Thursday, January 29, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Eddie Constantine

A group of ineffectual terrorists hatch a plan to kidnap an industrialist, P.J. Lurz, whose business selling computer security systems is suffering. His secretary, Susanne, is one of the terrorists and sets off a plot with her friends – a ragtag group of middle-aged, middle-class wanderers including their leader, August Brem, Susanne’s husband Edgar, a feminist history professor, a housewife, and a record store clerk, among others – to set in motion his kidnapping. But Susanne’s father-in-law, with whom she is having an affair, is a police inspector and has Lutz put under protection, and it seems that Brem, the leader, is a double agent.

Closest in style to Fassbinder’s underrated triumph of the absurd and the abject, Satan’s Brew, The Third Generation has much in common with it: they are both anarchistic black comedies with plenty of the grotesque and these are really the only two Fassbinder films to focus on an ensemble – most of his other works focus on an individual protagonist. This incredibly fast-paced and often hilarious film is packed with actors from the troupe Fassbinder used throughout his career, including Hanna Schygulla, Volker Spengler, Margit Carstensen, Harry Baer, Gunther Kaufmann, and others, namely international star Eddie Constantine (Beware of a Holy Whore, Alphaville) as the industrialist with a plan of his own.

Though The Third Generation was initially negatively received, it has become regarded as one of his best films. The controversy is likely due to the fact that Fassbinder effectively made an irreverent comedy about terrorism at a time (much like now) when the issue was at the forefront in Europe, Germany in particular. The RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion) was a violent terrorist group that killed more than 30 people in ‘70s Germany. When some of their leaders were arrested, the remaining members of the group kidnapped and murdered a wealthy businessman (and former Nazi), and also hijacked a Lufthansa flight in order to free their compatriots. The three leaders allegedly committed suicide in prison, though it was believed to be murder (two of them were shot to death). While this subject matter was covered in the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (with Fassbinder’s participation), it obviously deeply affected him.

His treatment of the terrorists in The Third Generation is both tragic and comical, a farcical look at armchair politics and the consequences of impulsive action without thought. The different members of the group are portrayed as stupid, cruel, and even bored. As with the communists in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, they are middle class and have never suffered or starved. This emotional and intellectual immaturity blended with pseudo-philosophy and armchair politics is a dangerous combination. Like his earlier works, he bitterly pokes fun at bourgeois society, but also at the aimless leftists, careening into German life like a bull in a china shop.

This is also one of Fassbinder’s key explorations of crime, something he investigated throughout his career in Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, Jail Bait, Nora Helmer, Fox and His Friends, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Despair, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and others. As opposed to his films about violence in domestic spaces, these combined works represent a complex thesis about the origins of crime in society. In his early films, clearly influenced by American film noir and Jean-Luc Godard, crime is cool. It’s a viable alternative to bourgeois society, a way to rebel and to fulfill one’s dreams without entering into the capitalist grind. Middle period films like Jail Bait and Nora Helmer posit that crime is somehow inevitable, despite the perpetrator’s good intentions. In Despair, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Berlin Alexanderplatz, it is simply a product of living in bourgeois society, where citizens are driven to private acts of fascism and exploitation, violence, and even murder.

The characters of The Third Generation exploit each other relentlessly and, like Fassbinder’s early characters, their attempt at crime and clumsy and bumbling. They remain out of prison because of the equal ineptitude of the police (this law enforcement failure was actually the real reason that the RAF’s kidnapped business man remained imprisoned). No members of the group are trained in combat, except for one new arrival that turns out to be a rapist and is soon killed. But Fassbinder suggests that the worst crime is betrayal, which occurs twice. The group’s leader, Brem, has been working for the police the entire time and not only leads members of his group to certain death, but seems to delight in framing them. Worse yet is the fact that Lurz, the industrialist they plan to kidnap, is in on the scheme (without their knowledge) and willingly participates in the hopes that it will be a successful marketing strategy for his company. This sort of icy avarice – which lacks regard for human emotion and even life – is a theme that developed throughout Fassbinder’s career from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant through to Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Somewhat of an acquired taste, the anarchic black comedy and cruelly political satire of The Third Generation is a relative rarity among Fassbinder’s works. Though similar themes are found in Satan’s Brew, these two films represent some of Fassbinder’s most daring work and might appeal to anyone who dislikes his sojourns into melodrama, madness, or domestic strife. Available on DVD, it is well worth watching for anyone interested in political art house cinema, though you’re unlikely to find anything to compare it to. It's an incredibly rich film -- one of Fassbinder's most layered -- and there are many elements I didn't have the space to discuss, such as his use of bathroom stall quotes, philosophical pondering, games, costumes, and much more. It certainly remains fresh and thought-provoking when compared to current debates about democracy, capitalism, terrorism, and protest.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny

Maria and Hermann Braun are married as bombs are falling on Berlin. They have barely any time together before he must return to the front. Though she is devoted to Hermann, Maria is told he has been killed and merely tries to find a way to survive in postwar Germany. She works as a hostess in a club for American soldiers and begins an affair with one of them, while also learning English. Hermann comes home to find she and the soldier undressing and they get into a fight. Maria accidentally kills the man, trying to break it up, but Hermann takes responsibility and goes to prison. Meanwhile, still trying to survive, Maria begins working for a wealthy industrialist who soon falls in love with her.

One of Fassbinder’s most difficult and expensive productions beset by going over budget (allegedly due to the director’s costly cocaine habit that kept him working all hours of the day and night) and legal trouble with his long-time producer who oversold shares of the film, The Marriage of Maria was also his most popular film to date. It struck a balance between art house style, accessibility, and popular themes that led to international appeal and much sought acclaim from German audiences and critics. Thanks to its success, he went on to make three more triumphs: Berlin Alexanderplatz and the two other films of his BRD (Bundresrepublik Deutschland or the Federal Republic of Germany) trilogy, Lola and Veronika Voss.

In addition to the fact that they are all set in the immediate postwar period, this trilogy has a number of things in common. Each film follows the decay and destruction of a successful woman. Maria Braun and Lola, a version of Lola Lola from The Blue Angel, are incredibly similar: they are both hardworking women building towards a better future and financial independence, and they are not ashamed to use their sexuality as a resource or a weapon. Both women essentially sell fantasies and illusions, in particular the illusion of love. Both flirt with prostitution. While Lola is a cabaret singer and dancer who occasionally entertains wealthy gentlemen, Maria trades sex for things of increasing value: cigarettes, stockings, a secretarial job, a respected position in the company, expensive clothing, and a large house.

Where Lola and Maria differ is that while Lola deludes others, Maria deludes only herself. The nature of romantic fantasy leads to tragedy as Maria persists in her self-delusion. She is obsessed with Hermann, despite barely knowing him, and holds him as an ideal for a true, pure love. On the other hand, she treats Oswald cruelly and makes it clear that she is using him for money, social advancement, sex, and even entertainment… but never love. Fassbinder frequently examined themes of emotional cruelty and what could be described as a sort of insidious, personal fascism at work in daily society. As she becomes more successful, Maria certainly exhibits this. She treats Oswald, the office secretaries, the accountant, and even some of their clients abysmally, like a stereotype of the professional “dragon lady,” a corporate femme fatale that will go to any ends to achieve financial and personal success. Because of this, she is something of an anti-heroine, a figure that is flawed, if not outright tragic, but also sympathetic.

