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A cross between Willy Wonka and Scarlet Street's (1945) duped lover played by Edward G. Robinson, Hermann Hermann (Dirk Bogarde) is a Russian émigré and a chocolate factory owner at the center of the film. His shallow, promiscuous wife Lydia (Andrea Ferreol) is a debauched glamour puss carrying on a transparently adulterous affair with her cousin Ardalion (Volker Spengler) beneath Hermann's nose. The setting is 1930s Berlin as Hitler rises to power, a circumstance Hermann blithely ignores, consumed as he is by his own delusions. Adultery is the least of Hermann's worries. He is consumed by detachment from his own life. That alienation is illustrated in Fassbinder's decision to have Hermann's doppelganger watch himself, for instance, as he makes love to his wife.
As the story progresses Hermann becomes convinced that a strapping, handsome unemployed laborer Felix Weber (Klaus Lowitsch) is his absolute twin, though in fact they look nothing alike. Hermann hatches a plan to trade identities with Felix, part of a master plan to get money through an elaborate insurance swindle involving killing his "double."
Theatrical, witty and utterly perverse, Despair originated in a 1936 novel by famed Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and features a self-defeating hero who recalls Nabokov's notorious underage philanderer Humbert Humbert in his 1955 classic of a similarly self-destructive, thrillingly doomed man, Lolita.
Paying a debt to his acknowledged directorial inspiration Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder, production designer Rolf Zehetbauer and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus create the kind of setting in Lydia and Hermann's apartment that recalls the entrapping, reflective surfaces in Sirk's melodramatic classics like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959) The setting often looks like nothing so much as a confectionary fantasy, as seen in the lilac-colored uniforms and lilac trucks that define the look of Hermann's candy factory. The hyperbolic deceptiveness of the set design only echoes the themes of false surfaces and self-deceit in the film as a whole.
Fassbinder said of his first English-language film, "Despair comes from the awareness that in everyone's life there comes a point where not only the mind but the body, too, understands that it's over. I want to go on with my life, but there will be no new feelings or experiences for me. At this point people start to rearrange their lives." Hermann is most definitely in the process of rearranging, although that process comes with a shattering, ultimately disastrous streak of self-deception.
Nominated for a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival Despair marked the first time that Fassbinder worked with another's screenplay, in this case that of renowned dramatist Tom Stoppard, known for his philosophical plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Invention of Love.
Vincent Canby wrote in a 1979 The New York Times review of Despair, "Unlike some of his European colleagues who've not been able to make the transition to English-language films (I think especially of Alain Resnais and the late Luchino Visconti), Mr. Fassbinder succeeds brilliantly, with the great help, of course, of Mr. Stoppard.
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by Felicia Feaster