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RIP German Actor (And Rainer Fassbinder Muse) Günther Kaufmann (See "Whity" On DVD)

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 13, 2012 at 6:57PM

I just got word that German actor Günther Kaufmann died of a heart attack 3 days ago, May 10th, while out for a walk in the Grunewald locality of Berlin.
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Gunther Kaufmann

I just got word that German actor Günther Kaufmann died of a heart attack 3 days ago, May 10thwhile out for a walk in the Grunewald locality of Berlin.

Kaufman is best known for the many films he starred in under the direction of prolific, wunderkind, and controversial German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Kaufman, a child of an African American father and German mother, was also briefly romantically linked to Fassbinder during their period of association, primarily in the 1970s, into the first 2 years in the 1980s, when they worked together to produce as many as 14 features films over a roughly 11-year period.

One of those film was a truly bizarre, melodramatic, revisionist western titled Whity - one of the tiny handful of films produced by the duo that I've actually seen.  

A film with a troubled production history, set in the 1800s, it centers on a character named Whity (played by Günther Kaufmann), the bi-racial servant for the freakish-looking Nicholson family. Whity also happens to be: 1.) the illegitimate son to the family's sadistic patriarch Ben Nicholson; 2.) simultaneously abused and loved by Nicholson's nymphomaniacal young wife, and his brutal, homosexual eldest son; and 3.) self-appointed protector of the family's developmentally-disabled youngest son, who Whity regards almost like his own brother. 

In essence, each family member demands something specific of Whity, who serves obediently, no matter how pathetic the request.

And after head-of-household Ben openly declares the details of his will to the entire family, each member's fixation on Whity rapidly intensifies beyond the logical, leading up to a murderous finale.

It's a really bizarre film that I was able to see many years ago, on VHS; but haven't watched since. I don't know if I'd even call it offensive, because it's so strange to behold in its entirety - like the film, and the themes it twists (American race relations and western movies) exists on some other plane altogether. 

You have to see it in order to appreciate (or not appreciate) it, as it can probably be dissected in a myriad of ways.

Call it a perverse epic of a film that barely screened outside of Germany.

Kaufmann wasn't a trained actor when he and Fassbinder began their journey together. While their personal relationship ended much earlier, their working relationship continued until the filmmaker's death; Kaufman appeared in Fassbinder's last film, Querelle, in 1982, and continued to work in film up until his own death just days ago - primarily in German films.

In total, he starred or co-starred in as many as 27 films, in a career that began in 1970.

I wish I could say more about Kaufman; alas, I haven't seen much of the man's work, so I'm not intimately familiar. But looking through Amazon, I see that many of his films are available for purchase (including Whity), whether on VHS or DVD, primarily via resellers.

I also know that Netflix carries Whity on DVD, but not streaming unfortunately.

I'll spend the next few weeks familiarizing myself with Kaufman's other films that I can actually get my hands on, and post writeups on each as I see them.

In the meantime... here's the infamous deadly finale sequence from Whity which should give you a sense of what the rest of the film is like (unfortunately, it's not subtitled in English):


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