SPOILER ALERT: Maria is unable to ultimately succeed not because she is doomed or evil, but because of the inherently corrupt nature of society. Hermann, the love of her life, accepted a deal from Oswald where he essentially sold Maria – he agreed that he would leave the country until Oswald’s death, at which point Hermann and Maria would become the sole heirs of Oswald’s considerable estate. When Maria discovers this news, she kills them both, blowing up her beautiful house by leaving the gas on and lighting a cigarette. Even before she learns this news, Hermann’s homecoming is awkward and anxiety inducing. He wants to kiss her – or consummate their marriage – but she insists that he eat or bathe, that she change her clothes first, seemingly desperate to avoid a moment of real intimacy. In the film, their deaths are ambiguous, but in the original script, she intentionally drove them both off of a cliff.

This original ending is taken almost directly from Otto Preminger’s film noir Angel Face (1953), though Fassbinder’s original inspiration was Mildred Pierce (1945), another film about a woman who learns to survive and becomes successful in the postwar years. She is also separated from her husband, but her betrayal comes from her money-hungry daughter. Mildred Pierce is obsessed with her daughter’s advancement and effectively turns the child into a spoiled femme fatale, a selfish being with no regard for consequences for human life. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, a film that begins and ends with explosions, the axis rotates around Hermann and Maria’s obsession with him. This enigmatic figure symbolizes her hopes and dreams for a better, brighter future, but when he is shown to echo her greed and ambition, it destroys everything.

The Marriage of Maria Braun comes with a high recommendation and if you’ve never seen a Fassbinder film, this is a great place to start. Hanna Schygulla, one of his regular stars, gives the performance of her career, a nuanced portrayal of a complex woman trying to survive in a changing, postwar world, amidst the rubble of war. The only way to really see the film is in the Criterion box set of the BRD trilogy, which is a critical collection of three important films. Due to Fassbinder’s early death, he was never really able to fulfill his dream of a German Hollywood, but here he comes closest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978
Starring: Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven, Gottfried John

Elvira, a transsexual prostitute, is beaten when she tries to hire a male prostitute catering to men. Once known as Erwin, Elvira is also distraught over her lover Christoph. Though he is abusive physically and verbally, he’s leaving her because she’s gained weight and become sexually unappealing. Another prostitute, her friend Red Zora, looks over Eivira as she begins a search to find the people and places of her past — including the convent where she was raised as an orphan and the office of an unrequited love, Anton Saitz. He was Erwin’s friend and partner in crime and was responsible for Erwin’s transformation into Elvira.

Not only is this Fassbinder’s most personal film, but it is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, the culmination of all his themes: the trauma of German history, the search for identity, love, and family, and an individual masochistic sacrifice at the hands of a cruel loved one. Erwin/Elvira (played by Volker Spengler in one of the best performances in any Fassbinder film) is a figure that intersects all borders: male and female, past and present, wounded child and absent parents, erotic and repulsive, living and dead. Elvira is Fassbinder’s ultimate sacrificial figure, a being whose martyrdom takes on almost religious connotations. She has no true identity of her own, but merely reflects those around her. In a tableau imagining of Christ or a Catholic saint, these figures gather around her after her death (by suicide). 

This martyrdom was foreshadowed in Fassbinder’s earlier works: the martyrdom through masochism that was first suggested in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and further developed Martha, as well as the martyrdom of self-abnegation in The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fox and His Friends, and Despair. These are combined with the sacrificial victim characters of Berlin Alexanderplatz and I Only Want You to Love Me and brought to their ultimate conclusion in In a Year with 13 Moons. While Fassbinder treats many of his characters poorly, he manages a blend of tragedy and comedy, cruelty and tenderness that is unique to Elvira/Erwin. At the end of the film, she is either betrayed or rejected by every person in her life. The bleak tone of the film and its perhaps inevitable conclusion is somehow hopeful, as if Elvira has successfully managed atonement.

Elvira’s journey into the past to right some unspoken wrong and uncover her identity has a fairytale-like quality. She searches for Anton Saitz’s tower, a place that takes on a dark, surreal tone. Before Elvira meets with Saitz, she spends time with a man preparing to hang himself. They talk and share bread and wine before she quietly watches him die before going to meet with the love of her life. Also like fairytales and myths, there are three women in Elvira’s life: Sister Gudrun, the nun who helped raise young Erwin, Red Zora, the young prostitute who cares for her, and Irene, once Erwin’s wife and the mother of their child together. Sister Gudrun tells Elvira that she does not believe in God and society is the cause for all human evil. Interestingly, Elvira’s search for an absent mother parallels Fassbinder’s own; perhaps fittingly, his own mother (actress Lilo Pempeit) plays Gudrun.

Red Zora, played by Fassbinder’s most enigmatic actress and his one-time wife, Ingrid Caven, both nurtures and betrays Elvira. When Elvira is upset, Zora comforts her and tells her a story while she falls asleep — one about a brother and sister transformed by a witch into a mushroom and a snail. But later, she sleeps with Anton, a betrayal that drives Elvira to suicide. Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bolwieser) is Elvira’s wife. She is supportive and apparently understood the sex change, but old hurts prevent her from really accepting Elvira back into her life. Perhaps ironically, Erwin, the boy once abandoned by his mother, becomes Elvira, the woman who abandons her daughter.

This identity dilemma present in all of Fassbinder’s films is part of an increasing dialogue that developed throughout his work and led to themes of the double in Despair and Berlin Alexanderplatz. That also culminates in In a Year With 13 Moons, not only between Erwin and Elvira, but between Erwin/Elvira and Anton Saitz (Gottfried John, also the “double” character in Berlin Alexanderplatz). The first time Saitz is introduced wearing a skimpy tennis outfit and he forced Elvira and his goons — he’s a businessman cum gangster — reenact a scene from a Jerry Lewis musical. Saitz, as a symbol of post-war Germany, sits at the crossroads between the industrial factory, the slaughterhouse, and the concentration camp.. He is a survivor of Bergen Belsen — where he spent his childhood while Erwin was at the convent — but is also a violent gangster who has taken control of much of industrial Frankfort. At one point Fassbinder explains Saitz: S is for Saltz (salt), A is for Auschwitz, I is for Ich (I), T is for Tod (death), and Z is for Zeit (time).

This truly radical film comes with the highest possible recommendation and is thankfully available on DVD, though not in the edition it deserves. This groundbreaking portrayal of a transsexual in film remains controversial because Elvira had reassignment surgery out of love, rather than an innate sense of gender — but this problematic theme speaks to Fassbinder’s larger statements about love and identity. The film — on which he served as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, set designer, and editor — is a love letter to the suicide of his long-time boyfriend Armin Meier, with whom Elvira shares some biographical details. The squeamish should beware — Erwin/Elvira’s time in the slaughterhouse (which was also Meier’s profession) is as disturbingly graphic and tragically poetic as anything in Eyes Without a Face or The Bell from Hell. This incredibly rich, layered film is a triumph of German (and world) cinema.

