Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981
Fassbinder’s only documentary and one of the final films he made before his death in 1982 is this examination of modern theater. Set at Theater der Welt (Theater of the World), an international theater festival held in Cologne, Fassbinder holed up for a few weeks to witness more than 100 performances from roughly 30 theater companies. The end result is a perhaps uneven, but fascinating meditation on drama and art from one of 1970s theater’s biggest contributors. It’s easy to forget how much of an impact Fassbinder had on the theater world in light of his prolific film career, but he wrote 14 plays and directed more than 20 throughout his career – which began with the takeover of the Munich action-theater when he was only 21.
He also filmed several plays, including Das Kaffeehaus, Bremen Freedom, Women in New York, and Nora Helmer. And Katzelmacher, The American Soldier, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant were all adapted from his own original plays. Here is a comprehensive look at his theatrical credits and here is a book that goes more in depth and includes the texts of nearly half of his plays. Fassbinder directed his final play in 1976 – Women in New York – and it is likely that his new responsibilities as an international director of high budget films did not allow him the time to actively pursue dual film and theatrical careers after this point.
Obviously this documentary proves that the theater was still in his thoughts. Rather than providing any exposition or narrative about the festival, Fassbinder primarily edited down clips of various performances mixed with shots of Cologne, theater-related graffiti and text, and shots of festival-goers mixing and mingling. Over top of the film, he read aloud sections from Antonin Artaud’s “The Theater and its Double,” an influential absurdist manifesto on theater that Fassbinder previously mined in Satan’s Brew. The film, which is divided into 14 chapters, showcases experimental theater groups like Squat Theatre and Pina Bausch’s group Tanztheater Wuppertal, with a decide emphasis on performances related to the body.
While there is some diversity, particularly early on – such as clips of Whirling Dervishes, an afro-beat dance company, musical numbers, what looks like an emcee in a safari suit, a topless woman performing a Salome-esque veil dance, a man in drag, and so on – the lengthy shots are mostly of bodies in motion. The various performances focus on the artifice of movement and physical habits, the rituals of exercise, grooming, and mating. In a reoccurring theme, a man teaches allegedly disabled people to walk, move, and ride a bike. Some of these are rather dull, such as an extended scene of soldiers carrying a wounded comrade into and then pacing back and forth around the room. One of the most fascinating involves a woman crying over a doll that somewhat resembles her. Her piece includes projects of old films and a rear projected light so that she and another actor appear only in silhouette.
Other performances are perhaps less compelling but equally avant-garde, including a shot of Donald Duck cartoons projected on multiple TV screens with opera playing in the background, and a dance troupe depicting women adjusting tight clothing and then acting out self-defense training as if at a fashion show. As I said, much of the documentary focuses on the body and performances that work out bodily habits and movements as if they are separate from thought or consciousness. One of the only narrative performances shown in the documentary depicted women in various stages of what appears to be mental illness. They act out pain and torment at a hospital; later one woman commits suicide by sticking her head in an oven. This is accompanied by frequent use of Janis Joplin’s “Bobby McGee,” which seems to have been a favorite of Fassbinder’s.
More of a fascinating historical document than a cohesive documentary, Theater in Trance remains worthwhile for Fassbinder fans or theater lovers, but it won’t change the mind anyone who doesn’t understand the appeal of avant-garde drama. This is among the most obscure of Fassbinder’s works and is difficult to find, particularly with English subtitles. Hopefully it will eventually see the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray. My dream “Fassbinder & Theater” box set includes this, restored versions of Nora Helmer and Bremen Freedom, and Shadow of Angels, a filmed version of his controversial play Garbage, the City, and Death. The clock is ticking, Criterion.