Rainer Werner Fassbinder died prematurely in 1982 at the age of 37. The official reason was heart failure resulting from a dangerous mix of sleeping pills and cocaine. Up until his untimely demise he was recognised as the leading light in the New German Cinema, a period of German film making that lasted from the late 1960’s into the 1980’s, which also included, amongst others, Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta and Wim Wenders and like similar movements in other countries still has a lasting influence to this day.
Fassbinder was a workaholic and rarely made less than four films a year nearly always based on his own original ideas. In his short 15 year career he completed more than 40 feature length films, two television film series, three short plays, four video productions; twenty-four stage plays, four radio plays and in his spare time took part in some 36 acting roles. He was quoted as saying that in his opinion work alleviates loneliness. He was a controversial figure and his desire to provoke and disturb was reflected in both his private life and his film work.
Christian Braad Thomsen describes this contradictory artist in his book Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius ‘He was gentle and brutal, tender and cynical, self sacrificing and egocentric; he was ruthlessly dictatorial and yet always dreamed of working in groups and collectives. He was obese, unkempt, and slovenly, went around in a leather jerkin and looked like a boozer in the bar on the corner. But when he worked with the camera and with actors, he had the grace and vitality of a ballet dancer. The ugly frog turned into a handsome prince when he was kissed, not by a princess, but by the film camera, which Fassbinder described as a holy whole’.
Fassbinder’s movies are the antidote for today’s mass-market modern cinema, films that are made only to generate large amounts of money and that strange arrogance that states no film can be good if its not popular, therefore any film that is popular must be good: bullshit. He believed that a filmmaker could work in a completely personal and uncompromising way.
All Fassbinder’s principle characters are victims of bourgeois society, which he is sharply critical of at times, and not really rebels, sitting outside the called respectable society. RWF supports the theory there are only two directions that can be taken one is fascism and the other is anarchy, most of his work can be taken to point in the direction of the latter. He advocated that there was a direct link between sex and money, in Fassbinder’s world both sex and emotions are commodities. Also within his work he portrayed violence as an expression of frustrated sexuality.
As a director he constantly provoked aggression amongst the people around him stating that ‘only when people are aggressive, does a kind of honesty come to the surface’ and at the same time loathed any kind of intellectualising.
Its obvious the more of his films you watch, the more you realise that he preferred to work with women. It was the German women that run the country while the men were away at war. When the men returned home the situation was reversed. But RWF found women more interesting and more fun to work with then men. ‘With women you can cry and scream, and make them do things while with men it easily gets boring’ But saying that an embrace between two men in many of his films is at times more passionate than the embrace between man and women?
RWF used personal incidents in his films for example in Lola (1981) we see her go to bed with her pimp on her wedding night, this mirrors what happened in 1970 when Fassbinder married the actress Ingrid Caven. On the wedding night Ingrid found the door to there bedroom locked. Inside, her new husband was in bed with Gunther Kaufmann, she was banished to the adjoining bedroom.
His films always had an erotic feel, with songs that always sound sexy sung in German. A great many of his films that have survived the test of time, in fact some have even improved over time.
One of RWF theories was that the quicker you shot a film the fresher the actors would remain allowing them no time to get complacent. This short time span was possible because he always came into a film project totally prepared. Because of the trust he had in his actors he was able to give minimal directorial instructions to his cast.
The First Phase: Avant-garde films (1969–1971)
During this period Fassbinder worked in both the theatre and film creating his own style by combining the two art forms. Usually shot with a static camera and with deliberately un-naturalistic dialog, these films are generally austere and minimalist and said to have drawn influence from the likes of Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and the theories of Brecht who used his production’s as a forum for political ideas. Three of these early films use the gangster genre to explore the criminal underworld of Munich. Praised by some, these early films proved too demanding and inaccessible for a mass audience.
Love is Colder than Death 1969
RWF first feature film was black and white and almost entirely without words and music, a film obviously influenced by the French New Wave and a film dedicated in the opening credits to Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Marie Straub, the avant-garde filmmaker, and two characters from a bizarre spaghetti western Quien Sabe (1966). This was also the first of his gangster genre, but one where the viewer has to work hard to understand the RWF’s screenplay with its minimal use of dialog.
