Fassbinder - enfant terrible of the German New Wave

“Every authentic director has only one theme, and therefore makes the same film over and over again. My theme is the exploitation of emotions, regardless of who exploits them.” Thus Fassbinder defined his thematic obsession

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, film and theater director, dramatist and actor, was found dead in his Munich apartment on June 10, 1982. He died ten days after his thirty-seventh birthday. The cause of death was supposedly heart failure caused by an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills. By his side they found the unfinished script for his next film, Rosa Luxemburg. Fassbinder’s death is considered to be the symbolic end of the New German film, whose other representatives were great authors such as Wim Wenders, Volker Schloendorf and Werner Herzog.

Famous for his frenetic rhythm of film making, his professional life lasted a little less than fifteen years but in that period he managed to make thirty five feature length movies, two television series, three short films, and four video productions. He directed twenty four theater plays and four radio dramas and acted in thirty six films. He worked as a cinematographer, composer, costume designer, editing director, producer and theatrical manager.

“Every authentic director has only one theme, therefore he makes the same film over and over again. My theme is the exploitation of emotions, regardless of who exploits them. It is a story that never ends, my eternal theme - regardless of whether the Government misuses patriotism or a person destroys his or her partner in an emotional relationship.” Thus Fassbinder defined his thematic obsession. He was consistent and cruelly provocative in his choices, his films were painstakingly challenging for German and middle-class society in general and his personal life was a constant source of public disgust and scandal. Fassbinder’s intensive work discipline and unbelievable creative energy were in complete contradiction to the wild self-destructive libertinism that earned him a reputation as the enfant terrible of the German New Wave, the central figure of which he most definitely was. His colleagues and the creative people working on his films were a surrogate family with whom he had a difficult and complicated relationship; no less dramatic than the relationships in his love life. As an avowed bisexual, or a homosexual who had relations with women, he never found lasting peace in any relationship. All of his films express deep authorial and human understanding of the social misfits, and a strong hatred towards institutionalized violence. He uncompromisingly attacked German middle-class society because of its prejudices towards race, nation, sex, but at the same time his films were a desperate quest for love and freedom. In an artistic sense, Fassbinder’s films unite a number of influences in the best possible way; Brecht and Artaud’s perception of theater, Hollywood melodramas - his adoration of Douglas Sirk is legendary - classical film narration and even films by Jean-Luc Godard. He was a melting pot spiced with an indelible gay sensitivity. Had he not been such a unique author, we could have labeled him as an eclectic because of the many influences that he emphasized rather than hid. How much he challenged society is evident in the number of accusations against him; he was accused of being a radical lefty, an anticommunist, a male chauvinist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist and even homophobic.

Fassbinder was born on May 31, 1945, in the small Bavarian town of Bad Wörishofenu, just three weeks after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Although he came from a respected bourgeois family - his father Helmut Fassbinder was a doctor and his mother Liselotte Pempeit an interpreter - the boy grew up in a completely dysfunctional environment and at the age of six lived through his first trauma, the divorce of his parents and the departure of his father. Liselotte raised Rainer as a single mother, renting rooms so she could provide for her family and absent a lot of the time as she suffered from TB and had to get treatment. Later she married the journalist Wolf Elder with whom the boy had an exceptionally bad relationship. Rainer was often sent to the movies, because his mother could not concentrate on her translations when he was around, so Fassbinder claimed that he saw at least one film a day, sometimes three to four. “Films were a substitute for a family life that I did not have at home” - he used to say.

At the age of fifteen he left school and went to Köln to live at the home of his father, with whom he often argued. While attending night school he wrote short plays, stories and poems. He began to frequent gay bars and clubs and had his first romance with a Greek immigrant. It was at this time that he got his introduction to the world of transvestites, pimps, prostitutes, and bisexuals, a community that was to remain his emotional sanctuary until the end.

He returned to Munich in 1963, and, encouraged by his mother, Rainer started to study drama and actively become involved in theater. After two failed attempts to enroll to the Film Academy in Berlin and to study directing, Fassbinder joined the Munich ‘action theater’ as an actor. The theatre produced strong and provocative plays, and there he met most of his future film actors, such as Peer Raben, Kurt Raab, Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla, his most important actress. During that time he made two short films, The City Tramp, and The Little Chaos in which he appeared as an actor, alongside his mother who bore the stage name Lilo Pempeit; this was one of the many roles she played in his movies.

Fassbinder, as opposed to other leading German authors of the period, used his theatrical experience in films, and most of his theater crew appeared in his entire opus; with Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann, he made about twenty films. His fast working style and early developed manic hyper-production were essential for his career. He was familiar with the acting and technical aspects of filmmaking, which allowed him to make five or six films annually with small budgets and still compete continually for Government grants.

After Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf, 1974.), and especially The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun,1978.), Fassbinder became an international movie star, winning awards at film festivals, having retrospectives in Paris, London, New York. Soon he became a favorite name among intellectuals and film lovers across the world. When he didn’t travel he lived in Munich, rented a house in Paris and was often seen in New York’s gay bars. This brought him the status of a cult hero, but also, on account of his films, lifestyle and sexual preferences, gained him a controversial reputation.

“Every man has to decide for himself if he wants to have a short, but exciting existence or if he wants to live long and peacefully” said Fassbinder, and his life story tells us what he chose. He had affairs with women, but he preferred the company of men. His personal life was filled with scandals, dramatic love affairs and even more dramatic break-ups. Early in his career he had a long and fragile relationship with Irm Hermann, a former secretary that he persuaded to become an actress. Hermann idolized him and he supposedly bullied her and according to her statement even beat her up. Finally at the end of the seventies she fell in love with another man with whom she had a child. Rainer asked her to marry him, but she refused. His greatest love in his early phase was Günther Kaufmann, who was not an educated actor. After Rainer fell in love with him, he tried to hold on to Günther with expensive gifts and offers of film roles. Kaufmann was heterosexual and married with two children.

