From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson,
Satan's Brew
A German Tragedy, Turned Absurd
Fassbinder's Satan's Brew
"Allowing his acidity unfettered reign, Fassbinder concocts one of the most blistering excoriations of despotism ever committed to film." 
For audiences accustomed to the ironic yet bathetic melodrama for which Rainer Werner Fassbinder is oft-celebrated, the intellectual farce of Satan's Brew (1976, Satansbraten) may seem deliberately alienating, even baffling. For film historian Thomas Elsaesser, the film remains "a rare attempt at comedy from a filmmaker who, as most commentators have noted, is entirely devoid of humor."1 Fassbinder scholar Christian Thomsen, repulsed by the narrative's seemingly bleak amorality, goes even further, characterizing the film as an unapologetic outpouring of Fassbinder's own masochistic narcissism, as if the filmmaker were berating his audience: "'Just take a look at what a completely unbearable film I can make — now hit me.'"2 Thomsen, seeing the film's verbal and sexual slapstick as ultimately nihilistic, concludes that "the film is light years away from the time when Fassbinder tried to be positive and constructive and present alternatives to the reigning misery."3  
But if comedy's very nature is social critique (whether pointed or scattershot), and if the purest joking, as Walter Benjamin claims, holds at its tragic core "the essential inner side of mourning,"4 we must recognize that Fassbinder's inhuman comedy, rather than merely wallowing in misery, places a comic mirror-image up to the German new wave's habitually earnest struggle with a lingering fascist past. Allowing his acidity unfettered reign, Fassbinder concocts one of the most blistering excoriations of despotism ever committed to film, an antirealist satire whose supposed amorality exposes fascism's irrationalism far more transparently than the fetishized historicism of Hans Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977), a film whose "objectivist" catharses and public lamentation Fassbinder so despised. For Fassbinder, Hitler's ghost certainly lingers, but not as a transcendental artifact from which we can excavate meaning — history's only gift has been a legacy of irrationalism, taunting us with the lie that it can be interpreted. Satan's Brew thus becomes not merely another example of postwar Germany's ritual confrontations with fascism, but a satiric essay on the futility of such confrontations. If for Susan Sontag the Syberberg of Hitler "has a supreme confidence in language [and] discourse,"5 for Fassbinder language has done nothing to deserve our confidence. Fallen from grace, language has become a sophistic, Satanic stew of mysterious, muddled ingredients, never to be happily deconstructed.  
Artaud quoteGrounding its effronteries to realism in Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, Satan's Brew begins with an onscreen quotation from the French theorist: "What differentiates the heathens from us is the great resolve underlying all their forms of belief not to think in human terms. In this way, they are able to retain the link with the whole of Creation, in other words, with the Godhead." From the very start, Fassbinder warns us against expecting the arch pathos of an Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) or A Fox and His Friends (1975). Yet the gleeful monstrosity of Satan's Brew — which may affront Thomsen and others who slight the greater catharses of satire — is only a means to the denuded, heretical truths that Artaud, Brecht, Meyerhold, and all 20th-century antirealists, in their various ways, have commonly upheld. Still, the purity of Artaud's heathen must mean more than an irretrievable noble savagery that surely never existed to begin with (even in the naïve, pre-linguistic jungles of Rousseau's Second Discourse). Our heroic heathen, rather, must stand for clarity and directness, not innocence, and his eyes must pierce and dissect the worshipful power structures, once fascistic and now hyper-capitalistic, to which Fassbinder's protagonists are hopelessly, masochistically enthralled.  
Perhaps nothing in Fassbinder's oeuvre matches the first act of Satan's Brew for sheer anarchic energy and dialogic wit. Though Fassbinder is more generally beholden to Brecht, and though he is here haunted by Artaudian anarchism, the film's most immediate point of reference is Ionesco, particularly the dramatist's absurdist prototype The Lesson, whose constant refrain of "Philology leads to calamity!" echoes Fassbinder's theme of language's inability to set straight the desires — and politics — of a society long past rationalism. While the nonsensicality of Satan's Brew doesn't annihilate the possibility of meaning as radically as does The Lesson — much of Fassbinder's dialogue could actually stand alone as aphoristic half-truths — the film's typically German Kommunikationsproblematik shares with Ionesco a common postwar theme: when language is corrupted, and meaning made meaningless, fascism replaces the hope of freedom. 
