rainer werner fassbinder


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f a s s b i n d e r  :   w u n d e r k i n d  ]

"Fassbinder's vision was troubled and troubling."
- Paul Page

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      If for each decade there is one country which shines in world cinema, for the Seventies it must have been West Germany. It is always difficult to say why this should be ... what combination of social and economic forces with artistic tendencies . . . what totally unpredictable outbursts of individual talent. But even if one could suggest some tentative conclusions about the New German Cinema, it would be impossible to account for the appearance anywhere, at any time, of such an eccentric and many-faceted figure as the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

    Although in the eyes of posterity he may not prove to have been the most gifted of a generation which also includes Herzog, Wenders, Schlondorff, Kluge and Straub, Rainer Werner Fassbinder undeniably made the biggest splash. It would have been difficult to guess at this from his obscure beginnings. When his first feature film Uebe ist kalter als der Tod (1969, Love Is Colder Than Death) was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969, it left public and jurors alike non-plussed. Being a weird and pretentious combination of Maoist politics and static silences made it almost impossible to judge whether its maker actually had any talent which might possibly emerge once he had shed his two obsessive influences - Godard and Straub. But, it must also be admitted, the film had in full measure that ability to stick in the throat and irritate those who are normally peaceable to fury, and it was this which subsequently turned out to be one of Fassbinder's hallmarks.

    Knowledgeable Germans said that this young man (23 at the time) had already done interesting work in the theatre as a writer, director, actor and general 'animator'. He was born in 1946 and was brought up largely by his mother after his parents' divorce. She had been a translator before becoming an actress, and she appeared as Lilo Pempeit in many of her son's films.

    When he was 18 he entered a drama school where he met the first of his longtime associates, the actress Hanna Schygulla. In 1965 he made a ten-minute short - Der Stadtstreicher - the cast of which included another off hiis regular collaborators, Irm Hermann, and in 1967 he moved, with a group of friends, to a Munich fringe theatre called Action Theater, where he began directing productions and then writing his own texts. In 1968 the theatre was closed by the police, but Fassbinder and nine others (including Hanna Schygulla, Peer Raben, Kurt Raab and Irm Hermann) set up another group - Anti-Theater - also in Munich.

    Sharp shooter

    Thus, by the time Fassbinder began making feature films, he had not only experience, but, crucial to his methods of working, a sort of stock company of actors round him who were used to his ways, able to take his lightning changes of direction in their stride, and work as complete collaborators in the evolution of new works, whether on stage, screen or - later on - television. It was through them that Fassbinder's legendary productivity was possible: where other, more conventionally minded film-makers would labour for months to set up, cast and shoot a film, he could, and frequently did, knock one off in a matter of days.

    Hence the alarming statistic that once Fassbinder had embarked on a career in films, he made in the first two years (1969-70) no fewer than ten features. Most of them had a wild, improvisatory quality which Fassbinder never wholly shook off, and indeed, when he tried to, he seemed to be in danger of falling into the opposite trap of mandarin pretentiousness. The products of this period inclined towards Godard as the primary influence, both in their rough-and-ready shooting style and in their general commitment to a critique of bourgeois society.

    A typical early Fassbinder film in these respects would be Warum lauft Herr R. amok? (1970, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?), written and directed with Michael Fengler, in which an apparently happily married technical designer with a child, a lovely home and all the comforts of established middle-class life suddenly, for no stated reason, kills his wife, his son and a neighbour, then calmly goes to the office the next morning and there kills himself. What might have begun as a Marxist critique slips over into a refusal to comment that might be interpreted as Absurdist, anarchic or merely cool . . . according to taste.

    Transatlantic meditations

    Fassbinder's own cinematic passions have embraced many other things besides recent political cinema. He had a passion for the Western and for overheated Hollywood melodrama, particularly when directed by Douglas Sirk. He had also been known to approve of Rossellini's brand of neo-realism. Thus it should have come as no surprise to find him, amidst his tributes to Godard, suddenly veering towards Samuel Fuller in Der amerikanische Soldat (1970, The American Soldier). In the more than usually bizarre Whity (1971) he is to be found pastiching a whole range of American Westerns and steamy tales of the Old South, with the mulatto hero darkly brooding on vengeance against the white master-race, represented here by a bunch of sadists and dribbling half-wits.

