Fassbinder, Rainer Werner
Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1946–
German director, playwright, and actor.
Fassbinder is considered by many to be the leading director of the German New Wave, a movement marked by a radical break with Germany's past. He advocates rebellion against moral and social complacency; however, he also acknowledges that the rebel is doomed to failure. Instead of psychological character studies, Fassbinder creates fables that state their messages in bold, short strokes. His nihilistic view of Marxist society, along with his precarious balance between the very stylized and sharply realistic, have caused him critical difficulties.
Fassbinder's acting career started in Munich's "Action Theater," an avant-garde theatrical troupe. A year later, Fassbinder founded the Anti-Theater, intended as an alternative to the German theatrical standards he found boring and narrow. Sparse decor and uninflected performance characterize his first film, Love Is Colder than Death. This film also reflects his fascination with love's power. Fassbinder says, "Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression."
The theme of isolation also figures prominently in Fassbinder's work. Fassbinder admits he creates compulsively to avoid his own loneliness. His most autobiographical film, Fox and His Friends, tells the story of a homosexual befriended only for his momentary wealth and soon abandoned. Significantly, Fassbinder plays the lead character.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant also intertwines love and politics. Like most of Fassbinder's characters, Petra is an outsider, a victim, and, ultimately, a loser. Other characters are not so much victims of love as of a complacent and monotonous society.
The Marriage of Maria Braun is Fassbinder's first international success. Maria is a victim of both love and society. As one of Fassbinder's strongest heroines, she battles oppression only to meet an ironic and violent death. Unexpected violence, such as Maria's death, appears frequently in Fassbinder's films as both a stylistic and thematic pivot.
Fassbinder acknowledges Hollywood director Douglas Sirk as his strongest influence. He shares Sirk's fondness for the melodramatic, using exaggerated camera angles and mirror techniques. But although Fassbinder creates extended melodramatic situations, his treatment is distant and deadpan. While some critics question the speed with which he makes films, most accept his use of a skeletal frame for his work. Some resent his films, labeling him overrated and undertalented. After over thirty films, Fassbinder remains a paradox: a pessimistic artist who enjoys Hollywood's most sentimental films, and a politically curious intellectual involved in changing the status quo while admitting the futility of his efforts. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
[The Merchant of the Four Seasons] is a complex, depressingly moving tale that, when it is not steeped in the deliberateness of its development and representation of emotional and environmental vacuity, sheds much-needed light on the ill-effects of the petit-bourgeois mentality, in this case "mentality" as manifested by Hans Epp and his severely entrenched family. (p. 39)
In terms of method, The Merchant of the Four Seasons, which was made initially for German television, retains a washedout colour and a starkness of imagery (omnipresent crosses, gilt-edged picture-frames on barren walls, etc.), that despite their obvious thematic contributions render the visual terrain not very screen-worthy on one level, although revealing and certainly relevant to the depiction of Fassbinder's vision of a perverted lower-middle class. Stylistically, Fassbinder's work here can be likened to Godard's favourable middle period…. The scene staged at the film's end where, almost predictably, Hans' funeral takes place on a brilliant spring morning with birds singing and sun glowing, struck me as particularly Godardian in its irony. We are reminded that Hans (as we are all to varying degrees), the victim of (political) circumstance and perhaps life itself, can only cease to be a failure when he ceases to be. (pp. 39-40)
Bruce Berman, "Reviews: 'The Merchant of the Four Seasons'," in Take One...
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Christian Braad Thomsen
Fassbinder's debut-film, Love is Colder than Death, has often been compared with Jean-Luc Godard's first film, Breathless, because both films introduced an unusually explosive period of production, and because both reveal a very personal reaction to the influence of the American gangster-film. (p. 12)
[Fassbinder's] debut-film was redolent of [a] pictorial emptiness, a feeling that we are starting afresh from the absolute null-point, in an attempt to build something upon the smoking ruins at which Godard arrived and has bequeathed to his contemporaries. Fassbinder tells a gangster-story, but already in the first scene in his first film he demonstrates that his gangster-world is in reality a reflection of the bourgeois world, with which his gangsters only apparently break by their way of living, but from which they never ultimately can free themselves…. Fassbinder repeats this same, absolutely static image-conception in his second film, Katzelmacher, about a Greek immigrant worker whose arrival in a little German provincial town triggers the latent fascist tendencies of the inhabitants. The world of this little provincial town could be interchangeable with that of his gangster-film: it is nearly void of maturity and sentiment, and is wholly static. (pp. 12-13)
Fassbinder's subsequent films deepen and vary the central themes of his first two films: the boredom and emptiness which grope their way...
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Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's other recent imitations of life, Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf] achieves a remarkable balance between stylisation and realism….
The movie is an expansion/revision of a story told by a minor character in Fassbinder's own Der amerikanische Soldat [The American Soldier] (1970), and also a remake/revision of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955). Its plot is an extraordinary mesh of low-key melodrama and social criticism….
Angst essen Seele auf begins like a fairy-tale: as in a dream, Emmi is lured into the Moroccan bar by the Arab music on its juke-box, and invited to dance for what is evidently the first time in many years. Stage by stage, everything that follows is hilariously—and agonisingly—predictable, Fassbinder plays on audience expectations so thoroughly that his exposition astonishes by its very exhaustiveness. The types of racial fear and prejudice are catalogued succinctly….
