This page as PDF

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Ideological Sludge


“I want to build a house with my films.” So claimed Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His career, spanning a dozen years and devoid of rest, turned into a mansion with many rooms – over forty films – but was it also a building with undeniable structural flaws? Or was that the very point: that it was a structural mish-mash to show up the conventional master building of so many hacks? Fassbinder, as much as any other auteur, held to Stanley Cavell’s belief, in The World Viewed, that “initially a filmmaker may be content to use a device merely to embarrass the hateful complacency of studio production technique”. Any device Fassbinder adopted contained a confrontational rather than a conventional aspect, whether it was a convention or otherwise. Born in 1946 and dead at 37, he never quite believed in the firm ground necessary for a free-standing cinematic career, and his oeuvre is best seen, and in the best sense, as an enormous architectural folly. He built his dream home on ideological sludge, as if he wanted his films to signify the lop-sided materialism of post-war Germany, where materialism denied self-consciousness. One watches his films now, thirty years after his death, wondering to what degree Fassbinder’s films have been buried beside him, and which films remain alive. But perhaps it is better still to think in terms of films that were buried but will constantly return as ghosts to haunt the consciousness not so much of a nation (though Germany is very much Fassbinder’s subject), but of the complacent, of those of us who feel a little too comfortable with our lives.

Fassbinder was never a director who went in search of the easiest emotional identification. As he once said, “in my films there shouldn’t be feelings that people have absorbed. The films should create new ones instead.”  However, he happened to be influenced by one of the most emotionally demanding filmmakers in Hollywood, Douglas Sirk. If technically and narratively Fassbinder’s influences included Brecht, as well as Godard and Warhol, it was the Sirkian input that paradoxically made Fassbinder’s films his own. After all, almost every left of centre filmmaker had absorbed Brecht and Godard: numerous filmmakers working on low-budget looked towards Warhol’s Factory filmmaking processes. No other outré filmmaker had thought of utilising Sirk’s melodramatic aesthetic. According to biographer Christian Braad Thomsen in Fassbinder, the director familiarised himself with Sirk at the beginning of the seventies: watching half a dozen Sirk films in the winter of 1970-71, before travelling with a film crew to Switzerland and meeting the great man in person. What he found in Sirk was melodramatic excess and a camp sensibility played out against the canvas of the richest, freest country in the world.

Fassbinder was like some mischievous boy in the science lab who wanted to know how that sensibility would work against a German backdrop. He wanted to see how it would work in a country haunted by Nazism, spliced in two by the cold war, and whose economic miracle was actually a prosaic combination of American fiscal influence and psychic denial chanelled into materialist gain. Sirk, after all, was a German director who fled Nazi Germany to work in the land of the free. Fassbinder was working in a Germany whose equivalent freedom came out of devastating defeat. If Fassbinder‘s films so insistently suggest a two-dimensionality – his films are commonly referred to as tableaux – that devoid third dimension may be nothing less than the ideologically absent: the presence in Fassbinder’s films of an arch fatalism the result of a missing, underlying social basis; and yet one replaced by a certain, dogmatic, yet evolving aesthetic certitude.

What Fassbinder’s films often suggest both in theme and in technique is the inability to act; the paralysis of the will, or alternatively, the ability to act but with the resultant paralysis of the soul, or, then again, their combination. In theme, the inability to act runs through such films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear of Fear and In a Year with 13 Moons. The ability to act but to lose one’s soul is central to works like The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola. Technically, Fassbinder often favoured tight, slightly crammed frames, or restricted, fixed framed motionless shots of people standing around, the camera apparently as devoid of purpose as the characters’ themselves. In Katzelmacher all but a few of the shots are fixed, with the occasional reverse track of characters walking through the streets, counter-pointing the general inertia without quite countering it. These are listless lives on a German housing estate, narratively energized by the immigrant (a Greek character played by Fassbinder himself) in their midst, and technically only occasionally by Fassbinder’s deviation from his fixed frame approach.

