PRINT February 1997


Rainer Werner Fassbinder

WHAT CAN YOU SAY about a fat, ugly sadomasochist who terrorized everyone around him, drove his lovers to suicide, drank two daily bottles of Rémy, popped innumerable pills while stuffing himself like a pig, then croaked from an overdose at 37? Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil probably said it all: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

Anyway, there’s nothing you can say about Rainer Werner Fassbinder that he didn’t say about himself (in countless interviews and the horrific self-portrait in Germany in Autumn, 1978). He was the faithful mirror of an ugly world that has grown uglier since his death, without his brilliance, his starving soul, his exorbitantly calculated persona. The contemporary-model artist, countering a century of both exalting and punitive myths, is a sensibly meretricious decorator, good at business, driven by mortgage payments rather than private demons, preferably married with children, or, if homosexual, devoted to plangent little ironies and charity work. Fassbinder, by contrast, thought it was worth dying young if you managed to live at a certain pitch and get your work done: most people are dead at 37 anyway, they just don’t know it.

The current Fassbinder retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art features all forty-three of the director’s films, including many never previously shown in America, like the seminal five-part television film Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day and the director’s sole science-fiction movie, World on a Wire. An important effort, though any five of these films are hard to take at one go. “Life is pessimistic in the end because we die and in between because of corruption in our daily lives,” the artist said, and there you have the unvarying flavor of everything. There are no lighthearted moments in any Fassbinder film that I can recall. If a character’s happy, it’s because he hasn’t yet heard the bad news. There is, instead, a lot of hilarious brutality, suggesting a toxic blend of Molière and Joe Orton.

Fassbinder started in the theater, where his will to power over others quickly manifested itself, though he would always claim that his leader status was forced on him by the group. It was, in reality, a symbiosis, not unlike Andy Warhol’s Factory, where people of a certain talent and readiness for manipulation orbited around a demiurge whose work needed collaborators. In the atmosphere of the late ’60s, the search for communal utopia produced among “the Fassbinder people,” as in many other contexts, a dystopia ruled by the whims and eccentricities of its prime mover.

Both Warhol and Fassbinder, homosexuals with conspicuous, complex attachments to their mothers, used a repertory situation to reenact their childhood humiliations on reversed terms, instilling infantile helplessness in those around them and assuming the dominant role of the withholding/bountiful parent.

They both thought of themselves as unattractive, unlovable, and only able to secure “love” from people by conferring public attention on them, i.e., by putting them in movies. The enormity of these unfillable needs may be gauged by the staggering number of films each made in a short span of years. That the process was more important than the finished product is obvious in Warhol’s case; Ronald Hayman’s excellent book, Fassbinder Filmmaker, reveals how surprisingly much this was also true of the latter. Paradoxically, in both directors this film-mediated bonding created heightened mistrust of their love objects, more distance instead of intimacy.

In the parlance of sex, Warhol was bossy bottom. The obdurate passivity of his films achieves all the hostile effects of silence and noncommitment. Fassbinder’s temperament was far more confrontational, and in compromised ways more generous (to better control people, he actually paid them, unlike Warhol, and used them as actors rather than as personalities), but his first nine or ten films share something of Warhol’s quietly sadistic durée, laconic limpness, and chaos in search of a methodology. But Warhol “professionalized” his film production by turning it over to Paul Morrissey, his imprimatur on Morrissey’s films projecting the ultimate passive control. He manifested himself through his absence. Fassbinder, on the other hand, asserted the centrality of his person from the beginning, appearing in almost all of his own films, writing his own scripts, often doing his own camerawork.

Fassbinder’s sensibility only fully emerged after his encounter with the films of Douglas Sirk. Under Sirk’s influence, Fassbinder discovered in the conventions of melodrama the ideal means of showing why utopian wishes are doomed to crash in our system of life, how happy endings are smiles pasted over horror. Perhaps he had this idea long before seeing All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, but after Sirk, Fassbinder sealed off the utopian exits—with Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970, his tenth film, Fassbinder dramatized the horrors of collective activity, the brutality of his own methods, and the deformities idealism wreaks on the personalities of idealists. After Whore—The Rocky Horror Picture Show for anyone who’s worked in movies—Fassbinder no longer heroicized petty criminals, gays, immigrants, and other marginals, but instead showed how the system warped them and stunted their possibilities. This might not have activated much hysteria if he hadn’t also shown the perverse complicity between the social order and its reformers—if you’re part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Fassbinder was typically attacked by people who needed heroes (in today’s cant, “role models”) and heroic causes. His enemies included both reactionaries and progressive types who couldn’t bear looking at their own neuroses. Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, 1975, and The Third Generation, 1979, alienated the whole spectrum of the conventional left, while films like Katzelmacher, 1969, and Veronika Voss, 1982, exposed the spirit of fascism thriving in postwar Germany. The play Garbage, the City and Death (filmed in 1976 by Daniel Schmid as Schatten der Engel) brought cries of anti-Semitism from people determined not to understand it. Fox and His Friends, 1974, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972, outraged gay groups by displaying homosexual relations that were every bit as corrupt as heterosexual ones. (The message: capitalism turns everyone into a whore; anyone who resists this fate comes to a bad end.) But the bigger scandal was Fassbinder’s anarchism, his proclaimed self-exemption from any program or belief system. Our beliefs are animated by feelings, and, as he relentlessly showed, our feelings are manufactured for us, not least by the movies.

