Fassbinder and/or Fenger take a pictorially opposite approach in portraying alienation and anomie from cinema's reputed master of such portrayals, Michelangelo Antonioni. Where the Italian manipulates space within a widescreen frame and emphasizes emptiness and absence, the Germans smother us with implicitly intolerable banality within a documentary-style frame and seemingly artless handheld camerawork. If R. seems barely capable of responding to people, the suggestion is that there's little worth responding to.
Is R. a waste product of a rotten culture or simply defective? His lack of social skills comes out most torturously at an office party as he rises, drunk, to deliver a dead-on-arrival speech about the benefits of a friendly working environment. Does this prove that R. has nothing to say? Has he an internal life, a mental monologue whose interruption by other people he resents to a fatal degree? One of the few clues, in one somewhat overly ominous scene, comes as he helps his son practice his reading with a passage about an eagle. The boy reads haltingly, concentrating on his pronunciation, about how small the world looks to the eagle soaring high above as the father stares ahead. Does R. see himself as an eagle rightfully soaring above the mundane? Does he fell caged when he can't hear the TV over his wife and her friend gossiping? Is he simply oversaturated at last by the culture's pure noise? The film can't help raising questions beyond the one in the title. Does R's amoklauf demonstrate a social critique by the filmmakers, or is it a mere gratuitous act that renders the film one as well? You could go either way, since there's something ultimately gratuitous to a social critique that has murder as its outcome. Herr R. is a fair portrait of alienation but may go too far portraying society from the perspective of alienation as if to justify R's actions or tempt us to justify them, if only from a desire to be entertained finally. Whoever did make the film was a precociously subtle manipulator of audiences, but for what purpose? You can ask why of them as well as their character, and that keeps their film an interesting piece of cinematic history.