In the brisker, often later works, the camera tends to be much more mobile. Here the harsh conscience comes less through the tableaux framing that captures the characters’ lives, than in an almost mocking sense of movement as it constantly dollies and cranes around and above the characters as if only half-concerned to witness their faults and foibles – evidenced in Michael Ballhaus’s very mobile work in Chinese Roulette, for example. This general refusal to find a formal method that would draw an audience to his characters is partly responsible for Fassbinder’s pessimism. As he says, in an early bfi pamphlet on his work, Fassbinder, “The viewer should be able to activate things and feelings in himself via the characters, but the structure of the presentation ought to give him the possibility for reflection…” There is often in the director’s framing and camera movement a ruthless sense of portent, a kind of cinematographic equivalent of a Greek chorus.

In so many of those earlier films, and also of course in some of the later ones, there is the trademark shot of characters seen through a door frame – the camera looking on, as indecisive an onlooker as the troubled viewer. There is the lovemaking scene between central character Ali and the barmaid in Fear Eats the Soul, for example, shot from outside the bedroom as the couple make love in medium long shot. Then there is the fixed frame point of view shot in Fox and his Friends where Fox lies in bed while his lover tidies up after him in the sitting room. Both shots function similarly, even though one is devoid of point of view and the other from the central character’s perspective. Fassbinder’s approach, however, suggests there is always a perspective, a framing that functions like an uncanny consciousness and not merely an observer.

It is this distance and yet curious emotional immediacy that makes Fassbinder’s films so interesting. Where both Sirk and Fassbinder are drawn to the engulfed feeling, Fassbinder retains an acerbic reserve – as if to give his characters the optimistic ending of a Sirk would be letting Germany off the hook. Fassbinder always liked to see an audience wriggle. Looking at one of Fassbinder’s most moving films, the aforementioned Fear Eats the Soul, we can see this contradiction in the film’s denouement, in its need to give an audience a happy ending whilst simultaneously retaining a belligerence towards German society. Hence, this simple story about aging cleaner Emmi who falls in love and marries the young Arab immigration worker, Ali, concludes, after much misfortune and a brief separation, with the couple getting back together again. It seems as if at the end of the film the characters, as they dance in a Munich bar, have transcended social expectation and a comment a female barfly makes earlier in the film – ‘it’ll never work out’. They seem to have achieved happiness in a social framework that does its damnedest to deny the possibility. Then, suddenly, Ali collapses on the dance floor with a stomach ulcer. The scene is on one level crazily heavy-handed, and yet on another clinically political. As the doctor says to Emmi in the following and closing scene in the film, ulcers are a recurring problem for immigration workers: overwork, stress, alienation and homesickness all contributing to Ali’s perforated stomach. The characters might well achieve personal contentment, but Fassbinder cannot ignore the fact that general social resentment can work its way into a gut. Clearly, Fassbinder wants the melodramatic directness of a Sirk, but also the political astuteness of his earlier influence Brecht. Fassbinder is more than willing to kamikaze his own movie’s subtlety for more demanding political ends.

This need both for a happy ending (the love shared between Emmi and Ali is undeniably warmly presented), and a troubling belief on the viewer’s part that the ending must have an ironic dimension, runs through much of Fassbinder’s oeuvre of course. The director may have believed, according to Thomsen, “Hollywood directors have been capable of filming the conventional ending the studios required, but at the same time they could lend the convention an ambivalence which made the viewer dissatisfied…”, but this says less about classic Hollywood than Fassbinder’s interpretation of it. Fear Eats the Soul achieves this ambivalence by telling a simple love story, but has the relationship develop between an elderly cleaner and an Arabic man in his thirties. Fassbinder adds to this a technique insisting the story plays out in inverted commas, using actors he constrains within the frame, and then concludes with scenes clearly indicating love for the characters but a hatred for the German state. Fassbinder’s desire to find new feelings for old stories comes from the insistent playing with and against expectation.


