203-206 The BRD Trilogy

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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Gregory
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#26 Post by Gregory » Mon May 26, 2014 11:51 pm

Yes, it does help, thanks. I'm rarely sure I'm meant to empathize with many of these characters or to see them as if they were fully human beings rather than mere pawns in a tragedy or even irredeemably corrupt—not that I place myself as their judge, either.

Here's a discussion question.
The Criterion description calls this "wicked satire disguised as 1950s melodrama," which they apparently cribbed from Vincent Canby's review not long after Fassbinder's death: "a chilly, tough, wicked satire disguised as the sort of schmaltzy, black-and-white, 1950's melodrama that its characters, with one exception, would never bother to see."
Is it really, though? The film strikes me as a serious melodrama, not tongue-in-cheek or a wicked satire. He didn't elaborate on this point, saying first that "Unlike Maria Braun and Lola, it doesn't have any easily apparent social and political targets," but then: "Instead of engaging our nicer emotions, it turns them off. It's as if Fassbinder felt that any conventional emotional response would soften the true horror of such second-rateness and mendacity. Its melodramatic style is its form of social-political criticism." I don't follow his train of thought at all (emphasis added).

Canby was quite a fan of Fassbinder, but takes a mocking tone toward melodramas in his review, as if the audience is supposed to scoff at Voss's body of work. This from the critic who once wrote, "[The Cahiers critics] also perpetrated a certain amount of nonsense—I, for one will never be able to take Douglas Sirk very seriously." Fassbinder was frequently vocal about his debt to Sirk, though I think that's a problematic connection that's obscured and even obliterated, in my view, by some major differences between the work of the two filmmakers, though that's not a tangent I'm inclined to explore right here.
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#27 Post by Gregory » Tue May 27, 2014 5:54 pm

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#28 Post by domino harvey » Tue May 27, 2014 6:02 pm

Well, I haven't seen Veronika Voss but it seems like the "The director is playing with melodrama" coin gets laid as much with Fassbinder's oeuvre as it does with Sirk's, frequently with similarly self-evident declarations. I have no doubt Fassbinder loved Sirk, but it seems pretty easy to take a lot of Fassbinder's films at face value rather than reading active satire into them (though some merit it more than others, of course)-- I think a lot of it stems from contemporary audience members being uncomfortable viewing and enjoying melodramas without feeling (subconsciously, maybe) that they have to develop an active way of reading the films to justify their pleasure

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#29 Post by swo17 » Tue May 27, 2014 7:04 pm

I don't really see the film as "wicked" or a "satire" either, Gregory. I think its strongest asset is the sparkling visual element (if life ever becomes black & white, I will definitely be putting up disco balls in every room of my house) which certainly provides a contrast to the sadder, seedier elements of Voss's life, but I don't sense anything more subversive than that in Fassbinder's storytelling.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#30 Post by zedz » Tue May 27, 2014 7:06 pm

My feeling about Fassbinder and melodrama is that, when he discovered Sirk, a light went on in his head and he realized that melodrama was an ideal form for his preoccupations, since it already concerned, in large part, individuals (or couples) at odds with societal norms. It provided him with a way to sugar coat his poison pills and slip them to a larger audience than his early, astringent works could ever hope to reach. I think this led him to read Sirk as being more actively subversive (which is exactly what Fassbinder was trying to be) than might have genuinely been the case.

The other great benefit of adopting the Hollywood melodrama as a model is that it gave Fassbinder licence to explore his fascination with technique. Sirk gave him an excuse to look back without looking backwards. There are plenty of extended tracking shots in his early films, but they tend to be austere and linear, or rectilinear. After The Merchant of Four Seasons he gets more consistently baroque and begins a smart and illuminating exploration of historical film technique that transcends pastiche.

