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our guide to filmmakers
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R.W. Fassbinder
vs The Holy Whore

by Andrew Darington
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Arrow Films have just released the first titles from their Fassbinder collection...

Fear Eats the Soul

Fear Eats The Soul (1973)
DVD extras: 'Fassbinder in Hollywood' documentary, Life Conversations: a conversation with Fassbinder, The City Tramp (short film), Todd Haynes interview.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1972)
DVD extras: End Of The Commune featurette, Harry Baer interview.

The Marriage of Maria Braun

The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1979)
DVD extras: Fassbinder Familia - interactive biography of Fassbinder's entourage, documentary by Florian Hopf on Fassbinder, Fassbinder Frauen, The Little Chaos (short film).

The Merchant of Four Seasons The Merchant Of Four Seasons (1971)
DVD extras: 'Women on Fassbinder' featurette; Life, Love And Celluloid featurette.

Picture this - a thin lonely boy in postwar Germany shunted off to the movies each day by his divorced mother.. and that hypnotically luminous screen flashing spellbinding images that worm their way into his subconscious to become a lasting, almost subliminal source of fascination. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's obsessive fixation with the cinema was love and addiction, art and revenge, voice and vocabulary. It was an outlet for anger, yearning, cynicism and despair, a platform for decadence and psychological power play, a cinema of violence and sexual ambivalence that fed on, and mirrored those of his not-so private life. He made 15 films while still in his twenties, and 25 more after that, working on a profligate prolific three/four movies-a-year basis, like he knew time was snapping at his heels and he'd die - burnt out from a narcotic overdose, a few days after his 37th birthday.

Picture this - Lola is a prostitute who sings in a nightclub that doubles as a brothel. She marries Von Bohm who is naively unaware of her true vocation. On their wedding day she also puts out to her boss, Schuckert. "You want it with the wedding veil?" she asks Schuckert. "Yes," he leers. "That costs extra," she replies. Fassbinder was the disfigured wunderkind of the new German cinema. His bright lights throw powerfully deviant shadows. He filmed grotesque cruelties of corruption in detailed and alienating ways that savage all he deemed false and complacent about the German economic miracle. His is a hinterland of sinister uncertainty. 'Herr R' is an apparently successful businessman who suddenly murders his family, then goes to his office and kills himself.

Fassbinder's is a cinema of confrontation, an irreverent attacking cinema. There were various critical attempts to draw him into political commitment, but while he viciously satirises capitalism, his targets are bourgeois morality, sexual and social norms as well. His was essentially a nihilist vision powered by a disgust that allows for no such political solution. His characters destroy themselves not out of any moral or political imperative, but because of Fassbinder's own perverse preoccupation with the process of self-destruction. Film is 'the holy whore'. Love is 'colder than death'. Fassbinder was a bi-sexual with a life as dissolute as any of his celluloid fictions. He lived by excess and died of it. He was the antihero of his own life movie. "I can sleep," he bragged, "when I'm dead."

Fact and legend flow into and over each other until they become indistinguishable. This much is true... He was born on 31st May in Bad Wörishofen, Bavaria in the chaos of 1946. He grew up on Sendlinger Strasse in Munich's Thersienwiese red-light zone, and told later biographers his father was a doctor, and that he watched the local whores visiting the surgery. But when Rainer Werner was six, his parents split up, his mother began 'seeing' Wolff Eder, and movies began to figure in his life...

There was no German film industry, and what had existed was ruthlessly suppressed. American censorship, under the guise of anti-Nazi vetting, ensured that Hollywood had an absolute monopoly of film distribution, so the impressionable young kid was fed daily escapist fantasies of imported culture. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck. Melodrama and gangster elements filched from this fascination surfaced as affectionately mocking pastiche in his own work. In his later years he was also to list more intellectually chic influences - the Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel (particularly his scurrilously anti-catholic Viridiana) and French political experimentalist Jean-Luc Godard (especially his Vivre Sa Vie). But first cuts are the deepest, and his diet of screen junk-culture took root (with a pronounced persistent fondness for Douglas Sirk's 1950s' productions). February 28th 1962, he was 15 going on 16, the Beatles were in Hamburg, and riding on the back of a new prosperity the German movie industry took its first uncertain steps back from the void. The 'Oberhausen Manifesto', drawn up by 26 members of the new generation of German filmmakers, declared, "the old film is dead - we believe in the new." Fassbinder was too young to take part, but was to become its greatest beneficiary.

