Back in May, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented the first part of the most complete retrospective of work by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in New York in over a decade. The entry on that series was updated for weeks (you may find “Early Fassbinder” to be of interest as well) and I hope to do the same for this one: Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist (Part 2), now running through November 26, focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on the films made from the mid-70s on up to RWF’s death at the age of 37 in 1982.
Zach Clark (L) and Hillary Weston (BlackBook) have each written up overviews of Part 2 and photographer Robin Holland notes that the series also includes “films in which Fassbinder acted for other directors (Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal, unseen for decades–the adaptation displeased Mrs. Bertolt Brecht–and Kamikaze ’89, directed by Wolf Gremm), films by directors he admired (Luchino Visconti’s The Damned), and two documentaries about RWF (Dietor Shidor’s The Wizard of Babylon, wrapped hours before Fassbinder’s death, and two free screenings of Rainer Werner Fassbinder–Last Works, with director Wolf Gremm in attendance).”
Sampling from new and old reviews, let’s dip a bit into what critics have had to say about the nearly twenty RWF films in the lineup.
In The Niklashausen Journey (1970), “Fassbinder mines a feudal past for present-tense guerilla fare—for him, as for Godard and Glauber Rocha around the same period, the possibility of revolution still throbbed.” Fernando F. Croce: “In his most explicitly politicized (though far from best) film, Fassbinder suggests a temporal continuum of thwarted upheaval that can only be addressed (and, thus, confronted) by way of frontal artistic attack—or, as one of the languid sleepwalkers in the opening sequence puts it, ‘agitation through instruction and militant example.’”
Fernando F. Croce again, here on Rio das Mortes (1971): “The mundane oppression of German life… is fended off by the two proletarian heroes (Michael König and Günther Kaufmann) here through absurd fantasy—they dream of escaping into the Peruvian jungles to seek out some unlikely buried treasure, and spend most of the running time half-assedly trying to drum up funds, muddling from doomed scheme to doomed scheme…. [T]his mostly forgotten entry of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early futzing-around period feels unaccountably close to an American road-trip comedy, though, as befits the director’s stark inquiry into the stunted alienation of a generation, the characters remain for the most part locked in political stasis.”
Update, 11/23: “Fassbinder’s films give me life precisely because they don’t reflect my beliefs or experiences but make me feel so much more intensely—so much more—in a way that brings the universe into sharper focus,” writes Violet Lucca for Film Comment. “And Fassbinder’s style is pretty hard to beat at bringing us into a character’s world.” As for Rio das Mortes: “Like many of Fassbinder’s films, it’s a multivalent work that makes for uneven viewing. But as former Antitheater actor and assistant director Harry Baer says in Chaos as Usual: Conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it was ‘the first time that Rainer was fully in charge as director. He stylized Hanna [Schygulla] and Günther Kaufmann not just on film but right there in real life. The way those two acted—nobody talks that way and talks that way. I finally understood that he used this artificiality as a tool.’ I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Baer.”
“His films easily outnumber his themes, but no director ever explored indoctrinated, casual human cruelty with as much raw-nerved despair,” wrote Justin Stewart in the L in 2012. “In Fox and His Friends , Fassbinder plays Fox, a gawped-at carnival act who doesn’t learn true exploitation until he wins the lottery and falls sincerely in love. ‘Posh and prissy’ boyfriend Eugene (Peter Chatel) shudders at Fox’s table manners (not using sugar tongs, ripping into bread, ordering beer), as he cold-bloodedly monetizes Fox’s devotion so as to maintain his own ruling class status. There are lots of bathhouse cocks, but it’s only a detail here that most of the men are openly gay. It’s not homophobia, as some original viewers charged, that so many of the (gay) men here are manipulative human-users, only an equal opportunity cry of dissent against larger unfairnesses.”
Acquarello in 2001: “Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven opens to an portentous shot of a mechanized, tedious activity, as Emma Kusters (Brigitte Mira) and her son Ernst (Armin Meier) assemble small electrical appliances in silence at the kitchen table: snapping the mechanism to the case, tightening the sunken screws, packing the completed assemblies into a cardboard box. It is this sense of quiet despair and dehumanization that will one day lead Emma’s husband, Hermann Küsters, to a senseless act of murder and suicide at a chemical factory plant.”
