Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Ceaselessly creative and driven yet relentlessly insecure to the point of self-loathing, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was both an exceptionally high-functioning and often troubled filmmaker. As a gay man and political dissident who at a young age witnessed the social and economic marginalization of immigrants in Germany, Fassbinder used his films as witness to various political themes and injustices.
But rather than follow the conventions of social realism that had defined so much of socially-conscious postwar European filmmaking, he looked at characters through often alienating filmmaking techniques which he eventually combined with his own take on the Hollywood melodrama. Mirroring the complex personality of their persistent yet self-doubting maker, Fassbinder’s films are both lush and cold, polemical yet undidactic, experimental while bearing a clear love for (some of) Hollywood. Despite a range of influences from Bertolt Brecht to Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder remains a singular filmmaker, a force of nature, and a cinematic personality like none other.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a tireless artist who regularly helmed as many as four features a year.
Make Individual Cinema
In fellow New German Cinema auteur Wim Wenders’s Room 666, a documentary of interviews with filmmakers at the 1982 Cannes film festival, Fassbinder draws a line between “sensation-oriented cinema” and “individual cinema” or “national cinema from individual filmmakers,” the latter being of the important and urgent variety.
It’s a bit curious that Fassbinder refers to this first category as “indistinguishable from television” as the director had by this point made individualized work (and arguably some of the absolute best “films” of his career) for the small screen with miniseries like World on a Wire and Berlin Alexanderplatz. But Fassbinder’s summary of a medium seems less important than his use of the word “indistinguishable” in the foreground of a smattering of inconsequential animated images. Fassbinder does not see individual cinema (whether made for theaters of living rooms) as something that can comfortably reside in the general ambience of the background. It must be distinctive. It must disrupt the possibility of ambiance.
There Are No Taboo Subjects, Just Taboo Ways of Representing Them
“And those other taboos-homosexuality, prostitution, and transvestitism? If you present the exotic side, the glamor, then of course they don’t treat these things as taboo, only if you show the societal context. That’s the case with all minorities. Earlier, when I was still making films where the representatives of the minorities were good and the others were bad, society really lapped up my films. But when I came up with the much truer idea of showing the minorities the way society has made them, with all their twisted behavior, then suddenly people didn’t like my films anymore.”
Taking subjects outside of a comfortable, familiar, established regime of representation discomfits audiences because it can interrogate their complicity in social ills and force them to look at people outside of the inferences afforded by received wisdom. This is the real taboo. (From Performing Arts Journal ‐ direct link).
There is No Right Way to Be a Filmmaker
Susan Sontag: “Did you have the complete script before the 10 days of shooting [The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant]?”
Actress Hanna Schygulla: “No. The way things happened with [Fassbinder] was not that you get everything and then you prepare yourself. You came on set and you got your pages and you did it. Even from the beginning, he liked to invert . . . something that is destined to be on stage, all of a sudden put it into another medium. Even onstage, he was giving it a timing that was sometimes like in movies. He began in theater because he didn’t have the means to make movies and they didn’t accept him at film school. Twice he tried and he didn’t make it because of a lack of talent. This is to encourage everybody who fails.”
Surround Yourself with a Surrogate Family
“The three of us made an agreement…There were Fassbinder, myself and Ingrid. We said we would each take turns making one film and then working on a film of the other two. Fassbinder made ‘The Merchant of the Four Seasons.’ Then it was my turn. No, said Fassbinder, first I will make another film. That was the day I quit. Ingrid quit, too. Rainer, of course, admired this. He admired people who resisted him, who stood up to him when everybody seemed willing to go along with him. We all remained friends up until the end. He once said that the people he would have liked to spend his life with … couldn’t take him.”
Friend and fellow filmmaker Daniel Schmid here discusses the sometimes troubled but often deep friendships Fassbinder forged with fellow filmmakers and cineastes. Fassbinder was known for working with a stock company of cast and crew, with many of whom he shared profound and sometimes complex relationships (like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’s El Hedi ben Salem). Through filmmaking, Fassbinder explored new possibilities for living and defining close connections, realizing self-actualized, bittersweet, and open definitions of family behind the camera while exploring “utopian” ideas in front of the camera…
Make Your Own Utopia
Fassbinder: “From my utopian ideal, from my perfectly concrete yearning for this utopia. If this yearning is driven out of me, I’ll come to a dead stop; that’s why I have this feeling I’m being murdered as a creative person in Germany, and please don’t take that for paranoia. In my opinion, this witch hunt we’ve been going through, which I think is only the tip of the iceberg, was staged to destroy individuals’ utopias. And also to cause my fears and guilt to become overwhelming. When it’s reached the point where my fears are greater than my yearning for something beautiful, I’ll have to put an end to it. Not only to my work.”
PAJ: “To your life?”
Fassbinder: “Yes, sure. There’s no reason to exist when you don’t have a goal any more.”
This passage from Fassbinder’s Performing Arts Journal interview (direct link) haunts with the knowledge of his tragic end. And certainly Fassbinder’s films, in which characters regularly meet tragedy, are hardly “utopian” in the most obvious sense of the word. But Fassbinder’s work as part of a battle against the “destruction of individuals’ utopias becomes more apparent when taking into consideration what the politics of his work is attempting to accomplish. As the director states earlier in the interview,
“It seems to me the society I live in is shaped not by happiness and freedom but rather by oppression, fear, and guilt. In my opinion, what we’re taught to experience as happiness is a pretext that a society shaped by various forms of compulsion offers the individual. And I’m not about to accept that offer.”
Fassbinder’s films are organized around a project of disabusing audiences of this counterfeit notion of happiness.
Filmmaking is Actively Political
What We’ve Learned
With an incredibly prolific output that followed him until his abrupt death of a drug overdose at the age of 37, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and career is too easily subject to the romantic and tragic myth of a high-velocity, hard-living genius who burned out from both excessive creativity and excessive living. The ceaseless work of Fassbinder remains astounding, and his outsized personality a marvel of a filmmaker asserting himself on the global stage. But it’s just as easily important to understand how his politics, reputation, and films were all intertwined within the work of a filmmaker who refused to accept easy or received notions of justice, traditional boundaries between Hollywood and the arthouse, and existing hierarchies of “good” taste.
The films of Fassbinder balance seeming contradictions or polarities ‐ romance and tragedy being one of many ‐ borne of a filmmaker constantly wrestling with ideas, institutions, social norms, and the people around him. Sometimes the restless alchemy of dysfunction can produce something incredible.