Monday, December 8, 2014

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982)

“Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.“
–Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Director, actor, and writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder is generally remembered for his incredibly fast-paced and brilliant cinematic output, as well as his controversial life. In less than 15 years, he produced 40 feature films, a few short films, two television series, and plays. In addition to his work as a director, he acted in nearly 40 films (some of his own), did the design work, editing, and cinematography for much of his output, and ran a theater group. His films were always meant to shock and provoke, which kept him continually in the limelight, despite the fact that the German media did not take him seriously until after his premature death.

One of the leading figures of New German Cinema alongside directors like Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge, and Margarethe von Trotta, Fassbinder examined the state of contemporary German life and the impact of WWII and its many lingering ghosts. Inspired by the French New Wave, New German Cinema was the most important national film movement since the German Expressionists in the Weimar period thanks to Nazism near-successful eradication of a vibrant national cinema in the ‘30s. Most of Fassbinder’s films explore themes that caused so much horror and terror during the years under Hitler’s reign: cruelty and indifference, racism, bigotry, and the effects of exploitation, usually a combination of economic, sexual, and emotional.

His important characters act as both victim and perpetrator, and they are nearly always caught in the mundane though horrifying web of daily life, from which there is no escape. He attacked intolerance in all its forms, suggesting that there is a rotten core to human nature. The same impulse that made the Holocaust possible did not go away; it merely submerged itself, or changed forms. He incorporated these themes across numerous genres, including melodrama, romance, gangster films, sci-fi, black comedy, and more. No one was spared, not even Fassbinder himself. He targeted everyone from bourgeois Germans to racists, rightwing extremists, socialists and communists, the promiscuous, and those who followed conventional morality. His films were particularly controversial because of his inclusion of biographical elements, such as his bisexuality, abusive relationships, libertinism, and drug use.

Born in Bavaria mere weeks after the Allies liberated the country, Fassbinder was born into a bourgeois, though loveless family. He was a child of divorce and was shuttled around between family members, and was often ignored by his parents. He later claimed that the cinema was his only real family and that that’s where he spent most of his days. He gravitated toward the theater study in Munich, where he began writing plays, learning about filmmaking, and where he met several of his key actors, including Hanna Schygulla. He made three short films: the lost This Night (1966), The City Tramp (1966), and Das kleine Chaos (1966), which plays out like a dry-run of his first film, Love is Colder Than Death.

By 1967, he was head of the Munich action-theater (merely a few months after joined) and worked as director, actor, and writer. The group he worked with here – including Schygulla, Kurt Raab, Peer Raben, and others, become the stock company he would use repeatedly throughout his film career. These relationships were often unhealthy, abusive, and torturous. It complicated matters that his romantic partners were often cast in his films and these relationships had a tendency to end badly. The Moroccan El Hedi ben Salem (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) hanged himself in 1977, though the news was hidden from Fassbinder until just a few months before his own death. Armin Meier (Germany in Autumn) also hanged himself, this time in his and Fassbinder’s home. Fassbinder‘s lover Günther Kaufmann (Whity) was married, but accepted wildly expensive gifts, including several Lamborghinis, and film roles.

Though he primarily identified as homosexual, he also had relationships with women. Fassbinder had three important female relationships that lasted much of his adult life. An important early relationship was with his secretary Irm Hermann, who he forced to act. Their relationship was particularly chaotic, and she reported later that it involved emotional degradation and physical abuse. He was married to actress Ingrid Caven for two years and apparently discussed marrying Juliane Lorenz, his long-time editor and last romantic partner. She was the one who found him dead in their apartment in 1982. He had close physical, emotional, and working relationships with all three women and remained close to Hermann and Caven even after their romantic relationships ended. Lorenz has run his estate in the years since his death, which includes an extensive website, film rights, a book, and a documentary.

With his mustachioed scowl, untidy hat, black leather jacket, and dark glasses, Fassbinder was an unmistakable presence in 20th century cinema. Surrounded by a media firestorm for much of his life, he wasn’t really taken seriously in his home country until after his death. He had begun using drugs and alcohol to keep up the relentless pace of his work in the last few years of his life, and this eventually killed him in 1982. He died of an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates while working on the script for an upcoming film about socialist martyr Rose Luxemburg.

Though he was inspired by the melodramas of Douglas Sirk (a fellow German), namely All Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, as well as the plays of Bertolt Brecht, and the films of Pasolini and Godard, Fassbinder synthesized his influences and life experiences to create a breathtaking, innovative, and introspective body of cinema. His work is finding wider audiences, thanks to regular Fassbinder-themed festivals and new releases from companies like Criterion. Thanks to a recent two-part retrospective at the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York, you can pick up a cheap digital anthology full of articles and interviews, or a Fassbinder tote bag or t-shirt.

I hope you’ll watch along with me.

The Stark Early Films: 
Love is Colder Than Death (1969) — This nod to the French New Wave, concerns an odd triangle between a pimp, his prostitute girlfriend, and a gangster.
Katzelmacher (1969) — A group of bored, friends with complicated sex lives react badly when a Greek immigrant comes to town.
Gods of the Plague (1970) — This noirish gangster film focuses on complicated sexual relationship and has some subversive elements of homoeroticism.
Das Kaffeehaus (1970) — A made-for-TV theatrical production, this basic, black-and-white film is an adaptation of a play about domestic and sexual intrigue.
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) — A family man with a good job eventually begins to crack under the pressure and boredom of domestic life.
The American Soldier (1970) — Another stark, Brechtian early effort from Fassbinder, this is one of his few films modeled on American film noir.
The Niklashausen Journey (1970) — This odd, visionary film follows the life of a musical shepherd who has a sudden religions vision.
Rio das Mortes (1971) — In this made-for-TV movie, a pair of deadbeats find a South American treasure map and try to find a way there.
Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971) — Soldiers arrive in a small village, which disrupts the sexual and emotional lives of several young women.
Whity (1971) — This mix of Gothic melodrama and western follows a dysfunctional, if not outright deranged family.
Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) — This final, hyper-theatrical black-and-white work is an autobiographical film about a stubborn filmmaker and his close knit troupe.

