Bitter Tears: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, HOME, May 7-31.
It is well known that the great West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work rate was prodigious. In a brief career between 1969 and 1982 he directed forty films and two television series, and wrote twenty-four stage plays and four radio plays. He not only directed his own films but also wrote them, produced them, acted in them, and was involved in various other technical aspects of their production. On top of this he managed, directed and acted in his own theatre company.
This astonishing work rate was made possible by generous government grants, a tight knit group of collaborators who worked on and appear in almost all his films, and Fassbinder’s prodigious use of drugs which ultimately brought his life to an untimely end. It’s worth rehearsing these facts in order to stress just how remarkable Fassbinder’s body of work is: its intellectual and artistic consistency, the fact that state funded work could be so politically radical, and the fact that it was made at all. By all accounts, Fassbinder was a difficult man to work with; an intense, unpredictable and sometimes abusive atmosphere pervaded his working environment and yet his collaborators continued to work with him, and, reflexively, it is abuse, victimisation and relations of power amongst tight knit groups of people that become Fassbinder’s great themes.
Rooted deeply in the political, social and cultural life of contemporary West Germany, Fassbinder’s films explore the personal-political situation of his nation: the legacy of Nazism, West Germany’s ‘Economic Miracle’, the experiences of the immigrant workers who came to the country in the wake of this economic success, the situation of women, and the lives of what we would now refer to as LGBTQ people are the subjects that he frequently returns to. His work is openly, polemically, sometimes didactically politically radical in both themes and its aesthetic procedures. He is furious about the state of his nation, of the continuing mindset of Nazism infecting the social relations even of those born after the fall of Hitler, of the petty racism, groupthink and intolerance that characterises his society, and of how the economic system props these up. His films ceaselessly and often bleakly explore this utilising a contradictory mixture of Brechtian theatre techniques, and plots and production design frequently borrowed from the great 1950s Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk transposed into the claustrophobic flats and sad no-hope bars of his native Munich.
Fassbinder, though, is a director for our times across the west. In his concern with how oppressive ideologies are perpetuated through social relations and institutional discrimination he speaks to societies where discrimination has been prohibited by law but virulently lingers nonetheless. By demonstrating the political relationships between class, race, gender, and sexuality, he prefigures in its entirety what we now call intersectional theory. But nor is Fassbinder a worthy director. While he is sometimes didactic, he is rarely hopeful. He often depicts the oppressed as being complicit in their own oppression, of even masochistically enjoying it. As such, the contradictions in his aesthetics also emerge in the complex critical responses to his work. Feminist critics have both championed him as a great feminist director and argued that he is a misogynist. He is both the godfather of queer cinema and accused of homophobia. But these insoluble contradictions offer a thrilling openness to Fassbinder’s work, perhaps even a kind of utopian space for the debate of possibilities, though a brief utopia that frequently ends in the ultimate oppression of the poor and oppressed. The only hope is in the frequent dreams of his characters to escape, through winning the lottery, fleeing to South America, or, all too often, into death.
HOME’s thrilling cinema season, Bitter Tears: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder opened a window onto this rich body of work. The five films here represented a ‘best of’, ranging from his early, more theatrical films to his late work that eventually brought him a strange kind of commercial success. What is striking about them taken as a group is both their unity of theme and execution and their extreme diversity. There is an austerely formalist exploration of the response of a working class community to a Greek immigrant worker, a melodrama about a gay circus sideshow worker who wins the lottery and is then swindled of his winnings, a metafilm about the making of a film under a director whose working practices are reminiscent of Fassbinder’s own, the story of a working class woman who becomes rich in the West German ‘Economic Miracle’, and an experimental adaptation of one of the great realist novels of nineteenth-century German literature.
Fox and his Friends (1975) suffers from having a German title that is impossible to translate. Faustrecht der Freiheit literally means the ‘fist-right of freedom’, ‘the right to freedom deriving from the fist’ is too wordy, but the closest English idiomatic approximation, ‘survival of the fittest’ just doesn’t sit right. What is lost in any translation is the importance of freedom in this film. Fassbinder himself plays Fox, a working class gay man who works on a circus sideshow. His boss/lover is arrested for tax fraud and Fox is cast into the world only to immediately win the jackpot on the lottery. He falls in with a group of bourgeois gay men including a new boyfriend Eugen. Eugen and Fox’s other new ‘friends’ systematically swindle Fox of his winnings to prop up Eugen’s failing family printing business and to line their own pockets, and humiliate with cruel jokes about his lack of cultural capital. After being dispossessed and dumped on the scrapheap Fox kills himself in a Munich underground station and two schoolboys rob his body. Even by Fassbinder’s standards it’s depressing and it lacks the garish Technicolor palette of many of his other melodramas.