Which brings us back to Veronika Voss. In the BRD trilogy he adopts a contrasting style for each film, informed by historical modes of filmmaking. Personally, I think the ravishing black and white in this film is something of a technical high point for Fassbinder. It's evocative of film noir without being a slavish imitation of any specific model.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#31 Post by Lemmy Caution » Wed May 28, 2014 1:23 am

I keep putting on the film too late, watching half an hour and going unconscious.
Though having seen it before, there's something about the film which works well when you watch half an hour, fall asleep for the next half an hour and wake up mid-film.

The film has a striking b&w look, especially the use of light. I kept trying to think what film to compare the glossy, bright light/dark black look to, but can't really think of another film with this appearance. Since Veronika frequently comments on the lighting in various prosaic settings, I was wondering if that was part of her subjective experience of the lighting around her as too glaring, too intense, too revealing.

Which brings me to a question? Why is the doctor's office so glaringly white? It has an almost futuristic white in movie vernacular. Is neurology perceived as the science of the future, even if in this case it's mostly a sham? Is it blindingly white to correspond with Heroin? Does the place just bleach out Veronika's personality and will?

I noticed the title of the film was Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss.
I was wondering what that meant, but see it translated on wiki as "The Longing of Veronika Voss." Longing for what? Her past fame? Drugs? Robert? Her youth?

Another question: what was with the odd use of the novelty song The Battle Of New Orleans in the doctor's office? It seemed rather jarring and incongruous. Later, I just put it down to what the American GI might be listening to. But why did Fassbinder put that song in that setting? Are the American touches in the film -- the soldier, the song, a sports reporter -- designed to provide some reference back to American film noir?

Otherwise, I really liked the pace in the first half hour. The film moves along briskly, but without seeming rushed at all. Just good strong storytelling.
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#32 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed May 28, 2014 4:37 pm

Historical note -- the Johnny Horton song features new (at the time) words to a tune that was, in fact, written shortly after the Battle of New Orleans in order to celebrate the victory there.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#33 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sat May 31, 2014 12:11 pm

Vut, hass everyone forgot the great Veronika Voss?!?


I really think this is a pretty amazing film, and thought it would generate more discussion.
Sad to say that my disc refuses to play the final 20 mins.
I'll try to get it to work.

What do people think about Robert's girlfriend, who helps him mistreat her?
Seems an archetypal Fassbinder victim -- the weak get exploited.

There's some dark humor lurking throughout VV.
- Robert's stakeout. First we get a view of the doctor's office from inside the car across the street, like the robbery in Gun Crazy. Then we pan down and see Robert is asleep at the wheel. Then the nurse approaches and wakes Robert and invites him in to breakfast. Not exactly super-sleuthing there.
- Robert comes home with his girlfriend only to find Veronika waiting for him at their door. Without saying anything Robert goes with Veronika and the girlfriend acquiesces.
- Gunther Kaufmann sings 16 Tons, a story about hard work, while he packages morphine for sale ...
Probably other examples as well ...
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#34 Post by Gregory » Sat May 31, 2014 12:45 pm

If she's being exploited, then she's highly complicit in her own exploitation, and this is an example of what I was trying to say above. Some kinds of oppressive and unhealthy social relationships are explored (as in Sirk's melodramas), but if everyone's guilty of perpetuating these conditions, then where is the actual insight? It seems like a cyncical and blasé form of social commentary, which encourages the viewer to simply shrug and say "What a bunch of vile people." This is reinforced greatly by the fatalistic feel of the whole thing, as I've suggested earlier.
Though I think a lot of these things are staples of melodrama: lots of characters making bad decisions that lead them to a tragic fate.