    In 1971 Fassbinder began on the series of films which were to make him an important international figure. These were interspersed from 1972 with films and series intended wholly or partly for television, some of which Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (1972-73, Eight Hours Don't Make a Day) and Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) - are very extensive. The first of the theatrical movies was Der Handler der vier fahreszeiten (1972, The Merchant of Four Seasons), chronicling the economic rise and personal decline of a greengrocer in a sober style illuminated from time to time with flashes of bravura melodrama.

    The second, Die bitteren Trdnen der Petra von Kant (1972, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), is a very literal but at the same time wholly cinematic transposition of a play by Fassbinder, who had continued throughout to work extensively in the theatre as well. It is the story of a spoilt fashion designer who has a brief lesbian affair, and in the course of a series of highly-charged meetings with her mother, her daughter, her best friend and most of the important people in her life, is finally deserted by them all and left alone.

    The next to appear was Angst essen Seek auf (1974, Fear Eats the Soul) - an unexpectedly cheering view of a marriage between an elderly, widowed German char and a Moroccan immigrant worker younger than herself. For once, Fassbinder had told the subject in a minutely realistic manner which made it readily approachable by general audiences. With hindsight one may see that in the fourth, Fontane Effi Briest (1974, Effi Briest), a conspicuously well-upholstered adaptation of Theodor Fontane's famous turn-of-the-century novel about a dissatisfied wife and a fatal liaison, Fassbinder was already moving over, through a concern for surface polish and 'style', towards affectation and stuffiness.

    Gloss or floss?

    Finally, however, in Faustrecht der Freiheit (1975, Fox), the relatively sensational - or at any rate unfamiliar - subject-matter (homosexuality) helped to obscure this tendency for the moment. Though married briefly to the actress Ingrid Caven, Fassbinder had never sought to disguise his own homosexuality, and, in his episode of Deutschland im Herbst (1978, Germany in Autumn), he offered a scarifying picture of his own home life with a lover who later killed himself. In Fox he plays a rough, homosexual fairground-worker who wins a lottery, is taken up by supposedly grand homosexuals and then eventually cast aside by his elegant businessman-lover once his money has run out. The picture the film presents of a certain stratum of German society is quite appalling, though Fassbinder stoutly denied that the story was necessarily homosexual in its context. However its significance is read, it was seen as a gay movie by millions who had never seen such a thing before, and finally made Fassbinder a name outside the limited art-house circuit.

    Its success seems to have had a slightly disorienting effect on Fassbinder or perhaps merely confirmed him in a direction he was already going. Mutter Kusters Fahrt zum Himmel (1975, Mother Kuster's Trip to Heaven) resumed the theme of Fox - the betrayal of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie - in another form, with the ruthless exploitation of a working-class heroine by perfidious middle- class politicos. But Chinesisches Roulette (1976, Chinese Roulette), Satansbraten (1976, Satan's Brew) and particularly Despair (1978), pursued an extravagant aestheticism to the exclusion of much else: Chinese Roulette, a melodramatic family tragedy exploring emotional sterility among the promiscuous rich, is at least foolish but fun. But Despair, though enlivened by a fine study in suppressed hysteria by Dirk Bogarde as a chocolate manufacturer slowly going mad, suffers from Fassbinder's relative insecurity directing in English. Neither is this helped by an excess of gloss applied to a film already overloaded with a subject from a Nabokov novel and an elaborately over- literate script by Tom Stoppard.

    In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (1978, In the Year of Thirteen Moons) managed the remarkable feat of making its weird subject - the last agonized days of a transsexual who cannot co-exist with either his/her male lover or ex-wife and teenage daughter - quite stodgy and dull.

    Die Eheder Maria Braun (1979, The Marriage of Maria Braun) whipped through thirty years of German history wrapped round the vaguely symbolic figure of a separated wife who uses sex to become a business tycoon, all for love of her absent husband. In Lili Marleen (1981) Hanna Schygulla sings the song about eighteen times for an ambiguous trip down memory lane in the good old bad old days. Lola (1981) combines elements from both films in the person of a cabaret singer who highlights provincial corruption in vamping a civic official and ends up owning the town brothel. Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (1982, Veronika Voss) concerns a faded film star addicted to drugs and death. After these studies of women, Fassbinder returned to homosexual themes in his far from erotic Querelle (1982), adapted from a novel by Jean Genet, with a sailor (played by Brad Davis) as the vamp. He died in 1982 - aged only 36 - from a mixture of drink and drugs.

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