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This Review Reveals Major Details About the Plot.

A Boy Named Sue

Despair (1978) on IMDb

Plot Overview

“Despair” opens on a pseudo–still life of leavings in a sink, slowly dripping water rocking a cracked egg shell. The camera lingers until there's action: another egg shell drops on it. No, this isn't a setup shot, because the film will end on water dripping on broken china in a sink, linking the two. We're supposed to get some­thing from this. At the end of the film there's a small cross hung on the wall. We suppose the eggs represent a cross a man has to carry. The man Herman (Dirk Bogarde) is making eggnog.

It's a rainy day and he tells his wife Lydia (Andréa Ferréol), “How these Berlin winters bring it all back.” She replies, “You're a tease” as they prepare to have sex. The odd thing about their sex scene is Herman is both performer and observer. Their post­coital conversation starts with Lydia asking, “What's that accident all about?” Herman replies, “What accident?” “In America,” she says. Oh, “Wall Street collapsed.” Lydia thinks it's a real street that fell down, but the financial world took on the New York street name where its center was located, in turn named after a wall along it. Charit­ably, Herman tells her, “Intelligence would take the bloom off your carnality.”

Elsie (Y Sa Lo) the maid arrives and arranges for a Christmas tree. Herman goes to work at the chocolate factory he owns prominently displaying his name outside: HERMANN. His name on the inside door reads: Büro / H. Hermann. Now (if we're quick) we see his problem, a-boy-named-Sue, his name has caused him some adjustment problems. He has a cold reaction when being introduced as Herman, the other fellow asks, “Is that your first name or your surname?” His name is both, Herman Hermann, which will appear prominently in a police search later on. For now his wife is not intelligent enough to even under­stand the issue. The movie viewer will latch onto eggnog being a combination of two words, egg & nog, ending in "g" or "gg" just as Herman(n) ends either in "n" or "nn".

He has self-diagnosed “dissociation,” being a “split person.” His identity was further disrupted by war. “Reparations must be paid,” affecting his business even though the “war was over twelve years ago.” So says the Treaty of Versailles. How­ever, Herman is “a foreigner here.” His mom was a “pure Russian.” He started as “a black­shirt fighting the reds in the white army.” Then, “After the revolution I got out.” And he ended “as a Caucasian fighting the Brown­shirts in the red army.” Now he says, “I am a yellow-belly in a brown head.” (“The National Socialists [Nazis] are the Brown­shirts.”) This does not help the identity of Herman Hermann. Doesn't that mean he should be receiving reparations, not paying them? Beats me.

His wife asks him, “How about dinner out?” “Perfect, good,” he replies. The camera will revolve around the Christmas tree in every restaurant scene. That tree fares better than Herman's tree at home that he knocked over with a swipe of his gloves. He has issue with the holiday, probably stemming from Russian Orthodox Christmas being celebrated according to the Julian calendar putting it thirteen days later than the Gregorian calendar German Xmas. For that matter the waning chocolate business would pick up nicely if, according to one manufacturer, there were two Easters. But because of the calendars there would usually be two Pasches for Herman Hermann, and his wife's brain is nothing but mush, “if you open her cranium like an Easter egg.” Hey, pass the eggnog, please.

Anyway, they take in a movie afterwards, a silent film that gives poor Herman an inspiration. In the movie a police car pulls up to a building and an officer shouts (silently) through a bull­horn, “Come out, Silverman--We've got your surrounded” (“Kommen sie raus, Silvermann. Das haus ist umstellt!”) The ending of Silverman(n)'s name changes according to language. One of the officers looking at him observes, “Isn't that Sergeant Brown?” (“Ist das nicht Sergeant Brown?”) Silverman's a dead ringer for one of the cops. “That' my brother,” says Brown. “I'm going to talk to him.” Inside the building there's a (camouflaged) line separating the two men talking who are obviously the same actor playing both parts in a spliced scene. A shot is fired. Out walks supposedly Sgt. Brown saying, “He's dead” (“Er ist tot.”) One of the officers observes, how­ever, “That's not Sgt. Brown. That's Silverman” (“Das ist nicht Sergeant Brown. Das ist Silvermann.”) He did the old switcheroo, and the game is on.

So Herman Hermann goes out and finds a body double to direct in a phony plot who doesn't know it's a snuff film.


A like problem of despair is mentioned in the diary of St. John of Kronstadt: (58)

Most men not only bear Satan's burden willingly in their hearts, but they become so accustomed to it that they often do not feel it, and even imper­ceptibly increase it. Some­times, how­ever, the evil enemy increases his burden ten­fold, and then they become terribly despondent and faint­hearted, they murmur and blas­pheme God's name. The usual means that men in our time take to drive away their anguish are—enter­tain­ments, cards, dancing and theatres. But such means after­wards increase still more the anguish and weariness of their hearts. If, happily, they turn to God, then the burden is removed from their heart, and they clearly see that previously the heaviest burden was lying on their heart, though frequently they did not feel it. O, how many men there are who have (Jer. 2:13) “forsaken [God] the Fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no [living] water”! Men have very many such broken cisterns—nearly every­body has his own. The broken cisterns are our hearts, our passions.

Herman obliviously adds to his burden incrementally, from the reflecting architecture of his home to the air­head woman he's married, but it's those reparations affecting his business solvency that add to his burden ten­fold. He becomes testy with those around him. To alleviate his despair, he employs the usual means. There's the enter­tainment of dinner out with family and a new acquaintance. His breaking off of a square of chocolate to sample from its block had the visual form of a man drawing a card from a deck, and shuffling through the staggered walls of his home is like riffing the deck. The sexual preliminaries with his wife is a kind of slow dance. And then there's the “Silver­man” movie in the theater. He seems to have completely rejected God, brushing aside even the Christmas tree. He ends up with a broken tea­cup in the sink, which can't hold water, and a heart empty of the Christmas spirit, which spirit is all he needed to reduce his troubles to the proverbial storm in a teacup.

Production Values

“Despair” (1978) was dedicated to Antonin Artaud, Vincent van Gogh and Unica Zürn, artists who ended their life by suicide. It was directed by Rainer Werner Fass­binder. It was based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel Despair and adapted for the screen by Tom Stop­pard. It stars Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, and Klaus Löwitsch. Either the acting was good or the roles were easy, because it all seemed real to me. It's not rated but it's pretty tame except for some nudity.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

In the immortal words of Johnny Cash, “Life ain't easy for a boy named Sue.” “Despair” is the story of a man struggling with his identity. It occurs at Christmas time and doesn't have the happiest of endings. I'm rating it pretty high because it was well made and acted. We probably have enough saccharine Xmas stories that a little tragedy can be tolerated.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes. Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years. Special effects: Average special effects. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Sergieff, Archpriest John Iliytch. My Life in Christ. or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest Self-Amendment, and Peace in God: Extracts from the diary of St. John of Kronstadt (Arch­priest John Iliytch Sergieff). Trans­lated with the author's sanction, from the Fourth and Supplemental Edition by E.E. Goulaeff. St. Peters­burg. Jordans­ville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2000. Print.