It’s been almost a full month now since Criterion released Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder and, while reaction to the box set has ranged from the politely appreciative to the outright ecstatic, it’s also appeared in varied forms. The first piece to recommend is Michael Koresky‘s outstanding essay, the only extra in the box (since the point of the economy class Eclipse series is to get the films out there while Criterion lavishes its resources on its first-class releases). Before Koresky turns to each of the five films collected, his piece serves an excellent primer on the state of German cinema before and immediately after the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 and the eventual arrival of Rainer Werner Fassbinder by way of the the Antiteater collective, which he’d co-founded in Munich in the riotous month of May 1968.
Matthew Cheney‘s video essay for Press Play, embedded below, is another briefing of an entirely different sort. While his primary focus is on the five films, he also tracks their traces throughout RWF’s later work. At Artinfo, J. Hoberman concentrates on just one film, while at Film.com, Daniel Walber ranks the entire oeuvre, “from worst to best,” beginning with—yikes!—the very film Hoberman’s just discovered he still greatly admires. Note, too, though, how Walber’s annotated rankings differ from Steve Erickson‘s preferences as expressed in his review of Early Fassbinder for RogerEbert.com. There, Erickson briefly worries that “Fassbinder and the New German Cinema he represented haven’t had the kind of staying power with American audiences as neo-realism and the French New Wave.”
On the other hand, this year’s Werner Herzog retrospectives have surely revived a few memories—and this box set won’t hurt, either. In Germany, where, for the most part, Fassbinder was embraced by few and despised by many when he was alive, he is, to put it curtly, back. Last year saw a half-year-long symposium here in Berlin, and revivals of RWF’s plays and/or screenplays or other texts adapted for the stage are popping up in theaters across the country.
From Love Is Colder Than Death
Before turning to the films at hand, there’s no avoiding the unavoidable: RWF’s astounding, almost ridiculous prolificacy. Daniel Walber: “Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed 44 films in 18 years. If you take out the shorts, the numbers are still crazy: 39 films in 14 years. That figure includes both theatrical features and TV productions, some of which run well over four hours (and one conspicuous 15.5 hour behemoth).” Noel Murray at the Dissolve: “During his first three years directing features, between 1969 and 1971 (after making three short films and staging roughly a dozen plays between 1965 and 1969), Fassbinder had a hand in 10 movies, and while they’re often austere, the best of these films comment astutely on genre and politics, and show a growing aesthetic confidence. Even the weakest feel fully realized—not in the least amateurish. Fassbinder was a freak in that way.”
So. On to what’s being said about five of those ten, and we begin, as we should, with Michael Koresky:
His first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death , was shot in Munich in 24 days in April 1969… In the leading role, Fassbinder cast not one of his loyal Antiteater players but Ulli Lommel, whom he’d acted alongside in Schlöndorff’s TV adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. In Love Is Colder Than Death, Fassbinder employs a chilly, detached aesthetic—inspired by the experimental work of Godard and Jean-Marie Straub—to subvert American gangster movie clichés. Lommel plays Bruno, a worker for a crime syndicate who is instructed to convince a small-time hood, Franz (Fassbinder), to join the outfit. The simmering tension of the film comes from its underlying eroticism, as the evident attraction between Bruno and Franz—and between Franz’s girl, Joanna ([Hanna] Schygulla), and both men—creates complications. All romantic possibilities are ultimately beside the point, however, as the nihilistic Love Is Colder Than Death presents such pursuits as futile, culminating in a betrayal and a botched robbery.
“Katzelmacher (a pejorative slang term for ‘trouble maker’) which had its first New York showing at the New Yorker Theater as part of an unprecedented three month retrospective in the spring of 1977 that included seven premieres, was,” writes J. Hoberman, “the movie that most impressed me with Fassbinder’s genius. I began reviewing films for the Village Voice that fall and, when invited to contribute a year-end 10 Best List, ranked Katzelmacher number one. (You can find the list here.) Given that Jean-Luc Godard’s Numéro Deux came in second, I think that I was making a point… I don’t think it registered on me that Katzelmacher was only Fassbinder’s second feature but I must have been aware that he was 24 when he made the film—not much younger than I when I first saw it. Youth, his and mine, was surely a factor. The reason why I ranked Katzelmacher ahead of Numéro Deux, James Benning’s 11×14, and Robert Bresson’s The Devil Probably… was an appreciation for and affirmation of Fassbinder’s insolence.”
