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This indelicate, often deliciously flip 1978 psychodrama from the self-immolating genius of the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was the director’s first English-language production. With Tom Stoppard roped in for ‘dramatisation’ duties and Dirk Bogarde donning wild screen-print pyjamas as the lipsmacking lead, ‘Despair’ is like a homoerotic ‘Vertigo’ filmed through a disco ball. An intriguing Nabokov adaptation set among a small circle of eccentric petit bourgeois in Weimar-era Berlin, it’s a  work with an interest in – as Bogarde’s repressed, dissident chocolatier announces – ‘dissociation’, or split personalities.

Living in kitsch finery with his dim-witted wife (Andréa Ferréol), who is having a secret affair with her swarthy red-headed boho cousin (Volker Spengler), Bogarde’s Hermann is one day convinced he’s seen his own doppelgänger and hatches an insane, murderous plan to trade one existence for another. Though ostensibly psychological in provenance, the reasons for his desire to become someone else run the gamut from festering middle class ennui to the inexorable rise of the Nazi party (he’s half Jewish). Though Stoppard’s pleasingly ripe dialogue (‘Have you no sense of indecency!’) leavens the film’s supremely serious investigation of a full-scale identity crisis, it’s still tough to take Hermann’s proto-Lynchian scheme seriously.

Composer Peer Raben concocts an apt soundtrack of psychedelic Muzak, while Fassbinder’s regular DoP, Michael Ballhaus, bounces shots off mirrors or refracts them through windows, creating numerous clever visual symmetries which accentuate the central theme. It doesn’t manage to scale the sublime heights of the director’s other ‘body swap’ film of that year, ‘In a Year with 13 Moons’, but it’s still effortlessly literate, gaudily stylish and a very worthy recipient for this glowing HD restoration.

Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday January 6 2012
Duration: 119 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenwriter: Tom Stoppard
Cast: Volker Spengler
Andrea Ferreol
Alexander Allerson
Dirk Bogarde
Klaus Löwitsch
Bernhard Wicki

Average User Rating

3.8 / 5

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Well directed and strong screenplay by Stoppard . A powerful interpretation of the Nabokov novel.