Monday, January 26, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, Klaus Löwitsch, Volker Spengler

Hermann Hermann, a successful Russian businessman and chocolate factory owner living in Germany, becomes increasingly paranoid during Nazi Party’s rise to power. He is convinced that he won’t be able to leave the country and, after seeing a film, decides to construct the perfect crime, where he will find a physical double and kill that man, so that he can escape to a blue collar life of freedom and anonymity in Switzerland. He finds a homeless man named Felix that he believes could be his twin — although Hermann is obviously mistaken — and sets about his plan while on a descent into madness.

Fassbinder’s only English-language film — and the only one with a truly international star — is an oddly neglected work. It boasts plenty of name-dropping power, including the appearance of lead Dirk Bogarde (from The Night Porter and one of Fassbinder’s favorite films, The Damned), as well as scriptwriter Tom Stoppard and source material from Nabokov. Despair also has one of Fassbinder’s largest budgets; his films typically cost around $500,000, but this was around $1 million. The sets certainly show it. Hermann celebrates bourgeois culture almost obsessively, and his elaborate home is like a museum to it. Filled with sculptures, glass, mirrors, refractions, and reflections, Despair is one of Fassbinder’s most extravagantly shot films and he and DP Michael Ballhaus transform the beautiful home into an ornate prison where comfort and claustrophobia go hand in hand.

While Despair examines the horror of the rise of Nazism, this black comedy is more about one of Fassbinder’s beloved themes: the fact that bourgeois society inherently leads to personal oppression almost as much as fascist governments. Hermann himself explains the lack of difference between black shirts, brown shirts, and white and red armies. There is also the collusion of the SA and the chocolate factory — their uniforms are the same color as the candy bars — and the relationship between business and power, money and violence. There is a telling scene where the word “merger” is confused with the “murder.” Hermann optimistically — and ignorantly, Fassbinder points out — thinks that he will find freedom by abandoning his wealthy lifestyle in favor of a simpler, blue collar model, but Despair shows that this is a lie and there is no escape from societal constraints.

Tellingly, Hermann also has false hope that life would be different if he was in a different place. He fondly if improbably reminisces about Russia, a place where he was forced to fight in several wars, and also idealizes Switzerland, where he is hoping to live out his days. While Despair may not be regarded as one of Fassbinder’s triumphs, his portrayal of Hermann’s self-deception is a precursors for later masterpieces like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lola, and Veronika Voss. Hermann’s determined self-deception includes determinedly ignoring his wife’s (A Zed and Two Noughts’  Andréa Ferréol) infidelity with her “cousin,” but also involves desperate attempts to escaping the self — he thinks Felix, his alleged double, looks like him — and ultimately self-annihilation.

Though there is some sex content in the film, including S&M-fueled scenes between Hermann and his wife, as well as his wife’s flimsy attempts to cover up her affair when Hermann finds she and her cousin nearly in flagrante delicto, the only truly erotic moments are when Hermann is psychologically — and physically — attempting to transform Felix into himself. He first sees his own double while having sex with this wife, and it is a source of equal anxiety and fascination. It is perhaps telling that he believes the more handsome Felix (Fassbinder regular Klaus Löwitsch) to be his double. There are certainly plenty of homoerotic moments, including scenes where he has Felix strip off his clothes and another where he gives him a haircut and manicure. Oddly, Felix seems to understand some of Hermann’s self-deception and goes along with it as long as Hermann tells him a semblance of the truth. Felix, like Hermann desire annihilation, but without any deceits or deceptions. He merely waits the moment that Hermann will kill him.

Available on Blu-ray, Despair might fall short of Fassbinder’s greatest films, but it is certainly a worthwhile effort and comes recommended. It is astounding to see how far he evolved as filmmaker from Love is Colder Than Death and Despair is a key example of that. This surreal black comedy will appeal to many different types of cinema fans and is worth watching for the solid performance from Dirk Bogarde — always a pleasure — and for what is perhaps Klaus Löwitsch’s best performance, surpassing even World on a Wire. And for those who have followed Fassbinder’s use of the Third Reich in his films, this is perhaps is most transparent, where he moves away from the fetishism and the kitsch and directly suggests that fascism and Nazism are only possible because everyday bourgeois life is already so cruel, violent, and alienating.

Friday, January 23, 2015


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.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
Starring: Elisabeth Trissenaar, Kurt Raab, Bernhard Helfrich, Volker Spengel, Udo Kier

Hanni and Xaver Bolwieser – a small-town train station manager – are newly married. Though Hanni’s affections don’t quite equal those of her obsessive, passionate husband, they seem happy. But soon Hanni begins to control her husband’s life, barring him from drinking and socializing late into the night. She also has eyes for Merkel, a local butcher, and begins an affair with him while also convinced Xaver that they should lend him money to open a restaurant and brewery. Gossip of their affair spreads its way through the town, though Xaver is determined not to believe the worst about his wife.

Based on a novel by Oskar Maria Graff, The Stationmaster’s Wife was originally known as Bolwieser, an over three hour-long, two-part TV film. The version I’m reviewing is the 112-minute theatrical cut released a few years later in 1983, which retains the central plot, but excised some of the subplots and lengthier scenes between Hanni and Xaver. The main distinction between the two versions is the title. While there may not seem like much of a difference between the titles Bolwieser and The Stationmaster’s Wife, the focus of the film is truly on Xaver Bolwieser’s descent into humiliation and despair.

In many ways, this Madame Bovary-like plot sticks with Fassbinder’s fascination of the mid-‘70s: infidelity. Every single one of his films from this period deals with marital and domestic frustrations – Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Nora Helmer, Martha, Fox and His Friends, Like a Bird on a Wire, Fear of Fear, I Only Want You to Love Me, Chinese Roulette, and Women in New York. Even the two films not directly concerned with a married couple, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven and Satan’s Brew, still concern the effects of marriage, sex, love, and family on the main character. But while Satan’s Brew and Chinese Roulette mark dramatic changes in Fassbinder’s career, Bolwieser is an elevated exploration of previous themes: emotional cruelty and the oppressiveness of social and domestic spaces.

By this point in Fassbinder’s career, Bolwieser is also the culmination of Fassbinder’s views on sex and love. Hanni and Bolwieser represent an individual struggling against sex and love, respectively. Hanni fits in with Fassbinder’s other repressed wives struggling for power, the protagonists of Nora Helmer, Effi Briest, Women in New York, Lola, Lili Marleen, and side characters in The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Fear of Fear, and others.While Hanni craves sex and equates it with personal freedom in some way, it is a destructive force in her life. Her affair with Merkel and the hairdresser nearly ruin her and seem to be an addiction that she craves but cannot escape from. Sex, for most of Fassbinder’s women, is ultimately violent. In many of his films, it includes physical violence: slapping, biting, pushing, pulling, and overall aggressive behavior that causes pain rather than pleasure. In Martha and Bolwieser, there are scenes that suggest a woman’s husband is raping her and though there are moments of tenderness, there is the sense that it will never be enough for Hanni. Because of this, she is both monstrous and sympathetic and Fassbinder draws parallels between her and the Bolwiesers’ pet bird: a beautiful, yet caged creature, filling the apartment with its unsettling cries signifying an endless need.

