PRINT March 1986

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

At some point films have to stop being films, have to stop being stories and begin to live, make you ask: what’s really going on with me and my life?
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974

BARELY FOUR YEARS HAVE PASSED since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death, and already it seems as if a short eternity separates us from him. The New German Cinema, whose pulsing heart he was, has fallen apart, disintegrated, and the international success on whose threshold he was the first of his colleagues to stand has scattered those remaining—Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe von Trotta, Wim Wenders, and others—to all comers of the earth. The German auteur film, which he took from esoteric, solipsistic isolation to broad public attention, has withdrawn into its shell, or been superseded by large-scale, new-Hollywood-style productions such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine and Roland Emmerich’s Joey, both 1985. No successor has emerged to take his place; among the many gifted directors in the postwar German cinema, he was the lone genius. The gaping hole left by Fassbinder’s death has affected all European film.

When Fassbinder died, on the sultry night of June 10, 1982—in front of his TV set—he was in the midst of preparations for his next project, Ich bin das Glück auf dieser Erde (I am the delight of the world—a title taken from a punk-rock song by Joachim Witt). Within a few days, he intended to shoot an episode of a collaboratively directed film about Soviet-American tension, Krieg und Frieden (War and peace). The scene was to show a man and woman in bed; he doesn’t get an erection, they fight, and their mutual frustrations lead to a killing. To take the arms race as a parallel of a domestic murder was typical of Fassbinder’s perspective on the world.

And 1982 was to have been the year of his greatest success. With his 14-part opus magnum, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1979–80), he was at the height of his international fame; who now could resist the magic of his vitality, or obstruct his feverish productivity? A passionate soccer fan, he was planning his own version of what in sport is called a hat trick: in one year, he hoped to win the prizes of all three major European film festivals. In February, in Berlin, he had won his first Golden Bear award with Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (The desire of Veronica Voss). He intended to submit his adaptation of Jean Genet’s novel Querelle (1947) for Cannes’ Golden Palm prize, and he planned Ich bin das Glück auf dieser Erde for Venice’s Golden Lion. When he died, arresting this projected triumphant road, he was a man of 37 who in just 13 years, from 1969 to 1982, had created a nearly inexhaustible oeuvre of 34 films, along with one 5- and one 14-part television series, seven plays, four radio dramas, and ten theater productions, among other projects. He was moving on to new works with undiminished energy.

Shocking as his death was, those who knew Fassbinder were not entirely surprised by it, for he had stood long at the edge of death’s shadow. He lived intensely and excessively, as if he had made a decision to accept the needs of his body, the cravings of his phantasies, and the utopian visions of his creative mind, and to pursue them recklessly. The ascetic life was not for him. Ruthless on both himself and all who came in contact with him, Fassbinder “consumed” himself by digging the jewels of his art out of his own experience—by turning his life into a mine, which he excavated without cease. In 13 years of work he had by no means exhausted the tunnels that he had driven into the bedrock of his unconscious, but his body could not withstand the restless, nervous exhaustion to which he subjected it through alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs, and his heart burst, like the timbers of a mineshaft under the sheer weight of the earth.

When Fassbinder decided to film Cocaina, a 1925 novel by the Italian writer Pitigrilli, he explained, "It’s a film that’s supposed to tell us something about the drug, its effects, and about a person who can freely choose either to take or not take the drug, with the clear understanding that a decision for the drug will shorten life, but intensify it. Everyone can decide for himself whether he’d rather live shorter but more intensely, or longer and more conventionally.’’1 This choice was one he had made himself, and the chemicals he took served the sole purpose of making more transparent, more luminous, the one drug experience not only with which but in which he lived: filmmaking. It is no coincidence that one of his favorite films (by Douglas Sirk, one of his favorite directors) is called Imitation of Life (1959); as its title indicates, the subject is the life of society and convention that forces people into leading an imitation of life rather than living it. Today we might speak of the simulation of life, using the language of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. To Fassbinder, film, which simultaneously imitates and anticipates life, was an anamorphic mirror that could unravel and expose these distortions.

