Criterion’s release of Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder last summer rekindled long simmering interest in many, while for others unfamiliar with the first films of one of cinema’s most original and—let’s go ahead and get this out of the way—prolific auteurs, it was a full-blown revelation. Appreciation came in the form of written and video essays, and I gathered what I considered to be the best of it here in September. Thing is, the box set collects a mere five films—about half the number of features Fassbinder made between 1969 and 1971 alone. When he died in 1982 at the age of 37, he left behind a body of work that includes 39 features, a good handful of shorts and a few outstanding long-form television productions—and that’s not even counting the theatrical productions.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is staging a two-part retrospective, the largest in New York in over a decade. Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist (Part 1) opens today; Part 2 will follow in November. The series includes not only films Fassbinder directed but also a good number of films he appeared in, wrote and/or inspired. Part 1 opens today with Gods of the Plague (1970), a new restoration of The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), which is screening with Jean-Marie Straub’s The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp (1968).
“Straub and his wife Danièle Huillet filmed a truncated stage production of a play about bourgeois love follies that starred Fassbinder and other Munich-based theater actors,” writes Aaron Cutler for the L. “They then sandwiched their record in between nighttime views of prostitutes at work and a tale of a biracial marriage whose happy ending comes with the newlywed couple’s triumph over Fassbinder’s small-minded white pimp. Straub once called the film his most political for how it staged the Third World’s triumph over the First.”
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) screens tomorrow and Sunday. “With a sardonic, scalpel-like technique, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his co-director, Michael Fengler, calmly and gleefully flay the West German version of the American dream,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Kurt Raab plays the thirty-something Kurt Raab, an ambitious draftsman in a small Munich architectural firm.”
Calum Marsh in the Voice: “Kurt is a man who has long since receded into the background of his own existence: Whether pottering about the house he shares with his socialite wife (Lilith Ungerer) or toiling listlessly in an office where nobody pays him much mind, he seems most content to go about his business unharassed and, indeed, unnoticed…. One evening, Kurt wields a candlestick like a club and, as unceremoniously as he does anything else, sharply punctures the bubble of his apathetic life. Kurt, we sense, never aspired to anything more than mediocrity. The film is a lament for his only recourse: to extinguish.”
“The unavoidable (and trite) dialogue concerning ‘Film vs. TV’ has taken hold in some circles in this country as if it’s unveiling a revolutionary form of media progress,” writes John Oursler for the FSLC, “but in West Germany during the ’60s and ’70s, it was a common understanding that some of the best films were being made specifically for television…. In discussing Fassbinder’s TV work, it’s key to note that his dystopian chamber pieces, full of miserable housewives, class issues, and sexually amorphous characters, populate his television films as comfortably as they do his theatrical work. In fact, there’s no difference in content or approach between the two, which is both refreshing and curious.”
As more reviews appear, I’ll be making note of them here. Meantime, in 1982, just after Fassbinder died, photographer Robin Holland began “an ongoing project shooting actors from Fassbinder’s troupe (Kurt Raab, Harry Baer, Irm Hermann, Ulli Lommel, Hark Bohm, Hanna Schygulla) and some of his other creative partners (Peer Raben, composer, Juliane Lorenz, editor, now head of the Fassbinder Foundation, and Xaver Schwarzenberger, cinematographer).” She’s posted a few shots.
Another recommended gaze: FilmGrab‘s collection of stills.
Updates: “In an age of aggressive cinematic experimentation, Fassbinder’s work, frequently drawing on the conventions of melodrama, may wrongly seem conservative,” writes Richard Brody in a new entry. “This mistaken perception arises from a narrow notion of form seen in isolation from content, style, and tone. The profound originality of Fassbinder’s films starts with a brusque theatricality that blends taut declamatory inflections and hieratic gestures with a seeming everyday naturalness of language, setting, and concerns. Fassbinder’s movie-fed mind was both deeply cinephilic and avidly immediate. It’s as if he refracted his inner world of cinema outward into his time. He didn’t just film Germany; he cinematized it. Whether his style was spare (as in Katzelmacher) or florid (as in Martha), his visual rhetoric both embodied his immediate state of mind and mapped itself onto the world as a report from the front lines of hidden national crises. As much of an outsider as he may have been in politics and spirit, in rage and repudiation, Fassbinder was—by very dint of his work in movies—locked into West Germany’s nerve center and drew on its power even as he channeled, amplified, and refashioned it.”
