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The Beauty and Brutality of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as Told by François Ozon and Hanna Schygulla

Ozon's scorching new film "Peter von Kant" is a quasi-remake of Fassbinder's 1972 "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" and a searching study of a troubled director's life and work.

Peter von Kant

“Peter von Kant”

Peter von Kant

Rainer Werner Fassbinder died as he lived: at many frames per second. The cinephile’s errand of trying to watch everything the German filmmaker made in his lifetime, from all 10 hours of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” to more modestly scaled melodramas like “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” often feels like an act of running in place. Reports of his “contradictory” and “complex” nature reveal what we already know: He was a self-medicating, workaholic perfectionist who drove himself into the ground, completing more than 40 films in his short life, and died because of it. He also did not believe in love, or so say his latest collaborators in absentia, director François Ozon and Fassbinder’s longtime muse Hanna Schygulla.

Ozon has made his best film in years with “Peter von Kant,” one that will be seen by few but relished by all who do. The movie is both a response to and a sort-of remake of “The Bitter Tears,” about a sadistic fashion designer’s taste for demeaning those who try to love her. Here, Ozon has gender-flipped that lead, centering his movie on a megalomaniacal film director (Denis Menochet, who has a physical resemblance to Fassbinder at least in this movie) who vampirically sucks the joie de vivre up out of anyone in his fray, from his uncannily devoted assistant Karl (Stefan Crepon) to the beautiful boy he loves and is determined to make a star (Khalil Ben Gharbia).

This entire 80-minute movie takes place inside Peter von Kant’s apartment, where he’s visited by the likes of legendary diva singer Sidonie (Isabelle Adjani, herself a legendary diva) and his estranged mother (played by Schygulla, one of the Fassbinder women who also starred in “Bitter Tears”). “Peter von Kant” is both an agonized cry from a director’s soul and an answer to Ozon’s own obsession with Fassbinder, which dates back to the French director’s debut feature, “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” itself an adaptation of a Fassbinder play.

IndieWire spoke with Ozon, out of France, and Schygulla, out of Germany, about this wonderful movie that should not be missed by Fassbinder fans.

“In the ’80s, the big star of German cinema was Wim Wenders, and I was not a big fan of him, but I discovered Fassbinder, and I fell in love,” said Ozon. “For me, it was so powerful. For me very often, his movies were funny. I laughed alone in the cinema, because he was so honest, so lucid, showing the reality with such honesty. It was quite shocking. All the German directors escaped from Germany. Fassbinder was the only one who was proud enough to show that all the Germans were trying to forget what happened during the second world war.”

Indeed, Fassbinder’s movies have an alienating Brechtian quality, and with his remake of “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” Ozon wanted to attach more flesh and blood to the film’s characters in his pursuit of a story about the destructive, egotistical powers of art-making.

“I knew many stories about his way of working, the fact that he was very cruel with his actors and actresses, some of his lovers committed suicide. I knew all these things. But for me, what was important was his body of work. I make a separation between the man and the director, and I wanted to focus on the director. At the same time, a director can be a monster, but I wanted to show that,” Ozon said.

“He was a difficult person, OK, but he was a very complex person, filled with all kinds of contradictions, like any of us but to an extreme extent,” said Schygulla, who starred in Fassbinder’s many post-1970 melodramas like “Bitter Tears” and “The Marriage of Maria Braun.” She had a torturous time dealing with his mercurial nature, and they had to take some years apart after the making of 1974’s “Effi Briest.” “You bust my balls,” Fassbinder allegedly told her. The gay filmmaker is said to have beaten his lovers, of which Schygulla does not seem to have been one, and left his collaborators in anguish.

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, (aka DIE BITTEREN TRANEN DER PETRA VON KANT), Hanna Schygulla, 1972

Hanna Schygulla in “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”

Courtesy Everett Collection

“There was some kind of magnetism between us,” said Schygulla, who knew Fassbinder’s mother well enough to embody a version of her for “Peter von Kant.” “I don’t know what she had, but it was a weakness of the lungs, or tuberculosis. The mother was mainly absent. She always had to be taken care of in special hospitals.”

For Schygulla, “Peter von Kant” is a very different beast than “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” in which she played the Pygmalion object of desire Karin, here reimagined as the gorgeous Amir (Gharbia) whom Peter becomes fascinated by into making a movie star. And then, of course, Amir leaves him, sending Peter reeling on a destructive alcohol-laced tear.

“He was a very potent filmmaker, but the Fassbinder version was of course a creation, and it had more of a special aroma because the characters, at that time, were not realistic. There was more of a dream quality,” Schygulla said.

“You don’t need to be a monster if you want to be a genius,” Ozon said, reflecting on Fassbinder’s legacy of debasing his actors. He died at age 37, drugged to the gills on a cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates. In “Peter von Kant,” Peter is a menace and his own worst enemy, treating everyone in his orbit like absolute shit for the sake of creating another great film.

“Journalists think when you make a film, you don’t live. But your life is more important when you’re making a film than when you’re in your everyday life,” Ozon said. “Your life and your work can be mixed. That’s what I show in the film. For a director, everything is together.”

Films and life mix together, but for Fassbinder it’s possible his films were keeping him alive. “There is a legend about Fassbinder saying he died because he made so many movies,” Ozon said. “We talked a lot with Hanna Schygulla about that, and she said, no, he didn’t die because of the films. He died because he didn’t believe in love. He had films to survive. They helped him to survive until 37 years old. It’s not the films that killed me. It was his despair with regard to love. That’s what killed him. Not the films. Films don’t kill.”

“Peter von Kant” is now in theaters from Strand Releasing.

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