Fassbinder Reexamined: Desperate Acts of Love, Sex, and Friendship
by Howard Feinstein
By now, everybody knows that Todd Haynes modeled "Far From Heaven" on "All That Heaven Allows," a super-stylized, Technicolor melodrama directed for Universal by Douglas Sirk in 1956. Adding then-taboo subjects of interracial and gay love, Haynes honors Sirk by meticulously shooting the film as if Sirk were making it back then. Sirk ends with a contrived happy ending: Upper-middle class widow Jane Wyman returns to younger gardener Rock Hudson (prostrate due to an accident) in his restored barn. Haynes, though, leaves Julianne Moore all by herself at the conclusion of his film. The late Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German like Sirk, also adapted "All That Heaven Allows" into the 1973 "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," but his version is less reverential and is firmly placed in a contemporary German context. Now that Wellspring is releasing 16 features and two shorts by Fassbinder on video and DVD, and New York's Film Forum is presenting them in 35mm (with four additional titles) to launch a 12-city North American tour, a new generation can see the work of arguably the most seminal European filmmaker since Godard.
In "Ali," the woman is an older widow, but unlike Wyman or Moore, she is a dumpy, wrinkled cleaning lady; the younger man is a hunky, decades-younger Moroccan "guest worker" who barely speaks German. The movie closes with the quarreling couple reunited by Ali's hospital bed -- ironically, as in Sirk. "This is the kind of thing Douglas Sirk makes movies about," Fassbinder wrote about "All That Heaven Allows" in 1971. "People can't live alone, but they can't live together either. This is why his movies are so desperate."
Desperate! Fassbinder's complete oeuvre smacks of desperation. One of the two films he made in English is called "Despair" (1977), from the Nabokov novel. (He shot an incredible 41 features made between 1969 and 1982, when he died at 37 from the effects of obesity and years of drug and alcohol abuse.) His first feature, the low-budget, black-and-white "Love Is Colder Than Death" (1969) is marked by jealousy, treachery, and murder, as is his last, "Querelle" (1982), his other English-language picture (with thwarted sexual desire in that mix). Love, sex, and friendship are oppressive tools in Fassbinderland.
Cruelty always raises its ugly head. "Fox and His Friends" (1975) incorporates layers upon layers of subjugation, both personal and public. It opens with a billboard advertising Fox the Talking Head, significantly played by Fassbinder, a commodity who performs before crowds in a carnival. After his partner in the act (and male lover) gets carted away by the cops, the poor, subliterate Fox has nowhere to go. Even his sister refuses to help. An older, well-connected gay man introduces him to his younger, disapproving pals. But Fox wins the lottery, and, in an abrupt about-face, the same men exploit him mercilessly. He pulls power trips on them as well: Fassbinder eschewed political correctness long before the phrase was coined. The film concludes as it began, with a lingering close-up of Fox, let's just say under unpleasant circumstances.
Fassbinder the man was by all accounts difficult. This only child of a loveless marriage between cultured middle-class parents who divorced when he was young and let him do whatever he wished acted out his personal dramas in his films (figuratively and literally: he couldn't stay out of his movies, usually to their detriment). He felt ugly. He felt unloved. He felt used by his team of actors and technicians. He said he was afraid of fear itself. (One title: the 1975 "Fear of Fear.") He was obnoxiously aggressive. He created havoc all around him, at film festivals, on the road, on the set. He abused his lovers, of both sexes but mostly male: He forced two of his women to prostitute themselves so he would have the time to write scripts; two of his male lovers committed suicide. And it's all there, in the work, making every spectator complicit in his therapy. We are like the audience that gapes at Fox the Talking Head.
A high-school dropout and self-described loner, Fassbinder spent much of his youth at the movies. His two shorts, from 1965 (he co-stars in one) and his early features are buff films with multiple movie references, genre pictures about lowlifes that riff on film noir and French gangster flicks. During this period, he studied drama in his native Munich and got involved in alternative Action-Theater, which became the Antiteater. Both were collectives, at least until the persistent Fassbinder pushed his way into a position of leadership. (No wonder that his early features also have a stagey quality; in the 1969 Katzelmacher, characters exit and enter stage left and right.) Yet many of the actors who worked with him in the anti-establishment plays that were in vogue at the time stayed with him until the end, some remaining actors, others allowing him to mold them into set designers, composers, assistant directors, and production managers -- of maximum use for him.
He bullied them mercilessly. He lays it out in "Beware of a Holy Whore" (1971), a nihilistic "Day for Night," in which an authoritarian director shooting in a Spanish villa screams incessantly at cast and crew, most terrifyingly after feeling hurt. In point of fact, Fassbinder was frustratingly in love with one of his actors, a married man who evidently played ping-pong with his emotions on set. Life and art and imitation and all that. Here, by the way, Fassbinder plays the production manager, whose nastiness has seeped down from the director, Jeff, oddly enough played by the handsome actor, Lou Castel, who bears no physical resemblance to Fassbinder.