Fassbinder saw making films (not ju st directing them) as a psychic act of the imagination which, on site, turn ed into a real, p hysical act of creation. During a pre ss conference at the Berlin Film Festival, shortly before his death, he remarked, “I think of all my films as my children and I defend them to the lase.” The Danish director and Fassbinder scholar Christian Braad Thomsen, who transcribed these words, has added, “That’s not surprising . . . because everyone who worked with Fassbinder experienced this collaboration as a kind of lovemaking where he came closest to realizing his utopia.” For Fassbinder, the utopias of life, work, and art came together in filmmaking, and without his yearning for the ideal, a yearning that he believed was present in everyone, the overwhelmingly pessimistic physiognomy of his art would have lacked its subversive, provocative energy, the quality that above all may assure his work’s endurance over time. His utopian longings caused a restlessness in him that drew work out of him like a volcanic eruption; as he himself once said, “when this yearning is driven out of me, I won’t make anything anymore.”

Fassbinder was born in the Bavarian town of Bad Wörishofen on May 31, 1945, at the end of World War II. In 1969, when he was 23, and an actor, director, and playwright in Munich’s avant-garde antiteater group, he made his first feature film, Liebe ist Kälter als der Tod (Love is colder than death—a title that crystallized within itself his lifelong flirtation with mortality). It was a year after the May revolt in France, a touchstone, with the events of 1945, for a whole generation of young Germans. In 1968, the children of parents who had participated, whether actively or passively, in one of the worst crimes in human history experienced the failure of their revolt against their fathers, against the society that had perpetuated a patriarchal authoritarianism. “Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen” (There is no right way of life where life is false): the Frankfurt philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s aphoristic assessment of post-Nazi society underlies all Fassbinder’s thinking and imagination.

Fassbinder had had no real childhood. His parents separated in 1951, when he was a small boy, and the cold of the wrecked marriage, the sense of homelessness, created in him a feeling of isolation, which intensified as he grew older and became aware of the complexities of his sexuality Married from 1970 to 1972, to Ingrid Caven, an actress and cabaret singer he had discovered, he concluded that matrimony was an antiutopian, erotic/coercive relationship designed to kill love. Earlier on, the antiteater had functioned as a collective of people working and living together, and here Fassbinder had sought some thing like the happiness of the extended family, which he had not experienced in his childhood and adolescence. (In the late ’60s, of course, the commune, in which young adults came together in a free living arrangement, was a common phenomenon.) For Fassbinder, who called himself a “romantic anarchist,” the antiteater ensemble was a kind of island of warmth from which he attacked the coldness of the world, its treachery, violence, and binding systems of dependency. Yet his dominating personality, and the antiauthoritarian rebelliousness of certain of the other members (Kurt Raab, for example, and Hanna Schygulla), ultimately destroyed their utopian ideal, free though it was of many of the social constraints surrounding it. In Wamung var einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a holy whore, 1970), his tenth film (and created just a year after his first one), he summed up the time: “We’d dreamt of something that just doesn’t exist.” To the end, however, like other directors of the European cinema, he continued to work with a fixed team of actors, cameramen, propmen, and musicians, keeping some at a distance, drawing others closer—but now on a strictly professional, collaborative basis.

Fassbinder’s “early work,” all of it produced within the single year of 1969–70, bears a distinctive artistic signature. In some of these films, as in those of Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Melville, and Raoul Walsh, he found his themes in a kind of suburban gangster milieu, a place of boredom, criminality, and the suppression of minorities. Or, in Die Niklashauser Fart (The Niklashausen journey), he jumped into a tableau of a 15th-century peasant revolt, or tried his hand at a pseudo western in Whity, or entered the hell of a lower-middle class man’s obsession with accumulating material goods in a film that answers its own question, Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why does Herr R. run amok?). These first works were made very quickly and on shoestring budgets, but they are based on Fassbinder’s own scripts, and they already’ express his general ambition in cinema: to create ”films about people and their relationship to each other, their dependency on one another and society.“ They articulate the director’s radical dramaturgy, which describes not only the ways in which people are hurt and damaged, but the scars and defenses that endure long after. In these films he gives clear form to how these wounds are perpetuated by false consciousness and apathy Thus Fassbinder does not celebrate the black slave who finally rises against his white oppressor, but has his ”whitey“ turn ”against the black man, because he hesitates the whole time and doesn’t rebel against inhumanity."