“What ensues is a darkly comic chronicle of the titular Emma Küsters, who is surrounded on all sides by cruelty, manipulation, and abandonment in the wake of her husband’s death,” wrote Ed Howard in 2007. “This is a remarkably bitter satire, even for the always astringent Fassbinder.”
In 2003, at the World Socialist Web Site, Joanne Laurier and David Walsh argued that this is “the film in which Fassbinder dealt most directly with the contemporary German political situation and the political problems of the working class, with uneven but suggestive results.”
Fernando F. Croce on Fear of Fear (1975): “Fassbinder’s title not accidentally echoes one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems (‘Fear of the Inexplicable’), and indeed the heroine (Margit Carstensen) experiences the spiral of ‘relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed.’ Having just given birth to her second child, she finds herself sinking into a mysterious, debilitating, ruthlessly muted panic, which Fassbinder visualizes with throwaway wavy filters that are perfect in their banality.”
Simon Abrams on I Only Want You to Love Me at the House Next Door in 2011: “Produced for a television audience in 1976, Fassbinder’s dispassionate portrayal of a marriage supported by the Herculean efforts of nebbish husband Peter (Vitus Zeplichal) maintains a steely air of detachment that makes determining where the director’s sympathies lie harder the longer the film goes on…. Fassbinder knows exactly what he needs to show and how he needs to show it to get the maximum effect out of any given scene, creating an expressive portrait from specific images that only initially appear to be literal-minded representations of the domesticated, money-minded youth of the ’70s.”
Satan’s Brew (1976) “stands in that same distinctive place in its director’s oeuvre that 8½ does in Federico Fellini’s and Persona does in Ingmar Bergman’s,” Kenji Fujishima suggested at In Review Online this summer. “Like those films, it’s a mass of undigested ideas that, at least on the surface, seem to reflect the private life of its creator more directly than his previous works. But whereas Fellini funneled his insecurities into a free-form movie-within-a-movie phantasmagoria and Bergman channeled his neuroses into an intimate two-character psychodrama with gestures toward cinematic self-reflexivity, Fassbinder chooses to toss what is arguably his most explicitly personal work into an extravagant black-comic, well, brew that resembles nothing less than full-bore primal-scream therapy. It’s as if Fassbinder, for this one shining moment, decided to throw everything that was occupying his mind against a wall, just to see what resulted.”
In the afore-mentioned overview, Zach Clark finds it “a little hard to believe” that Fassbinder “didn’t get into cocaine until he was directing 1976’s Chinese Roulette. It was also his first film to feature an international superstar (Anna Karina, taking a lead role that was written for Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen) and a virtuosic exercise in camera direction. Michael Ballhaus’s lens is always on the move, constantly reframing the actors in increasingly fractured, dynamic compositions. The story and location are stripped bare even by Fassbinder’s usual thrifty standards: a malicious handicapped child (one of cinema’s nastiest and most unlikely villains) tricks her adulterous parents into spending the weekend at the family country house with their respective lovers. They play ‘Chinese Roulette,’ an eviscerating truth-telling game the director subjected his inner circle to on a regular basis, and the results are typically devastating. At this point, Fassbinder was the highest paid director in Germany, and he credited much of the film’s creative and critical success to his newfound addiction.”
Fernando F. Croce for Slant on The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977) in 2005: “Adapted from Oskar Maria Graf’s novel, the film is often compared to Madame Bovary, but the overall effect is closer to that of Von Sternberg‘s The Devil is a Woman, where a couple not only remains obsessively stuck in infatuation-degradation gear, but the visual beauty of the images is rigorously questioned by purposeful dissonance, surface lyricism ruthlessly undercut by a caustic inquiry into the nerves underneath.”