If the Artaudian heathen has broken from language's reigns and Rousseau's savage remains still ignorant of them, the alienists of Satan's Brew are, sadly, ensnared in language's corruptions and subjugations. The cursing refrain throughout Satan's Brew — shouted by seemingly all its characters at one point or another — is "fascist," a term directed at anyone who temporarily exhibits any sort of authoritarianism. The word, now bereft of any historical particularity (let alone implication of nationalism or socialism), becomes a catch-all epithet, a lightly politicized "son of a bitch" for those only vaguely aware of history. But if anyone who exerts power over another behaves fascistically, who among us can avoid the label? 
Kurt RaabAccusations of fascism color the film's opening scene, wherein blocked, neurotic poet Walter Kranz (a brilliant comic turn by Kurt Raab, looking like a cross between his bald-pated vampire in The Tenderness of The Wolves [1973] and the portly Fassbinder himself) desperately begs his callously capitalist publisher for an advance on manuscripts yet to materialize. "Bloodsuckers! Parasites! Fascists!" he screams hysterically, ramming his head into the publisher's closed office door in futile defiance, and thereafter mocking the publisher with a "Heil Hitler!" salute as the latter obliviously drives away. Kranz is yet another of literary history's existential losers, living off delusions of intellectual superiority when social dignity is denied them. Were this not a comedy, Kranz might find a kindred soul in the starving artist played by Per Oscarsson in Henning Carlsen's Hunger (1966), who nauseously gnaws at a rotten bone picked from a garbage pail. But even the fugitive illusions of dignity, that greatest of bourgeois tonics, cannot prevent such souls' own perennial victimizations from becoming lifestyles, master games, and ultimately all-consuming passions.
Despite his pretentiousness, Kranz is neither a poseur not a talentless hack. Interestingly, in his press releases for Satan's Brew, Fassbinder offered a socio-psychological explanation for his hero's existential predicament, positioning him as a formerly political, committed poet-activist recently contaminated by a profitable, fascistic, and devilish public discourse. The back-story Fassbinder invents (in a very non-Ionescoan move) is worth quoting at length:
Walter Kranz is a man who comes from the petit bourgeoisie, who has had success through literature, who in the course of time has become politically involved — whether because he saw the real pressure of suffering or whether he joined in because it was fashionable . . . And now he takes a step. He returns to these middle-class modes of behavior, even if they become completely fascist. That seems quite logical to me. How can a man like Kranz, an artist, live in any other way except the one society prescribes for him [?] And the way he lives is completely normal, but taken to the extreme.6  
What becomes normative in Satan's Brew is not a state of bourgeois passivity, but a panicked desperation that, taken to its "extreme," unbridles characters' ids and returns them to states of irrational infantilism. If the sociopolitical revolutions (of the 1960s, we assume) in which Kranz once believed have died away, he can now do little but succumb to a rising capitalism that bloats appetites but never sates them. Thus afflicted, Kranz is part-beast, part-child, his attempts at dignity dissipating as the film goes on. He is a pressure-cooker of frustrated desires, and sexually hopeless. We laugh when the degraded yet "normal" Kranz, spying through a keyhole on a female friend as she scratches her buttocks, exclaims, "I want to screw you like a stoat!" He then complains incredulously to her husband, "Your wife doesn't want to sleep with me!" Perhaps we initially mistake Kranz's joyful desecration of monogamy for a poet's iconoclasm. But Kranz is also a beggar, and when he asks his married friends for a loan, his unaffected artist's ways become indistinguishable from a vagabond's destitution; it is only when he repays his debts to the couple that the husband is happy to whore his wife. Yet Fassbinder's humor is impersonal, political — when we laugh at Kranz, we really laugh past him, and at the meretricious culture that has made human appetites an allegory for degeneracy.  
