IN NO HOME MOVIE (2015), Chantal Akerman records the decline of her mother, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, in what would turn out to be the last few years of both of their lives. The videography is amateur and the interactions between the two women quotidian: The film includes recordings of Skype sessions in which mother and daughter cannot think of much more to say to each other than “I love you.” Yet in spite of the time they spend together, the unspeakable remains so, and the traumas of history resist revelation. For a film in which “nothing happens,” the intimacy is staggering.
Akerman wasn’t the only filmmaker to cast her mother in a home movie that defies the conventions of both home and movies. Andy Warhol (1928–1987) and the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982) both had intimate relationships with their mothers that involved artistic collaboration; in Warhol’s case, the relationship also involved long periods of cohabitation. Furthermore, at the height of their careers, both artists made cinematic portraits of the women who brought them into the world. Capturing the banal intimacies and aggressions of domestic life, these films provide revelatory glimpses into the way these parent-child relationships shaped the questions of love and power that the two artists would go on to explore so obsessively in their work.
Warhol’s sixty-six-minute Mrs. Warhol (1965) is one of the hundreds of 16-mm experimental films that the artist made between 1963 and 1968. It is the only one that stars his mother and long-term roommate, Julia Warhola. Fassbinder, on the other hand, cast his mother, Liselotte Eder, in more than twenty of his films. Yet he also featured a portrait of her as his mother in his short contribution to the multiauthored film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978).
Representing one’s mother is no easy task. As Roland Barthes mused while searching for a “just” photograph of his mother after her death, “I never recognized her except in fragments.”1 It is thus unsurprising that Warhol’s and Fassbinder’s portraits of their mothers depart from their signature styles in significant ways. In making Mrs. Warhol, the artist abjured shooting at the Factory, his de facto “movie studio,” and instead went on location, to the basement apartment he provided his mother in his town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, offering a rare glimpse into the artist’s private world bereft of its spangled Superstars. For Fassbinder, filming his relationship with his mother challenged him to shift his urgent exploration of the politics of intimacy from the highly stylized realm of fiction film to the denuded form of the home movie. Yet while both mothers attain their fifteen minutes of fame in front of their sons’ cameras, the films are hardly paeans to motherhood. Although Mrs. Warhola and Frau Eder are ultimately portrayed as sympathetic figures, both films stage complex generational struggles in which a gay countercultural artist flails against a mother from whom he longed to distinguish himself but finally could not bear to separate.
For the parodic Mrs. Warhol, the filmmaker cast his lover at the time, Richard Rheem, to play his mother’s latest squeeze. The film’s ludic but somewhat indiscernible conceit is that Warhol’s mother, playing an aging movie star, has either outlived or killed twenty-five husbands and paramours. Presumably, Rheem is her next victim, a part his character is eager to play. Although Julia Warhola occasionally remembers her designated role as senescent femme fatale and plays along, she is mostly indifferent to the film’s scandalous premise. Yet in spite of its ironic conceit, Mrs. Warhol is one of the most touching and least sadistic cinematic portraits Warhol ever made. As in many of his films, fiction dissolves into documentary, and Warhol’s mother is seen puttering around the kitchen in housecoat and babushka, talking incessantly in her nearly unintelligible Ruthenian accent, scrambling eggs for her new “husband” and the film’s crew, and, eventually, trying to teach Rheem how to properly iron a shirt. In other words, Julia is filmed doing what one assumes were her usual tasks as Andy’s mother and default housekeeper, here reimagined as matrimonial duties performed for her son’s lover.
As if this arrangement weren’t Oedipal enough, the film’s titleMrs. Warhol rather than Mrs. Warholasuggests that Julia was essentially her son’s wife rather than her late husband’s. (Andy’s father, Ondrej Warhola, was a Czechoslovakian immigrant who, unlike his son, retained the final a in his name.) Furthermore, in her screen debut as a man-eater, Julia is implicitly made responsible for Ondrej’s death (presumably, one of the twenty-five she is said to have caused), which in real life occurred when Andy was thirteen. Thus, in a film that initially seems to be yet another 16-mm bagatelle, Warhol manages to unite himself, his mother, and his lover in a scene of patricidal queer intimacy that lauds the death of the hetero-normative family.