Fox’s life after he meets the men who swindle him is a series of humiliations: being scoffed at after asking for beer in a French restaurant where he can’t read the menu, discovering he can’t recoup the loan he extended to Eugen’s business because he didn’t understand the contract, his drunken desperation when he is left alone. And yet there is also a small kind of joy to this film too. It was one of the first films made anywhere to focus on the lives of gay men from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t straight. Thus we see the excitement of cruising before the AIDS crisis, and also a diversity of gay lives: gay men at work, gay men having a beer, gay American soldiers, a broad diversity of expressions of homosexuality both adhering to subcultures and stereotypes and not. Critics have accused the film of being homophobic because its amoral swindlers are also gay but it is clear here that source of greed and cultural violence is not attached to sexuality but to class. Eugen’s family delight in robbing the interloper who slurps his soup just as much as Eugen himself does.
Freedom here then is the freedom to dispossess and abuse. Fox is a hunted fox, backed into a corner by those with the financial and cultural capital to have space to move comfortably in the world. And yet there are other sorts of freedom here too, some which are worth celebrating and others which are profoundly disquieting. On the one side we see the freedom allowed by the space of the working class gay bar, where there is comradeship which facilitates an emotional support network. Left with nothing Fox ends up sobbing in the arms of a florist who he initially tricked out of the money for the winning lottery ticket, in a scene that also makes it clear that this street-smart trick for a few marks does not hold the same meanings as the trick that Eugen and his friends pull on Fox. On the other side, though, Fassbinder suggests to us that even when a proletarian has the freedom to move that the bourgeois characters are usually afforded he will settle into the power dynamics that encourage him to act as the oppressor. Eugen and Fox go on holiday to Morocco and, when they go cruising and pick up a local man, Fox is shown to be just as complicit in the casual, racist reification and exploitation of this man as Eugen, seemingly oblivious to its structural similarities with his position at home. That this seems inevitable to Fassbinder, that there is no other option in the legalistic ‘fist-right’ of freedom, is profoundly anti-humanist. Fox does not make the choice to be oppressive, it is part of the structural situation he finds himself in. Logic would then suggest we offer the same excuse to Eugen and his friends. Perhaps Fox’s death by his own hand suggests that the only way out of this cycle of oppression, that seems to occur according to natural laws rather than human agency, is through a suicide that radically divorces the subject from its inevitable exercise of power when the subject has freedom to exercise that power.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), is one of Fassbinder’s late films where his Marxist melodrama reaches its fullest expression. It is the first part of his BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland, one of the names used in German for West Germany) Trilogy, which examines the experiences of women during the ‘Economic Miracle’ of the 1950s when the economy exploded and Germany’s ‘social market economy’ developed. Maria Braun is played by Hanna Schygulla, a regular collaborator of Fassbinder’s and to my mind one of the greatest living actors. She marries a soldier during the Second World War who is immediately sent to the front and soon reported dead. The chaos of the aftermath of the war and the Allied occupation is depicted in unsettling detail: Red Cross soup kitchens, apartments with huge holes in the walls, cigarettes used as currency and women in packed railway stations holding signs with photographs of lost husbands and brothers on. Fallen on hard times, Maria engages in sex work and ends up forming a relationship with a black American soldier (played by Günther Kaufmann, one of Fassbinder’s many lovers, a regular in his films and himself the son of a German woman and a black American G.I.). Unexpectedly, her husband returns, Maria accidentally kills the American soldier (she was only trying to knock him out!), and her husband takes the rap for it. While he’s in prison, Maria takes up with a wealthy industrialist in an arrangement which, whilst she is his mistress, also demonstrates her considerable business acumen. As she grows rich, the film builds towards its explosive conclusion.
As Maria becomes richer she becomes colder, almost entirely abstracted from everything around her, scornful of the meaningful relationships she has built with lovers and family. Her cold success recalls Adorno’s comment on ‘the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz’. What Adorno means here is that it is only by the abstracting, calculating act of making everybody and everything essentially fungible, abstracting human life of any meaning other than the perverted profit motive, that Auschwitz could occur both ideologically and practically; remember the profits that came to private companies for developing the technology of the death camps. Maria, too, adopts this mindset but is also unavoidably shaped by it. She is both the proponent and the victim of the bourgeois-fascist ideology that, far from being destroyed by the Allied invasion, manifests itself clearly in the ‘Economic Miracle’. Maria both participates in a highly abstracted interplay of exchange values and herself in an object of exchange. In a fascinating sequence Maria rejects the advances of an American soldier; her earthy insults earn his admiration and he gives her a packet of cigarettes. She trades these cigarettes for a dress and then begins working in a bar frequented by American soldiers as a prostitute. She begins by refusing the reification of her body and ends by participating in this same process. As such, sexuality gets firmly tied to the total fungibility of the world, at least in women’s cases. It is what allows Maria to participate in the economic system and to be a victim of it through the total dispossession of her warmth. As she describes herself at one point she is the ‘Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle’. This connection of fascism, economics and sexuality gives a nightmarish baroque atmosphere to what would otherwise be a social realist drama. At one point we see the wealthy Maria vomiting in a restaurant as a waiter gropes a topless woman to one side of the frame.