Satan's BrewKranz has a heathen's knack for frankness, but the only truths society allows him to speak are those issuing from his id — the unrelenting desire for sex, money, and ultimately death. The more idealistically he speaks as a poet, the more bankrupt his actions become as a citizen. Kranz's pursuit of money and sexual gratification leads him to an older female neighbor, her motherly breasts grotesquely exposed by a kinky brassiere. Their mock-Oedipal ritual quickly turns into a sadomasochistic one as he cries "Mama!" and spits upon her as she crawls across the floor. Opening a desk drawer, Kranz reveals, sitting side-by-side, a gun and dildo whose seeming ideological interchangeability foreshadows Kranz's subsequent musing, "In every act of coitus is there not an element of rape?" Yet the pistol's outward sadism cannot be made indissoluble from the dildo's inwardness and signification of want. After choosing the weapon of the anarchist over the tool of the degenerate, Kranz stuffs the pistol into her mouth, whereupon she rewards him with his not-so-obscure object of desire: a cashier's check. She then screams, "Oh God, how it turns me on!" and begs him to shoot her as she climaxes, in a decidedly ridiculous incarnation of the heartless sexual economy represented somberly in the previous year's A Fox and His Friends (1975). But the gun he — and we — believes to be a revolutionary tool is in the film's climax revealed to be a harmless prop, little more than the cinema's favorite, all-purpose toy, powerless to truly kill or subvert orders far beyond the individual's control.  
Kranz, like all artists subordinated to capitalist structures, has little talent for sadism, and is an ineffective murderer — and even if he were effective, a sex killer is a far cry from the leftist revolutionary Fassbinder suggests he once was. He is equally unconvincing in the sadistic actions he directs toward Mrs. Hackenbush, a pseudo-intellectual, God-fearing sycophant who "prays for an hour" each morning before a photo of her poet-hero Walter Kranz. Echoing the ideological mantra of Hitlerism, she tells him, "You have the strength to be what you want," while she, the idolater, revels in every humiliation, even at the hand of Kranz's infantile, deranged (perhaps even retarded) brother Ernst, who spits his morning eggs in her face. But Kranz, perpetually impatient with Hackenbush's pieties, better realizes his fullest — that is, most perfectly base — potentialities as a masochist. He is much more at home amidst the company of his long-suffering wife Luise (a comic turn by Helen Vita as brilliantly focused as Raab's) and Ernst, who (like Beelzebub?) lords over poor flies he obsessively entraps but cannot successfully mate (indeed, Ernst lives outside of the cycle of middle-class reproduction). "He tries to fuck his flies, but without success so far, I think," says Kranz with affected superiority. Yet he fails to see that just as Ernst's insanity renders infantile the poetry of the impossible act, so will Kranz's eventual masochism render impotent his own attempts to recapture the poetic legitimacy Fassbinder images in his past. Nevertheless, Kranz, knowing the delight society takes in mocking individuality, and retaining a perverse tinge of the poet's oversensitivity, defends Ernst's crazy subjectivity. When Luise chastises him for emptying the kitchen wastebasket to attract more of his beloved flies, Kranz chastens her (and us), "You can't understand any logic but your own."  
His poetic inspiration drained by financial worries, Kranz, the former "poet of the revolution," devolves into a poet of diminished expectations, stumbling upon a literary inspiration shocking only in its banality and commercialism. He excitedly begins an "interview book" with a whore who blankly recites sensational tales of rape and incest at her uncle's hands, a project whose bourgeois meretriciousness is mocked even by the henpecked Luise. (Notably, the whore is Fassbinder's most rational character: when Kranz spanks his bare-bottomed brother after the latter attempts to sodomize her, she bursts out laughing, not realizing she is expected to maintain with a straight face the illusions of the "poetic" bourgeoisie.) But suddenly Kranz believes he's struck genuine inspiration with his allegorical poem "The Albatross" — until he discovers he stole it verbatim from Stefan George! The deposed revolutionary, who sought temporary refuge in prostitution, is finally disclosed as a thief.  
Satan's BrewKranz finds idealism, not immorality, in his literary thievery. If, as T. S. Eliot famously remarked, "immature poets imitate . . . mature poets steal," Kranz here tries to recreate himself as the rarefied, spiritualistic cult figure George was, opposing modernity's cult of commerce with George's cult of elitist neoclassicism (perhaps the only affinity the poet, who died the year Hitler became Chancellor, shared with the fascists). Kranz not only transforms himself into a dandified replica of George, but must adopt, as his wife sarcastically reminds him, George's homosexuality. To complete the effete, quasi-aristocratic illusion, Kranz recruits "five young men . . . Germanic Germans" (including male prostitutes) to admire him in a parody of the so-called Georgekreis (George-Circle). Of course, the charade only becomes more comic fodder, as Kranz-George is fitted for priggish suits ("but aren't you too fat for an outfit like that?" asks a hired disciple); clumsily gags on the cock of a macho hustler he solicits in a men's lavatory; and, in pasty make-up and cloaked in candlelit shadows, makes a clownish mockery of the romantic image of the poet-hero, made only more ridiculous when Luise interrupts the fantasy by dutifully carrying in snacks to feed Kranz's boys. 
