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If the ’60s belonged to Jean-Luc Godard, the ’70s were Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s. That, in part, is because both contrived such definitive finales to their decades: Godard ended his by becoming a Maoist, withdrawing from cinema with 1968’s apocalyptic Weekend. Fassbinder worked and binged himself to death in 1982, 10 days before he was supposed to begin shooting his 42nd feature. He was 37, and had made 43 films in 13 years.
The two had much else in common. Both were “political” filmmakers who more often focused on interpersonal intrigues than the clash of nations or mass ideologies. Both were inspired by Hollywood B-movies, but couldn’t or wouldn’t play their homages straight. (That got both of them called “Brechtian” at one time or another.) Both acted in their own and others’ films. Both had tangled relationships with Hollywood, and both were prime movers in new national cinemas they subsequently left in the dust.
There are, however, just as many differences. Godard is straight; Fassbinder was gay (or, some say, bisexual). Godard is Franco-Swiss; Fassbinder was a German haunted by what his countrymen had done just before he was born. Godard is an intellectual agitator; Fassbinder’s revolt was raw, messy, and emotional. And while Godard may have been unreasonable on occasion, he has never been accused of the wholesale emotional cruelty that characterized Fassbinder’s relationships with his actors, friends, and lovers.
Much of this will be clear in the 25 Fassbinder films to be shown in Washington April 5-May 11. Still, the D.C. edition of the 43-film retrospective, organized by the Goethe Institut, the Fassbinder Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art, has significant gaps. The National Gallery of Art will screen films the director made between 1967 and 1971, as well as 1977’s The Stationmaster’s Wife. The American Film Institute will show mostly better-known Fassbinders from the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Hirshhorn Museum and Filmfest D.C. will screen a few more, but that still leaves almost half the films in limbo.
This apparently was not by design; Goethe Institut program coordinator Sylvia Blume says another planned venue, the Key Theater, dropped out because of “scheduling problems.” The result, nonetheless, is a retrospective that largely skips the transition from Fassbinder’s early filmsmade in a frantic, autodidactic apprenticeshipto such sumptuous, stylistically assured later pictures as The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lili Marleen. In the process, it also elides some of the director’s most charged work.
The relationship between victim and victimizer is key to Fassbinder’s work, and he took both roles. As the leader of the Antiteater group and later his own loose filmmaking collective, the director inflicted a lot of damage. Two of his lovers committed suicide, and in the early ’70s, he sent actresses Irm Hermann and Ursula Strätz out as prostitutes to support him and the group. In 1973, he made Martha (to be shown by Filmfest D.C.), the story of a submissive wife and an abusive husband. The moral, Fassbinder explained, is that “most men cannot be as perfectly oppressive as women would wish.”
Fassbinder’s treatment of women is notorious, although such longtime collaborators as actress Hanna Schygulla and editor Juliane Lorenz (who now heads the Fassbinder Foundation) insist he never abused them. In his segment of Germany in Autumn, a multidirector meditation on the German political situation in 1978, the director harangues his mother, trapping her into admitting reactionary sentiments. One of his best-known films, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, observes a psychologically brutal lesbian ménage à trois. Perhaps the most oppressed “woman” in all his films is Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons, who gets a sex-change operation to please a man who then rejects her. But Elvira turns out to be the casualty of her own delusions: The former Erwin switches his gender based on an offhand comment from his uninterested beloved that he might go for Erwin if he were a girl.
If Fassbinder usually had the upper hand in his personal relationships, he nonetheless often took the side of the downtrodden in his films. He supported the cause of German “guest workers” in Katzelmacher (which will be shown by the National Gallery) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. He made several films that empathized with older women abandoned by their families, and adapted Fontane’s Effi Briest, a novel about a young woman trapped by her marriage that is sometimes called the German Madame Bovary.
Perhaps most tellingly, the director cast himself in Fox and His Friends as an unsophisticated working-class gay man who wins half a million marks in the lottery, only to be fleeced by an upscale lover. Fox ultimately realizes he’s being cheated, but can’t bring himself to break off the affair. “Love,” Fassbinder once said, “is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.”
Most of these provocative films are not included in this series. Neither are the Fassbinders that most upset the German left, The Third Generation (which presents terrorism, a fraught subject in ’70s Germany, as a commercial gambit) and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (in which everyone wants to exploit the wife of a factory worker who commits suicide). The new print of the latter even has a more controversial ending never before seen in the U.S. (and still not to be seen in Washington).
