Whatever else it may be -- Anti-Theatre roadshow, cheekily ghoulish roundelay, the Western spoof Mel Brooks was afraid to make -- this stylized genre-bender should be remembered first and foremost as the film in which Rainer Werner Fassbinder discovered the beauty and power of the image. Working for the first time with wizardly cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, he delineates a mise en scène almost parodical in its lushness, the gliding camera movements and engulfing décor seemingly a far cry from the purposeful bareness of Katzelmacher or Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Rather than decreasing the earlier intensity, however, the movie's drunk-on-surfaces stylistics push the stark aesthetics to their limits by encasing their terseness within a pungent cinematic skin. Society/family is again on trial: set in a 19th-century America somewhere between hothouse antebellum and Sergio Leone's Spain-shot evocations of the Old West, the story strands the titular mulatto servant (Günther Kaufmann) between the charred defiance of his kitchen-wench mother and the pasty decadence of the Nicholson clan whose whims he serves. When not getting whipped or pawed by the Nicholsons (stolid patriarch Ron Randell, head nympho Katrin Schaake, fag-hag son Ulli Lommel and brain-damaged junior Harry Bär, all caked with nauseating white-green makeup), Whity prefers the company of saloon chanteuse Hanna Schygulla, herself not above inciting a mass beating by deliberately kissing him in front of a bunch of unmellowed cowboys. This being a Fassbinder film, the character's passive servility is a masochistic impulse eventually shattered by an act of insurrection that's no less political for being consciously suicidal -- having offed his oppressors, his emancipation will lead him to certain death in the arid spaces of the desert. Easily the most outrageous of the director's early efforts, though apparently the plot pales next to the drama behind the camera (the behind-the-scenes travails formed the basis of Beware of a Holy Whore). Peer Raben did the mock-Morricone score.
--- Fernando F. Croce