Beware of a Holy Whore (1970) screens on May 24 and 26
Fassbinder’s characters “are distinctively, sometimes outrageously costumed,” writes Abbey Bender for Film Comment. “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (72) is the most obvious fashion film of the bunch, with an all-female cast, and the titular fashion-designer character decked out in embellished pseudo-bondage outfits and a wide variety of wigs. The fashions of that film have already been intelligently discussed in this magazine’s pages”—here, she links to FC‘s new digital anthology on Fassbinder—”but there’s no shortage of sartorial interest to be found in other films of the early half of Fassbinder’s legendarily prolific career.”
Update, 5/17: “‘He was like a cat coming at you with his paws,’ confided muse Hanna Schygulla. ‘You never knew whether he’d stroke you or claw you.’ That typifies the can’t-live-with-him-can’t-live-without-him sentiment shared by many in his coterie, who even now attribute their careers to him as well as stories of emotional and physical stress (or abuse). Fassbinder was the head of a hermetic and deeply dysfunctional ‘family’ whose members would walk miles on broken glass for him but often not an inch farther.” For Film Comment, Steven Mears and Max Nelson present a “Fassbinder A to Z,” a guide to a few key actors and collaborators.
Update, 5/18: Love Is Colder than Death “is dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville and Eric Rohmer, among others,” notes David D’Arcy at Artinfo, “and it has the terminal deadpan of Melville’s policiers in its triangle of pimp (Fassbinder), prostitute (Hanna Schygulla), and mysterious crook (Ulli Lommel). The doomsday caper film is also built on another triangle—noir American crime elements (crudely pantomimed, for the most part), a stick-figure guerrilla critique of Americanized consumerism (that could have come from Vietnam, where the war was at its worst then), and a Weimar bath of raw grotesque sexuality (drawing from Max Beckmann or Otto Dix, or plenty of others). Add lots of Godard and shake well.”
Update, 5/19: RogerEbert.com‘s posted a letter Godfrey Cheshire has written to a young cinephile that begins: “You’ve heard me call Rainer Werner Fassbinder the most important film director of the last half-century, and you’re not inclined to disagree or argue so much as you feel he’s still a bit beyond your ken.” So what follows is something of a primer in which Cheshire looks back to the New German Cinema and “the peak of its international influence between the mid-70s and Fassbinder’s death in 1982. Since I began reviewing films in 1978, these movies comprised easily the most exciting and revelatory area of world cinema during my first half-decade as a critic.” He outlines the three phases of Fassbinder’s career, the “gangster period” (1969-70), the “melodrama period” (1971-1977) and the “international” period, abruptly broken off in 1982.
Update, 5/21: “Fassbinder’s only ‘Western’ is also the most perverse entry in his impossibly expansive canon,” writes Zach Clark, recommending Whity (1971) at the L. “Günther Kaufman plays the title character, house slave to the wealthy, depraved Nicholson family. Caked in gray-green make-up, their ghoulish indulgences range from sadomasochism to cross-dressing to bestiality. They use Whity, their obedient plaything, both with and against each other, until the whole charade comes to its logical end.”
Updates, 5/24: “Fassbinder’s style is both florid and austere,” writes Nick Pinkerton in an overview of the series (and the life and the work) for Artforum: “his outsized oeuvre is surly, rowdy, uncouth; his gauche death entirely of a piece with his fatalistic work. But if the Fassbinder brand survives, it’s because his art is exactly that: a brand; one that sears to the touch, and leaves its mark on you. Who can see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) or Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), for example, and think about sex, love, and class in precisely the same way afterwards?”