Love has a similar effect on Bolwieser. Kurt Raab, in what is perhaps his best performance for Fassbinder, plays one of the director’s most tragic characters. While many of Fassbinder’s other protagonists are complicit in their own exploitation and destruction, Bolwieser seems to desire self-eradication through masochism related to his insatiable appetites. He is both likable and unlikable. On one hand, his overwhelming appetites for sex, food, affection, alcohol, and Hanni seem interchangeable. On the other hand, Bolwieser’s determination to turn his head and remain blind from the truth is a pathetic trait, one that links him inevitably towards the German (or even European) complicity in the Nazi atrocities during WWII.

Like Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Bolwieser seems to exist in a fictional time and place, in an imaginary version of the years between WWI and WWII. This is yet another of Fassbinder films that examines the German society – albeit subtly – and its obsession with rules, rituals, and authority. Bolwieser’s transition from pompous bureaucrat to dejected prisoner and his replacement by an a member of the Nazi party continues his exploration of German history and its effect on contemporary life.

Bolwieser comes highly recommended. Though it falls just beneath his classics, it’s well worth seeing thanks to Raab’s powerful performance. The theatrical cut is available on DVD, though I would very much like to see the three-hour version sometime soon. Keep an eye out for the expert use of visuals. I would say that it’s one of his most beautiful films to date, but it’s hard to say that at this point, when so many of them qualify for that designation. Either way, Fassbinder and Ballhaus are able to transform mundane domestic spaces into places of wonder, tragedy, and confinement. It’s hard to believe that works of this power were made for television in the ‘70s and I would hope that contemporary TV directors and producers could learn from its example.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977
Starring: Eva Mattes, Angela Schmid, Margit Carstensen, Barbara Sukowa

Mary is happily married to her husband Stephen and enjoys their life of opulence and comfort. Her friends are all frustrated with their husbands for a variety of reasons including boredom and infidelity, and they come to discover that Stephen is having an affair with a younger woman, Crystal. Though Mary prefers to remain ignorant, she eventually finds out. Her mother and friends encourage her to ignore the affair, but her heartbreak includes her to press for divorce, though she really wants to reunite with Stephen. Soon after, Crystal and Stephen are married, but Mary finds out something that could ruin Crystal…

Based on Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 play The Women, Women in New York is basically the 1970s version of contemporary TV shows like Sex and the City or Gossip Girl as seen through the lens of the ‘30s. A group of wealthy women’s lives revolve around their husbands and boyfriends. Between afternoons spent in bed or in the bath, shopping, drinking alcohol, attending parties, and going to the hairdresser or manicurist, they gossip and backstab each other in lieu of independent lives of their own. Though I can understand how critics and audiences saw this as an attack on women, it is not really a condemnation of women, but a satire about bourgeois life, a la Effi Briest. The women are despairing, cruel, and useless creatures as a result of the evils of their repressive, claustrophobic environment. Like pet birds in gilded cages, they lead lives of extravagant comfort, but profound isolation.

Women in New York has the distinction of looking more like a play filmed for TV than a movie, such as Fassbinder’s earlier works like Das Kaffeehaus, Nora Helmer, and Bremen Freedom. As with all three of those, this shares the theme of women up against bourgeois oppression and, in many ways, it is much like Fear of Fear – about a housewife’s descent into madness – without the Valium or physical isolation. Mary is certainly alone, but she is also constantly surrounded by superficial women who claim to be her friends. They are either too caught up in their own domestic dramas, or too interested in the monstrous game of ruining the lives of others to be sympathetic or caring.

Though they are mentioned in every single conversation, there are no men in the film. This is solely a women’s world, including the principle cast of adult women, Mary’s strangely boyish daughter, and even the cast of extras, which includes the women’s staff – maids, cooks, hairdressers, governesses, and shop attendants. It is a hostile world where a woman’s sole value is place on her youth and beauty. Like some of Fassbinder’s other films from that period, including The Stationmaster’s Wife, Chinese Roulette, and to a certain extent, Satan’s Brew, this examines the effect of infidelity on a marriage. In Women in New York, issues of infidelity are further complicated because of the explicit financial benefit of a marriage. Many of Mary’s friends stay with their cheating husbands because they are willing to make this trade for increasingly wealthy husbands and comfortable lives. Mary, the outlier, is too heartbroken to live with this trade and effectively refuses to prostitute herself.

Curiously, Mary’s nemesis – the young and beautiful Crystal (played wonderfully by then newcomer Barbara Sukowa) – has begun a relationship with Mary’s husband Stephen purely because of his sizable bank account. After Stephen and Mary divorce, she continues a relationship with her lover, temporarily achieving what none of the other women are able to accomplish: passionate sexual love on one hand and wealth and social prominence on the other. Of course, this idyll is ruined not by men, but by other women. The heretofore sensitive and sympathetic Mary becomes just like her backstabbing, vicious friends and immediately takes the opportunity to ruin Crystal’s life.

This soap opera-like cycle of women hating and ruining other women has both comic and melodramatic elements, but is primarily a social satire. It’s interesting that classic Hollywood director George Cukor first film a version in 1939, as his film Gaslight was an influence on Fassbinder’s Martha, another film about a woman dealing with the horrors of bourgeois married life. While Women in New York sheds the terror and hysterical excess of Martha, Fassbinder leaves a stylistic clue between scenes: close ups on various Edward Hopper paintings. Believed to be an influence on film noir, Hopper’s seemingly mundane paintings – such as Nighthawks, Automat, Rooms by the Sea, and Office at Night – are portraits of contemporary social isolation and usually feature a woman looking bereft and alone.

Women in New York is not easy to get ahold of, but hopefully it will see the light of day on region one DVD sometime soon. Though I would only recommend it for devoted Fassbinder fans, it is an oddly prescient, undated work that shows the disturbing cycle of women’s place in society as wives, mothers, sex objects, and social climbers, figures of hatred and jealousy, and ultimately victims of their own venomous ambition. They will go to any length to keep themselves – sisters, daughters, friends, and rivals – trapped in a social prison that views them as inherently subhuman.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ulli Lommel, Anna Karina, Macha Meril

Ariane and Gerhard, a wealthy married couple, are heading out on separate weekends. Though they both pretend to be traveling, they are actually meeting their long-time lovers. Their disabled daughter, Angela, plans it so that both couples – Gerhard and his French mistress Irene, and Ariane and her lover Kolbe, who is also Gerhard’s assistant – will wind up at the family’s country house. Though the adults initially overcome the awkwardness with laughter, Angela soon shows up to further complicate things and manipulate the tense environment. She forces her parents, their lovers, the angry housekeeper, her strange son, and Angela’s mute governess to partake in a game of Chinese Roulette, which is sure to end in violence.

Jean-Luc Godard once stated that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. Fassbinder certainly played with this convention in Chinese Roulette, one of his lesser seen triumphs that runs the gamut from Gothic horror and psychological melodrama to country-house mystery. His first international production, this film is also somewhat unique in his catalog in that it focused on an ensemble, rather than a single, tormented protagonist. The film focuses almost equally on its eight characters, a blend of Fassbinder’s regular actors and new faces: Angela (Andrea Schober of Merchant of the Four Seasons), her parents Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and Gerhart (Alexander Allerson from My Name is Nobody and Battle of Britain), their lovers Irene (Godard’s muse and former wife Anna Karina) and Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), the housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira), her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), and Angela’s nurse (giallo actress Macha Meril).