Around this time, Fassbinder, who had shot six features in 1969 alone, saw a retrospective of Sirk's films and drove to Switzerland to meet the retired director. From that point on, his aesthetic strategies shifted. He kept the theatricality, the posturing, the endless stares, but began to exaggerate lighting, costumes, props to comment on characters, as Sirk had. He maintained a sense of theatrical artifice, but transformed it to such a degree that these films can be read as campy, provoking giggles if you want to go there.
The over-the-top "Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1973) is shot in one room, its all-female, constrictingly costumed cast often posturing for so long that they resemble more and more the nude mannequins standing all around. In "The Merchant of Four Seasons" (1973), a ne'er-do-well (in the eyes of his bourgeois family, anyway) hawks fruits from a cart, sometimes stopping his courtyard turns and doing nothing. While at the kitchen sink, his wife stands and stares at him sitting at the table, sometimes right into the camera. He ends up drinking himself to death in a bar, while his buddies and crying wife look at him without moving a muscle. It doesn't take long for her to pull herself together: Immediately after the funeral, she makes a live-in arrangement with her spouse's best friend and employee. Nastiness is a constant in Fassbinder's work.
Nowhere is this clearer than in his most gorgeous film, "Chinese Roulette" (1976), a variety show of circular camera movements and reflective surfaces. (How he managed to move his crew around is a mystery, though the fact that he almost never shot with synch sound made it easier, as in the baroque style of Visconti, who could do this in dub-loving Italy.) The first part of the film sets up the characters, an upper-class couple and their crippled preteen daughter, her mute caretaker, the parents' respective lovers, and the old woman and twisted son who maintain the family's spacious country villa. The calculating daughter, whom the mother openly despises, sets up an embarrassing scenario: Mom and Dad arrive separately on the same weekend with their playmates. The manipulative daughter follows and orchestrates a truth game for all. With nasty metaphors and degrading similes, the girl's team goads the hurt mother into a near-homicide -- but not at the target we are led to expect. Fassbinder does not let us off easily.
The fact that he exposes the worst in people so openly reveals, to this writer at least, a deep love for humanity, an idealism born of disappointment in the society that he feels made them that way. By the mid-'70s, his films were moving into a more overtly political direction, playing out torturous relationships against a larger canvas. He told interviewers that he wanted to merge his subjectivity with an objective view of the world around him. This was at a time when the Red Army Faction in Germany kidnapped and murdered an industrialist, the government trampled on citizens' rights in response, and the radical leaders were found dead, supposedly suicides, in their jail cells. He laid out the contradictions on both sides.
Irresponsible political acts are pointless, he felt. In "Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven" (1975), an old, apolitical woman, whose husband had spontaneously killed his factory boss and himself, becomes a pawn for a wealthy Communist couple, then for an immature anarchist. (The film has a logical tragic ending, except in the sentimental American version, naturally.) He satirizes such radicals in the 1979 "Third Generation."
That same year he began a trilogy that searched for the roots of such political chaos, which he located in both Nazism and the Economic Miracle that defined a resilient postwar Germany, especially during the '50s. No radicals inhabit these films, rather representatives of a shortsighted government that has rearmed itself and allowed money-grubbers to guide the nation into an unjust free-market economy. His characters still exploit and abuse one another, but now they do it in the name of the federal republic.
Fassbinder had announced in 1977 that he was leaving Germany for Hollywood -- he didn't, though he did try unsuccessfully to cast Lana Turner in a film-so it's not so strange that these, his most political films, are his most accessible. Over-the-top mannerisms are still there, but the pacing is swifter, the production values greater. The first in the trilogy, "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1979), was one of his most popular. The film begins with the hasty marriage of Maria (Fassbinder favorite Hanna Schygulla) to a departing soldier and follows her rapid climb up the corporate ladder, her body her major means of advancement; only later does she learn that men have been guiding her fate all along. The second film is "Lola" (1981), an updated "Blue Angel," the story of a prostitute/singer who disguises herself as an aristocrat to seduce the highly moral new building inspector into lowering his standards: Her newly rich developer lover needs permission to construct something noxious. Bracketing the films is a portrait of '50s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (Germany's pablum, comparable to our Eisenhower), with a kitschy German folk song on the soundtrack.
The third is his penultimate movie, "Veronika Voss," also made in 1981. Based on the true story of German actress Sybille Schmitz, a drug addict who committed suicide in the early '50s, the film was shot in pristine black and white, but a far cry from that of the early grainy works. Veronika is a washed-up film actress who had been popular in Nazi Germany and has become a morphine addict dependent upon a greedy woman doctor. In one sequence, Veronika goes to the cinema and watches herself in an old film. Fassbinder himself sits directly behind her, leaning forward, gazing at Veronika the woman and Veronika the thespian at the same time. There Fassbinder the filmmaker, Fassbinder the performer, and Fassbinder the man overlap to a mind-boggling degree. Of course, it had really been that way since the beginning.