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Wim Wenders’s debut movie from 1972, now on rerelease, is a fantastically strange, lugubrious existential crime noir based on the novel by Peter Handke (with whom Wenders co-wrote the screenplay). It is now sadly stuck with the clumsiest and most tin-eared translated title imaginable, terrible compared with The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, which was what Handke’s book was generally called for English-speaking audiences. It is a bit of an ironic time for this film to reappear here, of course. The English no longer have any fear of penalties.
The scene is a football match in Vienna, where the goalkeeper for the visiting side is shown impassively standing in the goalmouth watching the action at the other end. He has the faintly Kafkaesque name of Joseph Bloch (played by Arthur Brauss). But in a few moments, there is a disaster. Bloch concedes a goal without even trying to save it, because he was certain it was offside. When it becomes clear the referee is going to allow it, Bloch gets involved in a furious argument with opposing players and the ref; there is pushing and shoving and he is sent off in disgrace. Moody and subdued, Bloch gets a tram into town where he checks into a cheap hotel and turns on the receptionist’s TV in time to see his team concede another goal. He wanders around, goes to the cinema, picks up a young woman, goes back to her place, then the next day picks up Gloria (Erika Pluhar) the woman who sold him his ticket at the cinema, goes home with her too – and murders her.
Then he gets the bus to an obscure border town to visit an old flame, Hertha (Kai Fischer) who owns a hotel there. He presumably wants to lay low for a bit. But he never betrays the smallest anxiety about what he has done, not even when he sees in the newspaper a pretty accurate photofit of his face and what the police are calling a vital clue: he has left some American coins at the scene of the crime and told strangers about his interest in America and his team’s tours in the US. Bloch simply mooches about the place, listlessly making conversation with the locals, flirting with and irritating Hertha, listening to the jukebox (he loved doing that in Vienna too) and finally showing up at a local football match.
Here he gets into conversation with the man on the terraces next to him and waxes eloquent on the existential crisis a penalty involves for the goalkeeper, that great trial he has to endure for a teammate’s crime. If the goalkeeper knows the striker usually hits the ball into a certain corner, should he gamble on diving for that corner? Or will keeper and striker second-guess each other? Bloch also broods on the weird spectator experiment of ignoring the play and just watching the goalkeeper – that sad figure, alone in the universe like humankind, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the great challenge that will test his very raîson d’etre, but unable to influence when and how it does. (Bloch doesn’t mention it but Albert Camus, he of the acte gratuit, famously played in goal.)
Is Bloch a serial killer? Gloria seemed to initiate BDSM when they had sex, which is how the murder developed, so it is possible this was Bloch’s first crime. But he is eerily calm afterwards. It is more likely he does this at all away games – a macabre piece of misogynist black comedy. Yet he is so blank, so sociopathic, that the experience of doing it for the first time may not feel any different from doing it for the 20th time. Everything we see in the second half of the film – including his strange bucolic holiday with an old flame in the middle of nowhere – may be how he comes down after a murder, how he realigns himself after the horrifying secret act. And yet he is not in fact entirely calm: he is obsessed with noise, always asking about sounds he can hear from other rooms or from the street.
The dialogue is really unsettling. Strange non-sequiturs abound. After Gloria tells Bloch about the strange dream she has just had, Bloch asks her: “Are there ants in your teapot?” And then: “Were there ants in your dream?” The screenplay is full of curious, dreamlike declarations. An inn owner will suddenly tell Bloch: “Those antlers are from a stag that wandered on to a battlefield.” There is a what-just-happened? feel to so much of the script.
And then there is the Americanism of the film, which was to be a theme in Wenders’ work from then on. Bloch adores America, and the idea of America, because it is exotic and exciting and glamorous. America says freedom and escape, and when Bloch journeys to Burgenland in eastern Austria it looks wild and empty, a bit like the American midwest. But Wenders is not just playing on the romance of America, but also its dark side. Bloch’s America is the America of Jim Thompson. This is America as a lawless and cruel place of violence. Bloch carries it around in his head.
Source: The Guardian
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