Angela is one of Fassbinder’s more mysterious characters. She is sympathetic, but also seems to be the antagonist. She clearly blames her parents for her disability and wants to get revenge on them. She states that she fell ill 11 years ago – the same time that her father took Irene as his lover – but doesn’t explain the exact nature of her illness. Her revenge is primarily psychological and in the form of forcing her family together for an uncomfortable weekend, where her very appearance wears on her mother. Her coup de grace involves a game of Chinese roulette, where the members of one team ask another team questions. Their answers all refer to one unanimous, but secret person that the other team must figure out.

While the parents and their lovers are incredibly bourgeois, there is something otherworldly about Angela, perhaps because of her disability. She is not the only character that feels out of time and place. Gabriel, the housekeeper’s strange, adult son, is asexual and has a bizarrely Aryan appearance with white-blonde hair. He spouts Nietzschean philosophy, which he claims is his own writing, though Angela reveals at the end of the film that she knows it is plagiarized. Her mute governess also has this somewhat supernatural sense. These three figures seem to have emerged from out of Gothic literature: a disturbed girl on the verge of sexual maturity kept prisoner by her disability, her beautiful, obedient, and silent maid, and a sexually ambiguous servant who aims above his station and is capable of violence.

While Chinese Roulette is different from many of Fassbinder’s other films, it does contain some of his reused themes, namely emotional cruelty, family alienation, and a complicated relationship between a mother and her child. Angela’s father seems to love and indulge her, but her mother is inexplicably filled with hatred. She carries a gun in order to point it at Angela when frustration and rage overwhelm her. The implication is that she will inevitably resort to violence. And unlike Fassbinder’s earlier films – such as I Only Want You to Love Me, Martha, The Merchant of the Four Seasons, and others where a persecuted character is hated for no reason by their mother – the dislike is mutual. Angela blames and harassed her mother and is delighted at obvious signs of Ariane’s torment.

Shot in the country home/small castle owned by Fassbinder’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, the Gothic themes and sense of impending violence are further expressed by Chinese Roulette’s visuals. Characters are bisected, framed, and confined by shots of glass artifacts, windows and window frames, doorways, ornate mirrors, and strange display columns in the middle of rooms. The lush countryside becomes more menacing as it is contrasted by the dark forest that surrounds the estate, shots of Angela’s collection of old, creepy dolls being removed from the trunk of a car, and a scene that focuses on a rotting stag head. This was Fassbinder’s biggest budget to date and it is certainly one of his most beautiful films, perhaps only eclipsed by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Veronika Voss.

Chinese Roulette comes highly recommended. For whatever reason, it is not usually listed among Fassbinder’s masterpieces, but it certainly deserves a viewing or two and may appeal to those bored by Fassbinder’s films about working-class oppression. It is available on DVD, though I would love to see it on a mid-period Fassbinder Criterion box-set alongside Martha and Whity. Fans of restrained Gothic thrillers will also definitely want to check this out.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Helen Vita, Ingrid Caven

Walter Kranz, a revolutionary poet, has run out of money and his publisher refuses to advance him anymore funds until he turns in some new work. He lives with his wife and disturbed brother, but spends his time trying to milk money from his various lovers, including a Marxist mistress, the wife of his friend, and a sadomasochist nymphomaniac who wants Walter to threaten her with a gun. He accidentally fires it, killing her, and is under investigation from an inspector, who seems to know that Walter is responsible and is only waiting for some evidence to turn up. Meanwhile, an obsessed fan turns up and declares her undying devotion.

Fassbinder’s regular actor and artistic director Kurt Raab stars in what is perhaps Fassbinder’s only true comedy. Satan’s Brew has elements of slapstick, irony, social criticism, and anarchistic black comedy. This film is completely off the wall and may not appeal to everyone, but is definitely one of Fassbinder’s triumphs. It seems to mock his beloved themes of family, identity, sexuality, and working-class suffering. Instead of struggling middle-class characters, Walter and his family could be wealthy if Walter didn’t squander all of his money on mistresses, prostitutes, and costly miscellany. In many of Fassbinder’s films, a frustrated, tormented protagonist struggles to assert their identity in the face of a cruel society and unsympathetic, uncaring family members. Here, it is the protagonist’s overwhelming identity, appetites, and selfishness that repress and punish the family.

Satan’s Brew can be seen as an evolution of Beware of a Holy Whore, his other film with elements of comedy or satire. As with that work, Fassbinder seems to be mocking himself, particularly his reputation for selfishness, his dictatorial and manipulative relationship with his cast, crew, and lovers, his numerous vices, and his apparent talent for self-deception. And where most of his other films imply that cruelty can be found in all people, Satan’s Brew suggests that sadomasochism is inherent in everyone, an obsessive but perverse drive for sexuality that shapes all of the characters. This is intimately linked with role-playing and identity changing. Characters mold themselves to the desires of their partners, or, in the case of Walter, enforce changes on others.

Walter’s inherent fascism is symbolized in the use of the gun, which changes throughout the course of the film. At first, it is interchangeable with a sex object. Walter finds it hidden in a drawer with dildos and uses it sexually before shooting (accidentally or intentionally?) his partner while she is in the throes of orgasm. Her murder gives the film a crime/murder subplot so common to existentialist novels. Walter is hounded by a grim-faced detective (Ulli Lommel), but later, the murdered woman returns to life. While many of Fassbinder’s films show an obvious Brechtian influence, this belongs more in the anarchistic absurdism of Antonin Artaud. The film begins and ends with quotes from his writings and expresses some of his ideas about shocking and affecting the audience with various avant-garde techniques.

The striking cinematography and set pieces — another sign of Fassbinder’s growing maturity — is bolstered by brave, unusual performances from some of Fassbinder’s regular collaborators, including a bespectacled Margit Carstensen as Walter’s obsessed fan, Andrée — I honestly didn’t recognize her at first — as well as Helen Vita (Berlin Alexanderplatz) as Walter’s long suffering wife, and Volker Spengler (In a Year of 13 Moons) as his brother Ernst, who longs to have sex with flies and builds a collection of them around the house.

