Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ed. by Brigitte Peucker

A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Ed. Brigitte Peucker. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, 656pp, £110/$199.95.

When Fassbinder first burst onto the scene, his German contemporaries were horrified by his lifestyle, and foreign critics struggled to cope with his provocative avant-garde techniques. Now they are finally catching up with him, as testified by this massive (656 pages), expensive new companion that is dominated by North American Film Studies (22 of the 29 contributors are based in North America and most are associated in some way with Film Studies).

The collection is divided into four parts: I, Life and Work; II, Genre/Influence/Aesthetics; III, Other Texts/Other Media; and IV, History/Ideology/Politics. It has the flavour of an “official” publication. Juliane Lorenz and the Fassbinder Foundation keep trying to recreate a saintly, sanitised image of the director, playing down his uncomfortable, anti-bourgeois excesses — the drug taking, the suicides of his gay lovers, and the political controversies. She is thanked here as “a source of inspiration and support” (xiv) and is referred to as “Ms.” Lorenz, “an author, filmmaker, film editor and producer” (xi). She is labelled as Fassbinder’s “final partner” (3) — the controversial marriage and her difficult relations with many former Fassbinder associates are ignored (apart from a brief mention by Halle on page 548).

The short first section containing just four essays proves disappointing. Lorenz gushes about Fassbinder’s “most beautiful and revealing thoughts” (31) as well as about seeing him for the first time in 1975 “in a Chinese restaurant on Tengstrasse in Munich” (31) while “in the midst” of her “own cinematic journey” (32). Inspiring a “burst of youthful romanticism” (33) when working together, Fassbinder “flirted heavily” (33) with Lorenz, who accepts that her recollections sound “a bit like a fairy tale” (33), but she and Rainer really experienced together “‘magic'” and “‘divine’ harmony” (34)! Is this a serious academic study or the script for a soap opera? Then, in a concise contribution, Thomas Elsaesser (Amsterdam) views Fassbinder as a “monstrous” body (46), a blood-sucking vampire, still haunting Germany. Next, Leo A. Lensing (Wesleyan) examines authoritatively Fassbinder’s love of literature, although he is perhaps a little harsh on Barnett’s excellent study of Fassbinder’s work in the theatre. Wayne Koestenbaum (CUNY) rounds off this section with several pages of puerile self-indulgence. His extravagant, impressionistic, sexually explicit descriptions of five Fassbinder scenes are more evocative of teenage narcissism and bedroom fantasy than serious scholarship.

Fortunately, the nine articles in Part II include some more substantial contributions. Laura McMahon (Cambridge) examines in depth Fassbinder’s ambiguous debt to Godard in his early films, revealing a peculiar mixture of affection and disenchantment. Claire Kaiser (Bordeaux) sees the body as conveying all of Fassbinder’s concepts and critical messages, as coming to symbolise a particularly painful state of being. Then Victor Fan (McGill) compares the gender reassignments of In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (1978) and Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004); Eugenie Brinkema (MIT) looks at nudity in Chinesisches Roulette (1976); and Brian Price (Toronto), who is interested in the larger philosophical questions raised by Fassbinder, notes his “negative evocation of Sirk’s style” (178). J. D. Rhodes (Sussex) also analyses Fassbinder’s “‘Sirkian’ style” (183) but in relation to queer labour. This section ends with Joe McElhaney’s (CUNY) examination of physical discomfort in Martha (1974), which he describes as black comedy; Nadine Schwakopf’s (Yale) jargon-ridden article, which sees Fassbinder’s melodrama as going beyond the woman’s film; and Brad Prager’s (Missouri) original comparison of Welt am Draht (1973) with other contemporary science fiction films like 2001 (1968) and Solaris (1972).

Part III contains seven essays that deal with intertextuality and Fassbinder’s intermedial approach. Elena del Rio (Alberta) examines the six repetitions of Ida’s murder in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which manifest Franz’s wavering between dynamism and determinism; Brigitte Peucker (Yale) analyses the problem of identity inDespair (1977); Caryl Flinn (Arizona) presents a very interesting study of music, in particular of the jumbled, historically imprecise, repetitive score of Fassbinder’s “queerest work” (314), Querelle (1982); Olga Solovieva (Yale) attempts to differentiate between Fassbinder the sociologist and Fassbinder the psychologist. Peucker returns, this time examining framing, un-framing, and reframing in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972 (when discussing the film’s biographical aspects, in particular Irm Hermann’s real-life masochistic relationship with Fassbinder, she does not seem aware of the sometimes offered interpretation that Fassbinder transsexualised his own personal situation — himself, Günther Kaufmann, and Peer Raben — into a lesbian love triangle, Petra, Karin and Marlene). Elke Siegel (Cornell) presents a novel reading of Effi Briest (1974), and Paul Coates (Western Ontario) examines the divergences between Fassbinder’s adaptations and his literary texts.
Finally, Part IV finishes it off with nine articles. Eric Rentschler (Harvard) reconsiders two lesser-known films that deal with 1968 (Die Niklashauser Fart and Rio das Mortes, both 1970). For Frances Guerin (Kent), Fassbinder in Die dritte Generation (1979) uses “high-modernist” (443), neo-Brechtian aesthetic strategies to present the ambiguity of terrorism so that the film retains its radical edge even today. Laura J. Heins (Virginia) considers Lili Marleen (1980) in relation to fascist film aesthetics by comparing Fassbinder with the Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan. Rosalind Galt (Sussex) analyses accusations of anti-Semitism against Fassbinder; Elena Gorfinkel (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) examines the impossible interracial, intergenerational marriage in Angst essen Seele auf (1974); and Nagl/Blankenship (W. Ontario) provide an investigation of blackness that “is a first in Fassbinder scholarship” (12). The last three essays discuss gay issues — the new gay film (R. Halle, Pittsburgh), gay politics in the 1970s (R. Gregg, Yale), and Querelle in the light of HIV/AIDS (R. Grundmann, Boston).

An up-to-date collection on Fassbinder in English has long been needed, and it will find a ready market providing background material for university courses on German/European/World cinema. It should also stimulate many lively debates. A lot of issues are raised that deserve to be explored further — the ambiguous debt to Godard and the French New Wave; Fassbinder’s failure to fully emulate Sirk and what these differences reveal about his work; the need for greater differentiation between the gay and the queer Fassbinder; the use of camp in his films; the question of character identification (are we always distanced from his characters, or are there times when he wants us to identify?), and the question of positives (does he ever depict any positive gays or any positive solutions?).
We are presented here mainly with the gay Fassbinder; there is a strong preoccupation with sexuality, the (often tormented) body, the queer perspective and queer issues. This trend at times toward universalisation and decontextualisation is slightly worrying, though, for a specialist Germanist. That’s why I prefer Part IV, although Peucker concedes discomfort here with Fassbinder’s “sometimes troubling ideological and political positions” (10). For such a high price (clearly aimed at institutional buyers), however, I would have expected greater quality control and tighter editing. The self-indulgence and inconsistency should have been eliminated. For example, Peucker writes that among the films Fassbinder had “watched avidly since early childhood [. . .] were the Hollywood films of Douglas Sirk” (1), although it is commonly assumed that Fassbinder only discovered Sirk at the 1970 Munich retrospective, a point made by several other contributors; see pages 182, 211, and 425.