Perhaps the film's most unexpected moment comes when Kranz, truly desperate for cash, visits his parents. We are shocked to see that the poet actually has a biological, material history he can confront, particularly when he has claimed a personal superiority over history itself ("I'm a German poet and thinker . . . your excursions into history don't interest me," he tells Luise when she implores him to "remember the fate of the Galician Jews.") Kranz's fawning acolyte Miss Hackenbush is shocked, too: "How did I imagine your parents? As great, proud people living in a villa with a park." He hopelessly explains his chicanery to her: "People like you will always be exploited and oppressed . . . or have you forgotten all that?" But it is too late: Kranz's peasant history now exposed, any pretensions of sadistic power and control have been shattered irrevocably. In a final act of economic desperation, Kranz attempts to blackmail the whore of his interview book, only for her pimps to pummel him senseless. Finally, the true depths of Kranz's social masochism are revealed: "You've been beaten and you're smiling . . . you're just like me!" says Hackenbush, spitting on him as his idiot brother once spat on her. Yet Kranz, a more refined, self-conscious class of masochist, savors for himself a paradoxical dignity: "That is the finest humiliation: to expose oneself to an inferior." 
Kranz, in the guise of his George persona, finds a muse in his masochism, and is inspired again to write verse, including "No Celebration for the Führer's Dead Dog," a poem whose line "in little, quenchable flames, constantly renewed" puts an optimistic spin on his self-immolatory lowliness. Much to our amusement, and with perfectly indecent logic, Kranz's mercenary publisher is all too pleased with his pseudo-romantic lines: "Your [new] book has power . . . not like that leftist junk you used to fabricate . . . I have an advertising slogan: 'An epic from the sordid depths of humanity.'" Kranz's escalating downward spiral into bourgeois ideology will not be complete, however, until Luise, whom we have seen physically degenerate the moment Kranz spurns her for his newfound homosexual identity, is finally rushed to the hospital, sterile, decrepit, and deathly ill. As Luise lay dying and the wildly alienated Kranz comes face to face with mortality, he emotes for the first time. "You're my wife before God and man!" he screams, as he's dragged away by hospital attendants. His few remaining young admirers, stunned to see him swearing oaths before the staid altars of monotheism and marriage, desert him in disgust. Kranz, succumbing to the bourgeois anxieties buried beneath his borrowed stoicisms, has effectively pronounced himself, and his poetry, dead.  
Satan's BrewTo say that Satan's Brew satirizes — either pointedly or, as Christian Thomsen would have it, nihilistically — the social sadomasochisms underwriting the cult of fascism is hardly a thesis requiring much defense or justification. Because Fassbinder's dialogue self-consciously declaims the film's ideas, subtextual analysis is practically unnecessary. Gone are the baroque, Stroheimesque interiors and opaque conversations of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972); here, the camera gazes coldly at absurdist proceedings whose anticapitalist, antifascist themes are presented without irony (for the very nature of absurdism supersedes and makes moot irony). At the same time, the joking anarchism of Satan's Brew makes us reluctant to pin down the vast ambitions of Fassbinder's auteurism to an actual politics. As Caryl Flinn remarks, "Fassbinder criticism appears to be absorbing the (non)positioning of its object of study in politically troubling ways, gently ridiculing all leftist positions tout court or eschewing words like 'Marxism' or 'socialism' in favor of vague, capacious labels like 'the anticapitalist left.'"7 Indeed, one may come away from Satan's Brew, as Thomsen does, amused by the film's anticapitalist critique but unable to pinpoint any specifically espoused political position, especially when weighed against the sanctimony of a Syberberg or the conscientiousness of an Alexander Kluge. Yet it is perhaps this evasive "non-positioning" of Fassbinder, which frames him as post-political auteur rather than social actor or critic, that produces this nihilistic view, rather than the actual content of Satan's Brew itself.  