We first see Franz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) at what looks like a normal job interview but he is being coerced into joining a crime syndicate and gets beaten up for refusing. Its here he meets the handsome but murderous Bruno (Ulli Lommel) and invites him to visit his Munich flat which Franz shares with his girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla). From the chemistry that develops between the two men we know that their relationship is more plutonic although Bruno does try it on with Joanna without raising any objection from Franz. Following a killing spree the two men plan a bank robbery that does not succeed because Joanna betrays them to the police. Bruno arranges for Joanna to be shoot but is killed in a shoot out with the police. Franz and Joanna escape together.
The RWP trademarks are already in place: the strange erotic feel, the lengthy long held shots, the facial close ups and the minimalist backdrops, with the production allowing bags of cinematic space because of its unhurried pacing. This mean and moody offering is a fine example of RWF’s early work.
The film open’s with a quote from German author and actor Yaak Karsunke ‘It is better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness’. This is RWF’s second film but the first where he describes and criticises the ‘bourgeois’ world. In a programme note RWF characterises his film as follows:
Marie belongs to Erich. Paul sleeps with Helga. Peter lets himself be kept by Elisabeth. Rosy does it with Franz for money. In the backcourt, in the pub, in their flats, they meet singly, in couples, as a group, and exchange opinions, become aggressive, get bored, piss off one another, drink. That Helga, who belongs to Paul, gets involved with his friend Erich, that Peter is fed up being bossed around by Elisabeth and works off his anger on the purchasable Rosy, that Paul sometimes goes to handsome Klaus, that Gunda is teased because she can’t get anyone, does not make any difference to the isolation of their lower-middle class suburban haunt. That’s what it’s like, that’s normal, and everything is as it should be. Only when Jorgos ‘a Greek from Greece’ (played by Fassbinder) breaks into their world and with his ‘no understand’ triggers xenophobia, potency envy, aggression against the stranger, in short, the fascist syndrome, do the men wake up, rouse themselves and beat him up. ‘Things have to be sorted out around here again’
These characters who do not pursue any meaningful activity, they all talk of sex and money, they sit, walk, play cards, smoke and drink. Just a group of bored young people who eventually take there racial bigotry out on a guest worker from Greece who rents a room from Elisabeth who is supposed to be having some great sex from this stranger on the assumption that all non indigenous people are great at sex having bigger penises. A relationship drama about how different people interact and how simple truth is twisted to suit the individual.
Gods of the Plague 1969.
This is a direct follow up to Love is Colder Than Death (1969), apparently the only time RWF made a sequel. This time Harry Baer and not RWF portray the main protagonist Franz Walsch.
Franz is released from prison and sets about looking up his old acquaintances. His first stop is the bar where girlfriend Joanna Reiher (Hanna Schygulla) works as a singer. Its obvious that she loves Franz and would do any thing to help him but he finds her far too possessive so decides to move on. Its then he meets Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta) another beautiful conquest equally supportive but far less controlling. When he meets up with Gunther, known as Gorilla, (Gunther Kaufmann) the big man informs Franz that he has killed his brother ‘because he talked’ excepting this, Franz joins with him. The pair plans to rob a supermarket. Neither realizes that Joanna Reiher is planning her revenge for being spurned.
A black and white movie that’s both raw and gritty, with a imaginative use of light and shadows from the director of photography Dietrich Lohmann. The main character seems a complete misery having very little to do or say, while Gunther Kaufmann portrayal of Gorilla is ever so slightly insane. As in other films RWF seems to be better at directing women than he does men or is it the fact that he writes them better parts? The title is to a certain extent clarified in the trailer, which states criminals are our gods and capitalism is a plague.
Its in this film that RWF films the reflection of a mirror for the first time, the symbol he was later to employ frequently, in order to express a split or a doubling.
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok! 1970.
What are the reasons for Herr R. running amok? Fassbinder makes it very clear in his drama/documentary that is almost more suited to the TV than the cinema because of its minimal sets, only venturing outside for a family walk through a snowy country landscape, the fact that most of the story is told through a series of everyday conversations between the characters.