Middle Period and Melodrama:
The Merchant of Four Seasons
(1971) — The first film in Fassbinder’s melodrama cycle, this examines an unhappy marriage and unhealthy family dynamic and was his first real success as a filmmaker.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) — One of Fassbinder’s most beautiful films, this concerns the destructive love triangle between three women.
Bremen Freedom (1972) — This bitter black comedy concerns a widow’s vengeance, which is enacted by poisoning people in her small town.
Jail Bait (1973) — This tale of teen angst is yet another look at the oppression, claustrophobia, and frustration found in domestic life.
Eight Hours are Not a Day (1972-73) — This five-part, made-for-TV domestic drama is focused on the lives of a working class family.
World on a Wire (1973) — This surreal, three+ hour TV series is Fassbinder’s only attempt at science fiction.
Nora Helmer (1974) — Fassbinder’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is claustrophobic and black-hearted.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) — Inspired by Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, this tragic love story about a Moroccan immigrant and older German woman helped skyrocket Fassbinder to international acclaim.
Martha (1974) — This nasty satire of marriage concerns a seemingly charming relationship that hides a sadomasochistic underbelly.
Effi Briest (1974) — This lovely and subversive period melodrama concerns a woman who begins to feel confined by her marriage and comfortable lifestyle.
Fox and His Friends (1975) — An innocent carnival entertainer wins the lottery, but is soon taken advantage of by his upper class boyfriend in this bleak, depressing tale.
Like a Bird on a Wire (1975) — Inspired by variety-show television, this is a satirical look at the economic boost in ‘50s Germany.
Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) — A mother is dissatisfied with her frustrating family life in this black comedy.
Fear of Fear (1975) – Influenced by Douglas Sirk, this domestic melodrama concerns a housewife who reaches a sudden crisis and begins a descent into madness.
I Only Want You to Love Me (1976) – Another domestic melodrama, this concerns a man who buys a house for his parents, because he desperately wants their love.
Satan's Brew (1976) – Influenced by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, this unusual film concerns an avant-garde poet with a frustrating home life.
Chinese Roulette (1976) – In this experimental Gothic thriller, a handicapped young girl brings her parents and their lovers together at an isolated country house.

Final Phase and Innovation: 

Women in New York (1977) — This made-for-TV movie focused on the urban lives of women, marriage, aging, and infidelity.
The Stationmaster's Wife (1977) — The melodrama between a stationmaster and his unfaithful wife is another of Fassbinder’s films set at the dawn of the Third Reich.
Germany in Autumn (1978) — An omnibus film made by 11 different German directors, this concerns the “German Autumn,” which involved murder, kidnapping, and terrorism.
Despair (1978) — Fassbinder’s first English-language film is set in ‘30s Germany and follows a Russian émigré’s descent into madness.
In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) — This film about a transsexual remains Fassbinder’s most personal work, made in the aftermath of a  lover’s suicide.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) – In the first of his acclaimed BRD trilogy, a housewife harnesses her ambition and becomes a businesswoman.
The Third Generation (1979) – Fassbinder’s most topically political film, this work is concerned with German radicals and terrorists who kidnap a wealthy family.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) – This 14-part, made-for-TV miniseries is an adaptation of one of Fassbinder’s favorite novels, about a man who killed his girlfriend.
Lili Marleen (1981) – A star cabaret singer falls in love with a Jewish songwriter during WWII in this romantic melodrama.
Theatre in Trance (1981)Fassbinder’s only documentary examines a Cologne theater festival and his observations on performance art.
Lola (1981) – In the years following the war, a cabaret singer is caught between a moral bureaucrat and a lascivious businessman in this second entry in the BRD trilogy.
Veronika Voss (1982) – The final entry in the BRD trilogy concerns a former Nazi star without work or friends and addicted to morphine.
Querelle (1982) – Fassbinder’s last film is an adaptation of Jean Genet’s novel about an amoral sailor and his complicated relationships.

Fassbinder’s Friends: 
Fassbinder was also a fairly prolific actor, having appeared in 44 films – some directed by Fassbinder himself and some by his friends. Several of these are worth examining alongside his filmography.
Baal (Volker Schlöndorff, 1970) – New German Cinema director and Fassbinder’s friend, Schlöndorff helmed this made-for-TV movie adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play about a drunk, lascivious poet, played by Fassbinder himself.
Tenderness of theWolves (Ulli Lommel, 1973) – Fassbinder acted and produced this disturbing film based on the life of WWI-era serial killer Fritz Haarmann.
Shadow of Angels (Daniel Schmid, 1976) – Starring Fassbinder and based on his play The Garbage, the City, and Death, this is about a prostitute’s difficult romantic and family life.
Kamikaze '89 (Wolf Gremm, 1982) — In this futuristic/noir/detective story/cyberpunk thriller, Fassbinder stars as a detective. It was released just after his death.

And check out this article about Fassbinder's music.

To learn more about this beautiful genius, visit the Fassbinder Foundation, which is run by Lorenz, and check out these books: The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes – Rainer Werner Fassbinder edited by Michael Toteberg and Leo A. Lensing; Fassbinder's Germany by Thomas Elsaesser; Fassbinder Film Maker by Ronald Hayman; and Chaos as Usual: Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Juliane Lorenz.

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