I Only Want You to Love Me (1975) could serve as the working title for most of the films in the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific German director who made 43 features between 1969 and his death of a drug overdose in 1982. Like so many of his films, it’s the story of a man so desperate to win the approval and love he has been denied through his childhood that he sabotages his health, his wealth and his happiness. Though inspired by a real-life crime recounted in the book “Life Sentence,” Fassbinder’s script is more personal than sociological.
Vitus Zeplichal, a new member to Fassbinder’s company of players in his first and only leading role for the director, plays Peter, a bricklayer from a small Bavarian town. His mother (Erni Mangold) is cold and disapproving and his father (Alexander Allerson) inattentive and unwilling to stand up to his wife, and even after single-handedly building them a house (on his days off from a full-time job) he fails to win their affection. He marries Erika (Elke Aberle), a young pharmacy assistant, and impulsively moves to Munich to start a new life in the booming economy of the big city. He’s the devoted son, the attentive husband and the dedicated worker, but he works himself to exhaustion and ill-health trying to prove his love to Erika with the trappings of middle-class affluence and spirals into crippling debt. “I’d rather work myself to death than beg,” he explains to Erika after she suggests he ask his father for money, which would be as good as admitting that he’s failure. The moment his confidence is shaken, he buys another present for his wife and spends himself back into debt, until the pressure is so great that he finally, inevitably cracks. Interspersed with his story are flashbacks to his childhood and his courtship with Erika and interviews between Peter and a social worker.