GERMANY IN AUTUMN
Fassbinder’s portrait of his mother in Germany in Autumnan omnibus film made by several luminaries of the Neue Kino, or New German Cinema, including Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, and Edgar Reitzis much darker in tone. The film was made in response to the tumultuous autumn of 1977, during which Germany was famously beset by a series of violent political actions.
On September 5, 1977, Hanns Martin Schleyer, ex-SS officer, chairman of the Daimler-Benz corporation, and president of the Federation of German Industries, was kidnapped on the streets of Cologne by members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), in an attempt to force the release of several prominent members of the leftist militant group. In a videotaped statement, Schleyer appealed under duress for the release of eleven imprisoned RAF members in exchange for his freedom. Having endured a series of increasingly violent attacks, the government refused to negotiate.
The situation escalated, and on October 13, Lufthansa Flight 181, carrying eighty-six passengers, was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, acting in solidarity with the RAF. After a long ordeal during which the plane’s captain was murdered, the aircraft eventually landed in Mogadishu, Somalia. Five days later, a German antiterrorist unit managed to liberate the hostages, killing three of the hijackers. That same day, RAF members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found either dead or fatally wounded in their cells in Stuttgart’s Stammheim Prison.2 The deaths were officially pronounced a collective suicide, but the suspicious circumstances surrounding them led to widespread belief that these core RAF leaders were the victims of extrajudicial execution.
Still reeling from months of violence, Germans were forced to confront their government’s authoritarian response to the crisis. Fassbinder, several of whose acquaintances in the late 1960s would become members of the RAF, was hit particularly hard by the news, but anger at the political establishment was rampant. In 1966, West Germans had elected Kurt Georg Kiesinger as their chancellor; he served until 1969. Kiesinger had enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and had been employed as a radio propagandist for the Third Reich. To the horror of Fassbinder’s generation, still struggling to come to terms with the roles that their parents and grandparents had played in the war, Kiesinger embodied the failure of denazification and the intolerable continuities between pre- and postwar power structures.
As Germany in Autumn illustrates, the events of fall 1977 polarized the nation while calling up the ghost of German fascism. Many of the filmmakers who participated in the making of the film included documentation of the public rituals that surrounded the terrorist attacks, such as footage of Schleyer’s funeral, as well as of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe’s. In marked contrast, Fassbinder’s highly personal segment features himself, his mother, and his boyfriend, Armin Meier, debating the Lufthansa hijacking in the director’s own apartment.
As we learn through their conversations, both Meier and Eder advocate harsh governmental retribution. Meier, a working-class orphan who was a butcher before appearing in several Fassbinder films, insists in a somewhat off-the-cuff remark that all of the terrorists should be shot or hanged. Eder, in a more considered but equally troubling response, proposes what amount to fascist methods to deal with the threat of terrorism. Her son loses his shit. For those of us still reeling from family debates about the recent US presidential election and the horrors that continue to unfold in its wake, the dynamics are not entirely unfamiliar. Fassbinder’s segment of Germany in Autumn ends on a profoundly disturbing note, with his mother expressing her longing for an authoritarian ruler “who is benevolent and kind” and who will use martial law to restore order.
Whereas Warhol comically celebrates the symbolic death of patriarchy, Fassbinder excoriates his mother for her inability to imagine a world that transcends the brutal law of the father. Even in a nation haunted by the recent memory of dictatorship, Fassbinder’s mother can’t manage to throw off the yoke. Disgusted with her and with his lover, Fassbinder berates them both, violently throwing the latter out of the apartment they share and verbally abusing the former. Although the filmmaker rhetorically seizes the moral high ground by insisting that democratic procedures of justice must be sustained even in times of crisis, his treatment of both his mother and his lover renders his own behavior a form of “psychological terror.”3 In this way, the film suggests that the patriarchal violence of the state is mirrored in the terrorizing hierarchies of the home.
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS AN OLD WOMAN?