Fassbinder circumscribes the movie's area of interest by fading out on anything irrelevant to his direct concerns (the first night that the couple share; their turning-point holiday). He films his active characters in neutral mid-shots, never lending disproportionate weight to one or another in the compositions, and the legions of anonymous onlookers who provide the movie's moral 'context' in static, posed tableaux…. The overall...
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On the face of it, the world of Petra von Kant—a supremely stylised region where the rules of play, in decor as in passion, are dictated by the high-fashion, high-camp predilections of its decadent queen—shares very little with the wry social comedy of Fear Eats the Soul…. But there is an odd complementary quality about the two films, the suggestion of a mirror reflection in the way the areas of stylisation are inverted, and a clearly continuing line in the way the form and mannerisms of Hollywood melodrama are worked into the texts. Where Fear Eats the Soul tells, broadly, a mundane tale of love crushed by social prejudice and repression, and lends to the affair between the ageing char and the hapless immigrant both a kind of dignity and a sense of the solid network of social interferences and cultural differences through the applied gravity of its style, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is, initially, all style, the pleasure dome-apartment of the heroine a theatrical forum for her theorising on life and love, until the mundane matters of doubt, jealousy and betrayal gradually trickle in to give the lie to the whole baroque edifice. Both films are explicitly symbolic in structure…. [The] subject of the film might almost be the steady accumulation and then the gradual dismantling of Petra's style…. Fassbinder choreographs the comic-tragic course of Petra's mauvaise foi with a sureness only occasionally...
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[The Merchant of Four Seasons's] biggest coup is that our feelings for the man are never really for him personally—he is ugly and unsympathetic throughout. The film remains outside of him, something that gives us, in the final analysis, more of a portrait of the world that made him than one of the man himself. And it is a cold, unfeeling world. That Hans Epp is fundamentally unloved is established from the picture's first frame, when he comes home from the Foreign Legion and his mother tells him it's too bad all the good ones die in wars and those like him remain; but the rest of the work portrays a society in which all potentially meaningful things are ritualized into mechanism…. As an attack on society, The Merchant of Four Seasons is diffuse, to say the least, but it is in this diffusion that it achieves most of its power, and its ultimate, paradoxical lucidity.
One cannot look at the film without thinking of Brecht. Events in it are never quite believable as naturalism, and their blunt portrayal, particularly early in the work, mixed with the script's stilted, haltingly wordy dialogue, clearly suggest that distancing is its stylistic aim…. A story which some ten or twenty years ago would have been presented as a subjective, solipsistic study of a suicide here becomes a vision of German life which implies throughout that such an existence must change. The film calls out for a committed response not...
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The most striking difference between [The Merchant of Four Seasons] and earlier Fassbinder movies is the immense gain in simplicity and clarity, qualities about which there is nothing deceptive. As the chronicle of a man whose dreams and aspirations are systematically denied him by his petit bourgeois environment, Merchant could hardly be more straightforward: its linear narrative … is a step-by-loaded-step catalogue of the betrayals and humiliations that Hans suffers, while occasional fragmentary, dream-like flashbacks serve to expose the roots of his oppression. The other main change is the nature of the mise en scène; the Godardian unpredictability and genre permutations of the earlier films are replaced by a kind of hypernaturalism, still very stylised in its deployment of the actors and locations and in its use of dialogue, but absolutely keyed to mundane realities…. The fascinating tension between this wish for a 'transparency' of style and the formal innovations intrinsic to the process of realising it—a tension that later forms the very substance of movies like Martha and Effi Briest—is here kept very much in check. Merchant consequently achieves an extraordinary reading of 'ordinary' events, and does so with apparently effortless ease…. The film's theme is double edged. The sympathetic portrayal of Hans' suffering is intensified by the character's own inarticulateness, Fassbinder takes...
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[Fassbinder] has been devoted to social reform and the perpetuation (through updating) of the dominant codes of narrative cinema. Far from being "radical" or "subversive", as has often been claimed, his cinema is liberal in the best and most hallowed sense of the word…. In Faustrecht der Freiheit [Fox]—working with narrative elements traceable back to [Erich von] Stroheim and von Sternberg as well as Sirk—he is relating a fable of class exploitation within a homosexual milieu that is rather obvious and predictable in overall design, but clever and nuanced in many of its individual details. The cultural snobbery of Eugen, his parents and his friends is underlined far past the point of necessity or plausibility (leading to a howler when his mother describes seeing the "Firebird Suite" at the opera), and some of the eventual cruelties of the clan similarly seem too clearly designed to ram home a thesis. But on the other hand, the actual movement of the money is delineated with refreshing sharpness…. Gullible from the word go and scarcely the master of a destiny that seems sealed before the end of the first reel (with the camera stationed at a low angle before he trips and falls near a lottery counter), Fox is a sentimental victim of no mean proportions, and Fassbinder's casting of himself in the part against type has the advantage of making the role somewhat more palatable: an unromantic hero if ever there was one …, he brings some...
