The 28th European Union Film Showcase, at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, features two documentaries about queer filmmakers—Sergei Eisenstein and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—as part of this year’s program.
“Escaping Riga” is Davis Simanis Jr.’s clever experimental film that contrasts the lives of Riga natives Sergei Eisenstein (Gints Grube) and Isaiah Berlin (Mihails Karasikovs) who left their Latvian port city for greater glory. Shot in luminous black and white, and using an mélange of recreations, animation, and archive footage, this film traces the familial, scholastic, political, professional, romantic and experiential influences that shaped both men and their work.
For Eisenstein, his unhappiness with his family (his parents fought) and his obsession with a suicide guidebook informed his worldview. He is seen shooting silent films as well as scenes from his masterpieces, “Battleship Potemkin” (which Berlin screens in one vignette), and “Alexander Nevsky” where he shoots summer for winter.
There is also Eisenstein’s sojourn to America, where he plays tennis with Charlie Chaplin, and to Mexico, where he is said, in the film’s only acknowledgment of Eisenstein’s homosexuality, to have had an affair with his assistant Grigori Alexandrov. (Peter Greenaway’s fabulous, forthcoming “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” imagines a far more erotic sexuality for the filmmaker).
If Simanis’ film is slight (at 69 minutes) and episodic, it is more of an impressionistic mosaic than any conventional biopic. Nevertheless, it is interesting to have this oblique assessment of Eisenstein’s life.
“Fassbinder: To Love without Demands,” by the Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen, is a more traditional documentary. Thomsen describes meeting Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, when the German director’s “Love is Colder Than Death” was booed at its screening. Thomsen then uses interviews from Berlin as well as a rare, unseen interview with Fassbinder that he shot at Cannes a few years later to flesh out a portrait of the tireless director, his themes, influences and work during his short but astonishing career.
In the interviews, Fassbinder explains how he is not interested in Hollywood films, but he does have an interest in the work of Douglas Sirk, whom he invites over for dinner one night. He talks about his childhood, and his life with his mother, Lilo Pempeit, who often played unsympathetic characters in his films.
Other performers who are interviewed at length include actors Irm Hermann, Harry Baer, and Andrea Schober, who performed as a child in several Fassbinder films. Their comments are insightful as they describe the director’s personality on set and off, and his interest in having children, his lovers—many of whom became actors in his films—and even his thoughts on sadomasochism and death.
Fassbinder himself makes some candid remarks, as when he claims that homosexuality in cinema can only be done incorrectly, citing the impossibility of making something pleasing to everyone.
Thomsen breaks the director’s ideas and themes down into chapters, to put German politics and society, Fassbinder’s experience and his films into context. If the result is mostly of interest to film buffs—it may be a bit dry for those unfamiliar with the director and his work—“Fassbinder: To Love without Demands” will certainly spark interest in seeing (or re-watching) the remarkable German filmmaker’s extraordinary output.
The 28th European Union Film Showcase runs December 1-20. More info here.