Dave Kehr, back when he was writing capsule reviews for the Chicago Reader on Germany in Autumn: “Made in response to the terrorist kidnapping of German industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer in 1977, this compilation film marks attitudes ranging from concern to irony to despair among its eight directors. It is, of course, wildly uneven (and sometimes insufferable), but there’s an urgency and engagement in each of the episodes. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s section is perhaps the best, in part because it’s the most personal—an extended discussion cum rant between Fassbinder and his oblivious lover.”
Carloss James Chamberlin for Senses of Cinema in 2003: “Eine Reise ins Licht (Journey into Light), Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, is a difficult movie, likely to be misread and misunderstood—not least for its perversion of narrative and because it doggedly subverts the intention of its nominal author—while remaining utterly faithful to the letter of the text. It stands, along with Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999) and Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1968), as one of the most extraordinary adaptations of a novel into cinema.”
Jake Cole in this week’s L on In a Year of 13 Moons (1978): “Fassbinder’s response to his lover’s suicide contains perhaps the quintessential summary of his lacerating, emotional style, in which abused transwoman Elvira (Volker Spengler) gives a frenzied, Goethe-quoting account of her sad life over an impeccably photographed tour of a slaughterhouse. Longing pervades the film, be it in Elvira’s unrequited love for a callous man or nuns’ thwarted maternal instincts, and rarely has Fassbinder’s reflective imagery felt so confining and stupefying.”
Update, 11/29: “In a Year of 13 Moons is elegiac and complex, allowing a panoply of potential readings,” writes Violet Lucca for Film Comment. “If nothing else, it’s the most elegant release of grief transfigured into film, embodying its indiscriminate effects.”
“Like many Fassbinder films,” wrote Kent Jones for Criterion in 2003, “The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola describe the unconscious, collective enactment of an essentially negative action, namely the suppression of historical memory, through melodramatic heroines whose fates are intertwined with the imperatives of their awful historical moments.” And further in:
Romy Schneider was originally tagged to play Maria Braun, but, according to Robert Katz’s unbelievably provocative Fassbinder biography, Love Is Colder Than Death, a bitchfest of disgruntled lovers and old cronies, the deal was off when Fassbinder referred to Schneider in the press as a “stupid cow.” He decided to replace her with his former leading light, Hanna Schygulla, excommunicated since Effi Briest (Fontane Effi Briest, 1974). Fassbinder’s biggest moneymaker and Schygulla’s greatest triumph was shot between January and March of 1978 in Coburg and Berlin, as Fassbinder was writing Alexanderplatz. If you want to know about the drugs he was taking, about the sorry condition of his hotel room in Coburg, and about the tirades he visited on cast and crew, read Katz’s sensationalistic book. Meanwhile, the fleet, breathlessly inventive film offers sufficient evidence of control, insight, and discipline—not to mention genius.
Once again, Fernando F. Croce, here on The Third Generation (1979): “Each generation has the revolutionaries it deserves, after the Baader-Meinhoff affair you’re stuck with middle-class ninnies: leader Volker Spengler, secretary Hanna Schygulla, schoolteacher Bulle Ogier, composer Udo Kier, housewife Margit Carstensen. The puppet master is the industrialist (Eddie Constantine) who heralds cinema’s utopian lies (‘As long as films are sad, life isn’t’); his corporate must promote security equipment, so he manipulates the radicals into kidnapping him and sits back to enjoy the clown show.”
Back to Dave Kehr, here on Lili Marleen (1981): “Hanna Schygulla is a cabaret singer whose recording of a World War I song, ‘Lili Marleen,’ becomes a hit in Nazi Germany. She becomes a propaganda star of the new regime, which first embarrasses and then benefits her Swiss lover (Giancarlo Giannini) and his millionaire father (Mel Ferrer), the head of a Jewish anti-Nazi group. The meanings are banal and the pace is heavy, but Fassbinder’s use of color—as throughout his late period—is superb.”
You won’t find much in English for the time being on Theater in Trance (1981), so here’s the Film Society itself: “Fassbinder’s first and only documentary was shot at Cologne’s ‘Theatres of the World’ festival in June 1981. He logs the appearances of such groups as Hungary’s experimental Squat Theatre company and the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch… Over these images, Fassbinder himself recites passages by Antonin Artaud… and inserts his own distinctive observations.”
