We still miss him – the Filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder
If the work he did for television is also taken into account, he made a total of 50 films over a period of 13 years. A figure that has remained unmatched by both his colleagues from today’s trade as well as from the past. About three years before his death, when he was making Berlin Alexanderplatz he commented on his pace of work by saying, “I only had a certain amount of time.”
In his film debut Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death) Fassbinder plays a small-time pimp who stands his ground as an individual and refuses to become part of a criminal syndicate. One could have interpreted the film’s plot as a political parable on filmmaking, or maybe even as an attempt on Fassbinder’s part to describe his position as an artist in the society of that time. The motives he used, adapted from Hollywood films, are not quotes, but tools with which the figures in the film try to communicate with each other – unfortunately in vain. This was always one of the leitmotifs Fassbinder persistently pursued in his work – the destruction of people’s ability to communicate, above all when they are trying to express their own emotions.
Images of confinement
Right from the start Fassbinder was always trying to depict confined images in his films. Throughout the whole of his work there are hardly any long shots with depth of field that might evoke a feeling of freedom. His early work is also famous for its visual torpor. This might possibly have been due to technical reasons, but it soon became an integral element of his films. Through his whole career Fassbinder was always fully aware of what he could realise and what he could not. His almost paralysed camera shots, their confined angles exuding claustrophobia, were a perfect reflection of what was going on inside the figures in the film. The imagery was always as important to Fassbinder as the story.
Even projects whose screenplays, at least the first version, had been written by another author, still bore Fassbinder’s hallmark, his emotionality and his leitmotifs. A classic example of this would be Lili Marleen which turned out to be not just a historical melodrama about the singer, Lale Anderson, but also a parable about an artist who was not able to identify with the system he worked in, but managed to adapt it to his own advantage – this was in fact the same conflict Fassbinder faced as a filmmaker in the Federal Republic of Germany.
It was not a long and winding road that led to his late “opus maximum”, Berlin Alexanderplatz, but more a long road that he had purposefully followed with great determination. Fassbinder’s work is particularly exact and it owes this exactitude to its focus only on what seems to be the private side of life. This endowed his films with more social relevance than was to be found in the films being made by other young German filmmakers with all their construed pontificating and parables. The conflicts and suffering of his characters were never caused by an abstract social order, but more by concrete moral concepts generated within the system.
In his film Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons) a man drinks himself to death. He has people around him who see themselves as his friends; none of them intervene and try to stop him drinking. This was Fassbinder’s way of anticipating his own death – not for the first time, either. In 1969 Volker Schlöndorff filmed Bert Brecht’s early piece, Baal; Fassbinder played the title role. In this film, too, there is a finale in which Fassbinder prophetically acts out his own death. Even in his film adaptations of literature there was surprisingly still room for hints about his own life. “If you don’t say no,” as the mother tells her daughter in Effi Briest, “you will end up as a 20-year-old with the mind of a 40-year-old.” A 20-year-old with the mind of a 40-year-old - one whose life came to an end much too soon. It is nettlesome moments like these that are often encountered in Fassbinder’s work – moments that in retrospect seem to reveal various elements of his own biography. Even beyond his death his life appears to be a story he wrote himself.
The filmmaker as a historiographer
What, as was so often asked, was Fassbinder’s political stance? The answer is simple – he was caught in the middle. If he saw himself as a “leftist”, then not in the conventional sense of party affiliation or adherence to an ideological system. The desperate political helplessness to which Fassbinder admits in his contribution to Deutschland im Herbst (Germany In Autumn) was anticipated in the film Mutter Küsters Fahrt zum Himmel (Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven) when he shows his troubled heroine trying to find refuge with various left-wing political factions – alas in vain.
Fassbinder’s method of reflecting on history with the aid of a story proved to be most successful in Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun) – a historiography of the Federal Republic of Germany, a narrative historical treatment about people’s lives and their ideas on personal happiness in the period of reconstruction after the Second World War. This was possibly the first time Fassbinder succeeded in combining the experiences of all the films he had made up to that point. His leitmotifs and various tones, his ability to endow key scenes with ebullient, controversial life, his sceptical humour and his feel for contemporary history and, not least, his now perfect craftsmanship were all united in this career-story to create a form of cinema that was both popular and educational.
From audacious autodidact to accomplished artist
From today’s point of view it seems as if Fassbinder wanted to, or maybe had to, put the justification for his existence to the test with every new project he started. This was the real driving force behind his indefatigable approach to his work. Due to his political awareness and the production methods of his medium, not least because of his need for a feeling of belonging, he lived out his need for joint productivity as best he could; it was much more difficult to realise the desire for common insights into the results of the project. His quest for a collective creative process had its limits and its downsides. On the other hand Fassbinder was the perfect embodiment of the mythical vulnerable artist of the Romantic Age who was forever becoming frighteningly aware of his demons, of his dark sides.
All his films in fact depict the fact that he was not able to resolve the contradictions within his own person. He once told me about his fascination for games of truth, for a mutual disclosing of truths that led from one truth to another, triggering an avalanche of revelation and a shock, whose therapeutic value was in no way guaranteed in quite a few cases. Many an aggression against his person could be put down to this – it was just that he did not spare himself when he played these games of truth, otherwise he would never been able to make a lot of the films he made. Maybe it was this attraction to the bitter truth that prevented him from creating any great notions of happiness in his work. His work is also characterised by a lack of visions and alternatives; he was much too deeply affected by the present. There was no happy ending – neither in his work nor in his life.
So why should Fassbinder’s films still be shown in far-away countries today? For me the answer is simple – in the first place his work makes an accurate contribution to German cultural studies. Secondly, Fassbinder showed that it is possible to move from being an audacious autodidact to an accomplished artist. Furthermore he was particularly creative when it came to dealing with budgets and managed to make films with (almost) no money. The example he set should serve to encourage others – yet sadly German cinema is still waiting in vain for a successor to his artistic legacy.
is a publicist and film critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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