If Fassbinder absorbed Sirk on a narrative level, Godard and Warhol technically, and Brecht politically, then whatever metaphysic his work contains, whatever hint at the transcendent, may be traced back at least partially to Arthur Schopenhauer. He read the philosopher closely, with the hunger of a disciple, and what he saw in Schopenhauer was a perverse contrary pessimism that seemed similar to his own, a belief, simultaneously, in the sovereign right of the ego whilst also seeing that man’s unhappiness lies in this singularity of will. It lies in man’s unwillingness to see that we’re all part of a wider unconscious. On the one hand, there was Schopenhauer’s respect for the robust intelligence.  As he says in Essays and Aphorisms, “How very paltry and limited the normal human intellect is, and how little lucidity there is in the human consciousness, may be judged from the fact that, despite the brevity of human life, the uncertainty of our existence and the countless enigmas which press upon us from all sides, everyone does not continually philosophize.” On the other, “one might almost believe that half our thinking takes place unconsciously. Usually we arrive at a conclusion without having thought about the premises which lead to it.”

Do such comments have unusual resonance in Fassbinder’s work? What we often expect from drama is plausibility: the film sets up premises that it works through according to the terms of its dramatic logic, and Fassbinder’s films generally conform to such reasoning. They are often narratively plausible yet curiously, dramatically anaemic. We see exactly why a Fassbinder characters acts as he or she does, but we may feel the director has foreshortened the dramatic methodology. One senses a filmmaker who arrives less at denouements than at conclusions. His characters are frequently denied enough humanity to indicate a sort of socio-dramatic depth. This is evident in the leading characters in both The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Lola, where Fassbinder shows the characters losing their souls as a consequence of finding for themselves a place in the post-war German economic order. This is especially evident in the former film. Near the end of Maria Braun Maria casually insults a deliveryman, and praises the ease with which money can un-complicate the emotions. By paying the man, she believes she has bought him. He is no longer a human being, merely a piece of purchased labour, just as she, having slept with an industrialist for financial gain, whilst waiting for her husband’s release from prison, and thus selling herself in the present for economic freedom and security in the future, is also simply a product of capitalism.

This scene with the delivery man tells us a great deal about Fassbinder’s method. Having allowed the free-play of an absent ideological unconscious – a post-war Germany without a fundamental moral belief – Maria asserts herself through an individual will based on an emotional and cerebral self-denial. It is the obverse side of Schopenhauerian thinking: a collective unconscious denial attached to a socially constructed but precarious will. Maria, like others in post-war Germany, thinks not of her past – does not delve below immediate consciousness for the purposes of reflection – but instead of her financial future, and applies her will single-mindedly to this goal. As Schopenhauer says: “Money is human happiness in abstracto; consequently he who is no longer capable of happiness in concreto sets his whole heart on money.” When Maria bosses the delivery man around it isn’t simply a comment on her lack of humanity for the man, it also indicates the lack of humanity she sees in herself. The will, so singularly applied, cannot see in others any possible alternative way of thinking or living. Everyone is an economic agent. If in The Marriage of Maria Braun, Maria seems dramatically without depth and texture it is because Fassbinder uses her as a figure representing German economic expansion: he puts in human form the cost to Germany of financial single-mindedness to the detriment of national belonging or personal analysis. In denying analysis, in denying Schopenhauer’s need for thought in the wake of the most traumatic chapter in German history, detailing instead the need to ‘get on’ (Maria’s the first person in her family to own her own home), Fassbinder’s narrative reflects the bloodlessness of its leading characters and by extension the nation. The director wants Schopenhauer outside the text in this instance (he would become more textually prominent in The Year of Thirteen Moons and The Third Generation): he wants to use Schopenhauer’s notion that we need endlessly to philosophise and shows what happens when we don’t, when characters apply their will as singularly towards the post-war years as they did in the pre-war years.

Fassbinder seems to be saying the German people still aren’t thinking: a famous Heidegger claim, of course, but, given the context, it makes sense Fassbinder would be drawn to Schopenhauer rather than a philosopher with an ideological cloud over his head. Maria here, we could say, is killed by an ironic act of un-thought. So busy thinking about her future with her husband, and denying her past, Maria increasingly becomes lost in absent-mindedness. At one moment she places her handbag in a vase; at the film’s conclusion she blows out the gas rather than turning it off: the film concludes with the house blowing up. “The countless enigmas from all sides” leads eventually to a mind elsewhere. And Fassbinder, the ruthless ironist and cuttingly heavy-handed symbolist, can’t resist turning the lack of fundamental thinking into a metaphor for capitalist pointlessness. Maria blows up the very house she denied thought and feeling to buy, and subsequently kills the husband she’s been waiting for so long to see, and whom she tries to impress with the many materialist trappings she showers upon him. This is, like Fear Eats the Soul, hardly subtle cinema, but Fassbinder was more given to polemical confrontation over aesthetic osmosis. He was always looking for the shock of the new, even if his aesthetic absorbed the thinking of the old.


