Maverick German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a source of eternal fascination to us round here (check out our retrospective from a few years back), and as this Berlinale title, directed by Fassbinder’s long-time friend, Danish film theorist and producer Christian Braad Thomsen, makes manifest in the most clear-eyed, intelligent and witty manner, it’s a fascination that is not misplaced.
In “Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands,” Thomsen presents previously unseen interview footage he himself recorded with Fassbinder throughout their fifteen-year friendship, which spans exactly the length of his career — their first encounter was at the Berlinale in 1969 where Fassbinder’s debut was famously booed (you can hear the cries of “Awful!” and “Shame!” on the archive footage), and their last was just three weeks before his untimely death. Interspersing that primary source material with current-day interviews with other Fassbinder confederates, and with his own recollections of the man and his theories on his work, Thomsen builds a fascinating film around a fascinating man, but never, despite his evident deep affection for him, allows it to fall into hagiography.
Dividing the film thematically into chapters, each headed with a relevant Fassbinder quote, Thomsen wisely avoids trying to give a comprehensive overview of his filmography. Indeed, with the director’s famously prodigious work rate (40 features, 24 stage plays, two entire TV shows including the massive “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” not to mention shorts and various acting appearances, in less than 15 years), we’re not too sure that would even be possible. So ‘To Love Without Demands’ is not designed as a bluffer’s guide to a daunting body of work. Clips are fairly short, and used only to illustrate Thomsen’s ideas and theories about the man, so there are many films that don’t even get a look in, but the bigger movies are all here — from his controversial debut “Love is Colder Than Death,” to “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant,” “Martha” “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” “Effie Briest,” “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and more.
The revealing interviews show a man whose working practices and personal motivations were a mystery to even himself, but one he was happy to investigate. He had mercurial relationships with his collaborators — the “families” he was constantly seeking to establish, but whom he would mostly alienate. He had torrid hetero and homosexual love affairs that led directly, Thomsen asserts, to one suicide attempt (related slightly incredulously by the very woman involved, Fassbinder’s early muse/creation/lover/self-confessed “slave,” Irm Hermann) and to one actual suicide. He had a fraught relationship with his mother, whose recorded voice we hear confessing to her sense of guilt and betrayal at the end of the Nazi era in Germany; Thomsen suggests that Fassbinder making her into an actress and constantly having her play the most morally degraded character was his “punishment” for her tacit, unthinking endorsement of the Nazi regime. But then again, there is also a seriously Oedipal angle to his view of her, which Fassbinder confesses to in an extended bit about incest that is as frank and hilarious as it is uncomfortable. And he also had a thorny, contradictory relationship to the Women’s Lib movement: “Women provoke their own oppression,” he states in one excerpt, “and then they use it as a tool to terrorize.” It’s a twisty, knotted notion that means his “women’s pictures” still now defy interpretation as simple empowerment narratives.
In fact, there was nothing simple about Fassbinder. That comes across in his own interviews, in Thomsen’s voiceover, and in the talking head clips of a few of his actors today. These men and women, now at retirement age or so, sit unglamorized at kitchen tables and relate the most outrageous stories of Fassbinder’s warmth, his obnoxiousness, his inspiration, his cruelty. But they all seem certain, like Thomsen too, how lucky they were to have warmed their hands against the fire of his ceaseless creative genius, even though it sometimes burned them badly.
The film’s only real flaw is its slight over-length and an over-reliance on one particular interview that Thomsen conducted with a clearly exhausted Fassbinder in Cannes in 1974. The director is uncharacteristically rambling and repetitive, but we can understand Thomsen’s indulgence: recently rediscovering this footage must have felt like being reunited with his friend for a while. And a reunion is what Thomsen, so laudably unsentimental in the main, longs for at the close of the film — relating a dream in which he discovers that Fassbinder faked his death and is now ready to come back and resume his work. It’s a dream that is untenable, of course, but with ‘To Love Without Demands,’ Thomsen comes as close to realizing it as the documentary form allows, and gives Fassbinder back to the world, and to his ever-growing fanbase, for just a little while. [B+]