VIDEO ESSAY: First Fassbinder

VIDEO ESSAY: First Fassbinder


The German actor and filmmaker Frank Ripploh interviewed Rainer Werner Fassbinder in March 1982, only a few months before Fassbinder’s death at age 37.

Ripploh’s last question was: “How do you describe yourself?”

“I’m a romantic anarchist,” Fassbinder said.

And so he had been from the beginning. It can be difficult to know what to make of Fassbinder, how to enter his extraordinary body of work, how to assess and appreciate his achievement. Romantic anarchists don’t sum up well.

First, there is the simple problem of scale. Though his career was relatively short, he sometimes directed in one year more movies than other people made in entire lifetimes. Even quantifying the exact number of items is a challenge, because they span so many formats — over 40 feature-length films (both for television and theatrical release), a handful of shorts, some radio plays, numerous stage plays, and a few television mini-series (including the 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, his magnum opus). That Fassbinder is generally known for a small set of major works (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun) is partly due to how well those films were originally received at international film festivals, but also because limiting the idea of “Fassbinder” to a small number of titles allows the casual viewer a few touchstones.

It is impossible, though, to get a sense of what makes Fassbinder’s work uniquely powerful and uniquely necessary without knowing at least some of his lesser-known movies. The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation has done excellent work preserving and restoring many of Fassbinder’s films, and the majority have found their way onto home video in one form or another over the years — most recently, the revelatory restoration of Fassbinder’s 4-hour TV mini-series World on a Wire, a captivating, reality-bending science fiction story that had only rarely been seen anywhere since its original airing in 1973. Even some of Fassbinder’s most obscure films are currently available on DVD in Europe, and while that is not the case in the United States, the Criterion Collection has done a fine job of bringing a few of the major works into print in typically excellent packages, and providing others via their Hulu Plus channel. Their most recent release is a selection of five of Fassbinder’s earliest films as part of their Eclipse series of DVDs.

The selection of works for Early Fassbinder is excellent, giving viewers access to the most satisfying films Fassbinder made before his stylistic breakthrough into melodrama with The Merchant of Four Seasons, shot in August 1971. The pleasure of the early films is the pleasure of watching a breathtakingly talented artist discover his art. While completists must certainly lament the exclusion from the Eclipse set of Fassbinder’s first two shorts (as well as, perhaps, Whitey, the production of which at least partly inspired Beware of a Holy Whore), the core of Fassbinder before his deliberate turn to melodrama is represented here.

Various scholars have attempted to categorize and periodize Fassbinder’s output and make the vast sprawl of it more manageable. Fassbinder himself hinted at one way to do this with his early films, saying that they break into two types: cinema films and bourgeois films. The cinema films were primarily in conversation with other films and the world of filmmaking, while the bourgeois films were critiques of middle class values and lifestyles.

Categories hide as much as they show, however, and we should only use the cinema films/bourgeois films taxonomy as a quick way to get oriented with the works up through Beware of a Holy Whore. Other categorizations also work as well or better, for instance Thomas Elsaesser’s two categories for the first quarter of Fassbinder’s career: gangster films and more general tales of violence, self-aggression, and in-groups. No taxonomy is entirely satisfactory, though, because what’s most apparent in the early work is how much Fassbinder is trying out different genres and styles. These are exploratory works, and sometimes almost hermetic works—occasionally, Fassbinder scoffed at his first ten movies, insisting they were made just to amuse his friends and nothing more. At other times, he felt differently; for instance, in 1981 he made a list of “The Top Ten of My Own Films” and placed Gods of the Plague fourth and Beware of a Holy Whore first.

Love Is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier form a loose trilogy, overlapping in both content and style, but each is also unique in ways that may not be apparent immediately. While none is as fast-paced as a film from Hollywood, Gods of the Plague is notably less narrative than the others and distinctly more laconic. The American Soldier brings Fassbinder’s interest in manipulating (or hollowing out) the icons of genre films to the fore. Love Is Colder than Death, for all its long takes and shallow conversations, offers a journeyman’s go-for-broke energy that Fassbinder would rarely replicate (such blind brio would reach its apex with The Third Generation in 1979).

Katzelmacher challenges audiences with its determinedly static camera, empty conversations, and miserable characters. Fassbinder was fascinated, especially early in his career, with stretching the audience’s experience of cinematic time by removing any elements that would contribute to a sense of suspense or even rising/falling dramatic action: the characters speak with as little affect as possible, and the editing allows shots and scenes to last longer than seems at all justified. (Even later, when he wanted to make movies that would attract a larger audience, Fassbinder couldn’t resist letting scenes go on for just a little bit longer than most other directors and editors would.) Our discomfort and impatience become a valuable response—boredom and frustration are important to the experience of what films like Katzelmacher are attempting to communicate. We feel, viscerally and almost unbearably, the ennui of the lives of Elisabeth, Paul, Erich, Franz, etc., and so gain an emotional connection to their relationships with and behavior toward Jorgos that we would not have were the film more conventionally entertaining. With Katzelmacher, the young Fassbinder took this approach as far as he could, and farther than he ever would again. The experiment is fascinating and sometimes powerful and evocative, but the characters are all either so detestable or dull that it may be difficult for viewers to locate a space for themselves within its suffocating world. Whatever we end up thinking of Katzelmacher, though, it was vital to Fassbinder’s development, for without it, it’s unlikely he could have achieved, for instance, the extraordinary (and painful!) perfection of pacing in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a similarly challenging film, but one where compassion for the characters has more opportunity to grow.

