IF EVER A FILMMAKER’S life and work are a cri de coeur for psychological scrutiny, it is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s. Both the title and chapter headings of Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands indicate that Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen takes this plea seriously. At the heart of his revelatory documentary, which he also narrates, is an interview he conducted with Fassbinder in 1978 during the Cannes Film Festival where Fassbinder’s Despair was featured—an interview which Thomsen says he “dared not watch” for thirty years. Visibly depleted, Fassbinder sits, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, rambling from abstract generalities to startling confessions, as earnestness vies with performance. One struggles to reconcile the needy child of “possibly indifferent” parents with the willful boy who resisted authority, as one does to separate the man desperate to be understood from the skeptic convinced that no one understands anyone, that all feelings are manipulated and all relationships are power struggles.
Whatever once made him wary of this interview, Thomsen eventually realized that beyond the fog was a goldmine—as if he had rediscovered a long-lost psychoanalytic session with a patient whose apparent maundering contained more truths than he suspected. It’s no surprise then that everything in Thomsen’s documentary expands on these impressions—from film clips, to an earlier interview with Fassbinder and recent ones with actors who worked with him. While Thomsen does not cover the entire career, he has constructed a moving, nuanced, and unsettling portrait of his friend.
After completing a few short films, Fassbinder hit the screen running in 1969 with Love Is Colder than Death, a stylized effort to “reinvent the cinema,” Thomsen opines, which, though it won Best Film, was roundly booed at the Berlin Film Festival. Over the next thirteen years—in addition to staging and sometimes acting in plays—Fassbinder directed nearly sixty theatrical and television movies, a rate of production unparalleled in film history, and terminated only by his death at age thirty-seven in 1982. Speculations as to whether he died from cocaine and barbiturates, sheer exhaustion, or an overdose of sleeping pills seemed almost beside the point in light of his suicidal compulsion to keep working—the “only thing,” he once said, that made him feel “that [he] existed.” Was it an effort to distract himself from the emotional fallout of his childhood? Or to compensate for his tortured affairs? Or to punish himself for the wretched fates to which he drove ex-lovers? All true and all grist for the mill.
As reams of articles, interviews, and personal accounts attest, Fassbinder used and misused nearly everyone with whom he worked professionally, most of them victims of the same postwar generational malaise, seducing them into playing out a perverse “family romance” via the “anti-theater” group he formed. He acted out his own sadomasochistic tendencies by deliberately provoking theirs—both on and off screen—only to reject them in the end, fully spent, as so many discarded props of his films and his ego. He was, in short, a tyrant, a narcissist, and a genius—and he’d be the first to acknowledge all three. How else to describe an artist whose grandiose ambition was “to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theater, Marx for politics, and Freud for psychology—someone after whom nothing is as it used to be.”
Thomsen was initially struck by the “poetic” texts of such films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Effi Briest (1974), which contradicted his childhood impression—formed by the Nazi occupation of Denmark—that German was the language of soldiers, judges, and executioners. With clips from those films and others, he illustrates how Fassbinder wove his biography and experiences into the fabric of each work, constructing an accumulated image of West German life from the 1950s to the ’70s remarkably in tune with social and political reality. This was no small part of his genius. In Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier (both 1970), considered amateur efforts to ape Hollywood’s gangster genre, the gangster and the cop are two sides of an “ailing society,” both doing a “dirty job.” Though a relentless social critic, Fassbinder was never aligned with extreme left-wing groups like Baader-Meinhof, which he believed resorted to the same fascist tactics as those they opposed. For him the relationship of society and the individual was more complex, something he explored perhaps most ambitiously in his television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), based on Alfred Döblin’s novel, in which the protagonist Franz Biberkopf, former convict and pimp, was, in Fassbinder’s view, the kind of man drawn to Nazi ideology.
As one who believed that everyone had a second, contradictory self that demanded acknowledgment, Fassbinder used the pseudonym “Franz Walsch” in the credits of early films, fusing the first name of the charming, quasi-fascist protagonist of Alexanderplatz with the last name of Raoul Walsh, one of his favorite Hollywood directors. The notion that one’s divided personality is a product of social convention is as true of his reworking of Döblin as it is of his other literary adaptations, Effi Briest, The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977), Despair (1978), and Querelle (1982), all of which resonate autobiographically.
No title more explicitly proclaims the anguish underlying Fassbinder’s work than the Oedipally tinged I Only Want You to Love Me (1978). And there is no more literal indication of how he used his movies to act out conflicts rooted in childhood than casting his mother, Lilo Pempeit, either as a stern, unforgiving parent or a passive “blind follower.” Speaking of Fassbinder’s Oedipal issues in the 1978 interview, Thomsen wittily but wisely suggests that this use of his mother was the same as killing her. In the nonfiction Germany in Autumn (1978), Fassbinder castigates her mercilessly as typical of her generation’s responsibility for the rise of Hitler. In a 1982 recording included here, Pempeit says she was clueless as to what was happening during the war, and after it, was “incapable of raising a child.” While her son’s indictment stands, his own tendency toward bullying is on display in the next scene as he abuses the actor Armin Meier, his real lover at the time, who later committed suicide.
Given his image of his mother and an absent father, Fassbinder sought “mothers and fathers” in the prewar generation to whom he looked for guidance and inspiration: Freud, whose Moses and Monotheism he wanted to film; Döblin, Brecht, Marieluise Fleißer, and Oskar Maria von Graf, writers whose works he adapted; and American director Douglas Sirk, who inspired him to make films with wider appeal without forfeiting his critical perspective. In fusing melodrama with Brechtian alienation, a move compatible with the notion of the divided self, he found the formula that generated the stylistic shift that began with The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and which sealed his reputation as a world-class director when Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) won the International Critics Prize at Cannes.
It is a perfect reflection of Fassbinder’s unholy mix of genius and monster that one of the most illuminating aspects of Thomsen’s film—his interviews with the actors Harry Baer, Irm Hermann, and Andrea Schöber—is also the most painful. Hermann and Baer were with him from the start. Schöber plays the daughter of the depressed worker in Merchant who drinks himself to death—and whose mother, coincidentally, considers him worthless—and went on to play the crippled, unloved child in Chinese Roulette (1976). If she was the house child star, Hermann was the resident hausfrau, a cold, passive creature in Merchant of Four Seasons, whose barely disguised masochism is in full bloom as Marlene, the mute slave of Petra von Kant. To hear both women speak in the present of the Svengali-like blend of attention and cruelty that bound them to Fassbinder is to sense the inextricable bond between masochist and sadist that may underlie most prolonged artistic relationships, but which in the case of Fassbinder and his entourage blurred the line between fiction and reality.
Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands plays Friday, April 29 through Thursday, May 5 at Metrograph in New York.