"Veronika Voss," the last movie completed by the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, seems as stilted and lugubrious as many an earlier feature by that prolific, inexplicably celebrated German director. However, it may be destined to acquire a morbid autobiographical significance.
Fassbinder died earlier this year of an apparent drug overdose. This final project, now at the Key, is loosely based on the tragic legend of a German film actress named Sibylle Schmitz, a victim of drug addiction a generation earlier. (A subsequent Fassbinder project, "Querelle," was shot under his direction but left for associates to edit.)
"Veronika Voss" is an account of how a chance meeting deludes a sportswriter with poetic inclinations into believing that his passion might rehabilitate a faded movie star (Rosel Zech as Veronika) who has degenerated into irreversible morphine addiction under the influence of a sinister doctor (Annemarie Duringer as a tyrant named Katz).
Given the circumstances surrounding Fassbinder's death, "Veronika Voss" is bound to suggest a foreshadowing of his own suicidal impasse. The movie's inability to dramatize the chronicle of Veronika's addiction tends to enhance the morbid interest. We find the heroine in an extreme state, and the efforts of the naive suitor (Hilmar Thate, a disconsolate, beagle-faced actor) to help her out of it seem ineffectual on both practical and fictional terms. It doesn't help, either, when he and his amazingly generous, intrepid girlfriend (Cornelia Froboess, the first actress I've ever encountered in a Fassbinder movie who didn't seem repellent) conspire to infiltrate the evil doctor's glaring white clinic and rescue poor Veronika.
Though ill-equipped to sustain a whisper of dramatic interest and suspense, "Veronika Voss" may seem an intriguing reflection of an authentic drug pathology. What Fassbinder dwells on is the absolute enslavement of Veronika to her supplier, Dr. Katz. The movie doesn't have a viable plot, but it does have a constant, gruesome, self-pitying preoccupation. The sadomasochistic lesbian implications that cling to the Voss-Katz relationship seem meaningless in this context.
There's no sexual heat in the picture, either. We seem to be witnessing a swan song in which the only remaining considerations are how long the poor addict can survive and who gets to take the rap for her addiction.
The whole movie feels so depleted and defeatist that one even begins to speculate about the possible clinical causes of its stylistic peculiarities. For example, Fassbinder gives Veronika the wistful remark, "Light and shadow, the two secrets of film," but the pictorial scheme imposed by the black-and-white photography is conspicuously short on shadows. Visually, the movie does a progressive bleach-out and glare-out, and this blinding effect is especially pronounced in the episodes set at Katz's establishment. Far from apprehending this effect as a felicitous esthetic touch, one simply gets the creeps from it. "Veronika Voss" is no doubt a peculiarly authentic last testament and premonition of oblivion, but there is no comfort or gratification in it.