His mother, Liselotte, formerly a translator, was inducted into some of her son's movies as 'Lilo Pempeit'. It was she who made him attend drama school, giving him his first opportunity to participate in the creation of those tantalising fantasies. He even wrote and produced two playfully short films there, Der Stadtsreicher (1965) and Das Kleine Chaos, a year later. He graduated to join the Munich Action Theatre in 1967 where his audacious talent soon led to his writing plays, adapting classics, producing and directing for the group. But that wasn't enough. His energies were limitless, his gluttonous appetites immense, "a joy of living... to the point of destruction." Things were happening - voraciously he wanted his slice, and much, much more. It's said that he was cohabiting with two girls and a youth, all of whom were his lovers. He supplemented his meagre income by occasionally pimping for the girls, and selling himself, Midnight Cowboy style, to immigrant workers in Cologne. Such tales grow and multiply spontaneously. They've provided a posthumous industry for journalistic hacks and muck-rakers who hint at his randy obsession with black boyfriends and his narcotic fixations. But out of the intemperate chaos of this life he fashioned his art, or "he built his work around this lack" as Hanna Schygulla phrases it.

He made movies pleading the cause of those grotesquely exploited Turkish, African (and often English) 'guest workers'. Katzelmacher (in 1969) - in which he also acted under his frequent alias 'Franz', and Fear Eats The Soul which followed five years later, and uses the device of an affair between dowdy widowed cleaning lady Mrs Emmi Kurowski and 'Ali', a young Moroccan immigrant car worker 20 years her junior. Billed as "the story of an impossible love," she comes into the Asphalt Bar to escape the Munich rain. He accepts a dare, and dances with her to The Black Gipsy record on the jukebox. The developing relationship that follows is tentative, finding a frail tenderness in their shared loneliness. Then, as now, the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet set were a politically contentious issue, and this sparse film tackles ingrained racism head-on. The hostility of her family to their eventual marriage, her work colleagues who freeze her out, the supercilious superiority of the restaurant waiter at their happy-sad wedding meal, the shopkeeper who refuses to serve Ali by deliberately misunderstanding him, even the evil gossiping neighbours. "Thinking makes you sad," Ali tells her pragmatically. Yet despite the 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' forces pitted against them, they remain together through to the closing credits. An essentially human story, its impact comes from the dangerous subject-matter, just as incendiary now in the context of media-driven hysteria about Eastern European economic migrant workers, and asylum seekers.

But Fassbinder was part of the Baader-Meinhof generation to whom creative anger and sexual outrage were both weapons, and marketable commodities. After a year he split the Action Theatre by hiving off its most promising talents to form his own more radical company - Anti-Teater (theatre), an experimental avant garde troupe with a membership that would form the nucleus of his movie stock company. These relationships were important to him. He constantly drew from the same pool of performers, he knew their limitations and their potentials, a familiarity that allowed him to razor production-times to the bone and maintain his furious output. He worked with Irm Hermann from as early as 1965, and she became the most regular recipient of his cultured boorishness and deliberately cruel games, systematically humiliating her on set and even beating her when it suited him. He met Hanna Schygulla (who played his 'Effi Briest' and 'Maria Braun') at drama school and went through Action Theatre with her. Kurt Raab and Peer Raben date from Anti-Teater. He was briefly married to another of his actresses - Ingrid Caven (who starred in his political Mother Kunster), but she allegedly had to share their wedding night with his current boyfriend!

He pushed his associations to - and beyond the limits, then analysed them clinically through the medium of the films he was making, his life spilling over into film. The gay underground became the setting for Fox And His Friends, and lesbianism the theme of The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, which features Irm as the compliant slave-like submissive half of the female couple. Yet despite this apparently fully-interlocking interdependence, this professional teamwork of dramatis persona and technicians, his rampant egocentricity ensured his own total control. The 1971 movie Beware The Holy Whore effortlessly ridiculed the then-fashionable concept of collective film-production by showing just such a project angrily and antagonistically disintegrating as it runs out of money and motivation. Yet much of the clean edge and visual precision of his work was down to his regular backup crew, people like cameramen Dietrich Lohmann and Xaver Schwarzenberger.

