Fassbinder conveying his typical themes in a stylistically Leonesque film,
*** For people who haven’t seen the film I recommend to skip the first part of the comment and to start reading right at - The Style -, the stuff before that contains spoilers. ***
What’s noteworthy is how much more this relatively early Fassbinder has in common with his later films such as the BRD trilogy than with anything he did before. For example the fact that the main character is trying to integrate into a family/society against all odds, with fatal consequences. Not only do those families/societies reject the main characters of the RWF films in question, but those systems turn out to be miserable and integration into them turn out to be undesirable. The propagated Weltanschauung is downright pessimistic, with no realistic hope anywhere in sight.
So the movie’s title character Whity is trying to integrate, even to the point of lacking much of a personality. He doesn’t care if he is black or white, or even straight or gay, he just wants to be a part of something that is bigger that himself.
Interestingly the film doesn’t seem to be much concerned with racial issues. I don’t see Whity to be representative of the black man in America, but rather it uses a black man in the West as an example of slavery and a man who tries to integrate into a system that doesn’t want him for superimposed reasons, all the while he is more competent than most other people around him.
The (white) members of the Nicholson family all have makeup that makes them look sickly pale, which could be to empathize those people’s degeneration, compared to Whity. They are free, he is not, they have power, he hasn’t, purely because of superficial reasons and not because they are actually stronger.
What’s also important is the capitalism versus love theme. In the family everyone is ridden by greed, money is their biggest concern and this reflects their decadence. Whity doesn’t have much desires at all, he is the best example of happiness in slavery. He doesn’t know a better life, so he is satisfied with his position. That was until he found love. It’s partly through this love that he realizes the degenerated state of his family (the Nicholsons) and it’s love that is enough of a substitute that it makes him want to radically leave behind his family in the end.
But the movie doesn’t give a solution for Whity’s tragic situation, in the end he leaves the system that he fought to be a part of all along, just to go into the vastness of the desert (a non-system, if you will, a place where money and power doesn’t matter), just to die, suggesting that there in fact is no solution, other than death. This is why I find the film to be extremely pessimistic. Whity has found love, but not only is it not considered a solution, but it implies that there is none, by Whity consciously deciding to end his life, basically.
As for the style, obviously the film is much more inspired by Spaghetti Westerns than by American ones, which starts with the opening credits with the names flying towards the audience, and continues with the intentionally slow-paced nature of the film, its melancholic atmosphere, and the exaggerated ambient sound. In fact, it’s directly reminiscent of Leone, but the big difference is the small scale of RWF’s film. I found the slow pace more tedious than anything else. It’s too much of an imitation and not enough its own thing.
As good as Ballhaus’ camera work is on its own, the concept of frozen subjects captured in fluid images doesn’t work well if there is little (appropriate) content to back it up, not to mention that this is pretty much the opposite of Leone’s cinematography, which is mostly rigid camera where even the smallest protagonist movement looks epic. If Leone’s camera moves it is to follow the protagonist, not to pan to another protagonist. He fearlessly employed a cut to show another character, which made every character the star of his own shot.
Although the film certainly isn’t devoid of appealing themes, the way it is I can’t say that it tells an interesting story. Apart from Whity all the characters are just too empty, they are just pawns in Whity’s story, which wouldn’t be as bad if there weren’t so many scenes in which he isn’t much more than a spectator or isn’t even present.
As implied before, the content simply doesn’t lend itself to a Leonesque Western. A Leone Western lends itself to strangers being unpredictable, danger-laden atmosphere and situations, and gunslinging, it doesn’t lend itself to internal family affairs, everyday life and character studies. I would consider ‘Whity’ a failed experiment, Fassbinder’s story-telling sensibilities combined with an imitation of Leone’s style is a system into which integration is undesirable.