Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday, Dark Angel: Notes on R. W. Fassbinder (born May 31, 1945)

The homely, jowly face, dictatorial blatherings, and ragged leather chaps masked one of the great makers of modern cinema

Few filmmakers lived their private lives more publicly than Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), and few have had those lives so relentlessly linked to their artistic output. Starting at age 21, this self-created enfant terrible made over 40 films in 15 years along with numerous plays and TV dramas, but he still managed to become a well-known habitue of New York’s leather bars in the ’70s, easily recognized and often photographed in his trademark leather jacket, dirty jeans, and perpetual scowl. His films were a fixture in art houses of the time, but his personal life, always well publicized, was riddled with gossip and scandal. Disgruntled actors recounted elaborate tales of his violent ways. Some, like the long-suffering Irm Hermann, claimed physical abuse. Writer Robert Katz quotes her: “He couldn’t conceive of my refusing him, and he tried everything. He almost beat me to death on the streets of Bochum …” Fassbinder’s name was frequently in the papers, sometimes in interviews bitterly denouncing his country: “Better a street-sweeper in Mexico than a filmmaker in Germany!” More notorious was the matter of his suicidal lovers: one hanged himself in jail after a murderous rampage, another was found dead in Fassbinder’s apartment. His repertory company was a volatile, literal extended family that included his mother and a seemingly endless string of former, present, and future male lovers, lovelorn women, and even a pair of frustrated wives, Ingrid Caven and Juliane Lorenz. Addicted to booze and drugs (particularly whiskey, Valium, and cocaine, which killed him), Fassbinder left this world in the same way as many of his cinematic creations: overworked, overwrought, and finally overdosed on life.

Born in 1945 to a bourgeois Munich family, Fassbinder rebelled early, unabashedly declaring his homosexuality to his startled father at age 15. He frequented gay bars, where he met Udo Kier – then a drag queen and prostitute – and became his pimp. At the same time, he shifted his aesthetic allegiance from German culture, in which he was well versed, to Hollywood, often seeing as many as 15 features a week. His own films would borrow equally from classic and modern European sources from Thomas Mann to Artaud to Brecht, and the melodramatics of Hollywood genre pictures. To this mix he would add extensive theatrical experience gained through association with groups like the “Anti-Theater,” where he would learn writing, directing, acting, and from which he would cull his own repertory group in the manner of one of his many American cinema heroes, John Ford. However, Fassbinder outstripped his mentors in sheer Svengali-like seductiveness; this homely, overweight gay rebel generated the fiercest loyalties among his troupe, and repaid them by eliciting a gallery of brilliant performances from actors who would never, with rare exceptions like Hanna Schygulla, repeat what they achieved under his tutelage.

Fassbinder ruthlessly attacked both German bourgeois society and the larger limitations of humanity; his films detail the desperate yearning for love and freedom and the many ways in which society, and the individual, thwarts it. The titles of two his films sum up this romantic pessimism: Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) and I Only Want You to Love Me (1976). His main characters tend to be naïfs, either male or female, who must be rudely, sometimes murderously disabused of their romantic illusions, which threaten the social and philosophical status quo. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) details the vicious response of family and community to a lonely white widow who marries a muscular, much younger black Moroccan “guest worker.” The pitiable Emmi is only absolved of her “crime” when those around her realize their ability to exploit her is threatened. In Martha (1973), an impulsive woman (Margit Carstensen) with a hunger for life marries the wealthy, sophisticated Helmut (Karlheinz Bohm), who hates her spontaneity, innocence, and sheer sense of self and tries to remake her as a reflection of his own bourgeois interests. Fassbinder charts Helmut’s success with shrewd visual touches, as in a scene where the two are talking and the camera moves methodically around the room until the image of Helmet completely obscures Martha. This film also contains one of the most harrowing images in cinema when Helmut forces Martha to stay in the sun too long; he’s so turned on by her naked, burned-red body that he rapes her, ignoring her agonized screams. In Fox and His Friends (1974), a piss-elegant queen destroys a sweet but unsophisticated working-class homosexual, stealing his lottery winnings and trying to mold him into a gilt-edged mirror of upper-class values.