A famed quote: “Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.” The tight bonds of Fassbinder’s own pathology account for the claustrophobia of the world he pictured. Compare a film like Lola, 1981, or Beware of a Holy Whore with, say, Altman’s Three Women, 1977, or The Long Goodbye, 1973. Altman too is a spinner of destructive microcosms, an anthropologist tracking systemic damage in human personalities. But in the margins of his films, Altman always presents evidence of other life, hints of alternative destinies. In Fassbinder the parts are the sum of the whole.

The infantile need for love, warped through a lifetime of twisted social forms, produces both the voluntary prison of family life and explosive methods of escape from it. These latter are uniformly self-defeating. One thinks of Hans Epp in 1971’s The Merchant of Four Seasons, quietly and deliberately drinking himself to death. Or of Peter in I Only Want You to Love Me of 1975 braining a tavern-keeper with a telephone. Of Herr R. in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, 1969, killing his neighbor, then his wife and child, and finally hanging himself in the office toilet. Or of the final hours of Veronika Voss, the last dance in the desert in Whity, 1970, the hissing gas stove in The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978, Elvira’s overdose in In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978.

These characters have reached their logical dead end, which happened also to be Fassbinder’s: the implacable logic that leads them there is Fassbinder’s signature mise-en-scène. For an artist who claimed an urgent interest in utopia and liberation, Fassbinder bears a curious resemblance to the Mauriac whom Sartre reproached for robbing his protagonists of free will and setting them down in an airless universe. They are almost always more intelligent than their situation, but between their insight and their emotions lies an area of blindness.

“Human beings have no interest in reality,” Alexander Kluge has said, “They prefer to lie than to become divorced from their wishes.” The most painful moments in Fassbinder’s films come when his characters see their lives clearly for the first time—painful because they immediately flee into delusion. “Each and every one of you makes me want to puke,” Petra von Kant tells her family, honestly enough. A moment later she’s running on about Karin, the lesbian girlfriend who’s just ditched her: “That little girl’s finger is worth more than the rest of you put together.” The worst of it is that this is probably true within Petra’s libidinal economy, but Karin herself is pretty worthless. Fox knows Eugen is bleeding him white and will dump him when his bank account is empty; he even knows this before Eugen does. But “love” has become everything. Fox would rather die than face the ruin of his “love.”

Fassbinder dramatized aspects of his own social relations that he thought reflected truths about society at large. Their overwhelming negativity makes them useful. A film like Martha of 1973, which pictures bourgeois marriage as a torture chamber built on the complicity of its inhabitants, is worth any hundred or so meet-cute Hollywood comedies, bittersweet romances, and earnest social dramas. (I’m writing this in a season offering two uplifting, whimsical studio films about angels.) This isn’t to oppose the “art film” to Hollywood; Fassbinder put as much Hollywood and as little artiness into his films as he could. At the same time, no one as truly, brilliantly independent as Fassbinder would survive for a second in the American film industry. It’s a pleasant exercise to imagine him alive, in Los Angeles, making incredibly sinister movies about AIDS, immigration, race relations, the treatment of old people, the health-care system, prisons, corporations, and other things that are rarely the subjects of first-rate films. But who would let him? There are sites of cultural dissonance and critique in which Fassbinder’s view of things would not be unwelcome (mainly on TV: Melrose Place, The Simpsons), but his artistic obduracy and his personality would be. We prefer our geniuses to be passionately stupid and entirely complicit with the whims of the marketplace, and Fassbinder plainly wasn’t. Like so many seminal artists of this waning century, he destroyed himself before others could do it for him.

“Rainer Werner Fassbinder” continues at MoMA through 20 March 1997.

Gary Indiana