Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film Despair was shot in 1977 and was proudly premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1978. The film is based on one of Vladimir Nabokov's major Russian novels, Despair. The eminent British playwright Tom Stoppard prepared the screenplay for Fassbinder, carefully adapting Nabokov's text for cinematic staging. The hypotext Despair was originally published in 1934 in Contemporary Letters, a major Russian–Parisian literary journal of the pre-war emigration, and further issued as a separate book in Berlin (by Petropolis) in 1936. The original storyline was set in Berlin at the beginning of the 1930s.
Fassbinder's Despair has enjoyed wide scholarly attention over the years. Of particular importance are the works of the British scholar Ewa Mazierska and the film historian Thomas Elsaesser. Most recently, the Russian critic Nina Savchenkova organized a special roundtable focused on the film's reception in Russia which was hosted by the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg. The ontological discongruity between the two artists was one of the dominant themes of this roundtable. In what follows, I will analyze Fassbinder's hypertext along with Nabokov's hypotext in order to address the dramatic dialectical collision that occurs when Fassbinder transports Nabokov's hypotext to a different cultural territory—namely Nazi Germany. The main differences between these artistic sensibilities are related to two major spheres: “the territory of homosensuality,” as opposed to the heterosexual universe of Nabokov, and the “territory of nascent Nazism” as explored by Fassbinder, which is opposed to Nabokov's “neutral” German environs. The point is not to illustrate the affinity between the two artists, but rather to highlight the personal and aesthetical differences that emerge with this border crossing.
WRITTEN AND CINEMATIC TEXTS
Before we start the discussion, it is important to account for all of the available versions of the author's text (the Russian hypotext and then Nabokov's own modified English translation and the English script-adaptation of the film by Stoppard—both hypertexts of the original).