Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975
Starring: Brigitte Mira

Fassbinder’s 44-minute made-for-TV movie, Like a Bird on a Wire, is an experiment unlike any other in his career. The film is a showcase for acclaimed actress Brigitte Mira, previously the star of his Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In some ways, this is a continuation of some of the themes explored in Fear Eats the Soul, as it examines the sexual and emotional life of an older woman. Mira discusses her various husbands and romantic relationships in between performances of different songs, and this is something like a mock variety show, styled after those made popular on television in the late ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.

There are six set pieces. She begins in a comfortable home with bourgeois-style decorations and drinks alone. Later, she visits briefly with her friend, actress Evelyn Künneke co-starring as herself. Next, Mira performs to a bar full of very well-groomed bikers, complete with motorcycles, before moving to a fashion show, where she sings on the runway. The second-to-last set is perhaps the most controversial: Mira sings a German-language rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” while surrounded by oiled body builders wearing skimpy underwear and nothing else. In the final scene, she is alone again, on an elegant divan.

Fassbinder had already experimented with television several times – particularly with avant-garde theatrical adaptation like Bremen Freedom and Nora Helmer, but even more so with 8 Hours Are Not a Day, his television show about blue collar life in West Germany. It was there that he first explored the theme of an older woman’s sexuality, with one episode featuring on a grandmother’s life with her boyfriend. This potentially controversial and uncomfortable exploration was further mined in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, with the incredible Mira. Like a Bird on a Wire is less hopeful and heartfelt than Fear Eats the Soul and depicts Mira at the end of a life filled with varied relationships.

Named after Leonard Cohen’s popular song “Like a Bird on a Wire,” music is the film’s framing device. Mira begins the piece by singing a German-language version of this song, and moves on to love songs and cabaret ditties from the ‘30s (including what is apparently “Kinder, Heute Abend, Das Such Ich Mir Was Aus,” popularized by Marlene Dietrich), ‘40s, and ‘50s. This film was yet another of Fassbinder’s criticisms of the West German economic boom of the ‘50s under Konrad Adenauer. While he would go on to further explore this with Lola, Fassbinder viewed the period as something akin to 1950s suburban bliss in the United States: a period of rosy sentimentality and financial success, but troubling morals. During this period in Germany, thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of Nazis and Nazi collaborators avoided prosecution and were reintegrated into German society, including roles in business, politics, and law enforcement.

While Brigitte Mira is the driving force of the film and gives a wonderful performance, as always – her fans would do well to seek it out – there are also appearances from Fassbinder regulars El Hedi ben Salem, as one of the body builders, and Kurt Raab, as one of the gay bikers. The film comes recommended for fans of Mira and Fassbinder completists; I can also recommend it to anyone interested in Fassbinder’s television work. By 1975, he was edging his way into German popular culture with three television films, including the excellent Fear of Fear and I Only Want You to Love Me, all bourgeois-themed tales of marriage, love, identity, and isolation. While the other two are available on DVD, Like a Bird on a Wire is still relatively difficult to find. I’m hoping for the day when a company like Criterion, Kino, or Arrow teams up with the Fassbinder foundation to release a restored box set of his TV movies.

Really, it is worth it for anyone to watch the scene of Mira singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," surrounded by near-naked men in what must be the most homoerotic scene in all of '70s West German TV -- well, except for the previous scene where she sings to what are most definitely leathermen. 

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