Warnung var einer heiligen Nutte, like Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, 1963, is a film about its own director and his process of making movies. It represents a coming-to-terms in another sense as well: before it, Fassbinder said, he’d been making films that were “too elitist and private,” but now he wanted “to create a kind of film art that can unfold without reflections.” The later works were to be “as beautiful and powerful and wonderful as Hollywood films, and still criticize the system.” What differentiates Fassbinder’s cool, spare exercises in style of 1969–70 from the pictures that follow is a change in their emotional temperature. The director comes to show a greater sympathy for the “false” life of his characters, with their “appropriate” feelings. It is as though he projected the sense of community that he had lost in the strife that afflicted the antiteater group onto the people in his films, in the hope that his viewing audience would be able to discover more about its own emotions and desires.

Two events led to this warmer current of broader feeling: a psychosomatic illness which forced Fassbinder to confront the idea of death, and the director’s intense experience of Sirk’s Hollywood movies. These films opened a way for him to follow the subcutaneous, unconscious influences and ramifications of society and its potential for violence, to trace the social roots of the depressions, illnesses, and suicides of his everyday heroes. Furthermore, Sirk, as a kind of father figure, gave Fassbinder the courage to stop avoiding a specifically German intellectual taboo, namely triviality and kitsch. Indeed, his decisive turn toward melodrama appeared to other directors in the New German Cinema as the incarnation of what the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch had called “Das Böse im Wertsystem der Kunst” (evil in the value system of art)—the kind of art that works to obscure social reality This reaction was understandable, considering the dangerous use to which sentimental melodrama was put by the Nazi-UFA studios in the ’30s and during the war, and by the postwar West German film industry. But Fassbinder’s transgression opened up powerful material. Breaking the taboo, he could develop his contraband of subversive criticism beneath the appearance of ingratiating naiveté; in addition, the tension between the two extremes provided an angle of attack that was multidirectionally aimed at all forms of societal repression.

With sovereign disregard for the political and esthetic break that the New German Cinema had insisted on from the films that preceded it, Fassbinder called nearly forgotten former stars—like Luise Ullrich, Brigitte Mira, Karlheinz Böhm, and Barbara Valentin—back to the screen. Their comebacks were gentle attempts to create a sounding board among audiences of all ages, to apply nostalgia constructively to the movie public that had until then felt excluded from and repelled by the New German Cinema. And in 1972, Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (Eight hours don’t make a day), his five-part television series about everyday life in a factory, did achieve considerable popular success—more, perhaps, than the TV network was comfortable with, given that the risky, socially critical issues Fassbinder was moving into more deeply caused the project’s cancellation.

The most genuine storyteller of the postwar German cinema found in melodrama his medium, the medium through which he could present “just a single theme (like every good director) . . . in ever new variations.” And his theme was “the exploitability of feelings, no matter who’s doing the exploiting. Whether it’s the state exploiting patriotism or one member of a couple destroying the other.” Whether one believes, with Thomsen, that Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) is the palimpsest underlying Fassbinder’s creative output, or, as Wilfried Weigand has remarked, that “the body [is] the site of societal conflicts” in his films, his domain was Herbert Marcuse’s jungle of “eros and civilization,” which he explored as no other director of the postwar period has done—in faces and body language; in exchanges of glances and words; in reflections in mirrors and in glass, transparent but usually impenetrable; and in the signals, overlapping each other like echoes, that are emitted by the everyday objects in the narrow, crowded, mazelike spaces of his sets.