If Fassbinder characters like Maria Braun care little for their minds then what about their bodies? Robert Phillip Kolker claims in his book on modern European cinema, The Altering Eye, that “most of Fassbinder’s company, including Fassbinder himself,…are uniquely  and wonderfully ugly.” Certainly Fassbinder rarely casts his actors for their beauty, but ugliness seems too strong a word, too fundamentally defining. It may perhaps be fairer to call them socially unattractive. What is so striking about many of Fassbinder’s actors (and of course the characters they play) isn’t their innate ugliness, so much as their physical unsuitability to a neat and tidy economic order. The faces smack less of grotesquery (as we might expect, say, of bucolic melodrama) than of urbanite misery. Fassbinder’s actors tend to be too fat or too thin, too high on uppers or too low on downers, too insinuatingly charming, or too truculently rude. Is Ingrid Caven, Fassbinder’s former wife, regular actress in those earlier years and since a European chanteuse, ugly? Or is she just another piece of driftwood from the good ship Fassbinder? Like Margit Carstensen, the dictatorial lesbian fashion designer in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and the translucent, pale and fragile figure in Fear of Fear, and like Irm Hermann, the maid in Bitter Tears…and the materialistic, insensitive daughter in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Caven would occasionally signify an ugliness in certain permutations rather than in simple physical attributes. She plays the sweet, great love who nevertheless refuses to marry the central character in The Merchant of Four Seasons because of his lowly status as a fruit seller, and she is used for her cruel beauty in Mother Küsters, as she plays a woman who advances her singing career out of the media attention surrounding her murderous father’s suicide. If Carstensen was so often the tense bourgeois with the smile of a skeleton, and Hermann the judging curtain-twitcher who looks on but rarely engages, Caven could be as ugly or beautiful as the situation demanded. None of them are innately ugly women.

Ugliness for Fassbinder is clearly a social characteristic, an inevitable physical manifestation stemming from a psychic and moral malaise. Many filmmakers tell us capitalism makes us beautiful: whatever the politics of Resnais, Antoniono, Bertolucci and Chabrol (whom intriguingly Fassbinder much admired), they understand the aesthetic appeal of glamour. Fassbinder hammers away at the inverse seediness: the availability of drink, drugs, sex and power dissipating the characters’ will and destroying whatever attractive physical attributes they may have possessed in the first place.

If many of Fassbinder’s women are shown as brittle and shrunken, the men are frequently expansive and indolent, often leaning against bars or walls, fondling passing women. Their appetite is less for life than for simple, undiluted consumption. Fassbinder’s actors are usually more comfortable with slouching than with movement, and maybe only Gottfried John, that skinny, angular presence as the cocky journalist in Mother Küsters and the industrialist in In A Year with 13 Moons, suggests an actor with energy. Even the physically well-endowed (like El Hedi ben Salem, the actor playing Ali in Fear Eats the Soul) suggest a heavy tiredness. Often the men are like Fassbinder himself in his own movies: crippled by lethargy, devoid of will; whatever pleasures left to them usually consist in plucking from another some urgent life force. There is the sloppy obese bar-owner in The Marriage of Maria Braun, whose day is briefly brightened by Maria’s presence in the rundown bar. One senses it is less her sensuality that appeals to this man beyond the pale; more that this sharp, honest and attractive woman will be ruined by the demands of her task: semi-whoring to draw in the customers.