Made in the immediate aftermath of one of the tensest moments in postwar Germany history, Fassbinder’s contribution to Germany in Autumn explicitly engages with questions of ideology. Although Mrs. Warhol was shot in the midst of the Vietnam War and the growing protest movement, you’d never guess that this product of the American avant-garde was also made in a moment of crisis. Yet both films archive the anxieties of their eras by staging scenarios in which sons accuse their mothers of unpardonable crimes and condemn their lovers to play the victim. In different ways, both Warhol and Fassbinder compel their mothers to represent the obsolete institutions against which their sons rebelledbut also replicated. In Mrs. Warhol, Julia is tasked with symbolizing the old-world rituals that Warhol publicly disavowed. Implausibly cast as a femme fatale, however, she is also charged with representing the anachronistic glamour of Old Hollywood, whose conventions Warhol’s experimental films, including Mrs. Warhol, deliberately sought to undermine, even as the artist strove to create an alternative world of stardom. In Germany in Autumn, Liselotte Eder is made to bear ethical responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich, though her son Rainer far more convincingly plays the tyrant.
Warhol and Fassbinder cannot be said to have engaged their historical moment in a like manner, yet their two portraits have much in common, including their emphasis on the banality of intimacy in relationships that defied emotional, sexual, and generational norms. By casting his own boyfriend as his mother’s new lover, Warhol subtly parodies his own semicloseted living arrangement. Julia never acknowledged that her son was gay, and her presence in the various apartments they shared beginning in the early ’50s had prevented Warhol from being intimate with lovers in his own home.4 In 1959, when he moved to the town house at 1342 Lexington Avenue where the film was shot, he confined his mother to the basement, presumably so he could have more privacy. Julia Warhola’s easy on-screen intimacy with Rheem neither confirms nor belies her supposed ignorance of her son’s sexuality. What it does suggest, however, is that conventional boundaries did not determine either the public or the private life of the artist, whose “family” extended beyond blood relations to the Superstars he squired at the Factory and to the tape recorder that he lovingly referred to as his “wife.”
The filmmakers associated with the New German Cinema were committed to revealing the persistence of authoritarianism, or what might be called “fascism around the dinner table,” even decades after the war. In this context, it should come as no surprise that Fassbinder’s indictment of the familyand of his own role in itis more absolute and self-critical than Warhol’s. Whereas Warhol typically omits himself from the scene of the crime, Fassbinder inscribes himself unapologetically within the frame. Bursting into his apartment, he immediately demands that Meier make him coffee and then starts speaking seriously about the political situationto someone else, a colleague he has quickly telephoned. In his own way, Meier seems as indentured to domestic servitude as Julia Warhola (although judging from the slovenly appearance of both interiors, neither was much of a maid). As in many of Fassbinder’s films, psychology and ideology intertwine, while the filmmaker’s own body, with all of its fleshy imperfections, becomes a screen on which to project the abuses of the body politic. Subjecting his lover to emotional and physical brutality while haranguing his mother, Fassbinder emerges, in the film’s powerfully self-reflexive critique, as a despot. The role is not flattering, but it is one in which Fassbinder, unlike Warhol, never hesitated to cast himself.
JULIA & ANDY
Warhol’s mother was born Julia Zavacky in 1892 in the small Ruthenian village of Miková, then in Czechoslovakian territory near the borders of Poland and the Ukraine. She immigrated to the United States in 1921, where she joined her husband in Pittsburgh after nine years of separation. Even after living in the United States for decades, she continued to speak a hybrid of poor English and Ukrainian creole spoken by Ruthenians, who call the dialect po nasemu, meaning “in our own manner.”
In 1952, Julia visited Andy in New York. Dismayed by the filth she discovered in his East Seventy-Fifth Street apartment and by his unadulterated diet of cake and candy, she decided to move in with him, saying she would only stay until he found a nice girl to settle down with.5 Needless to say, he didn’t. She ending up staying until 1971, when she became too ill for her son to look after her.
