Get Excited for ‘Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist’ From the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Last year, in our Cinematic Panic article on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, we noted that:
As l’enfant of New German cinema, the frighteningly talented and devastatingly tragic Rainer Werner Fassbinder created his own world of film, making meticulously crafted pictures that existed in world entirely of his creation where melodrama and the depths of human suffering live simultaneously. Having made over forty films in his brief life, he was a kinetic creative force of energy and life—both brutal and ferociously empathetic. Having been a playwright and actor prior to beginning his filmmaking career, a sense of theatricality and grandness of the stage is present in all of his films.
Full of choreographed movement and static positioning, he took his cues from musicals and art rather than traditional stage plays and the realism of film. Heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht and his ideas of verfremdungseffekt, or the alienation effect, he crafted his films such that the audience is always consciously aware that they are watching a film, never losing themselves completely in the emotions and psychology of his characters. Rather, the viewer is consciously observing the work at hand, understanding that the world before them is a fiction they’re peering in on.
His early films work as an extensive of his theatrical career, whereas his later work plays more to melodramatic conventions, rooted in influence of American director, Douglas Sirk. But throughout his films, there was a certain through line—whether it was desperate women in love or science fiction parables— that was formalistic in structure, examining the importance of power structures in everyday life, family, love, friendship. He had a sensitivity for misfits and outsiders, a penchant for exploring sexuality, and an affinity for portraying a macabre view of contemporary German life. Kent Jones notes that Fassbinder once famously said that he was “trying to construct a house with his films.” Each of his films build a level of this house, a each picture a tier of the foundation built on desperation, hypocrisy, and love, “where desire plays a major supporting role but the will to power is sadly dominant.”
And now, thanks to the wonderful people at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, you can see a massive retrospective of Fassbinder’s work, beginning tomorrow. With the second part of the series happening in November, their retro is the largest in new year in over a decade, including all of his theatrical films, television films, and works inspired by and connected to his brilliance. So with Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist (Part 1) beginning tomorrow, let’s have a look at what will be playing. Mark your calendars and get excited.
ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, 1974
Produced at the peak of Fassbinder’s creative powers, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul reworks the narrative and thematic framework of Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama All That Heaven Allows (also the inspiration for Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven) in telling the improbable love story of Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a thirty-something Moroccan immigrant working as a mechanic, and Emmi (Fassbinder muse Brigitte Mira), a German widow who is old enough to be his mother. The motley pair gets married and quickly encounters prejudice and discrimination from neighbors, friends, and family (including Fassbinder himself as Emmi’s son-in-law). This wry and tender romance-cum-social-commentary has endured as one of its director’s most accomplished and popular films.
THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, 1972
High camp and claustrophobia abound equally in the hermetic rooms where fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), her model flavor-of-the-week (Hanna Schygulla), and a faithful, longtime love slave (Katrin Schaake) enact the cruel cat-and-mouse games that comprise the plot of this chamber psychodrama. With perhaps the richest and most allusive mise en scène in Fassbinder’s oeuvre—impenetrable spaces in which ornate tapestries, white mannequins, and ’50s pop hits intermingle—The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant amounts to its director’s ultimate thesis on the essentially vampiric and selfish nature of love. In the words of Manny Farber: “Fassbinder’s intense shadowless image is not like anyone else’s.”
GODS OF THE PLAGUE, 1970
Continuing Fassbinder’s early interest in teasing out the subtexts of American genre films, this stylized noir exercise—made under the signs of both Sam Fuller and Jean-Pierre Melville—focuses on the not-so-latent homoerotic tensions at the very heart of the gangster movie. Recently freed ex-con Franz (Harry Baer) is barely out of prison when he gets roped back into the Munich underworld that landed him behind bars in the first place. But this time, his romantic attentions are divided between femmes fatales Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) and Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) and, more unexpectedly, “Gorilla” (Günther Kaufmann, Fassbinder’s longtime lover, making his screen debut), the black Bavarian hit man who assassinated Franz’s informant brother.
Never distributed theatrically but long an influential cult classic, Fassbinder’s seventh feature is a hothouse gothic melodrama shot in widescreen on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western sets in Almería, Spain. Whity (Günther Kaufmann) is the illegitimate son of sadistic patriarch Ben Nicholson (American B-movie actor Ron Randell) and also the family’s brutally abused butler. The outrageous, even deranged Nicholson family members include a perpetually enraged gay son (Ulli Lommel) and Ben’s sex-crazed young wife, who abuse Whity every chance they get, while loving him in deeper, truer ways than they can muster for anyone else, including themselves. When Whity meets Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), a prostitute and chanteuse, their relationship sets him down a path toward the destruction of the societal and familial order that has oppressed him. This highly stylized and grandly pessimistic melodrama explodes a wide array of clichés from Hollywood films and German culture, using its loaded subject matter and primitive techniques to create a viewing experience this is, even by Fassbinder’s standards, maniacally despairing and gleefully subversive.
THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS, 1971
In one of Fassbinder’s pivotal works and greatest achievements, ineffectual ex-policeman Hans Epp, newly home from the war and greeted with chilling contempt by his domineering mother, continues to disappoint his bourgeois family by becoming a lowly fruit peddler. Drinking himself into a stupor and casually abusing his wife (Irm Hermann) to alleviate the boredom, Hans (Hans Hirschmüller, in a quietly shattering performance) one day suffers a heart attack. With the hiring of an old friend, his business miraculously begins to flourish. But success proves even more crushing than failure. A devastating social satire set in Munich during the “prosperous ’50s,” this was the first film Fassbinder made after meeting, and absorbing the influence of, Douglas Sirk, and also the one that cemented his place as the conscience of the New German Cinema—a filmmaker who insisted on showing what his countrymen failed to see or refused to remember.
