Alf Brustellin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Maximiliane Mainka, Beata Mainka-Jellinghaus, Peter Schubert, Berhard Sinkel, Hans Peter Cloos, Edgar Reitz, Katja Rupe, Volker Schlöndorff, 1978
Starring: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Armin Meier, Hannelore Hoger, Horst Mahler
In 1977, members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) hijacked a plane and then kidnapped and murdered Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of Daimler-Benz, in order to try to force the release of three RAF leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Enslin, and Jean-Carl Raspe, who were being held in prison. When this action failed, Baader, Enslin, and Raspe died in prison; Baader and Raspe were shot and Enslin was hanged. While the state claimed these were suicides, it was widely believed that they were murdered. In response, eleven New German Cinema directors collaborated on this unique, important omnibus film, a blend of documentary and fictional narratives that meditate on the effectiveness of democracy and the place of terrorism.
Germany in Autumn is book-ended by a quote: "When cruelty, reaches a certain point, it is no longer important who initiated it, only that it ends,” attribited to “8 April 1945 Mrs Wilde, 5 children." The beginning and ending also include funerals. The film opens with the funeral of Schleyer, a solemn affair crowded with flags, flower arrangements, and aged, black-suited businessmen. The concluding funeral is its opposite in nearly every way: a mass of youthful adults, dressed in hippie-like clothing and leather jackets stream across a field for the nondescript, disgraced burials of Baader, Enslin, and Raspe. They are crowded by police and some protesting and mild violence eventually breaks out.
This is an unusual omnibus film in the sense that there are not concrete segments, but overlapping, interwoven pieces. The majority of these are documentary pieces – shots of the funerals, a glimpse of the Daimler-Benz factory working in a moment of silence, and an interview with imprisoned RAF found Horst Mahler – but three of the segments are fictional. There’s an odd, somewhat out of place short psychological thriller where a young woman lets an injured stranger in to her apartment, only to figure out that he is an escaped terrorist. Another section follows a couple who have their car searched at the border and are vaguely harassed by the border guards. There are also several fascinating scenes of Gabi Teichert, a history teacher, who wanders a wintry landscape while she questions Germany’s relationship with its past. (This character would return for director Alexander Kluge’s Die Patriotin in 1979.)
The two most important segments – which blur the line between fiction and reality – star two of Germany in Autumn’s directors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff. Schlöndorff plays himself as a director whose adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone – a theatrical performance filmed for teen television program – is criticized by a board of producers who think it appears to be too sympathetic to terrorism. The plot concerns two brothers on opposite sides of a war and the fate of the dead rebel brother, which includes a burial stripped of all official and religious rites – a parallel to the burial ceremonies for Baader, Enslin, and Raspe. Despite the director’s protests, they discuss that it will be far too suggestive to show to impressionable children and must be held for release at a future date.
But Fassbinder’s contribution to Germany in Autumn is perhaps the most important part of the film. At 26 minutes, it is a considerable chunk of a nearly two-hour film shared between 11 directors. Fassbinder equates his private anguish with the anguish of Germany and conflates personal and public pain. This segment may be his most brilliant, personal piece of filmmaking and it is certainly Fassbinder at his most vulnerable and exposed. The segment is centered on time spent in his apartment either with his boyfriend, handsome James Dean-lookalike Armin Meier, or arguing with his mother. Fassbinder is cruel to both; he gets into a physical brawl with Armin and kicks him out of the apartment, only to yell for him to return a moment later. Fassbinder is clearly rocked by the RAF situation and the deaths of Baader (who he briefly knew personally), Enslin, and Raspe.
There are shots of him, in his grief and confusion, going about his normal routine. He and Armin wake up late, walk around the apartment naked, and Armin cooks for him. He does drugs and later flushes them down the toilet, convinced the police are going to break in at any moment. He tries to start on a new film, but spends more time on the phone, trying to work out his frustrations in a dialogue. Like many of Fassbinder’s films, particularly his mid-period to late works, this is haunted by the Nazi past and the effects of National Socialism upon contemporary German democracy. He debates with his mother (Lilo Pempeit, who acted in several of his films), who lived through WWII. After a frustrating talk about the nature of democracy and terrorism, she admits that she would prefer the rule of an autocrat, though a kind and fair one.
The segment ends with a frustrated, angry Fassbinder acting out against Meier. He is cruel and hurtful – kicking out a homeless youth Meier has allowed to stay the night – but then breaks down weeping and bear-hugs Meier to the ground in a crushingly physical, almost violent attempt at intimacy, affection, and comfort. This little glimpse of what Meier dealt with on a day-to-day basis is likely a somewhat accurate portrayal of their life together. Fassbinder was known for his obsessive, yet abusive relationships and this marks one of the last times he would be captured on film. In 1978, Meier killed himself, allegedly due to his despair over his impossible relationship with Fassbinder.
The themes of Germany in Autumn and the impact of the RAF events obviously deeply impacted Fassbinder. He would go on to make the masterful, The Third Generation (1979), one of his lesser seen triumphs. Both that and Germany in Autumn come highly recommended. Fortunately, it is available on DVD and you don’t need to know anything about German history of the ‘70s to appreciate the film. Like so many of Fassbinder’s works, it remains oddly, uncomfortably topical, as these debates about the nature of democracy and role of terrorism remain frighteningly poignant.