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["The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant"] is a lucid, beautiful work of innovation which hides its fondness for its characters under a cloak of august formalism. One remembers at the end that the dedication reads, "A case history of one who here became Marlene." Marlene is an apparently minor character who never speaks—of the six women in the film, she is the mute—but the story, in recall, is about the effect of its events on her sensibility. It is typical of the ricochet movement of Fassbinder's films that at the time we should regard her only as a witness. (p. 264)
There are fibre-glass figures and costume drawings everywhere in the working part of the room. We are watching a woman who is almost suffocated by stylishness, surrounded by copies of herself. Everything is ersatz. (p. 265)
Yet, all the time, this creation of perfect bones and mascara, seeking to control everything around her, has very little mastery, which is one of the abiding and passionate themes of Fassbinder's apparently unemotional works. The same idea runs through "Fox and His Friends."… In all the sumptuous sophistication of both Petra's and Fox's experiences, there is much pain, much innocence. Just as Fox is robbed of his fortune by tutelage in good living, so Petra is tormented in her fortunate world of a room, furnished with a copy of a great painting and bald-headed, long-necked mannequins. (p. 266)
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[The] trouble with [The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant] is that it equates methods with powers. One pitfall in latterday filmmaking is the gross overestimate of certain filmic procedures as symbology. Fassbinder thinks he can make a film of his stage play by thickly impasting some of those procedures. The confinement to one room, the slow-moving camera are assumed to create depth—partly on the ground that they contravene conventional commercial procedures. To this, Fassbinder adds some obviously arty Franco-German apparatus: the arbitrarily silent "slave," a lot of unclothed female dressmaker's dummies, a frontally naked male in a huge painting (the only male in the film). All this is facile, and it's distracting because its glibness diverts us to an awareness of Fassbinder's status-hunger. The film world still—still, after the best work of Antonioni and Bresson and Bergman and Ozu has shown us how cinema metaphors can be fulfilled—turns over on its back like a puppy when scratched if a director merely employs some cinematic imagery. It's like calling a poet fine merely because he employs figures of speech. Fassbinder is in control, intelligently, of what he's doing; but after all the controlling is done, he hasn't plumbed very far. (p. 28)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Sex and Murder" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1976 by Stanley Kauffmann),...
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Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a man who knows how to hate. More to the point—but very much connected with it—Fassbinder's films may have extended the language and method of film more than those of any young film-maker of his generation. (p. 2)
Melodramatic elements abound in Fassbinder's films. Why should Ali be stricken with the "immigrant's disease" at the end of Fear Eats the Soul just as Emmy so movingly forgives and accepts him? Why does Wildwechsel … need the coup de grâce of Hanni's being told by the gynecologist … that her baby was born dead and deformed? It's arguable that the remarkable thing is the extent to which. Fassbinder gets away with hitting home in this fashion; but it would be hard to argue that Fassbinder is not laying it on too thickly when he has Hanni, the sexually precocious child, react to the news by playing hopscotch in the courtroom corridor. Fassbinder would presumably not deny that such moments in his films (and there is no shortage of them) are extreme: he simply would not admit this as criticism. (p. 5)
Fassbinder's program is not an easily inviting one. It asks us to rethink the relation between film and audience, to reconsider the ways in which film can, in fact, raise consciousness. Fassbinder has no time for Eisenstein; making the masses into an epic hero does not break with the epic-heroic mode, and by the same token devalues the...
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At no point during his career has Fassbinder renounced the autobiographical element in his films. His self-criticism does not affect the material but rather the manner of its presentation. The central experience—one might go so far as to call it the trauma that motivates his productivity—is emotional exploitation. His films are fictionalised, dramatised, occasionally didactic versions of what it means to live within power structures and dependencies that are all but completely internalised, and as such apparently removed from any possibility of change or development.
Repetition, reiteration therefore has a particularly important function in his work, on the thematic as well as the formal level. The films reproduce human relations 'as they are', while constantly retracing the contours of a circularity in the utopian hope of finding a way out at the weakest point…. As far as the films are concerned, they attempt to prove, with varying degrees of conviction, that the personal predicament has a wider symptomatic significance. And if Fassbinder's cinema shows any kind of progression in this respect, it is not in the way that his characters perceive escapes from the sado-masochistic bind, but in the remarkable inventiveness he shows, his concrete penetration of a contemporary social reality when orchestrating the theme across different human situations. (pp. 25-6)
From the many emotional 'languages' that the...
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[Fassbinder's characters] start at a point of freedom from external constraints far beyond any [Sirk's] characters could have imagined, but they are every bit as miserable. They almost always have more than enough money to do whatever they want or to travel wherever they please; they often have jobs that they quite enjoy; they live in a society that does not care about their political convictions, religious beliefs or sexual orientations. Even so, they are no more free than the title character of Effi Briest, who is driven to her death by the strict codes of militaristic, imperialistic, censorious Prussian upper-class society at the end of the nineteenth century. Thinking about the implications of Fassbinder's work obliges us to become aware of how little times have changed, or at least of how relatively little what we call the times has to do with questions of human freedom…. Fassbinder's "liberated" people yearn to be normal and fully conventional, as they compulsively put aside their true individuality, which modern society would theoretically permit them to exercise, in favor of imitating some very restrictive pattern of deadly middle-class behavior learned early in life. More than ever, they assent to the very values and postulates from which they think they would like to break away.
Heads they lose, tails they lose: when Fassbinder's characters grasp the courage to assert their human freedom in an uncompromising way,...
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[Fassbinder] turns out movies the way other people shed dandruff, and is generally considered the new Godard or, at the very least, the Wunderkind of the German cinema. The main influences on him would seem to be Brecht and Warhol, the unendurably static Jean-Marie Straub and the souped-up second-rate American action directors, which shows that, if nothing else, he is catholic to the point of self-contradiction….