Because its characters are anti-humanistic ciphers signifying shifting ideological positions, Satan's Brew may go a long way to repositioning Fassbinder as a political auteur rather than a cultural ironist and gleaner of cinematic myth and camp. At some point in watching Satan's Brew — very early on, hopefully — viewers will experience moments of Brechtian self-reflection, becoming acutely aware of their alien positions as spectators of human objects, or of subjects not in the traditional sense of narrative identification, but subjects that, as Andrew J. Mitchell suggests, "must be understood in the sense of [their] 'subjection' to film . . . or . . . exposure to [the] world."8 [italics original] Given this absurdist objectification — an objectification very different from that of Syberberg's Hitler — we cannot, of course, view Kranz's emotional breakdown in the film's conclusion as a revelation of any "true" humanity, but merely a tragic, final role he is destined to play on life's passive-aggressive, exploitative stage.  
The film's objectivist absurdism, furthermore, renders futile Thomsen's attempt to rationalize its role-playing in terms of psychological humanism:
[I]s the film dealing with people who [are] constantly putting on an act that gives them the freedom to enter and leave their bodies and emotions as they please and to construct situations that playfully extend their identity? Does the drama ultimately emerge from the tension between feelings that are genuine, and a role-play that is initially an attempt to live with painful emotions, but that the characters gradually lose control of, so that they have as little idea as the audience what is real and what is false . . . "9
While Fassbinder certainly negates conventional differences between ingenuousness and role-playing — for who is not a role-player? — this negation cannot result from "painful emotions" that, by dint of the film's anti-humanism, never existed. In this sense, Elsaessar's claim that Fassbinder's heroes often slide between existential, role-oriented positions of "being for oneself" and "seeming to others"10 turns out to be irrelevant in Satan's Brew, in which the very notion of selfhood becomes impossible, a cosmic joke. These are not emotive characters but speaking iconic objects. If we must remain as stonily cold in interpreting the film's actions as Fassbinder's ciphers are in enacting them, the very use of the terms "masochism" or "sadism," too, can imply only a character's symbolic passivity or activity, complacency or cruelty, rather than any real psychosocial analysis.  
The self-reflexive mythology of the cinema that runs through Fassbinder's body of work, as manifested through the melodramatic Sirkian kitsch that has dominated so much of Fassbinder studies, has already predisposed us to seeing his characters as something other than strictly human (though admittedly not quite anti-human, as in Satan's Brew). Seeing Fassbinder as a colonizer of cultural debris, Elsaesser observes that "Fassbinder's materials are those of the commercial cinema . . . the commodities and consumer goods, transported from the hardware stores of show business to the cultural spaces of the art cinema."11 Kitsch has its limitations, however, and the severe intellectualism of Satan's Brew seems far removed from the naive Fassbinder who, in one of those embarrassingly miscalculated moments of auteurist irreverence, claimed Clark Gable was his favorite actor and the unregenerately bourgeois La Traviata his favorite opera.12
Irrational bodily energiesHardly kitschy, the intellectual comedy of Satan's Brew's is utterly sober, tactful, and even clinical. Neither is this Marx Brothers anarchism — there is no light-hearted mockery of warfare, no pseudo-subversive delight in outraging the bejeweled dowager, and the mock-joyfulness with which Fassbinder ends his film is decidedly un-cathartic. It is true that Fassbinder's farce does, like traditional clowning, assault language without arguing for its recuperation — for language was inadequate to begin with. But the irrational bodily energies that the Marx Brothers found so liberating are in Satan's Brew addictive, appetitive dead-ends. Interestingly, the optimistic ideology of clowning finds unexpected resonance in the didacticism of Syberberg, who suggests that a positive irrationality can counteract a negative one:
We know about the glory and misery of irrationalism; but without it, Germany is nothing but dangerous, sick, without identity, explosive — a wretched shadow of its possibilities. Hitler is to be fought, not with the statistics of Auschwitz or with sociological analyses of the Nazi economy, but with Richard Wagner and Mozart."13
For Syberberg, not only must Wagnerism be rescued from Nazism, but we must be freed from the ideology that falsely equates the cathartic irrationality of the one with the more dangerous irrationality of the other. Exactly how aesthetics can be sifted and detached from politics remains murky; nevertheless, the ways in which Syberberg continues, within the context of his Hitler, offer a trenchant (if not wholly convincing) counterpoint to Satan's Brew: "I would like to define this irrationalism as the ultimate principle of infinity in our art, the indissoluble, the homesickness, the yearning for meaning in madness, in the cinematic artwork, and a nation's desire for representation, a desire for myth."14 