This is not just a personal tragedy, though, and Fassbinder creates a constant counterpoint between the national and the personal by remarkable sound design. This includes sounds that aren’t immediately obvious in the scene, such as the sound of hammers and crying babies, the constant presence of the radio in the background, popular music of the era and a non-diegetic soundtrack. It never feels messy but it is often deeply unsettling. The radio in particular gives a national dimension to the narrative. As Maria rises economically, we hear the radio switch from reports on displaced people, to the first post-war chancellor Adenauer promising not to restore Germany’s military power and later insisting on the nation’s right to an army. In the final, climactic scene, we hear the West German team beating Hungary in the final of the 1954 World Cup. Fassbinder confronts us here with the question, what does it mean that Germany is a world power once again, for Maria, and for the rest of the world?
Katzelmacher (1969) translates as ‘cat screwer’; I don’t know why it is never referred to by its English title. Fassbinder’s second film, it is evidence of his early mastery of the form though it retains some of the theatrical trappings of the theatre drama (also by Fassbinder) that it was adapted from. A group of young, mostly unemployed Bavarians in Munich hang around their block of flats. They argue and have sex with each other, they gossip nastily, the men are violent to their girlfriends, they often sit in silence and drink. And then a Greek immigrant worker, Yorgos (played by Fassbinder) arrives as a lodger. He becomes the target of all the petty hatred, jealousy and insecurity of the group. Rumours circulate about him, he is both a filthy rapist and sexually desirable, both stupid and ignorant and a dangerous communist. He is an empty signifier, the repository for the group’s fears. This contradictory status is captured in the title. In Bavaria a katzelmacher is a term for a troublemaker and a derogatory term for an immigrant. Yorgos is, supposedly, both sexually potent and disgusting, “a Greek from Greece – a Greek with a big dick” as one of the men describes him. He is an outsider who seems somehow necessary to the functioning of the inside, the little plot there is only starts to move once he arrives. And he is also the troublemaker who activates not only hatred but possibilities; the minimal plot concerns one of the women in the group, Marie (Hanna Schygulla) beginning a romance with Yorgos and resolving to move to Greece with him and the men violently taking their revenge on him as a result. And yet all this time Yorgos seems simply bemused and confused. He can neither fully comprehend the mindless violence directed at him nor does he enter fully into Marie’s passion for him. It’s not that Fassbinder is depicting immigrants as stupid or passive. Yorgos is not a ‘real’ immigrant but largely the construction of the attitudes of Germans still marked by fascism.
These attitudes are shown not only to be violent and destructive to those on the receiving end of them but also a prison to those who hold them. The film’s epigraph states, “It is better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness”. Clearly Fassbinder sees the racism directed at Yorgos as an unconscious repetition of Nazism. This repetition of mistakes is also stressed by the strict formal construction of the film. Almost every scene, across about five locations in the film, outside the block, in the pub, inside various characters’ flats, takes place with a fixed camera and a group of characters in front of a blank wall talking in various combinations. The structure of the film allows only repetition, but this is occasionally alleviated by scenes in which various pairs of characters walk through the garages near the flats with the camera moving backwards as they walk towards it. This seems to suggest some sort of possibility of escape, but where to? These walks go nowhere and are soundtracked by one of Schubert’s German Dances. Even movement seems destined to perpetuate old mistakes. Just how does one perpetuate new mistakes when the old ones are so entrenched? As in so many Fassbinder films, escape, even into new errors, actually seems hopeless. The film ends with Marie asserting that Yorgos will take her to Greece where “everything’s different”. What we know, that Marie doesn’t seem to know, is that Greece, at the time the film was made and set, was under an anti-communist military dictatorship.
Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) marks the transition between the rigorous formalism of Fassbinder’s early films and the hysterical, garish melodramas of his late work. The second of two films that respond in different ways to the institution of cinema itself, it is inspired by Fassbinder and his team’s experiences of making Whity (also 1971) in Spain. Whity is one of Fassbinder’s most fascinating, disturbing and outrageous films in a career which only produced work of that description; it is a thoroughgoing deconstruction of the racial and sexual assumptions of the canonical Western. Günther Kaufmann plays Whity, an African-American butler in a white household who masochistically takes pleasure in the violent, racialized abuse meted out to him by his employer who is also his father. This is until the family all try to swindle, seduce and murder each other, at which point Whity kills them all and rides off into the sunset with the money and the prostitute from the local saloon, played by Hanna Schygulla, who sings Brechtian cabaret songs to drunk cowboys.