Andy and Julia lived po nasemu. In the early days of their cohabitiation, they slept in the same bedroom on mattresses laid out on the floor, and Andy used the kitchen table as his studio. As though they were an old married couple, Julia cooked, cleaned, and sewed while Andy earned the money. Meanwhile, their Siamese cats, Hester and Sam, were prolific breeders. Soon Julia and Andy were living amid a clowder of stinking felines. Mother and son memorialized this incestuous gang of pussies in two illustrated collaborations: 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy (1956) and Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother (1960).
At first, Warhol’s professional work was irregular. By the end of the ’50s, however, he had become famous for his advertisements, many of which Julia colored and lettered in her signature loopy hand. Although she won numerous awards from professional associations for her lettering, she effaced her creative autonomy by always signing as “Andy Warhol’s mother.” But Julia was not quite as self-abnegating as this gesture implies. Once, after Andy begged her to return to New York from Pittsburgh because he couldn’t seem to run the house without herJulia had departed out of frustration that her successful son wasn’t giving enough money to the rest of the familyshe angrily declared to a few of Warhol’s friends whom she had gathered as witnesses, “I am Andy Warhol.”6 Like many of Warhol’s other collaborators who later claimed responsibility for his creative work, Julia may have recognized that her Andy couldn’t be “Andy Warhol” without her help behind the scenes. After all, she frequently signed his name for him. Stumbling on such telling moments of identity crisis in Warhol’s biography, I cannot help but recall a painting I made of my own mother, which she admired and which she persisted in referring to as her “self-portrait” until her death. Is it possible that in the space between unintentional malapropism and deliberate misidentification there is a deeper truth about the inextricability of the child’s creativity from the mother’s idiosyncrasies?
In the early ’60s, Warhol debuted as a fine artist with shows in New York and Los Angeles. In spite of his unusual closeness to his mother, he quickly became ashamed of her, an old lady with wire-rimmed glasses who wore a peasant dress under her apron and a kerchief around her head. Warhol allowed Julia to attend a public exhibition of his work in 1952; it was his first and her last. Though he kept most friends away from his apartment, on other occasionswhen, for instance, it served his self-presentation as an eccentric misfithe was keen to admit that he lived with his mother.7 Most of the time, however, Julia was an unwanted reminder of the immigrant poverty Warhol had tried so hard to scrub from his public persona.
Warhol’s shame renders Mrs. Warhol a poignant artifact. It is telling that Warhol himself never appears in the film. Rather, his charming young lover Rheem stands in for the artist as the recipient of Julia’s overbearing affections. This substitution allows Warhol not only to avoid the camera’s gaze, but to present his usually closeted-away mother and her old-world idiosyncrasies in a rare piece of kitchen-sink realism. With her nearly impenetrable accentthere are prolonged moments in the film where the only word one can make out is “Reeechie”and her insistence on feeding the crew, Julia Warhola endears herself to the audience. She is everyone’s long-lost bubbe, but she is also a “self-portrait” of Andy Warhol as an old immigrant woman. Unlike Arshile Gorky’s haunting portraits of his mother, who starved to death during the Armenian genocide, Mrs. Warhol communicates not the pathos of what is forever lost but the comedy of what is insistently out of place. The film is not about absence, but about the excess of maternal presence. If Mrs. Warhol can be described as a coming-out film, it must be acknowledged that the artist “comes out” not only about his relationship with his lover but about his relationship with his motherall the while remaining offscreen.
Warhol’s cohabitation with his mother far outlasted his relationship with Rheem or with any of his other boyfriends. All told, Andy and Julia lived together for a total of forty-two years. Her influence on him cannot be underestimated. She was a folk artist whose materials were drawn from the detritus of everyday life, as is evident in the flower sculptures she fashioned from tin cans and crepe paper. As a devoted Byzantine Catholic, Julia also shaped her son’s surprising piety: They were both regular churchgoers. Supposedly, Julia served Andy canned soup for lunch every afternoon and stayed up watching him sleep. Warhol transformed both of these odd rituals into art: His silk screens of Campbell’s Soup cans made him famous; Sleep, his far-lesser-known first filmshot shortly after he acquired a Bolex in 1963 and consisting of twenty-two shots, extended to five hours and twenty-one minutes, of his lover John Giorno sleepingmade him infamous. A “nonstop talker”8 and an animated storyteller, Julia was the original model for the dozens of logorrheic Superstars, including Brigid Berlin, Ondine, and Viva, whose speed-fueled conversation Warhol obsessively recorded on film, on tape, and in his books.
