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To Rainer Werner Fassbinder On His 70th Birthday

To Rainer Werner Fassbinder On His 70th Birthday

If, for whatever reason, some prophetic stranger were to approach me at this very moment and tell me  I was about to be plucked from my spot upon this futon and flown to a desert island with nothing but a DVD player and my choice of a director’s filmography to keep me company for the rest of my days, I would pick Rainer Werner Fassbinder. For one: his body of work is so terribly immense that in between moments of say, gathering coconuts or building an escape raft, I could spend weeks engaged in his cinema. And by the time I’d finished the final of Fassy’s films, there’d be the fervour of flipping back to square one to see them all over again. 

His movies, in top form, also encapsulate so much that cinema has to offer:  unbelievably real characters, exquisitely-composed story arcs in pictures that never fall prey to their plots, surreal multicoloured set pieces, crashing melodramatic moments, comedy, despair, pretty men and handsome women, musical interludes, and the revelation:  the revelation that good intentions in this world are probably never enough. 

Rainer Werner was an extremely significant era of modern art manifest — he was the full-cheeked face of the ‘New German Cinema’, with a reddish brown moustache atop the usual scowl. This is a face that would come to freeze at the age of 37 in 1982 with a cigarette still perched between its lips. To live fast and die young was a philosophy alive in all of Fassbinder’s flicks and the production processes preceding them, and so like a character in his own movie, his story came to an end . . . and with it, put to sleep the New German Cinema for good.

R.W. never held himself back:  “The Jews have never been ashamed of being Jews, whereas homosexuals have been stupid enough to be ashamed of their homosexuality.” The director was out of the closet from the get-go, but does the closet ever exist for people such as him? More seamlessly than any filmmaker of his time, he included queer characters who were not sentenced to queer purgatory. His gay characters needed not pronounce their gayness. Fassbinder was considered promiscuous and spent a lot of time with both men and women — he even married his regular actress Ingrid Caven. She said of their relationship, “Rainer was a homosexual who also needed a woman. It’s that simple and that complex.”

These 4 films aren’t solely masterpieces of the queer canon. They have their place in art history, in my heart, and on our blog… for they feature protagonists who are a little, well, bent.

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972)

Petra (Marget Carstensen) is a powerful and talented, if not a little shut-in, Bremen fashion designer. Her previous marriages have ended disastrously and now she works from her apartment, relying on visitors and her live-in assistant whom she treats like total shit. Enter Karin (played by Hanna Schygulla, a very prominent face of the New German Cinema — [seeMarriage of Maria Braun, The]), a friend of a friend whom upon their introduction Petra proposes move in and train under her wing to become a world-class model. But to great misfortunate the illustrious Petra von Kant not only welcomes Karin in as her latest project, but as a lover she longs to possess. 

What touches me so about the film was how hopeless, despite enormous success, Petra becomes upon falling into the black hole that is unanswered love… How close it must have hit home for Fassbinder himself to so faithfully portray this process that makes the perfect imperfect. That makes devils out of angels. 

On her birthday and at the peak of her devastation (don’t these two always coincide?), Petra’s closest friend, mother, and boarding school daughter stop by to celebrate. In return Petra smashes plates and acts out some mode of death on the carpet, telling her visitors: “Her little finger is worth more than all of you together!” 

When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes (thus the bitter tears)… before proceeding to slide down your cheek and into your glass of gin. The disturbance Petra’s mother feels in learning her daughter has fallen for another woman does not compete with the wreckage Petra outwardly becomes, and this is what makes the film hurt.

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975)

In one of Fassbinder’s definitive films, and certainly his most definitive role, he stars as Franz “Fox” Bieberkopf — a down on his luck circus act whose ringleader boyfriend is sent to jail in the movie’s opening scene. On the search for income elsewhere, he is picked up by an older wealthy gentleman and introduced to a circle of professional homosexuals with successful careers and three-piece suits, who dine at upperclass restaurants and discuss the arts and finance. Although he’s used to barely living paycheck to paycheck in a small apartment with his alcoholic sister awaiting the day he finally wins the lottery, Fox begins seeing one of these men and is briskly thrust into the high life of these West German gays.

The film is bold, especially for its time, in portraying gay relationships as no more free from the evils of capitalist society… having the same pitfalls of their heterosexual counterparts. Fox is innocent and strives so badly to make things work but cannot let go of his old, less sophisticated self in order to serve this new persona his boyfriend perceives appropriate. While he’s cruelly treated like an old dog who can’t be taught new tricks, Fox is merely the tragic figure caught up with a man who uses their romance as a means of taking advantage. There is no way to be with a man who buys and sells love yet does not possess a heart. 

Is getting what you want and then losing it really better than not getting it at all? “Fox and his Friends” is a failings-of-humanity tale that deserves to be mentioned alongside “The Bicycle Thieves”. Social tragedy aside, it’s terribly clever and Rainer Werner’s really cute in it.

Better than a trailer, watch clips from the film set to a Morrissey song, and then continue to the next page…

Of the 40 feature films Germany’s prolific bad boy helmed in his 13 year career, 4 present notably queer protagonists. We’ve covered “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and “Fox and his Friends”, declaring that if I were to be stranded on a desert island with only one filmmaker’s work to keep me company, I’d choose the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

To lead the way into the next two films, a fitting quote from the director:

“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deep into yourself.”

IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS (1978)

The film opens with a title card informing the audience that every seven years there is a year with 13 moons. These periods of time are said to be filled with darkness and catastrophe, and this year, 1978, is one of them. 