With Die bitteren Tränen der Petra van Kant (The bitter tears of Petra von Kant, 1972) and Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (Merchant of the four seasons, 1971), Fassbinder’s work divided into a double strategy On the one hand, with a virtuosic touch and a razor-sharp analytical eye, he investigated the subtlest intellectual dialectics of what Alexander Kluge has called the “emotional generator” that powers the struggles of love, whether hetero-, homo-, or bisexual. The films in this group include Petra van Kant, Martha, 1973, Faustrecht der Freiheit (Freedom’s law of might, 1974; released in English as Fox and His Friends), Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese roulette, 1976), and In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a year of 13 moons, 1978). Parallel to these works, Fassbinder took up the genre of the “folk play,” exemplified by the ’30s dramas of Odön von Horváth. His films in this vein include Händler der vier Jahreszeiten, Acht Stunden sind kein Tag, Angst essen Seele auf (Fear eats the soul, 1973), Ich will doch nur, dass ihr mich liebt (I only want you to love me, 1976), and the two-part Bolwieser, 1976–77, an adaptation of a ’30s novel by Oskar Maria Graf. (Among Fassbinder’s early films, Pioniere in Ingolstadt [Pioneers in Ingolstadt, 1970], based on a play by Benoit Brecht’s companion Marie Luise Fleisser, falls into the folk-play category).

Antinaturalistically, and through the use of a stylized, Brechtian vocabulary and a precise, realistic delineation of milieu, Fassbinder’s folk-play movies found a way back to a sphere that the old German Heimatfilm (provincial romance ) had sentimentally misted over and that the New German Cinema had thus far not even sought, let alone found: the everyday life of the common people. The director neither paternalistically exploited his lower-middle-and working-class characters as case histories in some kind of sociological study, nor pressed them to the middle-class bosom of false compassion. Through a passionate, empathetic sensitivity, in these people who “are lived” he constantly discovered people who desire to live, however much they may have been distorted, oppressed, or diminished by social pressures and lack of opportunities. In the end, Fassbinder, a symphonist of polyphonal emotional strains, united his films on love and his folk-play, works in his monumental but extremely subtle adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s big-city novel of 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In certain ways, Fassbinder can be compared to Honoré de Balzac—not simply because of the obvious similarity between Fassbinder’s voluminous figure and Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the nude Balzac, nor through the two men’s comparably insatiable intoxication with creativity, a creativity fed in both cases by a polar tension between love and power which streamed out into every conceivable narratively arable field of life. (Whether for Fassbinder this led to polemical social commentary—in Mutter Küsters’ Fahrt zum Himmel [Mother Kuster’s trip to heaven, 1975], Deutschland im Herbst [Germany in Autumn, 1978], or Die dritte Generation [The third generation, 1978–79], in which he “settled his score” with both terrorist- and salon-leftists; or whether it seduced him, in 1972–74, to create a masterful cinematic reading of the German Madame Bovary, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest [1895], his snapshots and historical panoramas alike are highly personal statements of enormous vibrancy). What truly makes Fassbinder comparable to the 19th-century French novelist is his project of creating a German “comédie humaine.” The tetralogy of Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The marriage of Maria Braun, 1978), Lili Marleen, 1978, Lola, 1981, and Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss is but a fragment of what Fassbinder planned as an emotional history of modern German society This history was to be traced into the past through a television series based on Gustav Freytag’s novel Soll und Haben (Debit and credit, 1855), to which Fassbinder intended to add new material in an attempt to present the “history of the German bourgeoisie from the mid 19th century to the outbreak of National Socialism, in ten installments.”

