Rainer Wainer Fassbinder
In 1997, the New York MoMa ran a retrospective of the oeuvre of Rainer Wainer Fassbinder, the notorious maverick of the New German cinema in the 1970s, who had died during his sleep 15 years before the retrospective at the untimely age of 37. It was the institution's most successful retrospective ever. As we approach the 25th anniversary of Fassbinder's death, a UK DVD distribution company called Arrow Films is releasing on 07 August four of his most famous films (Fear Eats the Soul(1974), The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), The Marriage of Maria Braun(1979) and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant(1972)), including short films and documentaries as extra features. From February 2007 the company will be releasing 17 of his features in special edition boxes.
Considering the surprising success of Fasbinder's retrospective in America, where allegedly knowledge of German film history is bigger than in Germany itself, probably thanks to the 1,500 film studies departments across the country, is a symptom of a need for the type of direct, Brechtian, bold cinema that Fassbinder created. An original inventor of images, his name can be evoked to describe a type of filmic microcosm, the Fassbinderian film, since he represented a one-man movement who worked with a core group of people, mainly women, during his entire career, probably one of the reasons that he was so prolific. Although he died at 37, he nonetheless bequeathed the world over 40 films by an age when most film directors are only just getting started. His stamina, creative drive and imagination were astonishing.
Fassinder understood the human heart, says the film curator at the Moma, Laurence Kardish, in the documentary Love, Life and Celluloid which accompanies The Merchant of Four Seasons. People wanted to see his films and be provoked by them because they knew they were in safe hands, says Kardish. When you see a film like Fear Eats the Soul, where a middle-aged cleaner falls in love with a much younger Moroccan garage mechanic and has to face the ire of the racist and petty society where she exists, Fassbinder lifts a mirror at the audience who is forced to face their own fears and prejudices. Hugely inspired by Douglas Sirk, under whom he worked and who, in an ironic twist of fate, wrote Fassbinder's obituary in the German press when Sirk himself was pushing 90, Fassbinder used frames within frames and mirrors to create a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Such artifices have the effect of forcing the audience to feel the pressure of the architecture of their own preconceptions or the life they have chosen to live, the result being an exhilarating feeling of being freed from calcified ideas.
Todd Haynes, a famous Fassbinder fan whose film Far From Heaven was inspired by Fear Eats the Soul, is featured in an interview where he talks mostly about Fassbinder's adoption of melodrama as a strategy to dissect German society in a way that was not didactic like, for example, the films of Jean Luc Godard from the late 1960s onwards or the so-called 'radical cinema'. The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972) is a perfect illustration of that. Fassbinder's first commercial success and probably his most Sirkian film, it tells the story of Hans, a former foreign legionnaire who is outcast by his family for abandoning the idea of becoming an engineer to peddle fruit and vegetable from a cart. After a few initial hiccups with his wife (over boozing and philandering), the business starts to prosper (and the wife starts to cheat on him) but Hans becomes increasingly depressed and sullen. A masterpiece of mise-en-scène, this film is a perfect encapsulation of Fassbinder's vision: minutely calculated shot lengths, uniform lighting, dramatic use of customs, exaggerated acting and a bitter sense of humour that often denounces the corruption and exploitation that propels the dynamics of human relations.
It is said that all his films end tragically. It's true that there is a great deal of death and a sense that the human experience is a losing battle. But perhaps this appears to be so because we are so used to idea of happy endings and that art should serve our collective narcissistic project that tends to gloss over human flaws and weaknesses. An artist that questions those naturalised ideas of how humanity should be portrayed will undoubtedly be seen as 'radical' and negative. But there is a feeling of tenderness and compassion in Fassbinder that neutralises any accusations that he was nihilistic or misanthropic. In one of the interviews with Fassbinder himself, he says that his goal was to free people, a statement which comes across as surprisingly tender and earnest from a director with a reputation of being cruel and tempestuous. Seeing the director speak about himself puts him in a completely different light, quite different from the mythic haze that precedes him.
Despite the deeply German ethos of Fasbinder films, his understanding of emotions and motivations for action, whether clear or not, is completely universal, hence his popular appeal. Someone says in one of the documentaries that Fassbinder wanted to be as effective as Hollywood but not as hypocritical. This makes complete sense. His films are narrative pieces with a focus on storytelling but, whereas Hollywood turns stories into fake concoctions that never go under the skin, Fassinder's films pierce as deep as needles. His early death was an irreplaceable loss to cinema. As his friend and counterpart Wim Wenders puts it, you can only imagine what other films he would have made, especially considering the steady progression of his work throughout the 1970s and the very early 80s, culminating in the glossy, internationally starred Querelle. Still, what Fassbinder achieved in his short-lived career remains one of the most outstanding bodies of work any director has ever produced.