QAGOMA Interview Retrospective: Bringing Fassbinder to Brisbane

The Wizard of Babylon.
The Wizard of Babylon. | © The Wizard of Babylon

The largest retrospective on German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder ever held in Australia runs at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane until July 4, 2018. For ‘Kino in Oz’, film critic Sarah Ward talked with Australian Cinémathèque associate curator Rosie Hays about this rare chance to delve into the auteur’s works, influence and importance.

In May of 1982, sitting in a Cannes hotel suite less than a month before his death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder offered his thoughts about the future of cinema. The German filmmaker was taking part in a project by Wim Wenders, with documentary Room 666 posing a specific question to a selection of directors.

HIS OWN STYLE OF CINEMA

“Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?” they were asked.  “Films are getting polarized,” Fassbinder responded, “but on the other hand, there is very individual cinema or national cinema of individual filmmakers which is far more important today.” He didn’t mention his own work specifically, but his words couldn’t better encapsulate his legacy, with Fassbinder not only crafting his own style of cinema but also helping to shape a distinctive national oeuvre.
 
Both are evident at the Gallery of Modern Art’s Australian Cinematheque, as part of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder program curated by the venue’s former curatorial manager Jose Da Silva. Highlighting the acclaimed filmmaker’s works in the largest retrospective ever held in Australia, the showcase also highlights his impact upon German filmmaking through his 39 films — including six television movies and series — and four video productions made across Fassbinder’s 17-year career.

INTERVIEW WITH ROSIE HAYS

Given the size of his output, the program was split into two parts, with the first section running in late 2018. With the retrospective back on GOMA’s screens until July 4. A chat with Australian Cinémathèque associate curator Rosie Hays about this rare chance to delve into the auteur’s works, influence and importance.
 
Why mount a Fassbinder retrospective, and why now?
 
Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of the most polarising and influential figures of the New German Cinema. His legacy of film and theatre work remains influential for artists working today. While there have been screenings of Rainer Werner Fassbinder films in Australia, we wanted to present a major survey of his work on the big screen and offer an opportunity to see some previously little-seen productions. 
 
There is a growing body of Fassbinder’s films that have been restored which we felt needed a cinema screening. We worked closely with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, who have a restoration project underway. They’ve worked to restore 10 films in the last two years and have six more restorations planned this year. One of the restorations included in our program is Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day) from 1972-73, which had the world premiere of the restoration at the Berlin Film Festival last year.

The Marriage of Maria Braun. The Marriage of Maria Braun. | © Sydney Film Festival This is the first major retrospective of Fassbinder’s work to screen in Australia. How did it come about?
 
We began discussions with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, who were supportive of our hope to mount as comprehensive a retrospective as possible. They have been instrumental in helping us access a wide range of Fassbinder’s work from around the world. Additionally, Juliane Lorenz, President of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and former film editor of Fassbinder’s works, will be travelling to Brisbane to deliver a talk in our program. On 23 June she will discuss the role of women in Fassbinder’s life and work.
 
Fassbinder compiled quite the body of work throughout his short but prolific career, in his own films and acting in others, plus TV, stage and radio productions — what drove the selection choices behind the program, in terms of what is included and what didn’t make the cut?
 
Where possible, we wanted to include some of Fassbinder’s lesser seen and hard-to-source works to offer our audience a unique opportunity to view as comprehensive a retrospective as possible. Films have not been included for practical reasons such as legal disputes or there is just nothing to screen. We’ve drawn from restorations, 35mm film prints, 16mm film prints and have even created English subtitles for materials that have none.
 
The program is split into parts, with the first half screening last year and the second half returning now. What was the reasoning behind that?
 
As Fassbinder has an impressively prolific output of work, we split the retrospective into two parts to help our audience engage with and digest the films. To allow for a complete presentation, including works based on Fassbinder's plays and those staring the director in principal roles, this program is being presented in two seasons. We hope ultimately it will allow our audience to see more of the films.
 
What kind of journey can audiences expect to take through Fassbinder’s career during the second part of the program?
 
This second part of the program will feature some of Fassbinder’s later work as his budgets and international reputation had grown. His fascination with American melodrama comes to the fore. It includes some well-known titles such as his BRD trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lola (1981) and Veronika Voss (1982) (with a beautiful 35mm print from Janus Films in the US).
 
It also includes footage of Fassbinder on set shooting his last film in the behind-the-scenes documentary The Wizard of Babylon (1982) and his final film Querelle (1982).

Fox and His Friends. Fox and His Friends. | © Fox and His Friends. Why do you think that Fassbinder still resonates today — both his own story, and in the stories he brought to the screen?
 
Fassbinder’s works are so personal and brutally intimate – once you explore enough of his work, you really begin to get a sense that you know him and his foibles quite well. Additionally, his works are often so beautifully crafted with an aesthetic style that is still captivating as an audience member today.
 
The program hasn’t shied away from Fassbinder’s television series, screening ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, ‘Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day’ and ‘World on a Wire’. In a program that immerses viewers in the director’s oeuvre as a whole, where do these incredibly immersive longer-form works sit?
 

Given we are currently in a time that is enjoying a ‘golden age’ of quality television, it’s interesting to see a major cinematic artist engaging with long-form television storytelling before it was in vogue. His television works use the extra time to explore the lives of the characters, and the themes with which Fassbinder was so interested, with even more detail.
 
What does GOMA hope audiences will take away from the Fassbinder program?
 
We hope our audiences finish the program with a better sense of Fassbinder’s oeuvre as a whole — including not only the works he directed, but also wrote, appeared in, or produced — and the role his output plays in the development of modern cinema. Even though he would often work in similar genre formats, the breadth and depth of his work is striking, and we hope this can be seen by presenting his work so expansively.
 
The Australian Cinematheque screens a wide array of programming throughout the year — where does the Fassbinder retrospective sit amongst the rest of the Cinematheque’s program?
 
The Australian Cinémathèque, presents retrospective and thematic film programs and exhibitions, exploring the important lines of influence between the moving image and other areas of visual culture, and showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and artists. Its mission is to collect, conserve, present and interpret film and screen culture. With this mission, we aim to survey a wide variety of regions around the world, filmmaking movements from across the history of cinema into contemporary practitioners and retrospectives of filmmakers.
 
In the last year, the Australian Cinematheque has mounted major programs dedicated to two iconic German directors — with this and the Herzog program. GOMA has had a focus on German art more broadly as well, with the Gerhard Richter exhibition and accompanying films. Is there a reason behind that?
 

It's been a pleasure to explore three fascinating yet differing bodies of work by three key German artists. In each of these exhibitions and programs we’ve had the opportunity to work either with the artist themselves or their studios directly, which includes Richter and his studio, Fassbinder’s Foundation and the Werner Herzog film office.
 
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Retrospective screens at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art from June 1 to July 4, 2018.