An aura of arrogance is everywhere, as if Fassbinder were saying, "I can slap movies together as fast and loose as I wish because I am a Wunderkind." The procedure, I am afraid, makes him into a bit of Blunderkind. He turns out, as I see it, two kinds of movies: bad ones and not-so-bad ones. [Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven] is one of the latter….
It is a perfectly serviceable story, but Fassbinder develops it with his customary mixture of heavy underscoring and cavalier offhandedness. Occasionally there is some satiric bite, but more often the film contents itself with facile and predictable observations, which the director now shoots with greater assurance than before, but still without particular distinction. Here the ending happens to be happy; it could just as easily have been otherwise. (p. 70)
John Simon, "The Unimportance of Being Ernest," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1977 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted...
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["Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven"] is like Brecht's plays and poems in declining open sensibility, but all the same its coinage is care for people, with a guttersnipe wit about the self-deceptions that slaughter intent…. The film has a melodramatic plot, but it is no melodrama. Any work of fiction is beyond melodrama when its logic is clear and large enough. The picture tells us that rhetoric is no escape; that a guru-disciple relationship between sexes or classes is damned; that primitivism of expression—losing one's mind, having a tantrum, using emotional bribery—makes savages of us all; that, since no film artist would hand you the keys to character, the only thing to watch is outward conduct. Mother Küsters does not, of course, go to heaven, as the title bitterly states. But she has made the best choice with her sausage and dumplings, and to have choice is, indeed, a sort of heaven on earth. The Communists were not the answer: they were hilariously hemmed in by their inherited classiness, and someone less lonely than Mother Küsters would have broken down their well-bred walls to find out what they really felt. The anarchist was not the answer, either: he seemed made for the oddly baleful fête champêtre of the magazine-office sit-in. And the pugnacious pregnancy of Mother Küsters' daughter-in-law was certainly not the answer: no new way of life was going to be born from that. The film, like Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von...
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[The characters in "Katzelmacher" are lower middle-class layabouts who] sit on—or lean against—the railing outside a Munich apartment house in various positions of boredom. They bicker. They brood. Mostly they just stare into space, lined up all in a row like the crows in Hitchcock's "The Birds."…
[The] characters, with the possible exception of Jorgos …, who never says much, are either slobs or dimwitted, and though they are totally self-absorbed and given to parroting clichés, they are sometimes capable of the unexpected gesture as when Marie decides to leave Erich for Jorgos….
The static camera, the exaggerated mannerisms of the actors, the jump-cuts, the repeated themes and variations of scenes, all recall Godard, but the major influence on the film appears to be Mr. Fassbinder's early work in the theater.
The screenplay, in fact, is an adaptation of a Fassbinder play, but having seen the film twice I find it difficult to imagine it as anything except an extraordinarily stylish film. It's quite unlike anything else I've seen….
"Katzelmacher" is scathing about the postwar German economic boom that has, of course, been so kind to the film maker himself. More importantly the film is an early glimpse of his dazzling talent….
Vincent Canby, "'Katzelmacher'," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company;...
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Although "Gods of the Plague" is described as a sequel to "Love Is Colder Than Death,"… it makes an appropriate companion piece to "The American Soldier," a comically dead-panned contemplation of American gangster films of the 30's and 40's. Where "The American Soldier" comes close to parody, though, "Gods of the Plague" is absolutely straight, which is not to say that it's realistic or that its narrative is important for itself….
"Gods of the Plague" is the quintessential American gangster film if the quintessential American gangster film had been adapted and updated to accommodate a bunch of small-time Munich hoods for whom the holdup of a rather ordinary suburban supermarket is "the big job." If "The American Soldier" is about movies, "Gods of the Plague" is one of the movies it's about….
[Franz's] joylessness is profound, and it's consistent with his vision of a world in which everyone is an inmate.
The plot of "Gods of the Plague" is not quite as complex as that of [Howard Hawks's] "The Big Sleep," but it helps to have some program notes, because Mr. Fassbinder, aping Franz's taciturnity, doesn't waste time on explanations….
It's a world of perpetual gray, of chance meetings, faithlessness, revenge, informers and crooked cops. People talk but they don't communicate. Someone says something and there's a 10-second delay before there's any response, as if the person spoken...
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[Effi Briest] is beautiful. It renders [Theodor Fontane's] book as fully and texturally as could be possible in 140 minutes, and it's a work in and of itself, intrinsically cinematic. What's more, it shows that Fassbinder is probably going to keep astonishing us….
Effi Briest doesn't have the tragic dimensions of Madame Bovary or of Kate Chopin's The Awakening because Effi is much more a victim than a rebel, but her extramarital affair is fated from the start and so is her sorry finish….
The fadeouts all through the picture constitute a visual theme. Every fade is to white, not black—a "burn to white," as the trade more properly puts it. These fadeouts convey a feeling of the age's worship of purity…. (p. 20)
Throughout the film the register of emotion is cool. Feelings are perfectly credible, but always portrayed rather than meant to move us. Perhaps Fassbinder wanted to "contain" the story, to keep it from seeming too purply; and/or it may have been to convey, as with the dying duellist, a sense of acceptance, of actors-in-life playing the roles to which fate and society have assigned them. (pp. 20-1)
And Fassbinder's handling of the actors' movements, his compositions, support this tone. Although he never strains realism, we realize more and more clearly that the realism is being delicately abstracted….
So far there...
