The Master Only Sleeps – The thirtieth anniversary of the death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Thirty years after the early death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his extensive dramatic œuvre is enjoying more attention than ever before.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s short life ended on June 10, 1982, at the age of only 37. At breakneck speed, he made 44 films, directed stage works and appeared himself on the stage, founded a theatre and piratically boarded a few others, wrote plays and worked his way through an imposing list of amorous, alcoholic and drug excesses.
“I can sleep when I’m dead!” This sentence was law to the man who coined it. That he showed consideration neither for himself nor others is legendary; the list of people that Fassbinder fostered and tormented is a long one. “Used”, says the actress Margit Carstensen in the exhibition with the simple title Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Theater, which can be seen until September 9th at the German Theater Museum in Munich. It focuses on the lesser-known early stage works of the eccentric artist. In the entrance hall, where all Fassbinder’s companions from Ingrid Caven to Kurt Raab are presented in oversized portraits and with short biographies, the visitor is already given a taste of the master’s charisma: a film shows the outwardly unattractive man in the circle of his devoutly listening faithful while his always surprisingly soft-sounding voice speaks clear, groping words about his distant father.
Came to the stage by accident
The first comprehensive documentation of Fassbinder’s nine years of theater work, which came about in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has been purged of the grosser scandals. Instead there are original posters, previously unpublished photos, audio and film documents touching on the various creative stations of Fassbinder’s life. The visitor learns, for instance, how in 1967 Fassbinder landed by accident on the stage of the Munich Action Theater – and Hanna Schygulla, his muse and fellow student at a private acting school in Munich, with him. How because of suspected orgies the lights were switched off in the anti-theater that he founded and how the great Kurt Hübner fetched the rebel from Bad Wörishofen to the stage of the Bremen Municipal Theater.
The gaudy stage set models, which have been rebuilt for the exhibition by Wilfried Minks, make graphic why Fassbinder’s productions of Das Kaffeehaus (the Coffeehouse) and Bremer Freiheit (Bremen Freedom) were felt to be pop environments. A gigantic cake on a pink shag carpet and a cross that can be performed upon hovering over a sea of viscera contrast with a style of performance that was always rather cinematic. The film scholar Petra Kraus, who together with Claudia Blank is co-curator of the exhibition, speaks of “connecting choreographic elements” between theatre and film. The photographs, however, show a great many static elements: people sitting round a table, drinking beer, smoking. Later, in Bochum with Peter Zadek, where Fassbinder was as unable to realize his megalomaniacal Käthchen of Heilbronn as he was later his allegedly anti-Semitic Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (Trash, the City and Death) at the TAT in Frankfurt, we also see the many artificial and mannered poses – especially of women.
The “clotted image” and a lot of praise from abroad
Fassbinder’s productions, one of his leading ladies is supposed to have said, were mainly blocking rehearsals. And significantly he hit upon the idea of the “clotted image” during the (failed) entrance examination for film school and the question about the similarity between the novel and film. As for his preferred medium, Fassbinder, like many of his colleagues, remained a lifelong autodidact. But the self-confident selectivity with which he threw himself at things that interested him makes him in turn interesting for today’s information overload society.
In Germany his films, especially those that deal with German society, from the melodrama Katzelmacher to the film version of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, were respected rather than loved. In many places abroad, on the other hand, Fassbinder was regarded as “the most fascinating, most talented, most productive, most original young filmmaker in Western Europe”, as the New York Times already wrote in 1977. In 2005, on the anniversary of his 60th birthday, there was an exhibition on Fassbinder together with a comprehensive retrospective of his work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. And David Barnett’s book Rainer Werner Fassbinder – Theater as Provokation, which flanks the Munich exhibition, was already published in English in 2005. On the other hand, among many other reissues and new publications in this anniversary year, there is a 464 page German Fassbinder biography by Jürgen Trimborn.
The Verlag der Autoren (Authors’ Publishing House), which publishes all 16 published plays, several stage adaptations and screenplays, lists to date over 1,000 Fassbinder productions worldwide. Alone from 2010 to 2012, it counts more than 60 premiers ranging from Rio de Janeiro to Stockholm. These include Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) 16 times; Tropfen auf heiße Steine (Water Drops on Burning Rocks),which was most recently stage in Germany in June 2012 at the Stuttgart State Theater, 8 times; Katzelmacher, THE play about xenophobia, 6 times; and the screenplay for Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul) and the former scandal play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod (Trash, the City and Death) each 5 times. The last piece managed to be produced on a German stage only 22 years after its 1987 New York premier – because of vigorous protests by the German Central Council of Jews. In Israel, by contrast, the play could already been seen ten years earlier.
From scandal to success – now also in Germany
Respect for the playwright Fassbinder, who already experienced an explosion of popularity after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, seems to have grown in Germany. That “Fassbinder’s film-related material” has, according to Barnett, always been the most popular was proved once again in this year’s thirtieth anniversary of the artist’s death when the Munich Residenztheater held an international festival entitled Preparadise Fassbinder Now and owed its biggest success of the season to Fassbinder’s Petra von Kant The agonizing inner conflict of the title character between the yearning for unconditional (homosexual) love and self-command shows that the man who lived so fast and recklessly still had an intimate knowledge of the human precipices and abysses in which the deepest love turns into coruscating hate. At the Munich Kammerspiele, Stefan Pucher copied one of the many “atypical” Fassbinder films, using a different aesthetics but with similar success: the self-ironic art world satire Der Satansbraten (Satan’s Brew) was reborn as an odd, loopy play; not compelling, but rousing.
Fassbinder’s unconventional views of reality are not literary masterpieces and by no means any longer as provocative as they were in 1970; but precisely their openness offers the stage a marvellous scope. Even if their creator has been catching up for the last thirty years on the sleep he missed during life.
Exhibition at the German Theater Museum, Munich
May 25 – September 9, 2012
The author is a freelance journalist and theater critic for various publications, including the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the taz und www.nachtkritik.de.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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