As for what Katzelmacher (1969) is about, it “takes place in a Munich suburb where the main pastime is standing outside an apartment complex and bickering about money and sex,” as Steve Erickson explains. “The plot really gets underway at the 40-minute mark, when Yorgos (Fassbinder), a Greek immigrant with a limited German vocabulary, moves in. Quickly, he’s suspected of being a Communist and a rapist, while he becomes an object of erotic fascination for some of the local women…. The idea that xenophobia is rooted in sexual jealousy may be questionable, but given the ugly climate around immigration that persists in the U.S. and Europe, this may be the most politically cogent film in Early Fassbinder.”
Gods of the Plague (1969) “loosely recapitulates his first movie, with some of the same characters (this time Harry Baer plays Franz, with a glassy eye toward the Warhol limp-stud paradigm) and similar plotting, as a way of conducting some fresh experiments, working out new spatial and emotional compositions,” writes Howard Hampton for Artforum. “With Schygulla doing her first Dietrich turn at ‘Club Lola Montez,’ while being framed backstage in a dirty mirror that lends a distinct Robert Frank–ness to the lowlife vantage point, the movie has all the infectiously bleak cunning of a romantic-triangle opera filtered through the Rolling Stones at their most downbeat and strung-out. Alienation never felt so valiantly bittersweet as when a wounded robber’s Odd Man Out stagger down a deserted boulevard by night segues into an a cappella rendition of ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte’ staged in yet another mirror. Fassbinder reconnoiters the tension between distance and rapture like a private eye photographing a cheating spouse: businesslike, cynical, mesmerized.”
“At times, the sheer diversity of the director’s aesthetic—tracking shots, overhead shots, pans, zooms, an overwhelming helicopter shot over a rural road—could be an attempt to awaken his main character,” suggests Danny King at the Film Stage. “But it’s a hopeless task: there’s nothing waiting for Franz, no tangible goal or destination… When the character finally meets his fate on the floor of a supermarket, Fassbinder doesn’t even have the mercy to end the film.”
“Franz returns in 1970’s The American Soldier—now played by Fassbinder again—and a few other characters and settings from the earlier two films pop back up as well,” writes Noel Murray. “The film is mostly about a Vietnam vet turned hitman named Ricky (Karl Scheydt), who lets Franz feed him assignments from a group of crooked cops. This is an exercise by Fassbinder in fusing the pop-art sensibility of Love Is Colder Than Death with the deep miserablism of Gods of the Plague. Fassbinder toys with the imagery of noir and pulp, peppering The American Soldier with long scenes of men in hats driving through darkened city streets, and throwing in references to Batman comics and science-fiction. As with Love Is Colder Than Death, Fassbinder doesn’t even try to make the violence realistic. His actors contort themselves into exaggerated positions whenever a cheesy-sounding gun effect goes off. But the film’s relentless nihilism has a cumulative power, as the characters find that being characters doesn’t make life any more endurable.”
Rebecca A. Brown at Cinespect: “As Ricky and Franz careen down the highway drinking beer, the latter asks his friend about his Vietnam experience. Ricky’s response, ‘Loud,’ is as upsettingly hilarious as Franz’s retort, ‘Oh yeah?… Nothing happened here,’ a statement that puts the recent traumatic past and fallout under erasure and attains a stunning level of demented absurdity given that Soldier was filmed at the height of RAF turmoil.”
“The crooked frames and brooding shadows feel reminiscent of Lang, Fuller, and Murnau, all name-checked as characters while Fassbinder recreates the films he loves,” writes Peter Labuza at the Film Stage. “But the plot is more meandering and the kills more ‘foreign’—before the first hit, a long take as the victim ogles himself in the mirror.”
Richard Brody on Beware of a Holy Whore
Jordan Cronk, reviewing the set for Slant, isn’t the only one to argue that by the time we arrive at Beware of a Holy Whore (1970), “intimations of a larger genius were on display. Considered the last film of Fassbinder’s initial phase, Beware of a Holy Whore took the art of filmmaking itself as its subject. A meta-cinematic journey into Fassbinder’s unique process and an indelible time capsule of the spiritual, professional, and social mores of the early ’70s, the film was directly inspired by the production of Whity , an ill-fated project which nearly derailed the director’s career. Seemingly both improvised and carefully outlined, the film is nearly one big aside, as the cast and crew of the film-within-the-film await the arrival of their lead actor and director in an anonymous Spanish villa, during which time they attempt to indulge every hedonistic pleasure imaginable. The appearance of Eddie Constantine (as himself) and the director (Lou Castel) do little to stabilize what appears to be a sinking ship, as the former refuses to interact and the latter careens wildly between binging on booze and tyrannically harassing his filmmaking team.”
Howard Hampton: “If Love Is Colder Than Death is Fassbinder’s most underrated film—at once too gnomic and too precociously ruthless—then Beware of a Holy Whore is where Fassbinder incontrovertibly graduates from being a dazzling student of filmmaking to working on a level commensurate with the high masters.”