Bright Lights Film Journal

PEER RABEN (1940-2007)

A sad synchronicity. I had been gathering notes to write a post this week in tribute to the German film composer Peer Raben. Then I learned this morning that over the weekend he had passed away.

There are a handful of film composers who are associated with particular film directors – so much so that it is hard to think of one without thinking of the other: Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev; Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann; Federico Fellini and Nino Rota; Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini; Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Such was the partnership of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Peer Raben.

Raben collaborated with Fassbinder on no less than 28 film projects, beginning with Fassbinder’s first features, Love is Colder Than Death and Katzelmacher in 1969, and concluding with Fassbinder’s last film Querrelle in 1982. How to describe Raben’s music? It was as bittersweet as a hurdy-gurdy played on a streetcorner in Lang’s Berlin, or as melancholy as a tango in a Parisian brothel. He was modern, but only in the sense that early 20th Century composers like Stravinsky, Bartok, and Kurt Weill are considered modern. Just as Fassbinder’s films got better and better, so did Raben’s music, and his last Fassbinder scores, the ones written in the early 1980s, are his most memorable: Querrelle, Berlin Alexanderplatz (a 15-hour miniseries), and Lola.

But what happens to a film composer when his primary source of inspiration is taken away from him? After Alfred Hitchcock broke with Bernard Herrmann, Herrmann found renewed inspiration working with a group of younger directors who emulated Hitchcock: François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, The Bride Wore Black); Brian De Palma (Sisters, Obsession); Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver); and Larry Cohen (It’s Alive). When Fassbinder died in 1982, Raben stopped being heard on this side of the ocean. He kept working steadily more or less, but his scores were for European films that were not released in the States.

Then, in 2005, after a long absence, we heard Raben’s familiar music on the soundtrack of Wong Kar Wai’s great 2046. It was an unexpected but brilliant match, the bitterhoney tones of Raben’s music a perfect accompaniment to Wong’s burnished memory-images of lost love. 2046 was followed by Raben’s score for the Wong Kar Wai segment of Eros (“The Hand”), easily the best episode of this compilation film.

I was looking forward to more Raben-Wong collaborations. They won’t happen now. But there is some consolation for Raben fans in the recent Criterion DVD release of Pandora’s Box. For this 1929 silent German masterpiece, Criterion allows the viewer to choose from four different soundtrack accompaniments. One of them is by Raben and represents the composer at his finest. You should listen to it this evening if you can. I know I will.