Not that the men are necessarily ruined to start with, as if all they can see in a lovely young woman is potential schadenfreude: in waiting to see the woman’s own decline. No, in The Marriage of Maria Braun, and especially Lola, Fassbinder shows us middle-aged men conspicuously broken by the eponymous characters, yet broken in a way that may be preferable to their previous state. In Maria Braun, it is the rich industrialist Maria takes as a lover who is turned inside out by Maria’s presence. His hardheaded business interests are secondary to giving Maria the freedom to run the show: we see Maria toying with him and taking control of a business meeting as readily as she takes control in the bedroom. In Lola, there is the conscientious Von Bohm, the new planner in a small German town, whose love for nightclub singer Lola calls into question his architectural idealism. These are men who are simultaneously lost and saved: these workaholic, no longer young men find love in their hearts while losing their souls. The industrialist hatches a plan with Maria’s husband that would have appalled his sense of decorum a couple of years previously; and the town planner half ignores his work while pursuing Lola. Here Fassbinder’s contrary working method – of telling a story that moves in one direction – while containing a sub-text that moves in another – results in perhaps the finest, or certainly the most textured, male performances in Fassbinder’s films: Ivan Desny in The Marriage of Maria Braun, and more especially Armin Mueller-Stahl in Lola. If we usually expect in Fassbinder the flattened perspective that indicates clear motives whilst deeper thoughts and feelings are left to die, in both Maria Braun and Lola, Fassbinder in his male characters attaches to ugliness in all its permutations, human dignity and the contradictions of the heart. He explores in each film the story that we can read on the faces of the debauched men in many of his other movies, but gives to the actors contradictions inherent in the character, not simply in the mise-en-scene and Fassbinder’s ironic distance from it. In both films Fassbinder works in another of his ironies. The eponymous Maria and Lola may be the central characters in each instance, but the central performance belongs to the supporting Desny and Mueller-Stahl.

Maybe, then, Kolker’s belief in the spectacular ugliness of Fassbinder’s characters lies not only in Thomsen’s idea that “For Fassbinder it’s usually a fundamental artistic principle to avoid giving the audience any opportunity of identifying with his principle characters. Identification would hinder a clear analytical view and consequently the necessary critical attitude.” It also lies in Fassbinder’s ability to make physically attractive characters like Maria Braun and Lola look ugly, whilst simultaneously suggesting a corrupted interior beauty in the less than physically attractive late middle-aged males. In refusing to penetrate the surface of Maria Braun, and the no less ambitious Lola – in casting Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa respectively, with their impenetrable surfaces – he adds to the sense of distance. Then, however, he curiously rejects this distance in the comprehension of the industrialist and also Muller-Stahl’s Von Bohm, and allows for a flood of feeling for semi-peripheral characters whose souls are lost but whose hearts are filled with love. What Fassbinder usually shows is the riddled wreckage – the flattened, dulled out lives of his characters. In a performance like Mueller-Stahl’s the actor transcends the tableaux and comes to life: it’s as if he steps out of the frame and offers three dimensionality. At the end of his short career, Fassbinder, using an actor outside his usual troupe, managed on the edge of his films to internalise the conflicts of post-war Germany. Between finding love and being part of a the crowd, or remaining true to an obscure ideal, Von Bohm’s decision to settle for the former seems more readily his own than any other Fassbinder character. That The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola are two of the director’s finest late films may rest in the usual Fassbinder method of dramatic enervation – the titular characters remain Fassbinder ciphers – combined with this rare thespian gravitas in the margins.