Elvira (Volker Spengler) has dressed up as a man to sell sex at a park. A group of male hustlers, upon discovering she’s not exactly who she says she is, savagely beat her. A complete wreck, Elvira returns home to find her lover packing his things. She cries and pleads for him to stay, to no avail. As he stomps out the door he utters: “Somebody should step on you. You’re like a bug.” The film’s following scenes are as much of a pleasure to watch as these opening two are, which is to say, they’re the furthest thing from it.

On Fassbinder’s birthday in 1978 his boyfriend Armin Meier killed himself. Instead of going into isolated grieving, the filmmaker immediately wrote and began production on “In a Year of 13 Moons”. Fassbinder:

I felt the necessity to do something. There were basically three possibilities. One was to go to Paraguay and become a farmer. I don’t know why Paraguay; it just came to me. It might sound like coquetry now but at the time it wasn’t that at all; it was real to me. Another possibility was to stop being interested in what was happening around me. That would have been like a mental illness. The third possibility was to make a film — certainly the easiest for me. It’s perfectly logical that that’s what I did.”

The writer-director also appointed himself production designer and cameraman, taking the film into his own hands in a way he’d never done before.

Elvira Weisshaupt was once Erwin Weisshaupt. The businessman he long sought after once said, offhandedly, “If only you were a woman.” Erwin erroneously let this joke guide him to Casablanca where he underwent an irreparable transformation into Elvira. All of this has taken place before the film begins, and we meet up with Elvira as she makes her final efforts to make sense of a life regretted. Along with her prostitute friend Zora (Ingrid Caven, an ex-wife of Fassbinder’s), Elvira visits a slaughterhouse she once worked at, the nunnery where she was raised as an orphan, and finally the office of Anton, her longtime love who cruelly suggested the operation in the first place.

“In a Year of 13 Moons” jumps between grief and high absurdity. At Anton’s office workers instantaneously break into a dance routine juxtaposed with the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin film “You’re Never Too Young”. Moments earlier, Elvira had come across a man on the threshold of suicide, explaining rationally that he is going to kill himself in order to “stop perceiving.”

As is foretold in the opening prophecy, the planets have aligned and tragedy occurs. In “In a Year of 13 Moons” the noose may be salvation, but even at its bleakest it is top-tier Fassbinder.

QUERELLE (1982)

Undoubtedly Fassbinder’s gayest picture, “Querelle” is based on Jean Genet’s “Querelle de Brest”, which tells the story of devious sailor Georges Querelle and the many lovers he becomes entangled with while his ship is in port in Brest. The harbour-town haven for men married solely to the sea is infamous for a brothel run by Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), whom upon arrival Querelle learns is sleeping with his brother Robert. Their brotherly love is a little more homoerotic than most, and this new woman in Robert’s life upsets Querelle. In order to sleep with Lysiane one must first roll dice with her husband Nono, and if fate has them lose, must be fucked by him instead. Querelle loses on purpose and tries his best to feign anything but arousal at his first real homosexual encounter. 

In the midst of an opium deal, Querelle quarrels with his accomplice Vic over the merits of gay sex, and letting passion get the best of him, murders him and flees. This brings him into contact with Gil, a construction worker also wanted for murder and hiding out in an abandoned Brest prison. Gil is believed to be the killer of Vic and strongly resembles Querelle’s handsome brother. Our protagonist is in violent denial of queer sensibilities, but irresistible desire runs its course.

It is a film that wears its homo ass-pects on its sailor uniform sleeve. For one, it draws from two of the most recognizable gay writers of modern times:  Oscar Wilde’s lamenting “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” forms the lyrics for Jeanne Moreau’s jaunty go-to tune at the bar (it was nominated for Worst Original Song at that year’s Razzies) — and of course it all stems from the Jean Genet novel, although Genet himself claimed he never got around to seeing the flick because “you can’t smoke at the movies.” Otherwise, it is the quintessential cinematic fetishization of the sailor, much in the same vein as the bikers in Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”. There’s also no shortage of leather by way of cop uniforms, and the set is decorated by cock-shaped columns. Despite this blatant sea of homoeroticism and boy-on-boy sex, it was a surprise box office success, selling more than 100,000 tickets in the first 3 weeks of its release. 

Sadly, Fassbinder wasn’t alive to see “Querelle” make its way to the cinema. He died months earlier in June 1982. The film was dedicated to El Hedi ben Salem: another of the filmmaker’s boyfriends to commit suicide in a tragically short timespan. 

Even disregarding these factors, a communion of sex and death possess the film. And like these inextricably linked inevitabilities of the human flesh, what appears onscreen in “Querelle” can feel all body, no soul. Each set is obviously constructed, the lighting has the characters stuck in an artificial forever-dusk, and it’s the film of his repertoire that makes most clear actors are delivering lines. In its dis-ease it hits on a level outside of social commentary, but that’s not to say Fassbinder isn’t saying a whole lot in this dark, sweaty spectacle.

Rethinking it, examining these films has caused my mind to change. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work, while deeply varied, might not do me any good on a desert island… for it is so of this world. Its stronghold is there without escapism or uplift. If his art is an antidote for existing side-by-side with other humans in a world that is essentially flawed, in isolation I would hardly benefit. Fassbinder so powerfully portrays the pain of living in society, day after day. And while I’m here, and not stuck alone on a beach, his movies can be my company.

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