CineMasters: Fassbinder Programme Note

Description of image
Fear Eats the Soul, 13 & 14 May

“The established culture business needs outsiders like me.” 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82) was the most prolific and important director in the Federal Republic of Germany: in less than two decades he made 43 films, wrote more than 15 plays and regularly starred in his own films and those of his colleagues. “There’s a mania in film-making”, he once said, “it includes everything”. When he died, The Times declared he was “the most talented and most prolific” filmmaker of his generation, whilst the Scotsman claimed that he rolled his camera “like other people roll cigarettes”. German culture certainly needed Fassbinder, and his reputation helped to put the New German Cinema on the map alongside Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and others during the 1970s. However he was not just an outsider, but also a would-be insider who longed to be a successful, Hollywood-style director in Europe – asked “Do you want to make German Hollywood films?” Fassbinder replied “Yes. I’m all for it. Yes. That’s what I want.” As film historian Thomas Elsaesser put it, “concentrating on one aspect of the Hollywood heritage (the production of “real” feelings through “false” images), he is attempting to reinvent Hollywood”.

Description of image
Love Is Colder Than Death, 20 & 21 May

But there is also something of the American artist-filmmaker Andy Warhol about Fassbinder and, at least up until around 1971, his commune-like group of collaborators often reminds one of Warhol’s Factory in New York. As early as 1973, a mere four years after his debut Love is Colder than Death (and, already, thirteen films later!), the German weekly Die Zeit published a lavishly-illustrated six-page article entitled “Exhausted Wunderkind: Rainer Werner Fassbinder: From the Theatre Commune to the Art Factory” alluding to two important precedents for Fassbinder’s status as the guru of a febrile artistic “community” – the American Living Theatre and Warhol’s group. Fassbinder’s position as patriarch of a close-knit and turbulent commune is cast, unconsciously or otherwise, in the vein of ‘60s American underground culture. His controversial play on the “Moors Murderers”, Pre Paradise Sorry Now, which contains scenes of sexual violence and what Fassbinder termed “liturgical and cult cannibalism” is indeed, as its English-language title indicates, a direct response to the Living Theatre’s revolutionary performance Paradise Now, which Fassbinder saw during it German tour in 1968. A petition against Fassbinder’s play drawn up by Tom Pendry MP, and signed by Gerald Kaufman amongst others, ensured that it was not subsequently performed in Manchester and Salford as planned.

Description of image
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 24 & 25 May

The febrile gay, bisexual and straight relationships within Fassbinder’s group are mirrored again and again in his films, including two featured in this season, the anti-gangster movie Love is Colder than Death (1969) – which gives us a sense of what his early work on stage looked like – and the brilliantly intense lesbian drama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) which stars no fewer than four of Fassbinder’s finest actresses – Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann and Eva Mattes

Fassbinder began his career as a filmmaker in Munich, just after and rather far away from the political unrest in Paris and Berlin around 1968, and he famously rejected direct political action himself – “I don’t throw bombs, I make films” as he put it. Yet this doesn’t mean Fassbinder is not a political filmmaker: besides queer, body and disability politics – a striking example of the latter features in this season, Chinese Roulette (1976) – there is the unmasking of everyday fascism and prejudice in his “migrant worker” films including Fear Eats the Soul (1974, also showing in Glasgow), and the bitingly satirical portrayal of German post-war traumas (and disappointments) in the later BRD-trilogy, starting in 1979 with The Marriage of Maria Braun. But there is none of the ideological commitment of his West German contemporaries Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Peter Nestler, or Harun Farocki.

Description of image
Chinese Roulette, 30 & 31 May

The political, historical and sexual struggles in his later films, even the topical engagement with terrorism in the late seventies, are always embodied, visceral and very loosely allegorical. The (anti)politics of his work was programmed to enrage the Left – his satire on the West German Communist Party in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) was particularly inflammatory – whilst its sexual perversity and nihilism were guaranteed to outrage the Right. Fassbinder’s fierce political autonomy, along with his sincere outrage at prejudice, chauvinism and bigotry – here Fear Eats the Soul is a paradigmatic example – have ensured the lasting relevance, topicality even, of his films beyond the changes Germany experienced less than a decade after his death during and after Reunification.

Fassbinder’s collaborator and producer Peter Märthesheimer neatly summed up his friend’s sometimes contradictory political aspirations as “a radically naive, almost biblically simple utopia of a future society free of exploitation and subordination, free of all kinds of fear – everyone's fear of everyone else and in particular every individual's fear of himself.” It is this “simple utopia” more than anything else, which has ensured Fassbinder’s continuing relevance for filmmakers – Todd Haynes and François Ozon are just the most obvious examples – and for audiences alike. A recent phenomenon has been the re-emergence of Fassbinder on stage in Germany, where his films have been adapted for the theatre within the context of changing debates on transgressive sexuality, exploitation, and most recently the migrant crisis. Fear Eats the Soul, for example, has recently been staged at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin directed by the German-Turkish film and theatre director Hakan Savaş Mican. These productions represent an exciting afterlife for Fassbinder’s films and one of which he would surely have enthusiastically approved. As he laconically put it himself: “Every director has only one subject… my subject is the exploitability of feelings.”

“All I really wanted to do was film my needs and impulses!” (Fassbinder)

Dr Martin Brady (King’s College London)

May 2017


Further Reading

Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996)

Brigitte Peucker (ed.), A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Chichester: Wiley-Backwell, 2012)

Wallace Steadman Watson, Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996)

banknote calendar-02 calendar close down-chevron facebook filter google-plus left-arrow-02 mail play-icon right-arrow search shopping-basket small-play-icon tick twitter up-arrow