Although he claimed to be against marriage, Fassbinder married Ingrid Caven in 1971, an actress who played in many of his films. Their relationship of mutual admiration surpassed the failed two-year marriage. “We had a love story in spite of the marriage” Ingrid explained in an interview and even talked about her husband’s sexuality: “Rainer was a homosexual who needed women. It sounds very simple, but at the same time it is very complex”. Irm Hermann, Ingrid Caven and Juliane Lorenz, the three most important women in Fassbinder’s life, didn’t mind his homosexuality.

In 1971, Fassbinder fell in love with a Moroccan Berber, El Hedi ben Salem. Their turbulent relationship ended violently in 1974. Salem, fantastic as Ali in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, hanged himself in jail in 1982. Fassbinder, who died soon after his last lover, devoted his last film to him, Querelle, based on the novel Querelle de Brest by Jean Genet.

Armin Meier, supposedly a barely literate former butcher, played an important role in Fassbinder’s life. They were together from 1974 to 1978, and after the director ended their relationship, Meier committed suicide on Rainer’s birthday. Completely broken up because of Meier’s suicide, Fassbinder made In a Year of 13 Moons (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, 197.) to relieve his own pain. The last four years of his life he spent with Juliane Lorenz, the editor of his films. It was she who found his dead body.

Love Is Colder Than Death, (Liebe is kalter als der Tod, 1969), his first feature length film, was a fiasco at the Berlin film festival. Fassbinder refused to be crushed by the whistles and aggressive criticism, and showed the full extent of his talent with his next film Katzelmacher (1969), based on his own theater play. The film received the critics’ award in Manheim. It was a story about Jorgos, a Greek immigrant who experiences the cruelty of a German society that alienates him. Social alienation is the prevailing theme in Fassbinder’s best films and the theme continued in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. It won the international critics’ award in Cannes and most of the media declared it to be the best film of 1974. The story was based on the classic American masterpiece All that Heaven Allows (1955), a film by Douglas Sirk, which deals with the negative reactions of the family and the community towards a mature and lonely white maid who marries a young, muscular and dark-skinned Moroccan immigrant worker. Great loneliness joined these two people, who have to experience great hostility and public rejection when their relationship becomes public. Of course, Fassbinder never made a classical remake of any American film that he admired, but his relationship towards American cinema was special: “The American method of making movies is to leave the audience overwhelmed with emotions, and I want to give the viewers emotions, but leave them room to analyze and reflect upon them.”

Although most of Fassbinder’s work are passionate and intelligent melodramas, his opus can be divided into three different phases. His first dozen films (1969-1971) are a continuation of his theater work, characterized by the use of a static camera and intentionally play-like dialogues. In the second phase, which is when he became internationally renowned, he mostly made melodramas with an ironic detatchment that were largely influenced by Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. In these films Fassbinder explored deeply rooted social prejudices about race, sexuality, political orientation and class differences, as well as his favorite theme, the everyday fascism - oppression and violence - of relations among friends and family. In his third phase, lasting from the end of the 1970s to his death, Fassbinder mixed themes and styles, but he will be most remembered for his trilogy about women in post-fascist Germany The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, 1981, and Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronica Voss, 1982) which won him the Golden Bear in Berlin.

The Marriage of Maria Braun, starring Hanna Schygulla, was Fassbinder’s most successful film. It was well-accepted even by the traditionally averse German audiences. It is a story about the price in human values and morals that Germany had to pay for its spectacular post-war economic recovery. Maria’s corporate success is a direct consequence of the figurative act of prostitution. Even though she is inclined to a happy life with her husband, Maria Braun is not a story about love that overcomes all obstacles, but a declaration that true love has no place in the exploitative world of materialism and economic struggle, distanced from real emotions.

Lola employs itself with the theme of how strong personalities may use sex to manipulate weaker ones, which is a common motif in Fassbinder’s films. Lola is vaguely based on Josef von Sternberg’s Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, 1930) or rather on Heinrich Mann’s novel Profesor Unrat, which Sternberg used to make his film. Lola is the name of Sternberg’s lead heroine, played by Marlene Dietrich. Veronika Voss takes place in Munich during the 1950s and tells the story of an old German film diva who was supposedly Göbbels’ mistress. She is accidentally found out by a sports journalist. Veronika wants to return to film, but is unable to play in a single scene because of her morphine addiction and the decadent lifestyle built upon her imaginary world and memories of former glory and success. The story of this black and white film was inspired by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). “I would like to make Hollywood films; films that are so beautiful and universal, but not as hypocritical as Hollywood is.” This is perhaps the most beautiful and honest statement Fassbinder ever made about his role models and authorial ambitions.

For many critics the peak of Fassbinder’s work was the TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz, consisting of fourteen episodes based on the novel by Alfred Döblin from 1929. In this series he returned to an exploration of German history, but Döblin’s tale had enough material to satisfy all of Fassbinder’s obsessions with the connection of love and power. The naughty wunderkind of German post-war cinema was enchanted with Franz Biberkopf, the proletarian hero from Döblin’s novel. Supposedly Fassbinder often said: “I am Franz Biberkopf.”

“I would like to build a house with my movies”, Fassbinder said once. “Some of them are basements, some are walls, and some are windows. I hope to finish this house someday”. Since Fassbinder lived a life that was hyperactively fast, explosively creative and provocatively suicidal, he can sleep peacefully and rest secure in the knowledge that he built more that a symbolic house of film; he created a film palace of Hollywood glamour, one that will always be enjoyed by those who love film and life. (Alemka Lisinski)