Whity (1970)
Cast: Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, Ron Randell
Extras: Audio commentary with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and Actor/Producer Ulli Lommel, Liner Notes

In 1970, the controversial German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder set his anarchic eye on the American Western, creating perhaps the strangest oater ever committed to film. Now, after languishing 30 years in obscurity, ’Whity’ returns with a DVD featuring a positively tactile widescreen transfer and a revelatory commentary track.

’Whity’ recounts the malevolent machinations of the Nicholsons, a wealthy family in the old American West. The titular character is their mulatto slave/butler (Gunther Kaufmann), both exploited and embraced by the ghoulish clan, whose pallid fleshtones suggest ghosts in the making. In addition to bearing witness to the Nicholsons’ moral turpitude, Whity confronts his own demons in his affections for a saloon chanteuse/prostitute (played by Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla). Love, death, transvestitism, homosexuality and the conventions of the Western merge into a complex narrative that defies any attempt at precise description.

The 2.35 widescreen anamorphic transfer achieves practically perfect color fidelity, capturing elements as disparate as Whity’s blood-red servants’ uniform or the minutiae of azure-blue kitchen tile. Blacks are deep and solid, allowing for excellent contrast delineation and shadow detail. Except for some mild grain and a few color shifts, the pristine source in no way suggests the wear usually associated with a ’forgotten’ film.

Equally well represented is the DVD’s audio. In Dolby Digital mono, the German-language soundtrack is an exceptional mono mix, creating a thick ’aural’ atmosphere capturing every decibel of detail and meaning. Simple sounds gain emotional weight, such as the ticks of a clock counting off lost moments of redemption, or the encircling wind figuratively trapping the characters. The only subtitle option allows for English translation of the German dialogue.

The commentary track by Ballhaus and Lommel leaps far beyond the usual ’we-just-have-funny-anecdotes’ pabulum. They explicate and illustrate as if they just ran into each other on the street and decided to reminisce about a special time in their professional lives. Add very informative (and strikingly written) liner notes and the reward is a concise exploration that illuminates just as assuredly as a feature-loaded disc.

As with most Fassbinder explorations of human foibles, ’Whity’ is not easy to digest. However, those willing to take the journey will find no better road map than this exemplary DVD.