Re: "Sixteen Tons," some other songs of the same era are in there too, so they may have just been meant to evoke the period, though it's certainly possible "Sixteen Tons" was a kind of in-joke for those who understood the words. It isn't just about hard work but about a particular labor arrangement in which no matter how hard workers work, they can't escape debt (thus the song is as relevant today as ever!) and, more than that, they've sold their souls. So it's likely in there as a critique of capitalism, and it may also suggest that Voss has sold her soul as an artist and an addict in thrall to Dr. Katz. Kaufmann's dealer character may also be bound to keep on dealing to support himself (and possibly a habit as well) and is likewise in thrall. But I'm not sure Fassbinder's use of the character does any more than possibly raise questions that have no answers.
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#35 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sat May 31, 2014 1:45 pm

50's American culture. Noir era.
Tennessee Ernie Ford's 16 Tons was a big hit in 1955.
Battle of New Orleans charted in 1959.

The American GI is an enigma. I think fassbinder likes to merely suggest a character and role there, and let it drift in the background unexplored.
We do see that he is the main person handling the illegal drugs.
And his size (and position as a US soldier?) would also make him seem to be the muscle in the operation. But when drunk Robert careens around the doctor's office/home, Gunther Kaufman doesn't intervene.

I didn't get all the negativity you find in the film.
Or at least I don't label it as such or react to it negatively.
I often like films where characters are doomed (Veronika) and/or where the lead (Robert) stumbles through a mystery not really sure what he's doing.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#36 Post by Gregory » Sat May 31, 2014 1:51 pm

I wasn't saying what I wanted to about the songs totally clearly or accurately so I edited my post, then saw yours.
I can't understand how anyone could avoid seeing the "negativity" (I wouldn't label it as such, either, and what I would have preferred to see is not a more "positive" film, as I hope I've made clear in what I've written). Are you remembering the whole film? Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of that comment. I think the fatalistic quality takes away from the postwar social awareness that the trilogy has been touted for. To treat characters as social actors, they have to have some sort of agency and not be locked into an unavoidable downward spiral. That doesn't necessarily take away from the aesthetic value of the film(s), however.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#37 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sat May 31, 2014 2:20 pm

Not recently.
But as I recall the end underscores how powerless Robert is to get any sort of justice.
And how the elite gets away with murder because of their respectable veneer and connections. Which can be construed as slyly satiric social commentary.

There's also the bar scene, where the ex-husband explains that Veronika is a junkie, is getting what she wants, and will die from it. Rather Fassbinderian, that people cause their own downfall and often actively seek out harm. And suggests that the illegality of the drugs is what causes much of the harm. So a portion of the blame is shifted off the doctor and on to the junkie herself, and to society's poor/inhumane handling of the situation. The latter a rather topical point in these latter stages of Drug Prohibition in the US.
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#38 Post by Gregory » Sat May 31, 2014 2:49 pm

The film shows corruption and deceit, for sure, but so do thousands of others. That's not a very interesting "commentary" in itself, because corruption and deception don't necessarily have any social/political specificity. To suggest that everyone is either corrupt, totally powerless, or just a passive non-entity, and there's nothing anyone can effectively do about it, means that the relationships between the characters ultimately don't matter that much, the specific features of the social context of the story don't matter, so why bother exploring them, etc. It's complacency presented in the package of art whose social content is somehow bolstered by its bitter tone and modern period setting. I guess I'd hope for more insight than that. If anyone really came to understand something important about postwar German society through this film, I'd be interested to read what it was.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#39 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sat May 31, 2014 3:15 pm

The meta-commentary would be that post-war Germany has a polite respectable modern veneer, but it is based on forgetting and ruthlessly obliterating the past. As though the whole country has been drugged and the past has morph(in)ed into a sterile insidious crypto-fascism*. And in this vein (pun intended), the US GI's silent presence as the drug purveyor makes a whole lot of sense, as the USA is the complicit partner enabling and forcing this change, this drug of forgetting, upon West Germany.

* this almost seems to be going too far, but how often do you get to write crypto-fascism? But think of the old couple, they survived Treblinka only to be exterminated by the technocratic, capitalist elite. The total disregard for life, the greed for money, and even the concept of sham medical procedures used to kill people -- all echo the Nazis, in a more respectable, polite fashion ... The same inhumanity and impulse to exploit are still at work in West Germany, just channeled into a more acceptable, less obviously psychopathic form.

