According to Michael Töteberg's production history on the Criterion Collection site, the project was first sketched out in May of 1981, when it was originally to be titled Sybille Schmitz. Schmitz was one of his favorite actresses (she was one of the Vampyr's, 1932 victims), and he had intended to cast her in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) before he learned of her passing decades before. Schmitz had died under mysterious circumstances, and her physician, Dr. Ursula Moritz, was charged "with continued offense against the drug law with intent to gain illegal financial advantage." Basically she was suspected of drugging up her customers in order to bleed them of cash. She was sent to prison for four months on minor charges and never brought to justice for the three patients who had died under her care.
Veronika Voss fictionalizes her life and elaborates on the unknown relationship between Schmitz and her doctor. Rosel Zech plays Voss with the imperious cluelessness of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard; she is a woman out of time, living off borrowed glamor. But she still shines enough to catch the eye of Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), a rumpled sportswriter who stumbles upon her at a screening of one of her old Nazi-era features. He hands her an umbrella, as Edward G. Robinson does to Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (1945), followed by a nighttime tram ride reminiscent of Murnau's Sunrise (1927). She is a transcendent figure, backlit to stand out from her surroundings unlike the cowered passengers who sit near the front of the train. Krohn, despite having a long-time girlfriend, is entranced by Voss, by both her beauty and her irreparable sadness.
So he investigates her situation and discovers she is a live-in patient of Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who lives in a blindingly white apartment that doubles as an office. Thomas Elsaesser, in Fassbinder's Germany, memorably describes the cinematography: "Never before has white seemed so menacing, so evil as in the apartment of Dr. Katz, and in the room that will become both prison and grave to Veronika. Not a film noir, then, but a film blanc."
Krohn's obsession eventually ropes in his conflicted girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess), who fears losing her boyfriend but is also implacably pulled in by Voss' tractor-beam eyes. They both, at times, seem to be under hypnosis. Film historian Yann Lardeau, according to Elsaesser, "sees in Veronika the echo and reinterpretation of an essential motif of expressionist cinema, from the Student of Prague who sold his shadow, to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with Veronika the Cesare to Dr. Katz' Caligari."
There are so many layers and allusions in Veronika Voss that it's easy to go down the rabbit hole of interpretation, but so much of its appeal is right on the surface. Schwarzenberger's cinematography pulls off the remarkable feat of depicting decaying glamor. In a remarkable shot on a movie set, he packs the frame with miniature star lights that are so bright they start obscuring the actors, creating a thickness to the image that pushes Veronika into the periphery. She is no longer the star of her own life, getting pushed further into addiction until she chooses oblivion over Krohn's savior act.
The structuring absence is Hitler and Veronika's collusion with the Nazi regime. One of Krohn's co-workers mentions that Veronika was a pet project of Goebbels but was eventually discarded from favor. West Germany's "economic miracle" could only take place alongside a turning away from its horrific recent past. Fassbinder said that, "If a thing of so much significance could be forgotten or repressed, then something must be pretty wrong with this democracy and this 'German model.'" Veronika Voss was the model German, now the victim of a society's vast forgetting.
By R. Emmet Sweeney