LISELOTTE & RAINER
Born Liselotte Pempeit in 1922, Fassinder’s mother was closer in age to Andy Warhol than she was to his mother. Yet unlike Warhol, Liselotte was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was ten years old when Hitler came to power, and, as she later reflected, the politics of the Third Reich proved inextricable from her identity: “I had never known anything except the Hitler period and was completely marked by it, and when, in 1945, I saw how we had all been misused and how it had all been wrong, I realized how problematic bringing anyone up can be, and that I really was quite incapable of bringing anyone up myself.”9
In 1943, Liselotte met Helmut Fassbinder in Munich; they married two years later. Rainer was born in Bavaria in late May 1945, three weeks after the unconditional surrender of Germany and a month after the liberation of the nearby concentration camp Dachau. Following the war, Liselotte worked as a translator and even translated Truman Capote, one of both Fassbinder’s and Warhol’s earliest influences.
When Rainer was six, Liselotte divorced his father, a doctor who longed to be a writer. Following the divorce, Fassbinder’s extended family fell apart. Needing money, Liselotte took in subtenants, filling the apartment with near strangers. It is not much of a leap to imagine how such early exposure to nonnormative forms of domesticity may have influenced Fassbinder’s own attempts to live in ways that transcended the limitations of the nuclear family. Liselotte’s health suffered during this time, and she was hospitalized sporadically. Rainer was sent to boarding school during these periods and later described his life between the ages of seven and nine as a time when he “largely lived alone.”10 Like Julia Warhola, Liselotte encouraged her son’s artistic proclivities. Yet although she bought him a tape recorder and saved his drawings and paintings, she also prayed that he wouldn’t become an amateur poet like his father.11
In 1959, Liselotte remarried, this time to a journalist seventeen years her senior named Wolff Eder. Fassbinder hated school, didn’t get along with his stepfather, and spent most of his teen years away at boarding school until he decided to move in with, and terrorize, his biological father in Cologne. When Rainer came out to his mother at age fourteen, she thought homosexuality was a kind of sickness and wanted to send him to a psychologist to be cured. Her husband assured her it was not an illness,12 in spite of the fact that it was characterized as such in the German Criminal Code’s infamous Paragraph 175, which Hitler had used to justify the murder of tens of thousands of homosexuals in concentration camps. Yet as Fassbinder’s mother later recalled, it was her second husband who, by virtue of marrying her, “took away the last human being with whom Rainer had a primary relationship.”13
If Fassbinder nurtured hostility against his mother for these betrayals, you wouldn’t know it from most of his fiction films, melodramas characterized by a complex understanding of women (and gay men) entrapped in cycles of patriarchal oppression. The most sympathetic portraits of motherhood in Fassbinder’s oeuvre emerge in performances by an actress named Brigitte Mira, who in her most memorable roles plays kindly mothers who become radicalizedfirst by interracial, intergenerational love, in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and then by leftist politics, in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975). In Ali, Mira plays an aging charwoman who falls in love with a much younger North African Gastarbeiter (guest worker). In Mother Küsters, she plays an older woman who, after being widowed by her husband’s suicide, becomes implicated in an act of terrorism in her attempt to redeem his good name. Considering that the actor who played Mira’s lover in Ali, El Hedi ben Salem, was actually Fassbinder’s lover at the time, it seems evident that Mira’s charactersdefined by their willingness to pursue that which is deemed tabooserve as surrogates for Fassbinder himself. Yet it is also possible to regard them as surrogate mothers, the kind Fassbinder wished he had.
