Posted in: Essays

When Herr R[ainer] Ran Amok

Whether or not Rainer Fassbinder was the most talented of the wave of West German directors who emerged during the 1970s, he was certainly the most prolific, protean and elusive. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death was released in 1969. Incredibly, the films discussed below, Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) were his 22nd and 23rd feature-length works; by the time he died in 1982 he had completed 14 more including the 16-hour television series that was his magnum (and grand) opus Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980].

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla

Fassbinder worked with frenzied urgency, pushing toward, and almost thriving on, excess—of stylization, melodrama, visual expressiveness, compositional precision, and pretty much everything else that defines the limits of film as a dramatic and expressive medium. His work could be wildly uneven and occasionally overwrought, clinically dissecting characters with the detached cruelty of a child pulling the wings off of flies. But it was seldom dull or pedestrian, and he seemed congenitally incapable of anything perfunctory or unengaged. Add in a personal life reportedly consisting of relationships that were a vipers’ pit of duplicity, jealousy and manipulation and a lifestyle Dionysian enough to give mere degeneracy a good name: he famously dismissed concerns that cocaine might ruin his health with the glib assertion “in Hollywood I can get a Teflon nose.” It’s enough to make you wonder how he got anything done, much less became one of the most productive film directors in history. (Of course, he did die at 37—well past his “sell by” date physically but not artistically: his penultimate film, Veronika Voss [1981], was among his best). He only dialed back his lifestyle—reportedly even abstaining from white powdery substances—and fully devoted himself to his craft once, for the year he spent laboriously realizing his dream project, a film adaptation of a novel he revered, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The resulting masterpiece runs 16 hours, enough screen time to imbue the characters and their milieus with a richness and depth not always evident in his other work. Sarris blurbed it “an Everest of modern cinema.” Its fullness suggests that the fierce urgency of the broad strokes he used to craft his other work may have sacrificed complexity and resonance for force and clarity.

Another point—hard to miss with Fox—is that Fassbinder, notwithstanding his marriage to early muse Ingrid Caven, was unabashedly, unapologetically, and—by his standards in other areas—matter-of-factly gay. He wasn’t particularly self-conscious about his sexuality, and it would miss the point to ghettoize him artistically or politically as a “gay director.” The characters in his films with gay milieus, the men in Fox, the lesbians in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), exploit, dominate, subjugate, humiliate, betray and destroy each other no more or less ruthlessly than the straight characters in his other films.

Fassbinder films are full of victims who are all impulse, with common sense in conspicuously short supply. Consider the transsexual in In A Year of 13 Moons (1978): an offhanded suggestion by a boyfriend that he might be more attractive if he were a woman leads the character—despite never having had much interest in becoming a woman—to get a sex change. This works about as well as a moment’s reflection would have led anyone to predict.

Fassbinder complemented his urgency and vitality with an extraordinary visual sense. He composed the frame with such a relentlessly inventive eye that—even when things look overdetermined—the images can be gorgeous, even mesmerizing. The phallic imagery and gold hues in Querelle (1982) are brazenly over-the-top; while they can’t rescue the film dramatically, they make it a feast for the eye. His collaboration with the brilliant cinematographer Michael Ballhaus was singularly productive, but some of his most visually inventive films came after he stopped working with Ballhaus; the dreamily smoky black and white in Veronika Voss creates a kind of visual poetry—downbeat of course.

And then there are the iconic women, a sublime and almost unending wave of luminous and resonant and compelling female performances: Hannah Schugylla in a host of roles, often variations on the sultry glamour girl of RWF’s commercial breakthrough The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978); Brigitte Mira, a stolid anchor, wonderfully perplexed in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973); Elizabth Trissenaar, an earthy siren in The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977); and Barbara Sukowa, touchingly vulnerable in Berlin Alexanderplatz—where, needless to say, the entire ensemble appears. That barely scratches the surface. His male characters are less flashy, often serving as vehicles to showcase the women and underscore the pervasive irony that provides a measure of distance from the often grim proceedings.

In sum, Fassbinder’s work can be cold, cruel, clinical, and more than a bit creepy. And even the pervasive visual inventiveness and layered irony didn’t prevent a few clunkers, like the disappointing English-language adaptation of Nabakov’s Despair (1977) with Dirk Bogardethe closest Fassbinder got to Hollywood and that Teflon nose. But for all their bleakness and cruelty, what makes a taste for Fassbinder’s films—admittedly, something that must be acquired—a curiously perverse kind of fun, is their kinky vitality and the aggressive way they compel the audience’s engagement. Mother Kusters and Fox provide two cases in point.

Mother Kusters
Brigitte Mira as Mother Kusters

Mother Kusters opens with one of the most forceful and emotionally charged sequences in Fassbinder. An almost numbingly banal, mechanical vignette of “family life” is disrupted by the news that the breadwinner, hard-working, considerate, and perhaps a trifle dull, has run amok, killing his boss and throwing himself into the machinery at the factory where he worked. The sequence showing his wife, Mother Kusters, (Mira) her face torn asunder by an expressive shadow, reacting to news of her husband’s death, is deeply moving, remarkably so for ironist extraordinaire Fassbinder. Shortly later, within a single shot, she is shown alone in her kitchen doing her household chores, being visited by two journalists and finally sitting down again, alone with her grief and numb confusion. Through much of the film, the emotional honesty and power of her mute, heartfelt pain works as a savagely effective counterpoint to the cynicism of the screen life that surrounds her.