Fassbinder’s second feature depicts the intolerance of a circle of financially and sexually frustrated friends when an immigrant laborer moves to their Munich neighborhood, exposing a paranoid hostility to outsiders and latent currents of bourgeois fascism. This Greek newcomer, played with impish deadpan innocence by the director himself, becomes an object of cautious curiosity and the inevitable catalyst for their group’s previously suppressed internal conflict. Titled for a Bavarian slang pejorative for “foreign worker” (literally “maker of little cats,” and suggestive of a pronounced sexual promiscuity), this scalpel-sharp experiment, based on one of Fassbinder’s successful early plays and drawing on avant-garde theatrical techniques, is both a personal expression of alienation and a comment on the persistence of xenophobic scapegoating in German society. A stark black-and-white depiction of a world where boredom feeds self-hatred and violence, this is one of Fassbinder’s most curious and provocative films.
BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE, 1970
In this sui generis take on the “film about filmmaking,” a brutal self-critique inspired by the production of Whity, Fassbinder puts the blame for that shoot’s sturm und drang squarely upon himself. A cast, crew, and various hangers-on (including New German Cinema fellow travelers Werner Schroeter, Magdalena Montezuma, and Margarethe von Trotta; Eddie Constantine, as the film’s male lead; Fassbinder axioms like Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, and Kurt Raab; and Fassbinder himself as the film-within-the-film’s producer) congregate in a Spanish hotel bar and wait interminably for the arrival of their leather-jacketed man-child director (Lou Castel). The group then undergoes a series of skirmishes, psychosexual charades, and nonplussed power trips—in what may or may not be an accurate representation of Fassbinder’s behind-the-scenes methods.
THE AMERICAN SOLIDER, 1970
An early example of Fassbinder’s pessimistic vision and his fierce, ravishing visual style, this film is a baroque homage to Hollywood cinema—film noir and gangster movies in particular. German actor Karl Scheydt plays a small-time Yankee hood (clad in white suit and fedora) who returns to Munich and quickly finds himself embroiled in some very deep trouble. Fassbinder infuses the film with a mannerism that both reflects and critiques the American movies that inspired it: characters strike poses with portraits of Hollywood actors in the background, talk as though quoting dialogue, and die spectacularly exaggerated deaths. Although typically bleak, The American Soldiernevertheless finds Fassbinder struggling to locate some kind of redemption in the tension between vivid illusion and numb reality.
EFFI BRIEST, 1974
Fassbinder’s take on Theodor Fontane’s tale of the rise and fall of a cosseted young 19th-century Candide is among his most visually ravishing. Married to a considerably older man (Wolfgang Schenck), gentle Effi (Hanna Schygulla) lives in a comfortable prison, a manor on the Baltic Sea staffed by servants whose chilly demeanor mirrors the house’s statuary. Too young and naïve to understand that breaking the rigid rules of her world might spell her doom, Effi falls for the handsome Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel) and, in the process, hurtles toward a tragic fate. Fassbinder films Fontane’s novel as both a deeply moving “woman’s picture” and a working metaphor for the plight of a subversive filmmaker working in an oppressive, reactionary society.
LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH
For his feature debut, Rainer Werner Fassbinder fashioned an acerbic, unorthodox love-triangle crime drama. Munich pimp Franz Walsch (played by Fassbinder) relishes his entrepreneurial independence and refuses to join the local mob, despite its allure of greater cash flow and stability. When Franz befriends the mysterious crook Bruno (Ulli Lommel), the two go on a small but frenzied crime spree of theft and murder, along with Franz’s prostitute girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla). But as Franz plans a more elaborate heist, the allegiances among the trio begin to break down. Dedicated to Chabrol, Rohmer, and Straub (as well as the two main characters from the Zapata Western A Bullet for the General), this stylishly nihilistic cinematic statement of intent has a sardonic exuberance that beautifully complements Fassbinder’s seriousness of purpose, already fully present right out of the gate. “What is important to me,” Fassbinder himself said, “is that those who see this film call into question their most deeply felt private feelings.”
WORLD ON A WIRE
Made for German television, this recently rediscovered, three-and-a-half-hour labyrinth is a textbook example of a film many years ahead of its time. An adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 American novel Simulacron-3, World on a Wire is a paranoid, boundlessly inventive take on the future with dashes of Stanley Kubrick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip K. Dick. Made less than a decade after Alphaville(1965) and a quarter-century before The Matrix (1999), this satiric and surreal look at the world of tomorrow is a noir-spiked tale about a cybernetics engineer (Klaus Löwitsch) who uncovers a massive corporate conspiracy. As Fassbinder himself described it, World on a Wire is “a very beautiful story that depicts a world where one is able to make projections of people using a computer. Perhaps another, larger world has made us as a virtual one? In this sense it deals with the old philosophical model, which here takes on a certain horror.”
Herr R. has a wife and a child to love and keep company, a respectable job as a technical engineer, and a medium-sized apartment with a garden and a TV set to slump in front of: the complete middle-class existence. One night after work, as his wife idly converses with a friend, Herr R. beats both women and his child to death with the base of a candlestick. Fassbinder’s detailing of Herr R.’s empty existence is harrowing and bleakly comic in equal measure, exposing the creaking gears within the seemingly well-oiled mechanics of daily life. Fassbinder called this, perhaps not without some pride, “the most disgusting film I ever made.” He would return to a similar story of explosive rage from a completely different narrative perspective in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven.