Profiles: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Here are some figures for you: 40 films, 24 stage plays, and 2 multi-hour television miniseries – all in the span of 13 years. Who is this prolific monster? That would be German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of cinematic geniuses of the 1970s.

As a teenager Fassbinder escaped an unhappy home life by taking refuge in the movie theater. There he absorbed the vocabulary and emotional language of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. As a wunderkind director in his early 20s, he would filter that mastery through his frantic, passionate lens. Working with a core group of actors, lovers, family, and various hanger-ons, he churned out films at the pace of 5 to 6 a year. Each movie emerged fully formed from his fervid imagination; it was just up to his collaborators to execute his visions – usually on the first take, and with no rehearsal.

The complicated emotional content of his films is made manifest in Fassbinder’s inimitable style. His restless camera floats and jabs throughout the frame – always on the prowl for an image or an angle that will expose the inner truth of the scene. His characters occupy worlds of texture, color, and reflection. Objects glisten with opalescent invitation even as their very physicality constricts both movement and space. When Fassbinder places his camera in a room, you can be assured that you will experience every inch of it. This restless confluence of subject and style transforms even the most banal scene into a simultaneous artistic spectacle and psychological battleground.

Most of his films can be read as earnest melodramas, vicious satires, or ironic fables; the truth lies at the center of these spheres. Fassbinder manipulates emotional responses the way Hitchcock orchestrated suspense. One scene in particular encapsulates the perfect “Fassbinder Moment.” About halfway through Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the main character, a middle-aged house cleaner, introduces her petit bourgeois children to her new boyfriend – a younger, strapping Algerian mechanic. In silence the camera pans across each of their horrified faces. Fassbinder then cuts to a master shot. He holds on the four of them for what feels like an eternity. Slowly, the eldest son wheels his chair around before suddenly exploding out of it. With three violent kicks he destroys his mother’s television set. Every time I have watched this film in a theater, the audience holds its breath in nervous anticipation only to lose their shit in a collective explosion of laughter when the son’s foot goes through the screen. Only Fassbinder could pull off a scene of such heightened emotional stakes while still allowing us the distance to recognize the savage absurdity of human relationships.

With the virtuosic fluidity of a conductor and the artisanal rigor of a master craftsman, Rainer Warner Fassbinder left for us a body of work that allows us to relish and to ridicule the complicated ways we love and destroy each other.

After personally bemoaning the paucity of Fassbinder screenings in Los Angeles over the years, the American Cinematheque is stepping up, hardcore. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of his passing, they are screening sixteen of his films from May 31st to June 14th. I offer for you a few highlights from the upcoming retrospective. If at all possible I implore you to try and see some of these films – either in theaters or on DVD. Although his popularity has faded in recent years, let us hope that this film series marks the beginning of a re-examination of his works and sparks a conversation as to his place among the great filmmakers of all time.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
Fassbinder’s first international hit. A modern update of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but here, instead of the forbidden romance between Rock Hudson’s gardener and Jane Wyman’s high society widow, we get a chiseled Algerian guest worker and his frumpy house-cleaning lover. The film channels its melodramatic precedents through a modern filter. Striking use of color, composition, and camera movement are even more astounding considering that this film was shot in only nine days. A masterpiece of world cinema and the only absolute MUST SEE of the festival. 

Fox and his Friends (1975)
A dimwitted carnival worker finds himself suddenly desired and adored after winning the lottery. The director, playing the lead character, shows us that regardless of gender or of sexual orientation, people are just as petty, selfish and cruel. Heralded at the time for its frank depiction of homosexuality the film still feels radical today, almost 40 years after its release. 

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)
Written and directed while Fassbinder and his crew were stuck in a Spanish hotel awaiting funding for a film he was to make. The “plot” follows the interpersonal dramas and love affairs of a film crew (not unlike Fassbinder’s) trapped in a Spanish hotel while their director prepares to shoot a movie. Fassbinder, in a self-aware wink, plays the long-suffering assistant to the film’s petulant director. All apologies to McCabe & Mrs Miller, but this movie features the greatest use of Leonard Cohen’s music you will ever see. Cuba Libres for all.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)
Fassbinder muses Hannah Schygulla, Margit Carstensen and Irm Hermann show how any form of sexual attraction makes us a prisoner and a victim. Possibly the funniest final shot in the history of cinema.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
This movie was the biggest financial success of his career. Tracking its heroine (Hannah Schygulla, again) from wartime impoverishment through her subsequent post-war prosperity, the movie functions as an allegory for Germany’s own “economic miracle” of the 1950s. One of Fassbinder’s many films to tackle the ambivalent relationship Germans of the 1970’s had towards their wartime involvement.

For more Profiles, view the rest of our column here. 

Sean David is the co-host of the WILL SEAN PODCAST? He is also the author of TRIUMVIRS:THREE TALES available for Kindle.

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