As I said, Satan’s Brew is not for everyone, but it’s a brilliant work that mocks everyone from wealthy artists to left-wing revolutionaries. There is something operatic about the film, as it blends a study of the performative nature of sadomasochism and the link between genius and madness. If you enjoy very dark, unusual black comedies with plenty of sex and explicit subject matter, this is likely to be one of your favorite Fassbinder films. It’s available on DVD, though, as always, I’m hoping it will get a special edition release at some point. Fans of Kurt Raab will especially want to check this out, as he gives one of the finest performances of an underrated career.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Vitus Zeplichal, Elke Aberle, Alexander Allerson

While in a prison, a young man named Peter relates his tale to a therapist. Much of his early life was spent trying to win his mother’s love, for naught. As a young adult, his training as a bricklayer gives him the skills to build a house for his parents. They are appreciative and loving for just a few weeks, then his mother returns to her callous indifference. He marries Erika, a local girl and decides they will move to Munich to impress his parents. He gets a low-paying job in construction, but tries to prove his love for Erika with lavish presents and furniture for their apartment. This quickly puts him in debt, though he seems addicted to spending and refuses to ask his parents for financial help. When he loses his job, it puts him quickly over the edge…

I Only Want You to Love Me is one of Fassbinder’s lesser-seen made-for-TV movies, but one that fits snugly with the core themes of domestic hell, social alienation, and economic repression found in almost all of his films from the mid-‘70s. Beginning with The Merchant of the Four Seasons and continuing through Bremen Freedom, Jail Bait, Eight Hours are Not a Day, Fear Eats the Soul, Effi Briest, Nora Helmer, Martha, Fox and His Friends, Fear of Fear, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, by I Only Want You to Love Me, Fassbinder had examined nearly every angle of this theme with a variety of abused and oppressed characters as his protagonists.

If I Only Want You to Love Me remains a minor effort in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, it is because he had already examined the following protagonists: a man who commits suicide after his oppressive family drives him to despair, a woman who systematically poisons her oppressive family, a teenage girl who goads her lover to kill her controlling father when he tries to keep them apart, a woman who dies after she is abandoned by her oppressive family because of an old affair, a woman who leaves her family when she realizes how oppressive it is, a woman driven insane by her abusive husband, a gay man driven to suicide by his manipulative and greedy lover, a woman driven insane by her family, and a woman driven to communism by her husband’s murder-suicide.

While I Only Want You to Love Me is based on the 1972 non-fiction book Life: Transcripts Behind Bars by Klaus Antes, Christiane Ehrhardt, and Heinrich Hannover, the material is hardly new to Fassbinder. Peter – Satan’s Brews’s Vitus Zeplichal in a remarkable performance – is an evolution of The Merchant of the Four Seasons’ Hans, a man driven to insanity because of the cruelty he experiences at the hands of his mother. She rejects the life he imagines for himself, insisting that he become a fruit seller, and coldly frustrates his attempts at intimacy and affection. Peter’s mother is cut from the same cloth and it is interesting to follow the trajectory of Fassbinder’s mother characters up to this point.

At best, these mothers interfere with their sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law, and are controlling and driven by bourgeois obsessions. Sometimes they are seem to be sympathetic and understanding, but only if their children follow the behavior they deem appropriate (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Jail Bait, Effi Briest). Later, they are perverse (The American Soldier), cruel (Merchant of the Four Seasons, Bremen Freedom, Fear of Fear), and insane (Martha). Notable exceptions are the three characters played by Brigitte Mira in Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, where the protagonist of both is a mother treated cruelly by her children. Peter’s mother is the first to practice actual physical abuse. In an early scene, the young Peter brings her a bouquet of flowers taken from a neighbor’s garden. What Peter and his father sees as an act of generosity and love is taken to be a criminal act by his mother, who beats him with a wooden hanger until it breaks.

This theme of the mother and her vital importance to I Only Want You to Love Me makes this one of Fassbinder’s most quietly personal films. Fassbinder’s own childhood was allegedly a lonely, difficult one, and was marked by his parents’ divorce and his mother’s frequent absences. He noted in an interview (which can be found in The Anarchy of the Imagination) that he spent much of his time alone at the cinema, which soon became his stand-in for family and affection. Fassbinder’s own mother would appear throughout his films, beginning with a role as the grieving mother in Gods of the Plague. Though she only appears in a side role in this film, her aloof, almost disdainful beauty is echoed in Ernie Mangold (Before Sunrise), the prolific actress who plays Peter’s mother.

In I Only Want You to Love Me, Fassbinder uses the mother figure – represented by Peter’s mother, his wife Erika, who soon becomes a mother, Erika’s kindly but lonely grandmother, and even the prison therapist – as a conduit to explore the evils of the West German economic miracle. This time of financial prosperity is turned into an authoritarian prison by Fassbinder, a place of paranoia and anxiety where everyone seems to be against Peter and can tell that he is somehow different, somehow inferior. In typical Fassbinder fashion, Peter makes many mistakes and seemingly entrenches himself in misery on purpose. Every time he wants to feel loved, he buys another large bouquet of colorful flowers for a woman (his mother, his wife, her grandmother), echoing the first bouquet that earned him a vicious beating.

Perhaps ironically, the colorful flowers, symbolic of nature, fertility, romance, and courtship, are otherwise absent from the film’s gray industrial landscape. Munich is depicted as a bleak, urban space devoid of color or life. The film’s most beautiful scenes, courtesy of Fassbinder’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, are stark shots of the Munich subway, which Peter rides all day because he no longer has a job, but hasn’t admitted this to his wife. Like Fox’s suicide in the subway in Fox and His Friends, this is a death journey, a descent into a middle class hell that culminates in dissociation, violence, murder, and incarceration.

Available on DVD from Olive Films, I Only Want You to Love Me is a fascinating example of Fassbinder at his most introspective and psychological. It is marked by excellent cinematography and performances, as well as solid score from Fassbinder’s regular collaborator Peer Raben. It’s not an ideal starting place for newcomers, but is a must-see for Fassbinder fans, as it examines an issue Fassbinder struggled with throughout his life: the desperate, often misguided search for love.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976
Starring: Brigitte Mira, Ingrid Caven, Karlheinz Böhm, Margit Carstensen

“Everybody is out for something. Once you realize that, everything is much simpler.”

The Küsters family – mother Emma, her son Ernst, and her unpleasant daughter-in-law Helene – are in the midst of their evening routine when they learn why Herr Küsters is late coming home from work. After a psychological breakdown, he has beaten the factory foreman to death and then killed himself. Mother Küsters is in shock and doesn’t understand how her loving, if reserved husband could do such a thing. But no one in her life seems to care: her unsympathetic son and daughter-in-law go on vacation, as planned, and though her daughter arrives for the funeral, she is only trying to publicize her singing career. Mother Küsters meets some sympathetic Communists and joins the Party, but soon learns that everyone has their own agenda.

Inspired by Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krausen’s Journey to Happiness (1929) -- Jutzi also filmed the first version of Fassbinder’s later masterpiece Berlin AlexanderplatzMother Küsters Goes to Heaven is one of Fassbinder’s most overtly political films. He criticizes left and ring-wing politics, the media, and seemingly all of society. Apparently upon its release, threats of bombing and violence were called in to German theaters screening the film and its explosive impact has not lessened almost 40 years later. All of the film’s characters – except for Mother Küsters herself – are depicted as self-serving, callous, and fatuous. Küsters’ own family abandons her, a seemingly sympathetic journalist turns her husband into a violent drunk, and the Communists who befriend her soon lose interest in her quest to publicly restore her husband’s memory.

Fassbinder’s critique of “armchair” activists is particularly nasty. Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstensen appear as a wealthy married couple with beautiful, expensive clothes to make their beautiful, expensive home – which the husband tells Mother Küsters his wife inherited – and they write articles no one reads, do not actually know any working class people, and only encourage her to visit them if she will listen to political diatribe and show up for Party rallies. Their utter uselessness is contrasted by a smug anarchist (Matthias Fuchs, also the anarchist in Lola) who tells her that the Communists don’t care about her and they are only interested in talk, not action.