The final film in the Early Fassbinder set, Beware of a Holy Whore, marks a clear end to the first phase of Fassbinder’s career, no matter what taxonomy we choose. From his earliest days in the theatre, he and many of his colleagues had tried to live by communal, even utopian, principles, effectively creating a repertory company that lived and worked together constantly. The arrangement is part of the reason that Fassbinder was able to be so consistently productive, but it led to many tensions and tempests. Beware of a Holy Whore is, among other things, an epitaph for the most communal time of Fassbinder’s life. He was too talented, ambitious, and relentless to live and, especially, work in even a superficially nonhierarchical structure. For all his love of anarchy and romance, he needed to be able to channel order. He needed to be The Director.

Order can arrive in seemingly anarchic forms. The best of Fassbinder’s films are full of juxtapositions and contradictions. For all the sharp shocks and even despair in Beware of a Holy Whore, one thing we mustn’t forget about the film is that it is often deliberately absurd, exaggerated, and sometimes very funny. Many of the participants later noted that they had a great time making it (though Fassbinder’s more sardonic and acid caricatures wounded some of his friends). Fassbinder was often drawn to the exploration of characters as types rather than fully rounded human beings, and that interest is especially apparent here. The effect is, for the first time in his oeuvre, haunting: perceptive, sympathic viewers learn to see the roundedness within the types, the unique humanity within the common words, gestures, behaviors. It’s an effect he would soon master and repeat, an effect that would give his later, emotionally complex films extraordinary resonance.

Beware of a Holy Whore is an epitaph to a certain way of living, but it is an also an exorcism. Fassbinder seemed to recognize that he had come to the end of all of his paths — of living, working, being. He now knew the proclivities of the demons that drove him through his first ten movies. His favorite topics and obsessions would recur throughout his career, from his first shorts in the late 1960s until the final shot of his final film, Querelle, in 1982, but his tactics and templates would change. His discovery in 1971 of the American movies directed by Douglas Sirk offered him a new model, one that fit his sensibilities and showed him ways to bring feeling into form without sacrificing his interest in politics, representation, and identity. No longer was he stuck with the nihilism of noir or the angry disaffection and incipient fascism of the young bourgeoisie. Instead of having a character tell the story of an elderly woman who falls in love with a guestworker, as he did in The American Soldier, now he could bring that story itself to life in Fear Eats the Soul (his most explicitly Sirkean melodrama), meanwhile incorporating many of the insights about German society that he explored in Katzelmacher—and doing so in a way that not only infuriated and discomfited the audience but also engaged them in a more richly complex emotional journey.

We might become so enamored of the complexities and richness of the later films that we misinterpret the early films as shallow. They are not. They are experimental and deliberately artificial, certainly. They hold the viewer at a distance. But at their best their effects are purposeful and controlled. The films are, each of them, enjoyable on their own terms, and meaningful in their own ways. More importantly, they fit into the great tapestry that is the Fassbinder canon. The great joy of exploring beyond the most familiar and famous of Fassbinder’s works is the joy of seeing variations and iterations, the joy of possibilities and potentials. Character names and types appear and re-appear, sometimes in the body of the same actor as before, sometimes not. Situations arise in one way and then another, ideas flow toward a particular conclusion and then away from it, images expand and echo, and all the while our feelings shift, stretch, drift. Fassbinder’s work was often highly, even ostentatiously, artificial, but it was also rooted in a desire to address the world: both the specific world of his (and Germany’s) immediate circumstances and the world more generally, the world of history and literature and philosophy and humanity.

One of Fassbinder’s favorite books was Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. It’s partly a prose poem, partly a statement of desires dreams, partly a denunciation of humanity, partly an artistic manifesto, and mostly a celebration of outsiders and unholy fools against the forces and institutions of conformist society. Fassbinder surely read some of himself into it. We could, too. Consider, for instance: “Under the guise of representation he welded an air and enclosed within it a nerve, things which do not exist in nature, which are of a nature and an air more real than the air and nerve of real nature” (trans. by Helen Weaver).

From the right distance, chaos reveals its order. Anarchy needs governing forces to resist. The romantic anarchist is always resisting, always seeking another order and thus imbuing every present order with chaos. Fassbinder was sometimes a lord of chaos, but now, thirty years after his death, we have the distance to perceive the order, to feel our way through artificiality to reality, to learn to see again.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.

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