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As with most of Fassbinder's films, [in "Effi Briest" the concern] is in the sophistry of the powerful; it is kin to his "Chinese Roulette," a mysterious comedy of calculated mannerisms. (p. 278)
Fassbinder thinks a great deal about oppressed groups, including women. "Effi Briest" is his masterpiece…. [His Effi] is the victim of an education that makes girls beguiling and frivolous objects, and so leads inevitably to a whim on the part of society to inhibit them with taboos. Effi is not only intimidated by the ghost but also fearful of committing crimes against bourgeois society, and terrorized by the possibility of appearing to the respectable to be a tart…. Life is lived by a system of fear and loneliness. God is not supposed to be a comfort, or society to provide companions. Effi is a naturally congenial and lively being, but Bismarck's Prussia blanches her spirit. Fassbinder's film has to do with the monstrous dictates of others about her life. (pp. 279-80)
"Effi Briest" is a vivid story of the dousing of a tonic personality by manners, misleading expectations, misled hopes. It is a fiercely philosophical picture…. This magnificent, inquiring film, though it is an epic in its way, is no spectacle; it is, above all, a spyglass on our consciousnesses. Effi Briest knows very well that she was a child and then a mother without ever being a woman. The bourgeoisie is sleepwalking, says the film, but its victims...
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In the past Fassbinder's films have often been concerned with isolated people—with the outsider. In Fear of Fear, once again the central figure is set apart—she is a woman whose world is largely a world of family, a family that perceives her not only as an outsider, an intruder, but more importantly as someone "abnormal." For them, there is no question of what it is which constitutes the norm, for her sister-in-law explicitly and flatly states, "We are normal." They are the ones certainly who hold power; they are then the ones who determine the norm. Yet it is not even this outsider status within her husband's family which seems to mark the critical point in Margot's passage towards madness. There is a far more crucial sense of strangeness, of alienation, which she feels: her failure to identify with her own image. And it is this alienation from image—and hence from role—which provides the central structuring device of Fassbinder's film…. The apartment is filled with square and oval mirrors, waiting to catch her glance, waiting—if she were "normal"—to confirm her identity, to confirm her sense of self. But for Margot this face in the mirror remains "other," remains an image and nothing more…. For us, however, in the audience, the recognition of the image has quite different effects. Seeing the image as an image, we, in turn, see the figure reflected in the glass and on the screen itself as an image as well. It is never a...
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If you have any doubt that there's such a thing as being too prolific, by all means go see Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Satan's Brew." Mr. Fassbinder attempting physical, almost slapstick comedy, is Mr. Fassbinder at his least funny or enlightening; and the film, a kind of "Father Knows Best" on acid, showcases most of the director's worst qualities without leaving room for his best. Made in Germany early last year, this is an ice-cold work, and a stubborn and difficult one. The meager rewards it delivers are no match for the enormous energy it demands. (pp. 90-1)
Mr. Fassbinder can be both ironic and provocative when, as in "Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven," his only successful comedy, he gently contrasts people's manners with their desires. But in "Satan's Brew" his blunt directorial style merely exaggerates the coarseness of his characters, and his humor turns stolid and didactic….
For all its brutishness, though, "Satan's Brew" is finally not vulgar enough. The film's premise calls for both precision and abandon and, while an exaggerated, reference-laden meticulousness is Mr. Fassbinder's specialty, he seems incapable of doing anything very freely. His characters follow their animal instincts, but they do so in such a careful way they might as well be trained seals. None of them flouts convention with the kind of spontaneity or enthusiasm that might have lent real wit to the film's bloodless, brittle scheme. (p....
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["Satan's Brew"] is a deliberate slap in the face…. [Walter Kranz] operates from the same feckless, uninhibited, unscrupulous, and unpredictable position that Fassbinder does in hurling this movie at us. The film creates an irritable weather all its own. People behave like cross morons, pretend to less intelligence than they actually have, move with the gestures of wooden puppets on tangled strings. (p. 62)
Fassbinder has made this shock-the-middlebrow picture go at a rattling pace, piling on evil comic details to see how much we will take…. Fassbinder forever pits words against physical expressiveness in this film, and throws sense out of joint…. Fassbinder has given himself the license to go haywire, perhaps in the interests of testing our endurance while we are having a sadomasochistic charade thrown at us like so much mud. Spattered and spluttering, we must be prepared to roll with the punch. Exceptional talent—and Fassbinder appears to possess it—often has moments of running amok. Better to go too far than not to move; and there may even be a compassionate nut of truth about the fate of the underendowed buried somewhere in this gaudy piece of provocation. (pp. 62-3)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Japanese Friends, a German Agent Provocateur," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 26, August 15, 1977, pp. 60-3.∗
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[Satan's Brew] strikes me as a minor setback in [Fassbinder's] career. While it does not make me reconsider my previous appraisals, it does suggest certain limitations to his talent. What he has attempted on this occasion is a form of savage screwball comedy, which descends irrationally and intentionally into depravity and disgust….
Fassbinder quotes Artaud as his guide, but one is reminded instead of the Cocteau of Les Enfants Terribles and the Chabrol-Gegauff of Les Cousins. Unfortunately, Fassbinder is unable to furnish any behavioral conviction to his players, and, as if to admit this deficiency, he allows his plot to fizzle out in a fit of Pirandellian playfulness. These are not real bullets, as it turns out; only the wife's death in the hospital is absolutely irrevocable.