Perhaps, though, Fassbinder’s film often appear flat not simply because, of course, his visual schema often lent itself to a flattenening of perspective and a minimising of shadows, nor just because Fassbinder generally refused his actors range and depth. It also lies in the emotion that he so often extracts from his characters: not the intensity of guilt but the more trivial emotion of shame. What is the difference between shame and guilt? Film critic Raymond Durgnat, in an article actually on Eric Rohmer in The Monthly Film Bulletin called ‘The Enlightenment’s Last Gleaming’, reckons shame culture is one in which “it places the ‘real man’ not deep in the soul but close to the social interface…deeply concerned with ‘loss of face’, with social honour…” Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness, meanwhile, believes that though “shame can appear on a reflective plane, shame is not originally a phenomenon of reflection.” Guilt would seem to suggest some deep communion with the self, the need to explore one’s past misdemeanours, man’s general inhumanity to man. Fassbinder’s work usually denies this possibility. In Fear Eats the Soul, Emmi casually informs Ali that she once belonged to the Nazi party. This is no great confession – everybody belonged to the party back then. The potential for guilty reflection is replaced by a simple memory, the memory of the need to belong. Later in the film, Emmi and Ali eat in a restaurant that was once the regular eatery of Hitler. Again the potential for guilty feeling, for reflecting on Germany’s past, is foregone: Emmi is ashamed at her inability to understand the menu, and by the waiter’s polite but vaguely condescending demeanour. If in each instance Emmi had used her reflections on her time in the Nazi party and the visit to the restaurant to analyse her own relationship with Ali, the film would have diegetically deepened. Fassbinder would have credited Emmi with a state beyond obvious and immediate consciousness. That he doesn’t provide it needn’t make the film shallow. It doesn’t mean that the film lacks depth necessarily. It just means the depth must be found in the work, in the non-diegetic, not in the characters themselves. The film demands an interpretive reasoning beyond the frame, a moral position on the viewer’s part not through identification but through observation, through the viewer’s awareness of the characters’ obliviousness.  Thomsen’s comment about identification hindering a clear analytic view comes to mind again– but maybe also with an added awareness on the viewer’s part: that Fassbinder, for all his bourgeois baiting, for all his disdain he has for judgemental characters, is he not too far away from condescension himself?

But is Fassbinder saying the viewer is that much smarter than his characters, or is he just utilising certain characters in certain situations to make a more general comment about the human race? Thus, we observe not from a position that is necessarily supercilious, but simply through one that leaves us clearly removed from the characters’ milieu. Fassbinder’s distance is less condescension than simply that: distance – he allows us to witness a given milieu without feeling we’re part of a superior one. But is this going too easy on the director? Or should we acknowledge he is trying to capture socio-specifically the problem of shame? After all, another way of viewing shame is to see it as a psychic and social safety net: a way of attaching oneself to the codes of thought and behaviour in the present. It is in many ways a social contract unofficially drawn up between citizens and that allows for relative social stability, even if it denies a more fundamental being. Sartre may have believed hell is other people when he said, in the same essay quoted above ”while I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself from mine, while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me.” But of course for most people this isn’t hell; it is social intercourse – a way of playing by the rules without having to go to the laborious existential effort of creating one’s own value system.

In Fassbinder’s oeuvre his characters are not loners – as in Wenders’ work, as in Herzog’s – they are products of a very defined, often gossipy, urban environment. The films frequently present nosey neighbours (Fear is Fear) bitchy ex-buddies (Fear Eats the Soul), familial pressures (The Merchant of Four Seasons) and general class tensions – central to Fox and his Friends. In this latter film, for example, it isn’t interested in the potential freedom its working class character has after winning the lottery. Fassbinder wants to show how quickly Fox moves away from his working class roots and becomes ensnared in a middle-class consciousness his money allows him to share in, and to show how inadequate are his attempts to assimilate. Fox may have the money, but he can’t order a meal in French (culinary shame, again) can’t understand the rudiments of law, nor the fundamentals of bourgeois interior design. In Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder is more interested in the repercussions of Ali and Emmi’s relationship on others, than in the affair itself. He’s fascinated by the impinging milieu on persona happiness. In a Year of 13 Moons, Fassbinder’s transsexual character, for all his sexual self-assertion courtesy of a sex change op, is still constantly looking for emotional stability – and rarely finds it. The other characters in Fassbinder’s work are usually more likely to offer disdain over comfort. (No filmmaker has used the reaction shot so judgementally.)

Self-definition, some process of retreat and individuation, is, in Fassbinder’s films not offered as an option. In his book on New German Cinema, Thomas Elsaesser comments on the number of Fassbinder characters who commit suicide. And we need only think of the regular Fassbinder image of a character leaning over a table or bar to realise how many characters characters lose themselves in alcohol. Retreat, in Fassbinder’s work, isn’t a retreat from society – as one would expect from some process of individuation – but a retreat from the self: workaholism, suicide or alcoholism usually the available option.


