Christian Braad Thomsen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1119

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)

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[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 to violent expression. Throughout Fassbinder's films, frustrations are resolved by violent action….

Fassbinder's first films will be remembered especially for their pictorial emptiness, for those endless static-camera sequences which purify situations of their "dramatic" content. Taking as his point of departure this emptiness, which is of an aesthetic and contextual nature, Fassbinder gradually discovers a succession of human feelings and social contexts which are more constructive. He additionally discovers a filmic language which slowly allows itself to be built up on the ruins left by Hollywood. (p. 13)

Warning lies mid-way in Fassbinder's work, and it is a turning-point. It is Fassbinder's most obviously autobiographical film, since it deals with the making of a film and gives a nonidealized portrait of Fassbinder and of his permanent crew of actors and co-workers…. Warning deals with the price they have to pay for functioning as a group, and with the tensions which, time and again, threaten to scatter them…. (pp. 13-14)

The director's dream of delegating the film's creation to all is just an excuse for his self-pitying plain, that it is always he who has to do it all. In reality, none of the others gets an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process…. The film-crew's dreams, which might originally have been real and sympathetic, have become perverted, introverted and insincere. Their relation to each other and to film is incestuous, self-infecting and claustrophobic….

Warning is a merciless, brutal and self-critical film, but behind the brutality is hidden—as always in Fassbinder's work—a great and slightly embarrassed tenderness for the characters he depicts. The film's characters seem to arrive at a temporary solution, when the actual filming gets under way, for this effort has, quand même, a kind of meaning. What destroys Fassbinder's characters in his earlier films is their disjunctive relation to their work, that is, to their own creative energies….

The merciless self-criticism which Fassbinder indulges in in Warning is not feigned. Although the film deals with hollow phrases, it is not itself hollow. He takes its self-criticism seriously, and in his subsequent films he is finally prepared to address himself to a large audience without compromising….

Besides being a tale of individual suffering. [The Merchant of the Four Seasons] is also a pointed unmasking of bourgeois family life, of the hypocrisy, ambitions, and essential coldness of the family's existence. It is Fassbinder's most apparently naturalistic film, while at the same time the naturalism swings over into a stylized pop-artish pathos of great originality and direct emotional appeal….

At the same time he made this film about woman's repression of man, Fassbinder made The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant…. These two films must be seen in context, because they demonstrate that Fassbinder is not dominated by the current trendy, over-simplifying and jargon-ridden evaluations of our society's social mechanisms. (p. 14)

[In Petra von Kant, the] dialogue has been brilliantly reduced to a maxim-like simplicity, without loss to its emotional complexity. The long, fixed camera-positions and precise picture composition chisel this love-story out in stone, but perhaps the most remarkable quality of the film is that it deals with some of the seemingly "eternal" questions, while at the same time Fassbinder demonstrates how the characters' understanding of love is intimately connected with their social rôles: This thorough-going insistence upon the connection between peoples' social existence and their emotional consciousness exemplifies Fassbinder's assertion that, "when society is changed, people's consciousness will also be changed." (p. 15)

In his treatment of the problems central to women's liberation, Fassbinder has continued to expand his criticism of the individualistic revolt which has characterized his work right from the first gangster-film. The individualistic revolt achieves nothing, or at the most it serves—by the fate it meets—to sketch a caricature of the individualistic society which the rebel attempts to defy. Fassbinder defined this with the utmost symbolic clarity in his American-South melodrama, Whity….

Fassbinder's tv films are told with a charming, almost dreamlike optimism, but he never completely loses contact with the realities, and in the last of the films he clearly demarcates the limits of the spontaneous human solidarity with which he works. The upper limit is, in his eyes, the right of private ownership of the means of production….

There is a conspicuous difference between Fassbinder's feature films and his television films. Eight Hours Don't Make a Day presents a much more optimistic side than his feature films….

Fassbinder's experience in the medium of television seems also to have influenced the trend of his future production…. [The relationship of the two lonely creatures in Fear Eats Up Souls] provokes the latent fascist tendencies present in the pair's bourgeois environment…. Fassbinder allows love to win over the environment's pettiness and intolerance. This is in harmony with his experiences with television, and is an important element in Fassbinder's artistic programme, that one ought to make films which give people the courage to live their lives. But in spite of his declared good will, it's difficult to make films which end 100% happily, the way our world looks today. There lies a fruitful artistic tension for Fassbinder in the conflict between his own wish for things to be resolved as well as possible, and the limited possibilities for happy endings which our everyday life in the Western world provides. (p. 16)

Christian Braad Thomsen. "Fassbinder's Holy Whores," in Take One (copyright © 1973 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 4, No. 6, July-August, 1973, pp. 12-16.

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