Regrettably, Fassbinder displays no flair for farce, and he is never really overtly funny. Indeed, Fassbinder should never actively seek humor but allow it to lurk in the background of his dark lyricism. The best moments in Satan's Brew are characterized by either self-mocking sentimentality (with gliding camera movements to match) or hard-edged sexuality (in which exposure is indecorous, if not indecent, because of its casual integration with the dramatic action). Fassbinder's cynicism about power on all levels of human intercourse finds ample expression here, but this cynicism...
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[Although Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?] was made for German television, it is not on a par even with the Visions series on American Public Broadcasting, which gives young playwrights and filmmakers a forum. Fassbinder's exercise is more the equivalent of a loft production or an unpublished novel in the trunk. As I see Fassbinder's career in a spotty perspective, the film predates even his first tentative sparring with the aesthetic options of cinema, his so-called Sirkian conversion….
[The film is] a case history of banality with each entry contributing to the construct of a seemingly complacent architectural draftsman. The everyday abrasions from his wife, son, boss, and neighbors are within the general norm. Kurt Raab is a stereotypic middle-class clerk who would be as much at home in Manhattan and Tokyo as in Berlin; and I don't believe that it would be fair to Fassbinder in this particular film to read into Raab's regimented social life a metaphor for fascist programming in contemporary German society. Actually, Kurt could be my cousin in East Elmhurst. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is a composite of such noncompelling familiarity.
Tom Allen, "A Fassbinder from the Trunk" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXII, No. 47, November 21, 1977, p. 43....
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Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is a clinical exercise designed to test how long a man can be expected to endure an existence that is, without relief, stale, flat and unprofitable. Herr R. is boring; worse than that, he suffers the capacity to be bored….
On occasion, Herr R. thrusts feebly against the bladder of narcotic misery within which he is suspended…. But there is no heat to sustain these sparks of animation; they expire in sighs and silences. And so one day, when a neighbor is running on about her discovery of the techniques and apparel of skiing, the almost repellently soft and undemanding Herr R. picks up a lethally heavy candlestick. The feeling one gets from this denouement can scarcely be called catharsis, because what leads up to it is too inert to be called tragedy; but most viewers, I think, will find it a relief. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is an exhausting movie….
The overall effect is appalling—and is so intended; Herr R. is a completely successful work. It means to show what is really contained in the observation that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. I cannot honestly say that I pitied Herr R.; there is nothing within him solid enough to pity. But I believe in him as one of the "humours"; I have gone through days as savorless as his whole existence is shown to be. One leaves the Fassbinder-[Michael] Fengler demonstration in a mood to rejoice at being alive. And in...
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Effi Briest is a film of velleity and distance because it is a portrait of the artist much more than the portrayal of a society. Whatever the apparent moral differences between them, all characters share a simultaneous acceptance of a perfectly coherent system of values, and a knowledge that this system cannot account for all their desires and emotions—even von Instetten who fights a duel because he must, not because he needs to, while openly avowing his love for his wife…. What Fassbinder has filmed is the author at work rather than the work itself: using a rigid pattern of sequences introduced by titles which are quotations from [the book's author, Theodor] Fontane and ending on fades to white whose ultimate effect is hypnotic rather than tedious; composing frames within the laws of classical perspective; shooting through gauzes and nets and in mirrors; choosing black-and-white rather than colour, and eschewing most of the technical repertory except the focus pull. And yet the film is beautiful to look at rather than psychologically compelling or politically significant…. [Fassbinder] is not self-indulgent, but if he continues to hover, without settling, between the 'realist' and the 'aesthetic' modes there is no reason why Effi Briest should not continually be reproduced without adjustment—except, perhaps, that this is no longer the turn of the century. (p. 46)
Jill Forbes, "Feature Films:...
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[Although the ingredients of Fassbinder's Sixties gangster films are still much in evidence,] The American Soldier comes closer than any of Fassbinder's previous films to articulate the method behind its own coherent madness and to spelling out the moral, or at any rate the moral philosophy, behind its characters' seemingly amoral actions…. Although on the surface a long way from the Romantic tradition, Fassbinder's American Soldier in fact harks back to that tradition by depicting an inescapable link between love and death. Its moments of greatest tenderness and compassion all involve corpses…. It's as if the characters can only express the tenderness they feel when 'the other' has lost his potential to betray, manipulate or demand…. Fassbinder, as early as 1970, has transcended the conventions of [the B-melodrama and gangster] genres, extrapolating their theatrical emotions into a theatricality of style. The separate monologues, and the presence, not so much of an invisible fourth wall as of an invisible coom-divider, belong to the conventions not of the screen but of the stage…. The characters in The American Soldier act out their frustrations in movie clichés, but their creator has already moved far beyond them, fusing an unmistakable personal style from the most disparate and unpromising sources.
Jan Dawson, "Feature Films: 'Der Amerikanische Soldat' ('The American Soldier'),"...
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More than any other of Fassbinder's early films noirs, Gods of the Plague is primarily a mood piece, its narrative impressionistically sketched and expressionistically recorded. Each scene achieves a near-absolute existential immediacy, and the causal connections between them, only thinly suggested (expository dialogue, even more than the film's other conversations, is minimal and monosyllabic), remain the subject of speculative reconstruction rather than of any self-evident logic. The relationships between the characters themselves similarly elude definition, projection, retrospection and permanence…. Though the country-outing sequence, with its freewheeling aerial shots of the car moving down empty lanes, and the absurd reunion punch-up which leaves the underworld underdogs piled up, winded and semi-conscious, on top of one another, recalls the nouvelle vague and some of the ephemeral joy of Godard's bande à part, the charm of Fassbinder's petty criminals is considerably less evident, largely because, despite certain marked moral delineations …, he deliberately refrains from personalising them. If Johanna and the policeman, both guilty of guile …, carry the weight of the film's moral opprobrium, its sympathies are less easy to pin down; or rather, they comprehensively embrace all the pain and compromise of all those characters merely trying to 'get by' in a society (glimpsed only in refractory images) which...