And typically, Fassbinder lets no one off the hook. Veronika is complicit in her own demise. But there's also a rumor that she collaborated with the Nazis, and later lied about her past and changed her ugly history. She also betrays Robert by lying about their past and saying that she barely knows him. And then ironically, her farewell party has her singing a song about memories -- when forgetting, lying about and eliminating the past is the national pastime. Even the final scene has the doctor and her cohorts enjoying a fine meal and idyllic upper middle-class life, completely forgetting Veronika and what they did to her.
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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#40 Post by Gregory » Sat May 31, 2014 5:07 pm

Now we're getting somewhere, but I'm not sure about the phrase "lets no character off the hook" (second time it's been invoked on this page). There's a difference between letting a character off the hook (i.e., idealizing them or giving them some kind of pass, I suppose) and portraying them all as fairly callous, corrupt, and lacking choices that actually matter, the latter slanting the whole thing toward the "doomed" everything's-rotten-to-the-core approach to a story (per so much of Fassbinder) that just doesn't seem real to me.
Observations of cultural amnesia and even willful ignorance are one thing (and certainly a harsh indictment), but don't have to entail everyone acting like amoral animals who are either predatory or self-descructive, or both.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#41 Post by Lemmy Caution » Sat May 31, 2014 5:44 pm

Gregory wrote: Observations of cultural amnesia and even willful ignorance are one thing (and certainly a harsh indictment), but don't have to entail everyone acting like amoral animals who are either predatory or self-destructive, or both.
I like the phrase cultural amnesia. I think Fassbinder is saying that there's something monstrous about a country when everyone is hiding their past and everything is built on lies. That there is an inherent amorality in such a people and such a place.

In some ways, this really resonates with me, since I've lived quite some time in post-Cultural Revolution China. Where the official ideology switched from Marxist-Leninist to Market-Leninist (communist capitalism!) overnight, leaving a rather profound spiritual and moral void. A get-rich-quick, and get-it-while-you-can ethos dominates, with morality left in the ashes**. And there is no guidance from experience, as the past has been whitewashed, or distorted, or more often is not to be mentioned. A rapid shift in ideology -- underpinned by lies and cultural amnesia -- leaves a tremendous scar across the land and in the souls of the people who undergo such a transformation. So to return to your quote above -- cultural amnesia and amorality are in fact inextricably linked.


** a very good modern Chinese film on this theme is Blind Shaft, a joint production with Germany. Harsh and amoral.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#42 Post by Drucker » Sat May 31, 2014 11:21 pm

Lemmy, thank you for the excellent framing of the film.

This is my first Fassbinder, so I can't cite more examples than this, but I do see where Gregory is coming from. I was a bit surprised to see Robert sort of become the moral center of the story, since he is such a weak man. Perhaps that is the sadness of post World War II Germany, based on Lemmy's comments? That none of the Germans even had the opportunity to stake out a moral high ground in denouncing someone else's immorality at the time? Not sure. Though I really like his way of looking at the film.

And Gregory, your initial comment that stuck out to me: this film certainly felt like some sort of mix of The Blue Angel and Sunset Boulevard. But I'm not as dismissive of our female protagonist as I feel like you are. How would you react if the entire world had passed you by? Fame is another drug, isn't it? I never thought of Veronika or the woman in SB as people who are responsible for their own lack of fame. I got the impression in VV that the falling out with her husband didn't help. In SB, of course, you have the sound films. These are women, to me, who are made weak by forces outside of their control. Their personalities as actresses and divas probably does them no favors while trying to grope with the change in their lives. The only place they felt comfortable is in front of a camera. But getting back in front of it, after the fame is gone, is easier said than done, and the old magic doesn't seem to be there. It's devastating.

