Hello Cruel World

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life in pieces

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1978, during the filming of Despair. Rudolf Dietrich/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy.

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors. By Ian Penman. New York: Semiotext(e), 2023. 200 pages.

PICTURE THIS: Camera slowly panning across shelves littered with dog-eared paperbacks, soiled scripts, handwritten corrections, framed stills, loose pills. A copy of Ian Penman’s Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors (a book of personal notes on—to?—the late director) unobtrusively propped up amongst a slightly phantasmagorical recreation of the filmmaker’s last living quarters. Two or three televisions going in every empty room. News headlines and obituaries (“RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER, 37, FILM MAKER, DEAD”) flash between barrages of clips from his forty-plus movie and TV productions playing in the background.

Art directives: Full ashtrays, empty bottles, coke dust on the furniture, dirty clothing on the floor, images so visceral and precise you can just about smell the cigarette butts, taste the residual puke on the leather jacket, trace the mottled cumstains on the couch like braille. (Insert: Hanna Schygulla, the star RWF molded to play Marlene Dietrich to his Josef von Sternberg, recalling: “He had a strong smell about him. He smelled how he looked. Like a spotty rebel filled with angst.”)

Elevator pitch: Cabaretcum–“Sister Ray.”

Story arc: “He starts in the late 1960s with a bare room and an idea of theater and the arrangement of the bodies of several friends. Anti-theatre, he called it: agitational, precise, make-do, basic, utopian. He ends up entangled in an early-1980s constellation of multimedia . . . and a morose kind of nonstop 24/7 chemical dependence.”

Marquee moon: Fassbinder’s titles hit you like a headbutt: Love Is Colder Than Death, Beware of a Holy Whore, Gods of the Plague, Chinese Roulette, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear Eats the Soul, Despair, Satan’s Brew, I Only Want You to Love Me. 

First-Person, Third Man: Penman’s book is a voice-over that winds and rewinds “certain moments in films that haunt you for the rest of your life . . .” How Fassbinder’s films imprint themselves, “become engraved deep inside you.” Like some inside-out, full-body-and-soul penal colony tattoo, each film a segment in a serpentine pattern that devours complacency and well-being one beautiful/unbearable suture at a time.

Fast product: A Thousand Mirrors is only two hundred pages long, written in a short burst to emulate the filmmaker’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later process. Aiming for the revelatory velocity that let Fassbinder turn out three or four features a year. Yet this meditation on Fassbinder’s scorched-earth life and aesthetics had been germinating for four decades: an obituary for an unwritten obituary.

Shock corridors: It’s a trance, a fugue state of mind. Drifting through personal back alleys and intellectual boulevards à la the wanderings of Walter Benjamin and Geoff Dyer. A maze of epigrams, aphorisms (“Aren’t all masks death masks?”), anecdotes, and numbered fragments. An exquisitely companionable guidebook-inventory of a vast, intimate mental space Penman dubs the Fassbundesrepublik.

Funhaus: Fassbinder’s worlds—on-screen, on set, and in “real life”—were built on power plays and naked abjection. Septic histories and ugly memories. Reservoirs of tears overrun with crocodiles. Formalist gestures and throwaway conceits. Mirrors, mirrors everywhere: The book redoubles the reflections, a party in Penman’s head where Fassbinder corrals Douglas Sirk, Brecht, Godard, Artaud, Samuel Fuller, Gerhard Richter, Jean Genet, and Jean Genie. “Broken English” on the stereo. Let’s play a game of truth or despair . . . 

It’s a condition: RWF here represents “Something you can’t defend yourself against.” A corrosive dream of modernism, a self-curated mythology of dissolute genius, a world-historical sense of petulant entitlement, an unsparing self-exposure wrapped in societal-ideological exposés. A symbiotic entanglement you can’t sever—none of that separating the artist from the art song-and-dance here.

Shot by both sides: Not to mention a hard-edged meeting of queerness and class consciousness that makes current iterations of Intersectionality look like the ladies’ garden club luncheon in The Manchurian Candidate.“Problematic” is his raison d’être; it is the aesthetic. Because life itself is inevitably a vale of betrayal, love being especially fraught in the cruelty, deception, and projection department. The personal infects the political as much as the reverse. 