Herr R. (Kurt Raab) is a middle class architect; along with his wife (Lilith Ungerer) and young son (Amadeus Fengler) live above their means in a well-furnished apartment. As RWF went on to disclose in The Third Generation (1979) Herr R. suffers the same bourgeois malaise that drives the ‘group’ into acts of terrorism which fulfils there obvious need for adventure and excitement, that is to say a dreary family life and boring work patterns. We see from a meeting with their old school friends (Hanna Schygulla and Peer Raben) how both Herr R. and his wife yearn for freedom, and even an escape back into childhood, something that reoccurs in Martha (1974) and Rio das Mortes (1970).
A series of situations, which individually could be coped with, but together they force Herr R. to loose control. As I have said previously his working environment is dreary and when he attends the office dinner with his wife he says things under the influence of alcohol, things he shouldn’t to his boss and co-workers. His son is not doing well at school; his wife is constantly on about promotion and extra money, although she does not go to work. And then there’s the embarrassing scene in a record shop where he tries to buy a single as a present for his wife but does not know the name of the song or the artist. Eventually returning home with the gift, his wife leads him on only to turn down his sexual advances. Even the family walk adds to Herr R’s stress levels because of the constant bickering between his mother and his wife. His migraines, which visits to the doctor don’t seem to cure, just add to his problems. But on the surface for his life is normal but anyone can have enough of ‘normality’ and turn inwards on one self.
Jointly directed by Fassbinder and Michael Fengler who also together wrote the draft that was used for the actors to improvise their dialogue. This was RWF first film in colour. It’s almost an expression of relief to both Herr R. and the films audience when the desperate and meaningless violence finally erupts. This dark satire was the second of what has been called his bourgeois films and RWF first international success. It was shot over a period of thirteen days in December 1969 in Munich and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on the 28 June 1970.
Rio das Mortes 1970
Originally made for TV and billed as a lower middle class comedy, we have a simple straightforward narrative, which involves two friends, Mike (Michael Konig) and Gunther (Gunther Kaufman) who after discovering a map want to travel to Peru to search for their fortune, but firstly they have to raise the funding for this adventure to take place which becomes quite a problem. Eventually they get to know a rather refined elderly lady who sympathises with the two dreamers and gives them the money. Played by Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, who a year before had given another dreamer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 20000 marks so that he could make his first film.
The whole business is very displeasing to Mike’s girlfriend Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) who does not want them to go.
Probably not the best of the great mans work but worth sourcing out for three scenes. The first shows a drawing of a penis on a wall with USSA written above it, the four women in front of the wall never stand still whilst taking to one another. The complete incident appears to have no logical reasoning; only this moving about while speaking is another RWF trademark. The second scene is recognisant of a similar scene found in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle in front of an open fire. We may not have an open fire but the fight that takes place between Mike and Gunther in their flat has the same reasoning: a declaration of love between two men. But the best is the scene that involves Hanna, in a very fetching red dress, and a stranger played by RWF in his familiar leather jacket that dance together to Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock playing on a jukebox in a club. When RWF goes back to his girl friend who has been watching from a stool situated in front of the bar she points that he never dances like that with her, he response by saying “And you can’t dance like that either” and then gives her a slap around the face for no particular reason, they must be in love! This is a wonderful scene where RWF makes it appear that he has not got an ounce of rhythm in his body.
The Niklashausen Journey 1970.
One night in 1476 in the German town of Niklashausen Hans Bohm, a street entertainer, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. She told him to preach the virtues of life and social equality. Bohm spoke on the sins of the secular and spiritual authorities telling 30000 peasants and pilgrims that they should not pay rents to the church and that their forced labour, tolls and levies should be denied from the rich nobles and basically all means of ‘production’ should be owned by the peasants. Bohm, not unsurprisingly, was deemed dangerous by the ruling authorities. When tens of thousands of peasants from all over Germany converged on Niklashausen to hear his speeches which resulted in a peasant revolt, the authorities put our ancient revolutionary on trail for that grand crime of heresy and burnt him at the stake on July 19th 1476 only a few short months after he had his vision.