Liselotte Eder was not the model for the revolutionary mother of her son’s Brechtian fantasies. If anything, her biographical trajectory more closely resembled that of Fassbinder’s heroine Maria Braun (in his 1979 film The Marriage of Maria Braun), an ambitious career woman whose postwar ascent to affluence is ethically compromised by her ambivalent allegiances. Quite impressively for a woman of her generation, Eder had attained the title of program director of a research institute before also becoming a computer programmer in 1969. When her second husband died in 1971, she had more time to devote to her son’s career. For the next seven years, Eder acted as the manager for Tango-Film, Fassbinder’s production company. Like Maria Braun, Eder took care of businesspaying the taxes, typing scripts, and doing whatever else was necessary. In spite of these responsibilities, she also managed to appear in nearly two dozen of her son’s films under the stage name Lilo Pempeit. She was never just “Fassbinder’s mother.”
However, Liselotte Eder’s most compelling on-screen performance wasn’t in a fictional role played by Lilo Pempeit, but as a character modeled on herself, in Germany in Autumn. Although her scene in Fassbinder’s segment of that film has all the appearances of a vérité documentary, it was in fact staged for the camera. While many critics have interpreted this short as Fassbinder’s attempt to humiliate his mother, Eder denies this: “I was not tricked into saying those things on camera,” she has remarked. “I was genuinely very angry after [Schleyer’s]murder. I thought that the government ought to kill one imprisoned terrorist in Stammheim every time the hijackers in Mogadishu killed one of the passengers. . . . It was only a fleeting idea, and I was ashamed of it. . . . Then about two weeks later, Rainer asked if I would come over to his apartment and repeat those things for a film he was making. So I did.”14 Eder also claimed that Fassbinder cut her last words of dialogue, in which her longing for an authoritarian leader is qualified by the addendum “if we didn’t have a democracy.”15 However, Eder came to recognize the pathology of her own thinking patterns in spite of the fact that she was unable to completely excise them. She later conceded that her son was right to edit the dialogue.16 In other words, Eder’s decision to allow herself to be depicted as a fascist by her son was not an act of maternal self-sacrifice but an essential step in her own political awakening.
Fassbinder himself proved more resistant to enlightenmentat least when it came to the politics of the bedroom. When Germany in Autumn premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in March 1978, he did not invite Armin Meier, in spite of the latter’s starring role in the film. He also did not invite Meier to the celebration of his birthday on May 31. Meier committed suicide by overdose that same day, and his corpse lay for a week in the apartment the two men had once shared, while Fassbinder was away. It was Eder who found the body after a stench emanating from the apartment caused neighbors to complain. After Fassbinder himself died from a drug overdose four years later, at age thirty-seven, his mother established the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation to commemorate her son’s artistic legacy. Fassbinder may have insisted that “love is colder than death” (as the title of one of his earliest films put it), but he couldn’t have foreseen what even a flawed mother would do for her child.
Eder was not entirely surprised that her son predeceased her. Nor can we assume that Warhol was particularly surprised when his mother died back in Pittsburgh in 1972, the year after she moved out of his house. For whatever reasons, Warhol chose not to attend her funeral. However, conjuring that other queer son of the ’60s, Norman Bates, Warhol often gave the impression that she was still aliveeven to his closest friends. As late as 1976, when a friend inquired after his mother, Warhol is rumored to have responded, “Oh, she’s great. But she doesn’t get out of bed much.”17 I guess he’d know, having slept beside her all of those years.
Germany in Autumn screens in London on May 12 and 16 as part of BFI/Southbank’s retrospective of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which runs through May 31.
Ara Osterweil is a painter, a film scholar, and an Associate Professor of cultural studies at McGill University in Montreal. She is the author of Flesh Cinema: The Corporeal Turn in American Avant-Garde Film (Manchester University Press, 2014).
2. In the course of the night, Baader was found dead with a gunshot wound to the back of his head, and Ensslin was found hanged in her cell. Raspe, who had also been shot in the head, died in the hospital the next day.
5. Ibid., 96.
6. Ibid., 99, 133.
7. Ibid., 99.
8. Ibid., 24.
9. Liselotte Eder, quoted in Thomsen, Fassbinder, 4.
10. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, quoted in Thomsen, Fassbinder, 3.
12. Ibid., 140.
14. Ibid., 142–43.
15. Eder, quoted in Thomsen, Fassbinder,254.
16. Thomsen, Fassbinder, 254.
17. David Bourdon, Warhol (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 322.