Boredom: “If I ever bore you, it’ll be with a knife,” Louise Brooks once said, a line that sums up almost about every Fassbinder movie. RWF constantly employed Brechtian distancing devices to put the strange in estrangement, piercing our defenses of “relating to” and “identifying with” characters, situations. It is the feeling that the world’s a film stage and everyone on it is standing on a trapdoor. Fassbinder’s hand is on the lever and Death is in the wings, waiting for a cue. 

Personality crisis: Penman rather brilliantly embraces the Fassbinder segment in Germany in Autumn (1978) as the epitome of the man and his paradoxes; it’s a tour de force of let-it-all-hang-out psychodrama cut with the politics of depredation and exhaustion. Fassbinder prowls his apartment like a cocaine bear, strung out on angst and paranoia. It’s supposed to be about the political crisis in Germany but becomes a portrait of a private meltdown. Somehow its disjunction connects to the pathos of a person and a society, each on the verge of psychotic breaks.

Anti-Edifice: Whatever form enlightened bourgeois respectability assumed, Fassbinder was against it. Anti-masterpiece. Anti-idealization. Anti-closure. Anti-uplift. Anti-moralism. Anti-transcendence. Anti-complacency. Anti-exceptionalism. Anti-hope. But nonetheless he skillfully gamed the System and hustled the money to make forty-some movies (on a scale of dirt cheap to economy-classy) and the fifteen-hour TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Anarchic, uncompromising, sure, but practical, ingenious—he would have wormed his way into HBO and Netflix.

Damaged goods: I love that Penman is drawn to the earlier misfires or oddities—they speak to him more intensely than the canonical, internationally recognized films. (Even as these later successes mock their prestigious trappings in multiple ways.) They’re all so unsettled, tonally dissonant, lacking in boundaries. (The later ones just tend to be less in-your-face about their primal incongruity.) No one made films so one-sided and single-minded and yet shot through with as many question marks and countermining gestures.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, role model: What does that mean in the book’s context? (What could that mean in any context?) Penman discovered Fassbinder’s work after moving to London in the mid-1970s to be a music journalist. The director—already something of a self-authored legend—struck him as “Incautious, unfettered, improper, untethered. But also . . . getting the work done.” (Italics his.)

Autodidactic: Fassbinder’s appetite for self-education and -destruction turned his films into learning laboratories. Penman saw all the high and low tracks of the previous century’s undergrounds converging in a breakneck pile-up of unreconciled trauma. If that isn’t an education, what is?

Cracked spectacles: Penman invokes a Guy Debord film title as though it were an ancient coin dredged from a wishing well. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. (“We go round and round in the night, consumed by fire.”) There he’s found the secret motto of Fassbinder’s peripatetic destiny/fallacy: Leave no cobblestone unturned, no bridge unburned.

Best Pictures: The book notes that when John Waters was asked to name his favorite films of the 1970s, he listed fourteen Fassbinder titles. Penman doesn’t say if that list was exclusively Fassbinder, but as Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” put it, “I like to think so.”

“Difficult to assimilate”: A Thousand Mirrors doesn’t try to solve the contradictions of its subject but lays them out like a suit and inhabits them. Live awhile in the tatters. Make yourself at home in a perpetually divided consciousness. Embrace the trauma. Caress the triggers.

Where it all didn’t go wrong: There was a method to his insanely self-medicated productivity, a Faustian bargain that left behind a colossal, impossible body of work and a bloated corpse. So Penman’s only a little surprised that RWF hasn’t quite become an LGBTQ+ household saint; his artistic persona reeks of fatalism and malicious intentions.

That essence rare: Penman summons the zeit and geist of one whose movies are like unprotected sex or unlabeled drugs—chasing catharsis, hiding from it, catching a fleeting taste or shriveling into a ball of misery and doubt. Movies that play out like all-night knockdown drag-out fights inside your throbbing head. Movies that feel like a dose of homeopathic detox, make you question your loves and desires, make you want to crawl under a rock and decay there. Movies that flash with exhilarating ordinariness and inscrutable imagination. Movies that never let you have the last word.