A Russian chocolatier goes mad in Nazi Germany and hatches a plot to commit insurance fraud. Is this a metaphor for the decadence of 1920’s Berlin being driven to extinction by the harsh realities of Nazism, half-mad, and looking for any possible way to escape? Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have us believe so. This flawed but not unwatchable film demonstrates the trope that giving a great cult film-maker a large budget will ensure that they turn in distinctly average work, like David Lynch with Dune, the Coen Brothers with Burn After Reading, Michel Gondry with The Green Hornet.
Dirk Bogarde stars as Hermann Hermann, a man who is slowly driven mad by the pressures of life in Nazi Germany. He and his wife Lydia, who is involved in a strange, sexual relationship with her cousin, are engaged in an alternately cold and sexually needy relationship, bordering on the abusive. Hermann is clearly not satisfied at home so, perhaps as a way to escape, he starts to think about committing insurance fraud and faking his own death. He happens across a man named Felix whom, in his desperation, Hermann believes to be his exact doppelganger and from this delusional leap he begins the slow descent into madness, driven by a desperation for happiness.
Fassbinder’s style is squashed by the enlarged budget – this film cost more than all of Fassbinder’s films combined, to that point, which speaks more of the confidence in him in his own ability to make astounding films with next to no money – but little bits shine through. The twisted relationship between Hermann and Lydia is strangely beautiful in a disgusting, disturbing way and is typically Fassbinder. The music gets slightly overbearing at times, but the addition of the doppelganger who in no way resembles Hermann is a genius touch.