Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, 1975

Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven opens to an portentous shot of a mechanized, tedious activity, as Emma Kusters (Brigitte Mira) and her son Ernst (Armin Meier) assemble small electrical appliances in silence at the kitchen table: snapping the mechanism to the case, tightening the sunken screws, packing the completed assemblies into a cardboard box. It is this sense of quiet despair and dehumanization that will one day lead Emma’s husband, Hermann Kusters, to a senseless act of murder and suicide at a chemical factory plant. The newspapers are quick to capitalize on the story, and the Kusters tragedy is soon turned into the eye-catching headline, “The Factory Murderer”. Mother Kusters implores her estranged, emotionally distant daughter, a mediocre singer named Corinna Corinne (Ingrid Caven), to return home in order to grieve with her remaining family. But soon, it is clear that only Mother Kusters feels the weight of her incomprehensible loss. Ashamed of her father-in-law’s actions, Helen (Irm Hermann) convinces her husband Ernst to continue with their plans to go away on holiday in Finland under the pretense of concern for their unborn child’s health. Corinna Corinne immediately develops a relationship with an opportunistic photographer (Gottfried John) and uses the publicity of her father’s notoriety as a means of increasing attendance at her singing engagement at a Frankfurt nightclub. Abandoned by her self-consumed family, Mother Kusters is welcomed into the home of the socially prominent and well connected Thaelmanns (Karlheinz Bohm and Margit Carstensen), who promise to uphold her cause and print a sympathetic story of her husband’s struggle, and, in the process, subtly begin to use her vulnerability and idealism to recruit her into the Communist party.

Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven is a scathing, emotionally complex, and socially relevant portrait of urban alienation, exploitation, and sensationalist journalism. Rainer Werner Fassbinder illustrates the claustrophobic atmosphere of scrutiny as a reflection of the intrusive nature of the public’s insatiable appetite for the entertainment value of human tragedy: the confined spaces of the Kusters’ apartment, the omnipresence of reporters and photographers; the framed shots of the Thaelmann’s apartment. Through Mother Kusters’ selfless persistence to understand the reason behind her husband’s inexplicable act of violence, and her idealistic effort to present a positive side to Hermann’s tragically misunderstood life, Fassbinder creates a caustic indictment of the inherent media manipulation and political opportunism that consequently result from public scrutiny. Inevitably, this consuming public fascination becomes a self-destructive obsession that propagates its own compelling and inescapable tragedy.

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