BlackBook‘s Hillary Weston: “Ingrid Caven, a longtime partner of Fassbinder’s, once said, ‘He was a homosexual that needed a woman. It’s that simple and that complex.’ And although criticized for its limited view of sexuality, one of his most personal films, his 1972 psychodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, mirrored his own need for both sexes and his inability to full connect to himself and those he loved. But like John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is not a film about a woman’s desperate love for a woman, it’s about a person’s desire to possess another person, with gender being merely a coincidence.”
Abbey Bender for Film Comment on Love Is Colder than Death: “The stylishly laconic film recycles bits and pieces of pop-movie imagery into a time capsule that is self-aware in a way far more aggressive than the cutesy ‘postmodernism’ we are inundated with today.”
Updates, 5/25: “By the close of 1971, his third year as a filmmaker, Fassbinder had completed a dozen movies,” writes Steven Mears for Film Comment. “He was so tireless, so determined to make all of life grist for his art, that within months of wrapping the miserable shoot of Whity (71) he had dramatized the experience in Beware of a Holy Whore (71)…. The manipulation of innocence and the corruption of purity are ubiquitous in Fassbinder, and are certainly the engines driving two of his other 1971 efforts, Pioneers in Ingolstadt and The Merchant of Four Seasons. The former, an adaptation of Marieluise Fleisser’s 1928 play, belongs with his Brechtian early work; the latter signals his foray into melodrama as societal critique. Both, however, gaze unblinkingly at the disintegration of the deceived and rejected.”
At Artinfo, David D’Arcy suggests that “Katzelmacher has lots of affinities with Slacker, Richard Linklater’s 1991 debut about young people with plenty of time on their hands. In Slacker, they’re generally benign, easy to laugh at, the beginnings of the now-celebrated Austin culture. In Katzelmacher—a derisive name for immigrant—the German slackers are anything but admirable—lazy, deceitful, envious and ultimately violent…. Look at the immigration debate in Europe. Katzelmacher could be happening today. Fassbinder was nothing if not prescient.”
Update, 5/28: Once again, Steven Mears for Film Comment: “If Truffaut’s Day for Night is about the joy of making movies and Godard’s Contempt is about the ordeal, Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (71) is about the ordeal of not making movies—the squandering of inspiration and the despair of the neutered artist.”
Updates, 5/31: “The characters in Fassbinder’s Effi Briest… are encased in the present, and it suffocates them,” writes Max Nelson for Film Comment. “The same could be said of Petra von Kant, Hans in The Merchant of Four Seasons, or nearly anyone in the stifling interwar urban inferno of Berlin Alexanderplatz. What sets Effi Briest apart from those movies is that its characters have no means of expressing their frustration with society outside of the terms of speech and conduct imposed on them by society itself. The outbursts of verbal mockery and physical violence scattered throughout many of Fassbinder’s films are as much a means of liberation (for the aggressor) as they are (for the victim) a source of constriction or pain. And it is, if anything, the absence of such outbursts that thickens the atmosphere in Effi Briest.”
In his fourth “Fassbinder Diary” entry for FC, Steven Mears compares and contrasts Love Is Colder than Death and Martha.
“In 1997, the Museum of Modern Art programmed a Fassbinder retrospective, and we asked several directors at the time to write about favorite Fassbinder films.” Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay has been reposting those essays, and so far, we seen thoughts from Everett Lewis, Ira Sachs and Lynne Stopkewich.
Update, 6/7: “An early watershed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career as a filmmaker, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), his twelfth feature, might even be regarded as the first in which he explicitly ‘discovered’ mise en scène,” suggests Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 2008 essay he’s recently posted. “Adapting his own play—which had premiered in Darmstadt half a year before, in June 1971, in a production directed by Peer Raben—the film makes no effort to ‘open up’ the original material in terms of its original setting, the flat of its title heroine, and it focuses on issues of camera placement and camera movement like few other Fassbinder films made before or since.”