And of course, the actresses are matched with sleazy people happy to take advantage of them in their state. But I don't see it as nihilistic. Eric Von Stroheim and Veronika Voss's husband are both characters who seem to be aware of the sadness befallen their former icons/muses. They know what's happening, but are so singularly focused on fixing their love's problems, perhaps they are unaware of the root causes?

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#43 Post by Drucker » Mon Jun 02, 2014 10:10 am

One more point I'd like to bring up: the fantastic lighting which has been alluded to. I know I made a similar point in our Browning Version discussion, but doesn't the lighting seem to correspond with Veronika's stardom? When she's on a film set, the lights are beautiful and blinding. As the film goes on, she's isolated. I'm at work now so don't have the notes I took, but there was definitely a scene where there was a really brightly-lit flashback, and then when it came back to present day, there was greater darkness. At her first meeting in the restaurant with Robert, she comments about the lighting.

Obviously the lighting in the movie is beautiful, but it's exaggeration match Veronika's demeanor so well.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#44 Post by Lemmy Caution » Mon Jun 02, 2014 11:25 am

Drucker wrote: This is my first Fassbinder, so I can't cite more examples than this, but I do see where Gregory is coming from. I was a bit surprised to see Robert sort of become the moral center of the story, since he is such a weak man.
In a way that is perfect as well, as the weak "good Germans" -- those who weren't Nazis supporters but also didn't oppose them -- were the weak moral core of Hitler's Germany. That is, the ones with decent morals proved weak and ineffectual unable to prevent a national (and global) tragedy. While weak well-meaning Robert can't prevent Veronika's tragedy.

There's a whole Fassbinder thread in the Filmmakers Section.
There are scattered thoughts throughout there on which films are best and which are the best introduction to Fassbinder.

Veronika Voss and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) are definitely my favorite Fassbinder films, which I guess means I prefer late Fassbinder. I consider them both great films. 13 Moons is a more raw, emotional and personal film than VV, with a great central performance by Volker Spengler. Very '70's.

I like all the Fassbinder films I've seen, with the exception of Beware a Holy Whore, which is about the dysfunctional process of making a film.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#45 Post by Drucker » Mon Jun 02, 2014 11:30 am

I just put 13 Moons at the top of my queue. My wife is big into LGBTQ arts and culture, and she watched this with me and mostly enjoyed it. So I've already made that the next film on top of the queue, and definitely want to seek out those films from Fassbinder. Also, just how "sci-fi" are his sci-fi films? A la World On A Wire?

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#46 Post by jindianajonz » Mon Jun 02, 2014 2:45 pm

"Weak Men" is a common theme in the Fassbinder movies that I have seen- I was first introduced to his work in a German Pop Culture class that explored Marriage of Maria Braun, and we talked quite a bit about how impotent her husband seemed throughout the film after he came home from war (and how this represented Germany itself after the war, going from a world power to an occupied country and being unable to find a strong moral argument for fighting against this new status in light of confronting the atrocities of the Nazi regime). Ali: Fear Eats the Sole is another example of this, where Ali is pushed around by Emmi throughout most of the film, and never really stands up to her too strongly.

In terms of how "sci-fi" he gets in World on a Wire, I think Alphaville and Solaris would be good comparisons- the structure and plot of the movie completely depend on the sci-fi aspects, but if you were flipping through channels you'd have a tough time recognizing it as a sci-fi movie based on watching it for a few seconds.