Mira’s meticulous, understated performance gives these scenes much of their force as she subtly conveys an array of emotions: perplexity, instinctive decency, slightly overbearing maternal love, tolerance, and a grief that is barely articulated. Mira’s Mother Kusters has an individual specificity that makes her more than a symbol of the apolitical working class. As a sensible, simple, fundamentally decent person, she is confused by the leftist rhetoric that bombards her through much of the film, but her quiet dignity protects her from being overwhelmed by the assorted lunacies she encounters. The film’s “happy ending” is at once ironic in its contrivance and plausible as a pragmatic response to the world the film has explored and chronicled for the preceding two hours of screen time.

Mother Kusters is further enriched by an abundance of genuinely funny details. Many Fassbinder films are so corrosively bitter that their blackly humorous satire is almost completely cerebral, calculated to evoke a few smirks, but very little laughter. Several scenes in Kusters are almost hilarious. In the background of a job interview—ending with an “impresario” lecherously licking his lips—a would-be ballerina goes through her paces with a mute persistence, evidently oblivious to her jaw-dropping lack of talent. Exploiting the tragedy, the “Factory Murderer’s Daughter” sings a woeful song describing shit in the streets and a boyfriend leaving her for another man. A Communist couple pontificate about the class struggle while they live in bourgeois splendor purchased with the wife’s inherited wealth. And the film’s journalists, resplendent in black leather jackets and tight pants, could be refugees from a leather bar. Here, as elsewhere, Fassbinder uses his stock company of actors with easy assurance, giving despicable characters a hambone bravado that is slyly funny.

No doubt it is misleading to place so much emphasis on the feeling and humor in Kusters; in its way it is as cold, biting, and angry as the rest of Fassbinder’s work. But here cruelty and exploitation are balanced by more humane qualities. Fassbinder is still quick to judge and condemn, but he doesn’t do so with quite his usual overbearing relentlessness. Kusters was less a herald of a change in direction for Fassbinder than an illustration of his protean talent. It is a remarkable film, and it almost makes one wish he had worked its terrain more often—with fewer excursions into the theaters of cruelty of Chinese Roulette or Satans Brew (both 1976).

Fassbinder is Fox
Fassbinder is Fox

Fox and His Friends immediately preceded Kusters. The subject, social distinctions among gay men, is one that, as already suggested, Fassbinder treated matter-of-factly: gay or straight, treachery, exploitation and a struggle for power are defining qualities in all Fassbinder sexual relationships. In Fox social class counts for everything, and Fox, the lower class figure who wins a lottery jackpot—and, at about the same time, a bourgeois lover—is a social outsider. As diffidently played by Fassbinder himself he is perpetually isolated from his social “betters” with unacceptably sloppy clothes, bad table manners, and coarse language. Once he has gone through his lottery winnings, he loses his new “friends.” Although he never became comfortable with their bourgeois values, his efforts to do so alienated him from his own friends and lifestyle. Left alone, utterly lost, he kills himself in despair, using that most bourgeois of drugs, Valium.

The melodramatic story-line doesn’t suggest Fox’s riches. Fassbinder was ambivalent about traditional narrative film-making, preferring to use the story as an aid in exploring the interaction of character and social setting. Visually, he distances the camera from the action, keeping characters at a distance, using close-ups sparingly, and often placing objects in the extreme foreground to emphasize both the presence of the camera—a reminder that we are watching a film—and its (and our) distance from the action. Several times he employs another distancing device, freezing the characters into tableaus at the ends of scenes, holding the pose until the screen darkens; this punctuation creates a dream-like sense of inevitability.

Fox and his new friends
Fox and his new friends

The visual expressiveness extends even to the casting. As Fox, Fassbinder’s impish face seems to be perpetually squinting, his physical imperfections making him touchingly vulnerable in a world peopled by humanoids, their faces as perfect and impassively flawless as masks. It is clear from the opening of the film that it is he, rather than they, who are out of place. Between the first shot of the film, the garish neon nightscape of a carnival, and the last, a chillingly sterile subway station, the terrain is occasionally more elegant but seldom more hospitable to human life. Fassbinder focuses with almost horrifying intensity on the dehumanizing contours of this bourgeois world. Although Fassbinder’s sympathies are with the exploited, he clinically presents them and their exploiters alike as trapped within their social settings and the tangibly powerful effects of their physical surroundings. Fox’s lover may take his money and then leave him, but Fassbinder understands the dynamics of exploitation well enough to recognize any person needs to justify—or rationalize—his actions. Thus, the lover convinces himself that Fox was unworthy of his lottery winnings: “people like him are too crude to feel despair.” The self-justifying reasoning lets him believe he has not only been “fair” but has restored the money and the social order to their rightful states. It is this complacent dishonesty and the reduction of human relationships to exchanges of commodities that are the unspeakable horrors.

Despite the implicit political critique, Fassbinder declines to suggest any solutions. To the contrary, when two children discover Fox’s corpse in the subway station, they go through his pockets for money, and steal his jacket. Fassbinder watches impassively, here as throughout the film, with a precision and detachment that are nearly clinical. But despite the profoundly cynical despair that informs Fox‘s view of human relations, the film’s gaze is so intense it is almost hypnotic, perversely exhilarating. Fassbinder was a fascinating director, uncompromising, relentless, forceful, and endlessly inventive.