While Syberberg's optimism is attractive, it may not withstand the critique of irrationalism Fassbinder puts forth in Satan's Brew. To be sure, Fassbinder is no supercilious Platonist, decrying the nature of art as inherently misleading, but here he does claim that the vestiges of fascism, in its updated guise as obligatory capitalist servitude, rob the individual of the potential for creating the sorts of constructive or "healthy" irrationality Syberberg seeks to resuscitate.15  
If, for Fassbinder, we all are sadomasochistic role-players, we may at best expose the mechanical, unwilled nature of our roles by reversing them: Kranz the bumbling sadist is made masochistic, noble Stefan George is made into a fool, the naked neoclassicism of, say, Leni Riefenstahl should be debased, and so on. Despite his penchant for camp, and Flinn's claim that he is not merely a scavenger of culture but one who pivotally plays with the surfaces of characters,16 Fassbinder is no postmodernist, replacing meaning with fluid performance. Rather, in Satan's Brew, at least, it is the empty mythology of performance itself that must be razed. A nation's desire for myth too easily bows before the individual's heroic (or, in Kranz's case, mock-heroic) desire to be made into myth — indeed, how could there exist a mythology rational enough to resist appropriation by irrational tyranny?  
Perhaps auteurism has too conveniently led us to believe that Fassbinder buys into tyrannical cultural mythologies — of Hollywood, of Douglas Sirk, of himself. An inveterate ironist (even when he strove to surpass irony), Fassbinder was not enslaved to narrativity, and often undid the very mythological essence of narrative in typically German exercises of self-consciousness. This undoing is apparent early on, in the pseudo-realist Why Has Herr R Run Amok? (1969), whose titular character leads a radically meaningless bourgeois lifestyle only to murder climatically most of the cast, for no apparent reason, with a candlestick. The film not only satirizes urban alienation, but is a jaw-dropping parody of the old Hollywood decree that mandates that films must end only when enough characters die. Even more derisive in this regard is Fassbinder's ornate "sauerkraut Western" Whity (1970), which, in a plotline borrowed from Pasolini's Teorema (1968), tells of a black slave who first seduces and then murders the male and female members of a slave-holding family. Like Herr RWhity has little choice but to end when the villainous family is finally murdered at the slave's hands, reminding us that we spectators, too, are "enslaved" to formulaic narratives whose endings are both arbitrary and culturally preconditioned. If Fassbinder can undo the art of narrative, he also must, by extension, undo the mythology of his filmmaking. Indeed, if Syberberg's characterization of Fassbinder as "a gay outsider in the guise of a proletarian hooligan, raised to the status of a myth for the masses"17 seems all too apt, and if Fassbinder's detractors have so often accused him of exploiting his own inner circle of actors, the would-be cult hero Kranz may be Fassbinder's joking attempt at self-criticism.  
Walter Franz resurrectedWhile Why Has Herr R Run Amok and Whity parody cinema convention by having their narratives conveniently terminate or "die" when their characters do, Satan's Brew inverts this critique by having a character previously thought murdered miraculously come alive. Throughout the film, a mock-Dostoevskian police inspector (played by Ulli Lommel) has been hounding Kranz for the apparent murder of his older female neighbor, trying to ply a confession from him. Yet amoral Kranz is no Raskolnikov, and has no guilty conscience to play upon. In the film's final five minutes, Fassbinder attempts to pull out the rug from under us, one final time, with a revelation that Kranz's gun shoots only crimson paint: there is no crime to detect, no soul to examine, and the pistol, that favorite icon of the Surrealists, is revealed to be as impotent as human will itself. If everything (even the redness of blood) is made a myth, if there is no soulful accountability to claim (the pretense of the Nuremberg Trials notwithstanding), we cannot rescue history through the fable of film, as Syberberg's Hitler attempts, but instead must recognize ourselves as active players within the myth, as inherently comic beings, left to choose between embracing our inexorably irrational circumstances with the historical pessimism of a sadist's scowl or the unexpected optimism of a masochist's knowing grin.
This essay was originally published as a booklet to accompany the 2008 DVD release of Satan's Brew by Madman Entertainment (Australia).