In Beware of a Holy Whore, however, the crew are producing some sort of drama called Nation or Death in Spain and the focus is not on any of Fassbinder’s films per se, but rather on the relationships and power dynamics which are formed, used and abused in the strange process of film making which is both collaborative and dictatorial. Perhaps the ‘holy whore’ of the title is cinema itself, certainly both the economic realities of filmmaking and its transcendental possibilities are present here. The film is mostly set in a large hotel bar where the cast and crew of the film drink heavily (the words “Cuba Libre” directed at the silent bartender punctuate the script) and engage in sexual intrigues while they wait for the arrival of the director and funds from the production company. These scenes are accompanied by almost the entirety of Leonard Cohen’s debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen on the jukebox. Fassbinder teases us with how much we should take the film as a depiction of his reality. Many of the characters share their names with the actors playing them, and Eddie Constantine, who was famous across Europe as a b-movie actor in French and German films but is probably better known today for his part in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, plays himself. On the other hand, Fassbinder himself plays not the tyrannical director but the long-suffering production manager who attempts to hold the shoot together.
What we see here is all that is wonderful and all that is terrible about working in a group. There is a beautiful scene where the entire crew lies by the sea in a confusion of half-naked bodies bespeaking a sort of erotic solidarity and companionship; at other times we see shocking abuse which Fassbinder seems to attribute to the group dynamic itself, as though people become deluded and violent in relationships if they become too close. It is when the director (Lou Castel) arrives that things really fall apart. Perhaps it is the director, who brings dictatorial authority into the relative equilibrium of the group dynamic but allows the work to be made, who is the holy whore of the title. Several members of the crew are in love with him and he treats them with contempt and is disturbingly abusive. He rages on the set, he’s temperamental, difficult to work with, and once he appears the formal consistency of the film itself breaks down. At the beginning the film characterised by very long takes in the bar of the hotel, and by the end we have a series of elliptic scenes of the film in production. These elliptic scenes also seem to show the in-film director replacing Fassbinder as the director of Beware of a Holy Whore itself. The fictional director is very, very good at what he does. In one remarkable tracking shot, the director and the cinematographer make a 360 degree loop of the huge hotel bar as the former explains to the latter how he wants a scene in the film-within-a-film to be shot. Later we see that shot itself, elegant, unsettling, compelling, it tracks Eddie Constantine as he enters a house, walks up the stairs and murders someone. These two remarkable camera movements seem to establish a formal equivalence between Fassbinder and the tyrannical director. One is left with a bleak picture of the morals and behaviour behind Fassbinder’s filmmaking process, but it’s also one of his funniest films – there is a wonderful repetitive visual gag where characters keep throwing empty glasses over their shoulders.
Effi Briest (1974), could have been one of Fassbinder’s most conventional films. An adaptation of Fontane’s 1896 novel about the titular young aristocratic woman (Hanna Schygulla, again) who is pushed into an arranged marriage, has an affair and is ostracised from society, Fassbinder avoids all the trappings of period drama and subverts the melodrama of the plot. Effi’s ‘punishment’ for seeking something different from rigidly conformist Prussian society is presented not with tears but with an austere detachment, an alienation which is stressed by the production design: faces are caught in multiple mirrors, abstracted from themselves, characters are frequently viewed through gauzes and veils, and the lavish period costumes seem to overwhelm the humans inhabiting them. Not only are the characters alienated from their own world, but we are also drawn in by this sumptuous period detail only for the film to demand of us why we let ourselves be conned by these bourgeois and aristocratic trappings.
Indeed, the film constantly demands we examine the politics of adaptation itself. In contrast to Fassbinder’s usual practice at this point in his career, when he came to favour garish Technicolor and strange, unnatural usage of colours derived from Douglas Sirk, Effi Briest is shot in stark black and white, as though we are reading a book. However, despite being punctuated with Fontane’s own narration in voiceovers, the action narrated is frequently at odds with the action that is taking place on the screen. Furthermore Fassbinder frequently elides significant action from the plot of the novel, most markedly the actual adultery that Effi commits. Brechtian intertitles also interrupt the action, commenting on it from an ironic distance, “an artifice to inspire fear” state two of them.
Markedly different from Fassbinder’s contemporary melodramas, Effi Briest’s subtitle could also sum up all the films shown in this season: ‘Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs Just Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds, Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It’. How Fassbinder thought that we can escape from this bind is another question.