It was this story that was the starting point for RWF’s movie. His film was not based on the Hollywood movies of his childhood but the more contemporary revolutionary cinema for example Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha and his film Black God, White Devil (1964) although the film does remind me of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky best known for his avant-garde films with their surreal images and their blend of mysticism and religious provocation.
RWF adapted the original story and set it in the present, although some of the characters do appear in period dress and we get the insertion of message about the death of two Black Panthers. This time Bohm (Michael Konig), after his vision and accompanied by a group of friend, go to stay at the house of a rich woman whose husband is dying. We see him preaching against wealthy landowners and the church, threatening the very stability of the Bishop. Johanna (Hanna Schygulla) agrees to appear in public as the Virgin Mary supporting Bohm’s proposals for a utopian world of equality and fairness. He calls for the people to form cooperatives, nationalisation and the end to free enterprise. Asking the question, that does really deserve an answer in the light of modern politics ‘why does one person work so that another can have all the fun’ But similar to the original folk tale he is burnt at the stake but now its followed by an armed revolutionary shoot out. A wonderfully meaningful film.
The American Soldier 1970.
This is RWF’s German New Wave film noir and his last and most perfect gangster film. A film on two levels, depending how the viewer interprets RWF script, is he saying that the authorities in the form of a corrupt police force are as bad as the criminals they certainly look and act no different from gangsters or is it RWF’s way of showing how the German public see Americans; good in bed, attractive, violent and extensively cool?
When three of Munich guardians of the law hire an ex Vietnam veteran, the American Ricky, played by German actor Karl Scheydt, to kill people that they can’t get away with, all hell breaks loose. Again excellent use of minimalist lighting and close up face shots especially in the card game scene at the beginning of the film where RWF jacks up the tension while the card players, who turn out to be policeman, await the hired killers arrival from America. This melodrama and the films so far go a little over the top with violence towards women.
Something the film is said to imply is that violence is an expression of frustrated love, where sexual intercourse is substituted by murder, and emotions are seen as a weakness in fact shown to have been the reason for Ricky’s death. RWP has a great love of Hollywood, particularly for the Hollywood of his childhood and it can be seen in this film, although he does present his own personnel take on the gangster genre.
Beware of a Holy Whore 1970
The film has a motto ‘pride comes before a fall’ and also includes a quote from Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kroger ‘I tell you, I’m often tired to death of portraying humanity, without being part of humanity…
The first part of Fassbinder’s film career concludes with what is deemed a merciless self-criticism and ‘reflects on the relationship between ends and means and about the potential of film art in the fight for social change’ and it also marks the end of his avant-garde period. This bluntly autobiographical film deals with the interaction of a group of people whose tensions and conflicts lead them into chaotic situations in fact the relationship between a film crew and its domineering director.
In a seedy seaside hotel in Spain a film team await the arrival of its director, the main star and the money supplied by the state supported film agency. The unique atmosphere is a mix of hysteria, apathy, hope, arguing, jealousy and various on location affairs and sexual intrigues. Finally the director Jeff (Lou Castel) flies in accompanied by the star Eddie Constantine playing himself who despite being much older than the other members of the cast and crew gets close to the actress Hanna (Hanna Schygulla). Along with his production manager, Sascha played by Fassbinder, Jeff attempts to get the shooting organised in his own authoritarian manner and dealing with the egos on set.
RWF ploughs the experience of eight previous feature films into this brilliant piece of self-mockery with its instances from these earlier films with references to places, clothing and even lines and music. The only criticism of the film is that Fassbinder should have played Jeff the manic director himself instead of the production manager. RWP has been quoted as saying that at the time he was only capable of acting unsympathetically. Had he taken the lead it would have been too much for the audience: but I think he was wrong.
 Interview with Christian Braad Thomsen 1975.
 The sensual Hannah Schygulla starred in 20 Fassbinder film productions, retaining her professional ties to the director despite frequent and increasingly violent personal and professional disagreements.
 The name Fassbinder uses to edit his films.
 Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann collaborated with Fassbinder on eight feature films.
 The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius Christian Braad Thomson.
 Violence against woman is explained away by Fassbinder ‘that with love, there’s got to be pain’.
 The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius Christian Braad Thomson.