I also took notice of the lighting throughout this film. At first, I thought the sparkling on the screen was mostly contained in flashbacks, representing the rosy glasses Voss seems to wear when she thinks of herself, but as the film went on I started to noticing the sparkle more and more in modern scenes and even scenes where Voss has a moment of clarity. For the white doctor's office, I took this to be representative of the fact that this office is where Voss sees herself as she really is- a washed up drug-addict. Here, the bright lighting exposes all of her flaws (both literal wrinkles and metaphorical character flaws), while outside this office she (and Fassbinder) uses the shadows as a cloak to make her appear glamorous and starlike, and she tries to adopt a different persona to match this appearance. If I get a chance to watch the film again soon, I'd like to try and pay more attention to these elements.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#47 Post by Drucker » Mon Jun 02, 2014 2:53 pm

I don't mean to aggressively ask you this...but you really think that Veronika, in her heart of hearts, knows that she is a washed up drug addict? I think she knows her glory days aren't the present, per se, but I certainly think she's convinced she is still a world-famous star, that everyone should recognize, and is destined for a comeback...

Just think of the scene where the director of the new film tells her he didn't want to offer her a sequence in his new film he felt would be "beneath" her, and again bring it back to the Sunset Boulevard comparison of that movie and the Cecil B. Demille scenes. That's how I see her "stardom" now.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#48 Post by jindianajonz » Mon Jun 02, 2014 3:54 pm

You are right, I mispoke- I meant to say that this is where Voss drops her starlett act and becomes the helpless drug addict that she is, willingly ceding all control of her life over to the doctor. Voss is certainly not nearly as aware of herself or her situation as we are, but she is at least more able to stop trying so hard while she is in the office with the doctor and her staff.

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#49 Post by Drucker » Mon Jun 02, 2014 4:29 pm

I would love someone to explain this doctor to me. Again, I see Lemmy's political take on it, but within the context of the movie it escapes me a bit. She got hooked up with a doctor who lives by taking advantage of rich patients? How did VV get connected with this person? Why does she believe her when she says "I'm your best friend."

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Re: Veronika Voss (R.W. Fassbinder, 1982)

#50 Post by Lemmy Caution » Tue Jun 03, 2014 2:33 am

It's easy to imagine ways that Veronika wound up going to Dr. Katz.
The doctor handles wealthy patients, so Veronika could easily have been recommended by a friend, or just sought out a doctor who treats the rich and famous, or their social/professional circles overlapped. Or if Veronika was addicted before meeting the doctor, she might have specifically searched around for a doctor willing to prescribe otherwise illegal drugs.

As for the "I am your best friend" line. In a perverse way it is true, since Veronika doesn't seem to have anyone and Dr. Katz gives her exactly what she wants. Of course, Dr. Katz is at the same time her worst enemy. I think it's interesting how Dr. Katz manipulates Veronika with such talk, just as we see Veronika try to manipulate others (especially Robert).

Fassbinder is always interested in power relationships.
In VV: Dr. Katz > Veronika > Robert > Robert's girlfriend.
There's a wry moment when Veronika is trying to get in to see the movie producer. Frustrated at being stonewalled, she tells the secretary that in the old days she would have slapped the secretary for being impertinent and difficult. And the woman casually replies that in the old days she wouldn't have had to because Veronika Voss would have been able to get an appointment. The secretary is also one of the few truthtellers in the film. But then the producer comes out, gets stuck dealing with Veronika, and gets all smarmy and deceptive.

One key late exchange:
Veronika: "You gave me much happiness."
Dr Katz: "I sold it to you."
Veronika: "Yes, I always knew where I stood with you."

Sure the doctor engages in terrible behavior, but she also gives Veronika what she wants, which is of course (self-)destructive. But in a world of lies and deception, the doctor is pretty upfront with Veronika that there is a steep price to pay for providing the morphine.

I think it's typical of Fassbinder to see both sides of a situation. In his films, there are always grey areas, always differing viewpoints, often similar elements and behaviors found in contrasting characters.

Lastly, it just struck me, that after Robert barges into the doctor's office with the authorities, Veronika gets a chance to act out her final scene. She pretends she barely knows Robert, strolling from one end to the other, playing to the small audience. Unlike the minor scene in the film she couldn't manage, here Veronika is quite convincing, and after Robert and the others leave, she breaks down in real tears, in contrast to the fake tears she had trouble producing on set. Nice.

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