But how could it be otherwise when the director was so immersed in society? As he said, in the bfi Fassbinder pamphlet, after adapting Fontane’s Effi Briest to the screen: Fontane “rejected everybody and found everything alien and yet fought all his life for recognition within that society. And that is also my attitude to society.” Of course in Fassbinder’s case it was to some degree a society of his own making. Robert Katz, in his biography Love is Colder than Death, says the director’s “birthday had become something of a social ritual in the German film world,” whilst Thomas Elsaesser, in his essay in the bfi pamphlet, reckoned: “Fassbinder seems condemned to over-produce to produce at all…. [his] working methods reflect the objective conditions of a capitalist mode of production.” His constant work-load meant that he could continually keep in employment his cast and crew. In Beware of a Holy Whore, Fassbinder of course captures not the magic of cinema, but the neurotic clammy despair of getting footage in the can and money from your backers.

Here, perhaps, one finds the strengths and what some would see as the weaknesses of Fassbinder’s films. In both an historical and personal sense – as a product of post-war Germany and as the centre of a self-styled milieu – Fassbinder found his theme: that of constrained consciousness. And in that theme found his technique. In a deliberate shooting style, with its envious point of view shots, judgemental cut-aways, and a camera that when it does move usually does so out of dramatic neglect rather than dramatic interest. But what such an approach could not do, according to some critics, was offer an aesthetic optimism, a transcendentally aesthetic purpose. In The Story of the Lost Reflection, critic Paul Coates finds his films unwatchable, saying Fassbinder “strikes me as a pseudo-intellectual, both lachrymose and flat, shot through with an unfocused, inadequately objective self-loathing.” Optimism in Fassbinder’s work is obviously rarely an option within the work, but maybe it is still there outside it; just as, for example, a character who hangs himself In A Year with 13 Moons to the words of Schopenhauer cannot see the better world by remaining in this one, but must go beyond it.

This gives some sort of credence to Fassbinder’s commonly remarked belief that he preferred pessimistic endings. Usually the happy-endings are in cinema and the unhappy ones in life. And yet is it fair to suspect that Fassbinder’s films are just as readily a product of their time as of Schopenhauerian influence? Pauline Kael said in ‘The New Yorker’ back in 1969, “it’s cool to think you can’t win, that it’s all rigged and hopeless.” It is as if Fassbinder’s work is shot through with so much pessimism, contempt and disillusionment that each film feels punch drunk with hopelessness. Here Fassbinder’s oeuvre appears like a nexus of failure, detailing a Germany with a past it won’t confront, a student movement that proved ineffectual, and Leftist organisations making grand and impossible claims. Fassbinder’s Germany vibrates with disdain – a disdain perfectly captured in Fassbinder’s self-exposing episode in Germany in Autumn. Here the director utilises the everyday Fascism he thought was still so prevalent in Germany towards his own lover, in what looks like an act of self-exposure, while when he sits and talks politics with his actual mother, she suggests maybe Germany could do with a benign dictator.

Yet this is where Fassbinder built his ‘dream’ home, a home lop-sidedly reflecting Fassbinder’s personal life and his immediate despair. More than any other ‘successful’ New German Cinema director – more than Wenders, Herzog, Von Trotta and Schlondorff – his work now demands of the viewer a curious kind of patience that isn’t simply the prerequisite of difficult cinema. It also requires of us a patience that asks that we perhaps indulge Fassbinder as he so frequently indulged himself. Some of his films feel enervated – Querelle and Lili Marleen – others, in their inextricable connections, lead one to other Fassbinder films, to research into seventies Germany, into the psycho-dynamics of Fassbinder’s life and his many power-based relationships, or to his fascination with Schopenhauer and Sirk. It is as if we must meet the work halfway not always out of a complexity within the work, but just as readily in the sense of trying to give it completion – in finding a way of making sense of work half-finished, of work the director was too pathologically driven to complete in anything resembling a conventional way. “Somehow I have to process everything I experience, in order to have the feeling that I have experienced it.” It is as if the processing were less an aesthetic need for form, than a personal need to escape the social contours. Fassbinder kept producing not to make art but to escape the contemptible social artifice he believed surrounded him and that he, perhaps more than most, finally couldn’t escape. His work remains without doubt, strangely monumental, but a monument not of grandeur but indeed its opposite.


©Tony McKibbin