Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman (Semiotext(e), May 2023, pp. 200, $11.99.
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In William Motley’s best-selling 1947 novel Knock on Any Door, the author cites an adage that was destined to become the quintessential one-sentence encapsulation of the following generation’s rebelliousness and insubordination to the system and its norms: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” This is also the title of James Dean’s biography written by John Gilmore (Live Fast-Die Young: Remembering the Short Life of James Dean) and a quote that was on the lips of all unruly youngsters during the 1960s and 1970s on either side of the Atlantic. Cult author Ian Penman, chiefly known for his work as a music journalist in major outlets such as NME, The Guardian, and, more recently, the London Review of Books, paints a purely subjective portrait of the late German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his first book, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors. This raw portrayal of Fassbinder’s extravagant persona is combined with autobiographical bits that connect the life of the author and that of his subject. Fassbinder lived his life to the extreme, an embodiment of Motley’s words, and endorsed this way of life as the only one worth living. He was born in 1945, lived fast for nearly four decades, and died in 1982. Penman’s biography is an exploration of Fassbinder’s artistic ethos as manifested through the totality of his oeuvre, and the author intersperses the text with quotes by esteemed intellectuals such as Robert Musil, Paul Virilio, and Ernst Jünger. The lives of Penman and Fassbinder remain in open dialogue throughout the book, with the British journalist regressing to his early years in his attempt to explain the “huge and axis-shifting” (12) effect caused by Fassbinder’s films that contributed to the shaping of his character as an adult. In his own words: “Yeah, there’s a tension there in the book between that young me in the ‘80s who thought Fassbinder was great, who thought that his fatalism was the truth, and the older me who thinks that he had a quite adolescent male view of the world” (Prickett, Interview Magazine).
Penman planned to write this book for several years, but the project remained unrealized until the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed on all European countries. He wrote Fassbinder A Thousand Mirrors on a self-imposed deadline of three to four months during which he worked “in a kind of fever dream” (Prickett, 2023). The author opted for a structure that rejects the division of the text into chapters, favouring numbered paragraphs (450 in total) instead. The invisible line functioning as the glue that binds the individual parts of the text is Penman’s own stream of consciousness, a nonlinear whirlwind of associations that make sense only if you trace the – elusive – bonding link. Penman said in an interview that if he had to rewrite the book, “the one thing I might change is taking the numbers away, to make it feel even more like a film strip” (Prickett, 2023). But does he succeed in conveying a coherent, meaningful image of Fassbinder from the text’s loosely connected musings, remarks, ruminations, aphorisms, and aperçus to the reader? I found Penman’s free-spirited attempt at a biography to be revitalizing as it shies away from the stringent style and tone employed by many authors who approach the genre in an academic way, spelling out rigid historical facts and quotes. In a review of the book, Chris Molnar hails Penman’s book as the crowning jewel of his career and “the culmination of Penman’s ecstatic interrogative style” (Molnar, Los Angeles Review of Books).
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, commonly referred to as RWF, was an enigma, notorious for his gargantuan appetites and vices that eventually led to his untimely death at the age of 37 by drug overdose. Even though his career lasted for nearly 13 years (1969-1982), his output remains unparalleled as he made over 40 films in total, 24 theatre plays, and 2 television series – who can forget the iconic Berlin Alexanderplatz? – while earning several prestigious prizes, among them Veronica Voss (1982) winning the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. During the films’ productions, RWF assumed various roles (screenwriter, actor, editor, and others), sometimes doing half a dozen different jobs on set. Fassbinder made films in a frenzied state of mind, fuelled by cocaine and other substances, and as soon as a movie was done, the next one began with no interlude in between. Even at the time of his death, he was working on a new project that would focus on the life of the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, but he passed away during the pre-production stage. His cinematic fertility gave birth to classic films that gradually gained the respect of both critics and audiences with his international breakthrough film being The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), an examination of a love story hampered by the atrocities and pain of the Second World War.
In Fassbinder’s fictional universe, the political and the personal are bound together tightly, a result of his solitary upbringing as the son of a divorced couple, during the aftermath of the War of the Nations. The influence of the wider sociopolitical context in Germany of the 1960s and 1970s also played a critical role in the formation of RWF’s character. Germany was struggling to cope with the consequences of their great defeat in the war and the intrusion of the American influences in the country’s cultural scene, with cinema being at the forefront. Penman correlates Fassbinder’s childhood with his own, the common denominator being the fact that they spent their early years as nomads, moving from location to location and lacking the firm presence and control usually wielded by parents. So, both of them found refuge and sanctuary in cinema, which became “the child’s alternative nest” (30) or “alternative homestead” (30). As a kid, Fassbinder used to watch three or four movies daily, enchanted by the power of visual storytelling and developing his artistic taste that would be graphically illustrated during his professional career as an adult. But this is not the only link between the author and his subject of study as both experienced life’s downward spiral instigated by drug abuse. For Fassbinder, illicit substances were more like brain nourishment, something that kept him constantly on edge and at the peak of his creativity. For Penman, too, cocaine is inextricably linked with the creative process as it “allows you to construct vast mental or stylized edifices without at any point registering any real emotion. Cocaine is architectural, manic: add this bit, now add this bit, and let’s also add this other one . . . numberless additions, with no end in sight” (86).
Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Luc Godard, and Douglas Sirk are just a few of the most eminent figures who influenced Fassbinder’s work, while his own clout on the subsequent generation of directors, European and American, has been immense. Penman specifically mentions Michael Mann, whom he describes as “Fassbinder without the psychology” (Prickett, 2023), and his distinctive cinematography that he borrowed from Fassbinder and that resulted in Mann’s “beautifully lit criminals” (Prickett, 2023) that international audiences relished in his most emblematic films. Fassbinder was fixated on using garish, neon-lit enclosed settings as far away from the natural landscape as possible. Adorno has talked about “the color of neurotic playfulness” (50), an apt description of Fassbinder’s visual style, and Penman provides his own take on the matter: “As if everyday life were itself drugged, or in search of a Hollywood technicolor redemption” (50). Cinematographer Michael Balhaus, Fassbinder’s longtime collaborator, who later worked with Martin Scorsese, was the person who had perhaps understood RWF’s artistic perspective in all its magnitude. RWF was the definition of an urban filmmaker who resented shooting film in locations removed from the metropolitan context. He had no tolerance for the unblemished aesthetics of the natural world. He was obsessed with the ills of contemporary capitalist society and people’s frustrations, addictions, their broken relationships. As he wrote in the New Left Review in 1975 regarding the movies made by his mentor Douglas Sirk: “This is the kind of thing Douglas Sirk makes movies about. . . . People can’t live alone, but they can’t live together either. This is why his movies are so desperate” (19). These words echo RWF’s approach to characterization in the pithiest of ways.
Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is as much about Fassbinder as it is about Penman and his recollections from the era in which his identity was galvanized through culture and art. From the book’s first pages, the author warns the reader that this is not a run-of-the-mill comprehensive biography aiming to simply inform the readers about the subject’s life. In the first few lines, Penman acknowledges “the absolute impossibility of summing up Fassbinder” (9) not only due to the vast volume of his work but also because of the director’s evasiveness and idiosyncrasy. The author examines RWF’s films to trace how much of the auteur’s own essence has seeped into his oeuvre and relays his findings to the reader, who must know what to expect from what is clearly a blend of biography and autobiography: RWF, he writes, “managed to inscribe something like autobiography (or self-reflection, or an odd kind of doubling effect) inside films that don’t feel directly or obviously personal” (12). Fassbinder’s body of work revolves around self-identity, harmonizing oneself with one’s inner cosmos and living according to that fragile equilibrium. Transgression is mandatory as it moves within a place that lies outside societal conventions: “Transgression with the goal of finding the truth beyond accepted discourse” (Molnar, 2023). Regarding the wider context of the contemporary human condition and the sociopolitical milieu within which both Penman and Fassbinder lived and thrived, Penman writes: “Modernity is all about looking, reflections, mirrors and doubles, the gap between appearance and reality. . . . The endless mirrors and reflections in Fassbinder’s films are emblematic of lives without foundation or rooted beliefs” (53). The mirror becomes the key image and metaphor for Fassbinder’s work, his relationship with author Penman, and cinema in general: “The cinema screen is a strange kind of mirror to recognize yourself in. All those looks, gazes, reflections, mimicries, imagos. Filmic glamour gets right down into the honeycomb of who we think we are: gestures, habits, dreams. But also history” (38). In the characters he created, Fassbinder saw aspects of his inner self; it was through them that he was exposing and exploiting his own ego. Penman, on the other hand, sees Fassbinder as a mirror image of himself, and that’s his principal reason for writing this book.
If one wishes for a more standard biography of RWF, there are the two books by Robert Katz (Love Is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder) and Ronald Hayman (Fassbinder Film Maker) in which both critics provide ample information about Fassbinder and his films. Furthermore, in Oskar Roehler’s 2020 biopic Enfant Terrible, the Bavarian director delivers a sincere portrayal of Fassbinder both as an individual and as an artist with Oliver Masucci putting in a memorable performance in the leading role, a true acting tour de force. The movie focuses on the strained relationships between Fassbinder and his collaborators, a motley group of relatives, ex-lovers, and frenemies. Chain-smoking and sporting his favourite fedora, Roehler’s Fassbinder is delineated as a volatile man with constant mood fluctuations whose behaviour can be perceived as cynical and vulnerable at the same time. Roehler remains impartial and avoids passing moral judgment on the fictional Fassbinder, accepting his controversial nature as the root cause of his legendary status in the history of cinema.
Penman does exactly the same. His approach to the Fassbinder phenomenon exudes intimacy and veneration, and never does the book come across as judgmental. Contrary to most biography writers, Penman doesn’t need to keep a certain distance in order to convey a sense of objectivity. Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is a profoundly personal work that at times reads more like a memoir than a biography. The author’s admiration for RWF is palpable, and he coins the term “Fassbundesrepublik” (16) to underscore the enormity of the director’s artistic gravitas and sway. Fassbinder was a constellation on his own, his body scarred by what was intrinsic to his nature, internal conflicts that made him one of the most respected auteurs in the history of cinema. He came out as a homosexual in his teenage years, though he had relationships with women, too. In his work, RWF balanced the lush and the austere, a tension that mandated his choices both thematically and stylistically. As it happens with its subject matter, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is resistant to any form of inclusion in categories or standards, and readers should be aware of that before delving into the text.
Anderson, C. Brian. “Fassbinder: Life and Films,” City Journal (May 18, 2023), Fassbinder: Life and Films: 10 Blocks podcast | City Journal (city-journal.org).
Hayman, Ronald. Fassbinder: Film Maker (Olympic Marketing Corp, 1984).
Katz, Robert. Love Is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Jonathan Cape, 1987).
Molnar, Chris. No Monuments: On Ian Penman’s “Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors” | Los Angeles Review of Books (lareviewofbooks.org). (May 2, 2023).
Prickett, Sarah Nicole. Writer Ian Penman on Freud, Foucault, and the Films of Fassbinder (interviewmagazine.com) (June 15, 2023).