Anti-Teater set out to shock and provoke reaction. It succeeded to the extent that one of its productions - The Bridegroom, The Comedienne, And The Pimp (1968) led to Fassbinder's first brush proper with celluloid, when it was filmed as a short by leading director Jean-Marie Straub. And although he continued with theatre and television work, Anti-Teater followed its cinematographic debut with Fassbinder's own first feature film - Love Is Colder Than Death. By the turn of the decade he'd extended his filmography by eight more titles, and their impact was sufficient to make him a trendy name to drop clear across Europe. "The thin deprived boy" - according to an Observer critic, had become "the fat swaggering man." A mess of personal contradictions, "a shy socialiser and a cruel charmer" making films in a frenzy of creative vigour.

The developing Fassbinder style, grown from confrontational fringe-theatre strategies, was 'anti-style'. He broke the rules, and forced his own counter-rules to work in their place. He infiltrated teasing homages, threw off references to Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Bogart and Pabst, made quirky gangster movies, thrillers, and even a spaghetti western (Whity), but did them on his own terms, denying flash or theatrical overkill. He uses very long takes, with uncompromisingly sparse décor and the cameras often static, eavesdropping voyeuristically on flat mannered dialogue. There are card games with pornographic decks. Fractured conversations. Long car journeys, repetitions, telephone calls. The scenarios he scripts involve unresolved ambiguities, and actions without motivation. He uses economically small sets and often primitive sound resulting in a near cinema verité effect. The monochrome attraction of the films becomes more a lethal and hypnotic fascination than any reliance on conventional structuring. And he uses this insidious power to unmask and cut incisively critical paths through Premier Adenauer's boom-years rebuilt German society - a period he despised for its falseness, consumer materialism, urban dreariness and venal values. His best early films were also marked by their compression and uncluttered directness - The American Soldier was filmed in just ten days...

Picture this - a shootout in a subway. The 'American soldier', home from the war, is shot. His assassin throws himself onto the fatally wounded man. A woman stands all in black at the head of a staircase in the backdrop. She watches the two men roll together, as their writhing takes on an increasingly sexual frenzy. It is filmed entirely in slow motion.

His output during this period is so great and diverse that it's difficult to either do it justice or even draw any consistent conclusions. The Merchant Of Four Seasons was a major success in Germany, charting the unsatisfied life of street barrow-vendor Hans Epp. He's "the little guy with the tall wife," whose family despise him. His mother runs him down, he's rejected by the 'love of his life' as not socially acceptable, and he lost his police job when he was discovered enjoying a blowjob from a prostitute he'd just arrested. Relentlessly he goes from discontent to despair, "nothing. Nothing you've done can be undone. Nothing," he decides darkly. He beats wife Irmgard as daughter Renate watches (beneath an idealised painting of the holy family!). She seeks solace with a married pickup while he's in hospital following a heart attack. The neighbours gossip on the stairwell. When he deliberately drinks himself to death, Irmgard pragmatically makes plans with Harry, his partner who sells plums marked-up at 120 per kilo. There are moments of bleak cynical humour, but none of the characters are - or are intended to be, likeable or sympathetic.

In Lili Marlene the romance of the wartime title-song is short-circuited by juxtaposing Lili's cabaret act with clips of the slaughter happening simultaneously on the battlefront. Whereas Effi Briest is a formal melodrama of guilt and morality with Effi tortured to eventual illness and death because of her (unconsummated) adultery. Fassbinder's own voiceovers and storyboards tell of "a deliberate scheme to intimidate." She's destroyed by the inexorable and unforgiving power of conventional morality. Perhaps, through some bizarre cultural mutation, the director was envisioning himself in a similar role?

But inevitably, as the 1970s bled towards the 1980s his reputation enabled him to devote more time and bigger budgets to his films. There's a tendency for them to become increasingly lush. Some of the intensity and anger dissolves. He remains a controversial figure, a maverick, but obviously no longer feels such a powerful need to confront or shock his audiences. His movies shift from being the exclusive property of film societies to screenings on late-night Channel Four slots. Some, including The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant - about a divorced fashion designer's curious sadomasochistic affair with her assistant, led the way as the first to be issued as video editions. His later, finely crafted work shows a near-mainstream sophistication that could possibly have mellowed out into mere celebrity. But instead, his own fierce contradictions narrow down to a cocaine-cocktail, which ensures that future was never to be. He died in 1982 on the 10th of June, in Monaco, Bavaria. To the little boy in the movie theatre force-fed on fantasies, the celluloid heroes he watched all lived and died in hugely exaggerated, larger-than-life legend, and working on that script he was pre-programmed to self-destruct. Anything else would have been a betrayal...

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