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Since Fassbinder's message about oppression, and its social and emotional forms, was intended for a mass audience and not a coterie of cinephiles, his self-ordained task was to 'create' that audience by recreating the communal style of the greatest popular cinema in history. Although Chinese Roulette (1976) still relates to that tradition—it is a melodramatic chamber piece, in which the romantic triangles of four haut bourgeois characters tensely overlap—it pointedly introduces 'foreign' elements into Fassbinder's usual stock company of players, and its political references (the Nazi past, contemporary political terrorism) supply not so much a message as teasing clues to the games its people play.
[Both Chinese Roulette and Despair (1978)], in fact, are dominated by an intellectual, puzzle-making mood. But if the key to the acrostic in Chinese Roulette is Fassbinder's familiar disgust with bourgeois institutions, and in Despair his prescience of fascism in the identity crisis of poor, mad Hermann Hermann, the answers never satisfactorily account for the structures that contain them. This whiff of formalism might also have something to do in both cases with their peculiarly literary conceits. (pp. 258-59)
Artificiality, as a theme and a stylistic strategy, has been common to all Fassbinder's films in the 70s. The rhetoric of melodrama boosts the emotional content of his...
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John L. Fell
Despair invents an act of demented disassociation with which the audience cannot itself become complicitly engaged because the narrative mode is not expressionistic. Instead, it is overlaid by self-reflexive irony upon irony. The book is written as a memoir-diary: "the lowest form of literature," its author says. Rereading, the writer discovers his fatal mistake in commission of the perfect crime.
Nabokov's plot intact, [Tom] Stoppard and Fassbinder have enlarged the döppelgänger motif (including plays on old movie scenes), politicized time and place, and exteriorized Hermann's aberrations by means of fantasized, conjectural intrusions.
Doubling, of course, here advances double narrative functions: the visual evidence of Hermann's disassociation during his lovemaking, shared by ourselves through either party's eyes, and the satirized Felix-double, authenticated by the protagonist alone. As a self-conscious design it is foregrounded during an episode when Ardalion, Lydia and Hermann attend a movie, a made-up American silent with funny German intertitles about twin brothers, one a murderer under siege from cops led by his brother….
With Hermann viewing his own primal scene, the audience as concurrent witness, the film has thus far been operating already in a kind of quadroscopic realm of voyeuristic permutations. Henceforth, the reflexive nudge of movie-within-movie complicates matters yet...
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[The Third Generation is Fassbinder's] most violently outspoken film yet, and incidentally the first from Germany … to represent fictional terrorists on the screen. Expanding into a high-camp melodrama the idea of collective responsibility underlying his Germany in Autumn episode, Fassbinder disregards the politically rigidified idea of terrorists as either demons or martyrs; and instead locates the colourful members of his terrorist cell … at the centre of a complex, wheels-within-wheels social machine governed only by the laws of greed, profit, cross and double-cross….
[In] Fassbinder's angry, and only superficially cynical, apocalyptic vision, there are no right or left, no good or bad guys….
The Third Generation is not the first Fassbinder film to suggest a kinship between cops and outlaws (this motif ran through his earliest thrillers, as through many of the films noirs which inspired them)…. But it is the first of his films to locate these twin themes unequivocally in contemporary society or to relate them to post-'68 developments there. If its characters still behave with theatrical, nay, Sirkian relish, the film's references are none the less more frequently drawn from actuality than from the movies….
[The] spectator is overwhelmed by the choice of meanings offered by the film's multi-track sounds, by the impossibility of making any kind of...
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[Only] someone like Fassbinder, a man who solemnly proclaimed a film with an all-woman cast "strictly autobiographical" could make The Marriage of Maria Braun.
Maria builds her life around her love for Hermann, in spite of their separation. Regardless of whether or not her love is "real," it is the passion that sustains her. It is also the carrot that Fassbinder dangles before Maria as he enmeshes her in a web of complications. As the reality of a reunion with her husband is repeatedly denied, Maria's love becomes an abstraction that retreats further and further into fantasy. (pp. 40-1)
Control is the key to Maria. She is always completely in command. But she can't have the one thing she wants more than anything else—her man…. [We feel a heart-rending sympathy for Maria]; she too has an ideal love that eludes her, always lying just out of reach, waiting to be realized. She is only believing in, and following, the rituals of her culture. And in the surrounding confusion, she clings even tighter. (p. 41)
Maria Braun is another one of Fassbinder's unrelenting schematics. There is still another protagonist burdened with, and bewildered by, a life whose day-to-day routines demand submission but make little sense. Fassbinder portrays victims. His characters may be vivacious in the beginning, but at the film's end they are enervated, passive, often dead. (p. 42)
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The Marriage of Maria Braun must be recognized … as a powerful and mordant study of post-war Germany, a portrayal very much in the mood and style of Bertolt Brecht. Concerned with the "economic miracle," as the Germans themselves like to call it, Fassbinder treats a subject that other German filmmakers have studiously avoided.