Such absences make the series a bewildering whole, but that doesn’t diminish the power of the individual films. Though Fassbinder worked fast and cheap, he ultimately came to make movies that were exceptionally polished. The films of the director’s “Economic Miracle” trilogyThe Marriage of Maria Braun, his U.S. commercial breakthrough; Lola; and Veronika Vossare rich both visually and thematically. So is Lili Marleen, an over-the-top parable about a singer who loves the trappings of Third Reich stardom but also her Jewish boyfriend, who smuggles other Jews into Switzerland. (All these films will be shown at AFI or Filmfest D.C.).
These later films, which both relish and subvert the conventions of ’50s melodrama, demonstrate Fassbinder’s debt to Douglas Sirk, a Danish-German director who made several films under Nazi control in the ’30s before defecting to Hollywood. Sirk, whose best-known work includes Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind, made elegantly visualized weepies that (sometimes) transcended their ludicrous plots. It was under the influence of these movies, Fassbinder said, that he embraced melodrama: “Sirk made me realize that it’s perfectly possible to tell stories in such a way that people would normally say they’re not being told truthfully.”
As their titles suggest, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss, and Lili Marleen are all stories of women. But they are also accounts of German society in the ’40s and ’50s, when political conformity and convenient amnesia allowed Germans to regroup and rebuild. Hitler and Adenauer, war and real-estate developmentthey’re all intertwined in Fassbinder’s indictment of an era he called “repulsive.” Although the director never lost his interest in interpersonal politics, in his final films he expanded the bounds of the weepie to an entire country.
Fassbinder’s actual final film was the garish Querelle (to be shown at the Hirshhorn), one of his two misbegotten adaptations of novels. (The other is Nabokov’s Despair, scripted by Tom Stoppard, and the director’s first English-language film. It will show at AFI.) This baroque reading of Jean Genet’s novel is visually striking, but it fails to balance the ridiculous and the sublime with Fassbinder’s usual assurance. Curiously, in this film the director cast Jeanne Moreau and emulated the style of Alain Resnais, thus reconnecting him to his early interest in the French new wave.
That link will presumably be clear in the early Fassbinders to be shown at the National Gallery. (Of these 12 films, several have never been shown in the U.S. before; I’ve seen only two of them.) One of the early shorts, The City Tramp, was inspired by Eric Rohmer’s first film, Under the Sign of Leo, and several of the features are Godardian riffs on Hollywood genres. (Later, Fassbinder cast Anna Karina, Godard’s ex-wife and the star of many of his ’60s films, in Chinese Roulette, a family-horror film that AFI will show. He also enlisted Eddie Constantine, the star of Godard’s Alphaville, for Beware of a Holy Whore, a film about filmmaking that is in the National Gallery lineup.)
Derived from gangster and B-movie genres, many of these early films feature tough-guy murder and gunplay. Even as early as 1969’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, however, Fassbinder was investigating the theme of persons overwhelmed by the larger forces of society. In his films, such characters frequently end their own lives. Indeed, after the downfalls that their creator contrived for them, it often seems that they have no choice but suicide.
Though none of his associates deny that Fassbinder was self-destructive, some insist that he was not suicidal. Accounts of his legendary consumption of drugs and alcohol are sometimes presented as just another of the director’s power trips. Writes Ronald Hayman in Fassbinder Film Maker: “One night in Cannes, when [longtime friend and sometime producer] Dieter Schidor spent a night in the same hotel bedroom, Fassbinder was showing off about how much he would take into his system when he was trying to sleep. Schidor had to watch while he sniffed cocaine, took three Valium 10 and drank three glasses of bourbon. ‘If I’m not asleep within fifteen minutes,’ he said, ‘I’m going to take the same again.’ Fifteen minutes later he was still awake, and he did take the same again. ‘If you did that,’ he told Schidor, ‘you’d be dead already.’”
Clearly, Fassbinder didn’t merely submit to despair. Indeed, for all its pessimism, his work is not despairing. The films, like the filmmaker, are full of life, if perhaps a little overly romantic about death.
Wim Wenders, Fassbinder’s principal competition for the title of best New German Cinema director, writes of learning of his death: “Incomprehensible as it seemed, at that moment it hit me that all of us should have realized long ago that you had been moving towards that goal for quite a while.”
That comment is collected in MoMA’s catalog to the retrospective, and may speak for many who saw the rampaging Fassbinder from a distance. The catalog also includes, however, some reminiscences of the director’s last days by a longtime collaborator, Harry Baer. “I have started collecting music tapes…” writes Baer. “Those from the seventies and eighties are going to the archive. We shall need them for atmosphere in the films we make in the nineties.”CP