Soll und Haben was a kind of bible for the German establishment of the boom years of the 1870s. It is widely considered anti-Semitic, and Fassbinder’s intention to dramatize it was strongly criticized. Yet Fassbinder argued, “precisely for that reason it’s very useful in describing anti-Semitism. . . . The oppression of a minority group can really best be described by showing the mistakes and outrageous acts that members of the minority have been driven to as a consequence of being oppressed.” The same argument may apply to Fassbinder’s play Die Stadt, der Müll und der Tod (The city, garbage, and death, 1976), which was attacked for anti-Semitism on its premier in Frankfurt, three years after Fassbinder’s death. The play had already created a scandal when it appeared in book form, but the Swiss director Daniel Schmid’s word-for-word film version of it (under the title Schatten der Engel [Angels’ shadows, 1976], and with Fassbinder in one of the main roles), proved how off base were the accusations of anti-Semitism. Fassbinder’s desire to portray historical events with such exactitude that they seemed copied, while simultaneously creating contemporary parables of the murderous aberrations of history and of German politics, was so powerful that it induced in the audience the experience of personal trauma that occurs as one is forced to face the buried and repressed. A hardened sense of guilt over anti-Semitic excesses lies concealed behind the facade of some postwar philo-Semitism, which the writer Robert Neumann has called the anti-Semitism of those who “love” Jews. Fassbinder, in his incorruptible morality—the Pier Paolo Pasolini of the contemporaneous Scritti corsari (Pirate writings) alone is comparable—never tried to conceal guilt behind a facade of sentiment. He argued, as always, from a knowledge of the deepseated self-entrapment of the victim, whether an individual or a minority group Using the devices of shock, self-accusation, and confrontation that he had developed from Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty, he allowed himself and the viewer no avenue of escape.

That the four films of Fassbinder’s Balzacian tetralogy all focus on women is a methodological paradigm for getting under the skin of a culture. In the earthquake atmosphere of German history, women are the seismographs of social conditions dominated, determined, and bequeathed by men, whether in war, in the years directly following the war, or in the period of the economic recovery. In addition, Fassbinder was telling a story of film esthetics, combining social history and a history of the popular media. The complex, contradictory, ambivalent esthetic of his late work, starting with Maria Braun and reaching its peak in the phantasmagoric Querelle, has an ironic mannerism about it reminiscent of Broch’s Die Schlafwandler trilogy (The Somnambulists, 1931–32), whose three parts agree stylistically with the literary style of the time in which each is set (1888, 1903, and 1918). Thus Lili Marleen has the atmosphere of a Nazi-UFA film, Lola is shot in the candy-colored tones of the ’50s, and Veronika Voss is like a black-and-white melodrama. Reconstructing different forms of cinematic art, these films share the secret purpose of creating a record of the audiovisual treasures and propaganda nightmares that have been amassed during the short history of a media which is already being taken over and forgotten; Fassbinder was letting film bloom one last time. At precisely the moment when the cinema and the moviehouse were going into a general decline, these were euphoric works of recollection. Ultimately, Fassbinder’s drama of delicately morbid light and color-inspired by Luchino Visconti’s La Caduta degli dei (The fall of the gods, 1969; released in English as The Damned)—together with his montages of music and overlapping sound, worked to create a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, a filmic palimpsest such as James Joyce achieved for modern prose in Ulysses.

Fassbinder left behind an oeuvre of memory, synthesis, and restlessness. It tells of love and the failure of love, hope and despair, of life as Sören Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death.” It evokes the craving for something better; sometimes, it enters a state of passion beyond “normal” desires. “There is no right way of life where life is false,” said Adorno. A remark of Fassbinder’s could have been a response to that idea: “Something different can develop only out of the yearnings of each individual for some thing different.”

Wolfram Schütte is a film and literature critic for the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, and the editor of the Reihe Film book series. He is a columnist on film for Artforum.



1. All quotations by or about Fassbinder in the article are from the following books: Wolfram Schotte and Peter W. Jansen, eds., Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Reihe Film #2, fifth edition, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1985; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Querelle, Filmbuch, Munich: Schirmer & Mosel, 1982: and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Die Anarchie der Phantasie, ed. Michael Töteberg, Frankfurt: S. Fisherverlag, 1985.