Reviewing Criterion’s currently out-of-print box set The BRD Trilogy in 2003 for the Philadelphia City Paper in 2003, Sam Adams wrote: “Lola  was the real find for me.” It “shows that Fassbinder never got closer to emotional transparency than when emulating Douglas Sirk. Though its story of a bureaucrat (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who becomes obsessed with an independent-minded cabaret singer and prostitute (Barbara Sukowa) owes an obvious, though legally unacknowledged, debt to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, it’s Sirk’s candy-colored style that predominates.”
Adam Bingham for Senses of Cinema in 2011 on Veronika Voss (1982): “Drawing inspiration from the real-life tragedy of actress Sybille Schmitz (a popular UFA performer who was blacklisted and then committed suicide in 1955), Fassbinder lays out with diagrammatic clarity a fervent culture of amnesia and anaesthetization. He explores the desire to efface the past, and takes in not only the protagonist’s personal tragedy but also, through the elderly survivors of Treblinka, a direct representation of a national atrocity that seems to have been largely suppressed in the era of postwar economic prosperity that The Marriage of Maria Braun in particular so beautifully dramatizes and allegorizes. From another point-of-view, however, Veronika Voss does indeed offer a point of climax and summation: namely, to the meteoric career of its director.”
“Does this film represent a premonition of his own death?” asked Roger Ebert in 2012. “What an impression he made when he was alive! At Cannes every year he seemed to have at least one film, and you would see him at Le Petit Carlton, the famous bistro behind the Palais du Festival, on rue Felix-Faure, behind the Hotel Carlton. Fassbinder and his posse would be gathered inside, close inside the doorway. looking as discontented as usual.” Ebert recalls serving on a festival jury with RWF’s close friend Daniel Schmid in 1983: “During the last weeks of his life, Schmid said, during those sad telephone calls at three in the morning, Fassbinder often repeated the same thing. ‘He would shout at me: How are you able to just sit there and look outside the window? How can you? How can you just sit on a rock and look at the sea? (weddingful.com) How can everybody else be so lucky?’”
“Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s final film was the bizarre, abrasive and often unbearably silly Querelle, an unsettling final note in a brief but prolific career defined by the director’s near-total disregard for conventions,” wrote Ed Howard in 2009. “An adaptation of a novel by Jean Genet, this is Fassbinder’s most off-putting film, his most purposefully Brechtian in the distance it creates between the audience and the narrative. In fact, Fassbinder erects a nearly unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the material, a bottomless gulf into which all attempts at understanding or approaching this essentially unlikeable film must fall.”
Writing for Bright Lights, Frank Episale argues that “‘disorientation’ indeed functions as the primary aesthetic mode in which the film operates, permeating visual style, narrative strategy, sound editing, audience response, and even critical reaction to Fassbinder’s final film.”
Update, 12/9: Film Comment‘s Violet Lucca: “In the initial reactions to the film, four main camps emerge: purists who believed Fassbinder fouled up the original, Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest; purists who believed Fassbinder was wrong to surrender his heartfelt naturalism for Genet’s brash thought experiment; people who find its portrayal of sexuality and theatricality abhorrent; and people attracted to its eroticism and frank depictions of gay sex. After putting off watching it for many years, I was surprised by how fresh and genuinely funny it is. More than anything, Querelle is a sui generis work that doesn’t clearly point toward ‘what could’ve been’ had Fassbinder lived, but rather it’s yet another tantalizing one-off experiment, like so much of the director’s work, which plays upon themes and aesthetic strategies from Satan’s Brew, Effi Briest, and Veronika Voss (to name only a few).”
Update, 12/9: Jonathan Rosenbaum recently posted a piece he wrote in 2007: “As skeptical as I often was in the 70s about Fassbinder as a role model, I’ve been more than a little disconcerted by the speed with which he’s vanished from mainstream consciousness. Having by now seen about two dozen of his 37 features, I find much of his work, for all its deliberate topicality, as fresh now as when it first appeared.”
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