Fassbinder was not simply a critic of the prevailing order (though he was that), but equally wary of the right and the left, and often found himself reviled as a misogynist, a traitor, even an anti-Semite. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1971), adapted from his play, has been cited by some feminist and gay critics as both homophobic and anti-woman, perhaps because it shows the kind of class exploitations that spill over from mainstream society into the lives of women and lesbians. The title character is a dress designer who lives in a self-created dreamland, a languid, overripe environment that lacks any reference to the world outside its walls. Like many Fassbinder characters – indeed, like Fassbinder himself – Petra (Margit Carstensen) has a kind of free-floating sexuality. After her heterosexual marriage fails, the “classy,” autocratic Petra falls for Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a beautiful working-class model whose exploitation of Petra mirrors Petra’s extraordinary psychological abuse of her silent maid Marlene (Irm Hermann). Petra’s nervous hysterics mask the same kind of character found in most of Fassbinder’s films – someone desperate for love. At the same time, her antics are juvenile and faintly ridiculous, the foolish tantrums of a child used to getting her own way. Fassbinder portrays the slow meltdown of these relationships as inevitable, and his actresses (there are no men in the film) move in a slow, trancelike way that hints at a vast world of longing beneath the beautiful, brittle surface.

The director’s theatrical origins, so evident in Petra von Kant, resonate throughout his films. Sometimes this manifests as a kind of stylized way of acting, with slow, self-conscious gestures, and sometimes in a dazzlingly, often suffocatingly artificial mise-en-scene. This is surely the case in his final work, the controversial Querelle (1982). Adapting Genet’s peculiar brand of existential homoerotics to film would seem impossible, but Fassbinder dove into the project with relish. Querelle is a kitschy wonderland of fetishized homosexual romance, cluttered with archetypal gay imagery from leather men to sailors to a tortured fag hag played by Jeanne Moreau. The backdrop is a kind of permanent orange sunset, as if the world were at its end, with the architecture a landscape of vague alleys and parts of ships and huge phallic columns that overshadow the action. Fassbinder exploits the sexual and criminal tensions in this enclosed space, particularly in scenes involving the title character (Brad Davis). In the first of several erotically charged sequences, Querelle succumbs to being fucked in the ass by Fassbinder’s bisexual “black Bavarian” lover from some of his early films, Gunther Kauffmann.

If Querelle represents Fassbinder’s fatal fantasy of a homoerotic world, Satan’s Brew (1976) traps a Fassbinder-like character in an equally fatal but more realistic world, one in which the artist is no longer able to create. Kurt Raab plays the blowhard Kranz, a former “poet of the revolution” who’s run out of ideas. He lives in a fractured household with a shrewish wife and his demented exhibitionist little brother and plots ways to reinspire himself. This is one of the director’s most sexually surreal works, with brutal sadomasochist sequences played uneasily for absurd comedy. In a scene that still seems radical today, Kranz gets a public restroom proposition from a hunky male prostitute who masturbates frankly for the camera during their conversation. With Kranz doubling for him, Fassbinder explores his own self-destructive tendencies when Kranz is beaten up by a pimp and discovers he enjoys the pain.

Of course, Fassbinder was much more than the self-flagellating solipsist of Satan’s Brew. Complex works like Despair (1977), adapted from Nabokov, the 15-hour television drama Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), and the “BRD” (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) trilogy – The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981), and Veronika Voss (1982) – show his breathtaking command of the formal narrative, the social critique, and the wide canvas. Still, he never loses the personal in his search for the universal in either the large-scale melodramas or the more focused narratives. In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978) falls into the latter category, and in its way succeeds just as brilliantly in anchoring story and mise-en-scene to the individual. Elvira (Volker Spengler), a transsexual formerly known as Erwin, is one of the most tragic characters ever committed to film. In the last few days before her suicide, accompanied by a prostitute friend (Ingrid Caven), she decides to visit some of the important people and places in her life. In addition to writing, directing, and editing, Fassbinder also designed the production and served as cameraman, and this concentration of power may have inspired some of the extraordinary images of the film. In a virtuosic sequence, Elvira wanders through the slaughterhouse where she worked as Erwin, recounting her history amidst the meat-hooked corpses of cattle whose slit throats rain blood onto the floor. In another unforgettable moment, Elvira returns to the orphanage where she was raised by nuns and hears the brutal story of her beginnings. Fassbinder’s camera relentlessly tracks the nun (played by his mother) who tells Elvira’s story; she moves with a kind of military precision through the grounds, recounting the story in blazing detail, unaware that Elvira has collapsed and can no longer hear.

Bravura sequences like this ensured Fassbinder’s status as Germany’s greatest postwar director, but a review of his complete output puts him at the very forefront of world cinema. This prodigiously inventive artist distilled the best elements of his sources – Brechtian theatrics, Artaud, the Hollywood studio look, classical narrative, and a gay sensibility that wasn’t ghettoized – into a body of work that continues to enlighten and disturb.