"Eine schlechte Zeit für Gefuhle"—"a bad time for feelings"—says one character early on, which pretty much sums up the pervasive mood of Fassbinder's icy approach to the miracle of German recovery…. But in The Marriage of Maria Braun Fassbinder has finally found the right subject; the result is a near masterpiece. The marriage referred to in the title is the marriage of modern Germany to economic recovery and the corporate values that accompany it….
The finest touch to this film noir is something that goes on in the background and is left untranslated in the titles: a series of radio broadcasts punctuate particular scenes, commenting on and reflecting the political mood of the period…. In the last scene we hear the sports announcer hysteria of a soccer game between Germany and Hungary, the final sign of a descent into the sterile hell of an economic recovery that leaves Germany unredeemed—at least, in the gospel according to Fassbinder. (p. 46)
Dan Isaac, "The Lincoln Center Film Festival," in Midstream...
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The atmosphere of In a Year of Thirteen Moons is dark, claustrophobic, filmed in hot colors, often at bizarre, cubist angles and heavy with Weltschmerz. Time and again it pauses for long, philosophical contemplation of the distastefulness of being and the seduction of ending—maunderings of the sort I thought even the Germans had renounced in our time….
Fassbinder mistrusts the social system as profoundly as he despairs of human relationships. He expresses this most explicitly through the history of Saitz, who had risen from black-market trickster to whoremaster to real estate millionaire and whom Elvira runs to earth in one of his vast but empty high-rises, locked in with a few henchmen and engaged in a childish parody of an old Jerry Lewis comedy he apparently keeps running endlessly on a TV set. This occupation I take to be a warning to tycoons that the fate of Howard Hughes awaits them….
In a Year of Thirteen Moons is appalling, a delirium of sensibility turned rancid. Most of us have, one time or another, felt abused, traduced, godforsaken; one develops a resistance. But for those who live under the sway of the moon—and Fassbinder clearly includes himself among them—resistance may be hard to sustain, and ceremonies must be evoked. This film, it could well be, is his way of defying his demon. Like Genet, I suspect, he creates out of the worst he can find in himself. (p. 797)...
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We're tempted to say that Fassbinder is a better playwright than film director. But we can't quite convince ourselves that he began with some acute sense of how human beings oppress and twist one another and themselves, and that he lost it on film through believing that Douglas Sirk … was a Marxist pioneer of alienation effect by exaggeration. We see these movies as soft-edge, soft-core, bourgeois self-criticism….
On all his actors Fassbinder's carefully formalized visuals impose a strange style which certainly hits the jackpot of a fashionable aesthetic. Following an almost mechanical alternation of passion and blankness (limp deadpan, tears, limp deadpan), Fassbinder succeeds only too well in transforming illusionistic acting into a series of arbitrary signs half-disembedded from any illusionistic continuum. Presumably intended as an alienation effect, it prompts the reflection that if so much has to be added to the dramatic plane, then that dramatic plane simply excludes what "illusionistic" (well-constructed) screenplays include. (p. 66)
Although Fassbinder's brandished Marxism surrounds [The Merchant of Four Seasons] with a vaguely progressive aura, he's really as rear-guard, or ingrown, a figure as Herzog. His glitter-kammerspiel substitutes for psychology a portentous moralizing about egoism and power games. It adapts the autocritical bourgeois tradition … to a sense of chic physical oddity...
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There no longer can be any doubt about it: Rainer Werner Fassbinder is the most dazzling, talented, provocative, original, puzzling, prolific and exhilarating film maker of his generation….
Mr. Fassbinder has demonstrated that he is quite capable of adapting his cinematic vision to fit the works of others …, but it's his original screenplays that give the true measure of this great, unpredictable talent. He makes movies the way other, lesser directors talk about them—easily, quickly and precisely. When he shoots a film, he is speculating about the subject as well as about the craft of film making, examining both as he goes along, freely, without being bound to arrive at some preset destination. His movies are the logbooks of an adventuring mind.
Some Fassbinder films are, of course, less successful than others, but that's beside the point. Each is a part of what can now be recognized as a single continuing work, and if one film ends in something of a muddle, there's always another coming along that may clear things up. A Fassbinder movie isn't necessarily an end in itself. It's a way of thinking.
Fassbinder films are so packed (visually and aurally) with information, references, asides, questions and unexpected connections (and, as a result so demanding) that most other contemporary movies look puny in comparison. Watching a good Fassbinder movie is like doing a double crostic after too many...
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The mood of The Third Generation, one might assume, is rampaging cynicism. The film looks in two directions, at the modern capitalist state of West Germany and at the terrorist radicals who bedevil it, and seems to pronounce a curse on both their houses. Such a feat is possible, however, not because the film is two-faced but because the situation it describes is so complex….
In cut and dried terms, this is the message of Fassbinder's latest film. But it does not account for some of its most curious features, not least of which is that it is more emotionally than politically painful. Although some historical long view of the German experience is implied, the film actually works as a claustrophobically intense soap opera, a black farce of political mannerisms or, as an opening title puts it, "a comedy in six parts, about party games, full of suspense, excitement and logic, horror and madness …"…
It is no wonder, then, that the film seems such a riotous kammerspiel, since all the generations have been let loose in it….
The film's action, too, is all in the family. The members of the cell are domestic monsters first and political actors second, and reserve their scorn for the new member who is still burdened with his suitcase of revolutionary theory. What the discussion of ideology boils down to in the end is the old Fassbinder problem of victimization: his peculiar sense of doom...
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