that some components of the fruit-vending business are too physically difficult for her. And he likes to help her daughter with her homework. The man says OK and the film ends.
I think of Fassbinder’s bleak view of life, and yet how alluring life is, and I remember the words to that old song with its unforgettable melody:
It’s April again and lovers are lining
The banks of the Seine.
It’s April again and every eye is shining.
Lie closer my dear and hear
The refrain of your seventeenth year
In the sun and the rain
Beside the river Seine. Oh!