1. Elsaesser, Thomas. Fassbinder's Germany: History, Identity, Subject. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996, p. 285. The assertion that Fassbinder is devoid of humor must assume an extremely narrow definition of "humor," ignoring, for instance, the blatant — if radically minimalist — anti-bourgeois comedy of Why Has Herr R Run Amok? (1969).

2. Thomsen, Christian Braad. Trans. Martin Chalmers. Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius. London: Faber and Faber, 1997, p. 212.

3. Ibid., p. 212.

4. Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 1998, p. 125.

5. Hitler, a Film from Germany. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Preface by Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1982, p. xv.

6. Thomsen, ibid., p. 210.

7. Flinn, Caryl. The New German Cinema: Music, History, and the Matter of Style. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, p. 100.

8. Mitchell, Andrew J. "Rainer Werner Fassbinder: The Subject of Film." Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. Ed. James Phillips. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008, p. 128.

9. Ibid., pp. 208-209.

10. Ibid., p. 48.

11. Elsaesser, Thomas. "Lili Marleen: Fascism and the Film Industry." Perspectives on German Cinema. Eds. Terri Ginsberg and Kirsten Moana Thompson. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996, p. 258.

12. Fassbinder, Rainer Werner. The Anarchy of the Imagination. Trans. Krishna Winston. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. 106-107. The cultural omnivorousness of Fassbinder's list of "favorites" — a list he probably never meant to be committal — reveals certain idiosyncrasies, or perhaps biases. In books, his good taste is apparent, as Djuna Barnes sits alongside Goethe and Céline. Yet among opera composers he rates Lehar and Bellini above Berg (!), and considers Michael Curtiz's Flamingo Road as the fourth greatest film (Pasolini's Salo is fifth).

13. Ibid., p. 9.

14. Ibid., p. 10.

15. Still, it's worth pointing out the irony — of which Fassbinder was painfully aware — that the success of the German New Wave was as indebted to abundant government subsidization as poor Kranz is enslaved to his philistine publisher.

16. Flinn, ibid., p. 175.

17. Syberberg, Hans-Jürgen. "Media Response to Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz." West German Filmmakers on Film: Visions and Voices. Ed. Eric Rentschler. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1988, p. 163.

February 2010 | Issue 67

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