The anarchist’s behavior is foolish – he encourages Mother Küsters to occupy the newspaper office that printed the article about her husband. Notably, the film has two endings (SPOILERS). In the first, they occupy the newspaper office and the anarchist and his two friends draw guns and take hostages, to Küsters’ horror. It is revealed by several text paragraphs over a freeze frame of her that when they go outside, with the building surrounded by the police, Küsters is accidentally shot trying to keep her son (who has arrived) out of harm’s way. In the second ending, they non-violently occupy the office and stage a sit in, insisting that they won’t leave the floor of the reception area until a new article about Herr Küsters is written. The reports and office manager laugh at them and leave for the night. The anarchist and his friends also give up shortly after, leaving Mother Küsters depressed and by herself. The building’s aged superintendent is kind to her and convinces her to come home and have dinner with him, where they will discuss the problem of what to do about restoring her husband’s memory.

The disparate endings complicate a reading of the film. The first ending is admittedly more shocking and violent, but also dramatically unsatisfying because it is conveying by text rather than action. It is a frustrating disavowal of Küsters’ overt struggle to restore her husband’s reputation, and her underlying quest to find love and support in an inherently selfish society. Mother Küsters’ script, from Fassbinder himself, is rich and full of comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, and has a power that lingers far beyond either of the endings. Part of this strength is due to Brigitte Mira’s portrayal of Küsters. Mira was fresh off of a similar portrayal of a lonely housewife in the equally political Fear Eats the Soul, and in Mother Küsters she is more than just the Brechtian symbolic mother; she is also a warm and likable character, one of Fassbinder’s most dramatically developed.

What is particularly unique and hopeful about Mira’s roles in Mothers Küsters and Fear Eats the Soul is that her character – despite being aged and working class – is able to integrate new ideas, people, and political concepts into her life. Regardless of which ending you prefer to Mothers Küsters, it doesn’t detract from her role as a figure of innocence, change, active vigor, and hope. In many ways, she is Fassbinder’s ideal figure and, unlike Mira’s Emmi in Fear Eats the Soul, she does not contribute to her own victimization, truly a rarity among Fassbinder’s cinematic rogue’s gallery. While domestic spaces are vitally important in most of Fassbinder’s films, he frequently depicts figures who are driven insane by their domestic lives – Martha, Why Does Herr R Run Amok, Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fear of Fear – but Mother Küsters, one of his few mother figures, the center of the domestic space, is allowed to separate herself from it and exert her own influence.

Mothers Küsters Goes to Heaven is one of Fassbinder’s crucial films, though like Martha and Fear of Fear, it is one of his lesser seen works. It’s fortunately available on DVD and remains one of his least aged works. Certainly the costumes and set pieces are from the ‘70s, but the political climate has remained frighteningly the same, for example, there is a point where Küsters basically discusses the 1%/99% in a speech she gives to the Communists.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Ulrich Faulhaber, Brigitte Mira, Kurt Raab, Irm Hermann

Margot, a lovely housewife who lives in a middle-class apartment with her husband, young daughter, and infant son, begins to suffer from depression. Her husband and daughter are not particularly understanding and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live in an apartment upstairs, are controlling, judgmental, and watch her every movement. Margot fears she is going insane and has vision problems, anxiety attacks, and is followed by Herr Bauer, a neighbor who claims that he understands. She shuns him and flees into the arms of the local pharmacist. She has sex with him for an unlimited supply of Valium, which she begins mixing with alcohol, leading to a downward spiral.

This Made-for-TV psychological melodrama is one of Fassbinder’s lesser seen films, but has quickly become one of my favorites. Cinema is certainly no stranger to films about people going mad in domestic spaces for no apparent reason – another of my favorite films, Jeanne Dielman, considered a classic of this subgenre – but Fassbinder has made a career out of this theme, including Why Does Herr R Run Amok?, Effi Briest, Whity, Bremen Freedom, Martha, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Despair, I Only Want You to Love me, Nora Helmer, and even – to different degrees – Jail Bait, Fear Eats the Soul, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. Along with Why Does Herr R Run Amok and The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fear of Fear is among the most overt, with a simple plot structure that follows one character through a descent into madness and despair.

Margit Carstensen, perhaps my favorite of Fassbinder’s actresses, is exquisite here as Margot. She depicts frailty, paranoia, and mania with grace and sympathy and she sheds all of the histrionics of Martha. Her portrayal of Margot transcends simpler depictions of bourgeois depression, post-partum mania, and feminine hysteria. She reaches a more universal, almost martyred level of suffering and it is easy to forget that this is fundamentally a melodrama that takes place in a cramped apartment. Fear of Fear is certainly an example of the influence of Douglas Sirk, one of Fassbinder’s favorite directors, but it also bears things in common with the drama of Ibsen and Strindberg, something Fassbinder evoked earlier with Nora Helmer. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (and Nora Helmer), Margot’s madness is not a sign of submissive defeat, but of rebellion and revolt.

The gangly, tall, and rail-thin Margot seem too large for her apartment. Fassbinder has filled the set with mirrors, angled hallways, and bisecting door frames that add to the air of paranoia and claustrophobia. The environment is also psychologically restricting. She doesn’t fit in with her in-laws (Fassbinder regulars Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann) who tell her she does everything wrong, from eating to parenting, dressing, and behaving. Irm Hermann, Fassbinder’s one-time girlfriend, has played a number of these disdainful characters that thrive on paranoia and control, including Fear Eats the Soul, Mother Kusters, and Effi Briest. Here, she is Margot’s opposite. They are both tall and fair-haired, but Margot is beautiful, well-dressed, and spends her days relaxing in leisure. Her frumpy sister-in-law lashes out at her as often as possible, likely due to jealousy, and she watches Margot obsessively through a second-story window, tracking her every movement outside the apartment building.

Her only true ally is Herr Bauer, a sad-eyed, shadowy figure who often appears on the street. Played by actor Kurt Raab, also Fassbinder’s artistic director on many films, Bauer has an almost supernatural quality. His eyes plead with Margot, but she is terrified by him and runs away from him for no reason. She doesn’t begin to feel real sympathy or understand their connection until he kills himself. Meanwhile, she becomes increasingly desperate – she tries to escape from the world by taking pills, guzzling alcohol, and listening to Leonard Cohen on her headphones. There is something regressive and almost immature about this behavior. She rebels against her restrictive home life, but also against family and domesticity itself. As in Effi Briest and Bremen Freedom, Fassbinder does not depict the birth of her second child (though she is shown as pregnant early in the film), and effectively deletes the baby from the film, turning it into an unseen but constant source of anxiety.

In several of his films, the family unit is combined with themes of moral conservatism and religious belief.  In Fear of Fear, a painting above Margot’s bed of the Madonna and Child stands out and contrasts her behavior with her own children. There is similar religious imagery in his other films about crumbling families, such as Jail Bait and Merchant of the Four Season, where the camera seems to emphasize a wooden crucifix as the lone decoration on a white bedroom wall. It is easy to conflate Margot with both Hanni of Jail Bait and Hans of Merchant of the Four Seasons; the former is a teen rebelling against her parents conservative bourgeois values, while the latter is an adult man who despairs at the life his cruel mother and cold wife have chosen for him.

Fear of Fear comes highly recommended and will interest everyone from Fassbinder fanatics to fans of art house bourgeois films, to anyone who enjoys movies about a descent into madness. Fascinatingly, it prefigures a pill-obsessed society – such as the US psychiatric drug binge that began in the ‘90s -- with Margot’s desperate Valium popping, her subsequent induction into a mental hospital, and her chilling declaration at the end of the film that, “I have a deep depression and I need my pills to pull out of it.” Pick it up on DVD here, though hopefully one day it will see a Criterion release alongside Martha.

The Music of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Everything's coming up Fassbinder this month. First Criterion released The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant on DVD and Blu-ray and yesterday, the wonderful Ubu Web published an article about Fassbinder's soundtracks and the use of sound and music in his films. It's excellent and thankfully includes a playlist with roughly 45-minutes of music with everything from beloved classics like Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Marriage of Maria Braun to more obscure works, such as Fear of Fear and I Only Want You to Love Me. Both the article and playlist come highly recommended and it cannot be stressed how important music was to his films -- for example, in Rio das mortes he appears in a cameo role, dancing to Elvis, and he directed a musical, made-for-TV film, Like a Bird on a Wire, named after a Leonard Cohen song.

If you need something a little more concrete, pick up this CD (pictured here), an anthology of composer Peer Raben's music for Fassbinder.

One of my favorite tracks is not included -- "So Much Tenderness," which was written by Fassbinder and Raben for The American Soldier. His then-lover Kaufmann provides the vocals. Listen here:

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. 

Monday, January 12, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975
Starring: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel, Karlheinz Böhm

Franz Bieberkopf, a carnival worker known as “Fox, the Talking Head,” loses his job when his boyfriend, the owner, is arrested for tax fraud. Out of desperation, he prostitutes himself and plays the lottery with his earnings. He wins, to his surprise, and finds himself in a posh new social circle with upper class friends and a handsome, cultured new boyfriend, Eugen. Though Eugen secretly despises Franz, his wealthy family is suffering financially and he needs Franz’s money. Eugen soon convinces Franz to become a “partner” in the family printing business, which really just means he is giving Eugen large sums of money. Eugen also convinces him to buy an expensive apartment and lavishly decorate it, but Eugen will lose interest in Franz as soon as the relationship is no longer profitable…

Fox and His Friends holds a special place in my heart, because it was my first encounter with Fassbinder. It’s one of his finest films, which is perhaps unusual because he wrote, directed, and starred in the film. Though he would give a variety of supporting and starring performances in his own films and those of his friends, this is probably the best performance of his career. Fox/Franz is a uniquely sympathetic example among Fassbinder’s protagonists. He is innocent, yet also sexually mercenary, sweet, yet demanding, and above all suffers because of his desire to love and to please. While Fox engages in prostitution at the start of the film – it is ironically responsible for his lottery win – the film also depicts a different kind of prostitution. Fox and His Friends is the story of an upper class man and his family exploiting a guileless, lower class worker who lacks the education or life experience to realize that they may be duping and robbing him.

The film’s original German title, Faustrecht der Freiheit, translates to Right Fist of Freedom, implying that Fassbinder is examining the sort of social Darwinism – a belief that the strong have a right to exploit the weak, often violently -- espoused by contemporary writers like Ayn Rand, but also by Nazis like philosopher and key ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. Nazi propaganda films like Alles Leben ist Kampf (All Life is a Struggle) depict nature-based scenes of insects fighting each other for survival, implying that their campaign of anti-Jewish violence was somehow scientifically justified. This is one of the earliest public, government-sponsored combination (Marx and Engels were also proponents of it in their writings) of Darwin’s scientific findings with non-scientific theories of genetics, race, and evolution meant to defend exploitation, abuse, and murder.

Adolf Eichmann’s Protocol from the Wahnsee Conference relates the following: “In pursuance of the final solution, special administrative and executive measures will apply to the conscription of Jews for labor in the eastern territories. Large labor gangs of those fit to work will be formed, with the sexes separated, which will be directed to those areas for road construction and undoubtedly a large part of them will fall out through natural elimination. Those who remain alive — and they will certainly be those with the greatest powers of endurance — will be treated accordingly. If released they would, being a natural selection of the fittest, form a new cell from which the Jewish race could again develop.” While philosophers and scientists have responded to this tenet with horror, Fox and His Friends is Fassbinder’s more subtle essay on the subject, cloaked in a melodramatic plot about a romance gone wrong.

Fassbinder addressed the subject -- particularly in regards to Nazism -- in varying degrees previously with his controversial play Shadow of the Angels and in future film Lili Marleen, Fox and His Friends is fundamentally concerned with class-based prejudice. Fox is systematically destroyed by Eugen and his family, because they believe that his working class status makes him socially inferior. They treat him as sub-human and conspire to strip him of his wealth. A particularly painful moment is during a scene where Fox attends dinner with Eugen’s family. They almost sadistically humiliate him simply because he doesn’t handle his utensils in the proper way. There are moments reminiscent of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, where a woman introduces her adult children and their spouses to her young, black, Arabic husband, who is a poor and a migrant worker who is not familiar with all of their class-based social customs.

While Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ends on a tentatively hopeful note, Fox and His Friends is a work of persistent pessimism. Love is equivalent to financial worth and prostitution is a fact of life in varying forms. Fox’s death on a subway platform – an act of suicide by a bereft man – is one of Fassbinder’s most moving set pieces. While the film is primarily naturalistic and contains only subtle instances of Fassbinder’s dramatic sense of style, this death scene is a nightmarish vision of cold blue and white. Fox’s body is spotted by Eugen, who scurries away to avoid getting involved while equally unsympathetic children rob Fox's corpse.

The name Franz Bieberkopf is taken from Berlin Alexanderplatz, one of Fassbinder’s favorite novels, which he later turned into his masterpiece – a 14-episode series. Franz/Fox is a character demeaned by life at every turn. His one seeming success – winning the lottery – simply drives him further into despair and ruins his life because he is such a giving, generous person. This blunt message is an extreme version of “money won’t make you happy,” and the inherently innocent and simplistic Fox is simply unable to survive in a world of social Darwinism. While Fox and His Friends has been criticized for its negative depictions of homosexuals, this indicates a lack of understanding about Fassbinder’s work as a whole. He is unprejudiced and unrestrained in his portrayal of the bleak, selfish, and cruel side of humanity, so his villains, brutes, and manipulators are gay, straighten, men, women, white, black, anti-Semites, Jews, rich, and poor. His message here seems to be that no one possessing humanity can survive in this predatory, violent environment and even though Nazism has faded into history, its presence lingers malignantly on.

Fox and His Friends comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a crushing film, but an undeniably important one. Pick it up on DVD or watch it on Hulu through their partnership with the Criterion Collection – hopefully a release will follow on the tail of the Eclipse box set, Fear Eats the Soul, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.