Paul Thomas

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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 individual qualities that go to make up mass action. But these individual qualities are very much Fassbinder's stock in trade. He is, in general, uninterested in the "great," the notable, the distinguished…. (pp. 6-7)

If there is a single spoken line in his films that sums up his animus against this society, it is in Fox when an upper-class character says, in passing, of a lower-class character, "People like that are too crude to be in despair." On the contrary, says Fassbinder, one cannot be "too crude" to have feelings, for there is nothing refined or exalted about feelings, but only about the way some people look at other people. (p. 7)

[Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?] is all too obviously a film in which every color, every shade, every tone, every filter is calculated with exquisite care to create, enhance, and sustain what becomes an unbearable paranoia, in which the sheer weight of the ordinary, the stream of meaningless verbiage, makes the eventual "senseless" murder something of a relief. Herr R. is a minor masterpiece because of the tension of the everyday it presents; it spins out this tension in a series of sequences in which screen time and elapsed time are one. At the same time, it's not at all sensational; the hysteria it expresses consists in the drabness and the stultifying boredom Fassbinder has the effrontery to present, flatly and directly….

Herr R. stands out from Fassbinder's previous output by not being a succession of set-pieces, by not being punctuated by visual effects, but a film sustained and developed by carefully considered visual means…. Yet Fassbinder's evident desire to accentuate reality by means of an extreme presentation of its contours eventually seemed to him to be politically counterproductive…. (p. 10)

[The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant] is self-consciously "artificial," the acting proto-artificial; it is very much a chamber-film, of people who choose to present to the world versions of themselves, a film of personas and personages. The sequences correspond to act divisions in a play, yet the film itself is not Fassbinder's most theatrical film at all; it deals with a woman who habitually puts herself in theatrical situations. (p. 13)

[In Effi Briest, Fassbinder's] anger at a society that would permit such muted atrocities is contained only by the requirements of a controlled form. The stylization of the film, as in Petra von Kant, mirrors the stylization of the characters, their emotional responses, and the stylization of the society they live in and make up….

[The] film is spare, attenuated; there are short, truncated sequences, often ending in semi-stills of one of the characters; there are fades in and out of white; there are titles and voice-over narrations. Fassbinder, in an almost Bressonian manner, leaves out crucial scenes (Effi's marriage, the childbirth) because it is the process, the formality, the tight-lippedness of the characters that matter more than the incidents that express them….

Fassbinder here, and in all his best films, is in full control of his faculties as a director, taking full cognizance of where his ideas about film direction may lead. All his films are memorable, in a distinct and unsettling way; shots and sequences have a luminosity and vividness, actors and personages a presence, that make an ineradicable impression. (p. 15)

Fassbinder is, above all else, a director of impact; in order not to be pushed under by the weight of an unbearable reality, he aims to strike back at this reality, and this defiance explains his anger and his furious productivity alike. (p. 16)

Fassbinder's films are very much the kind of fihns we cannot imagine being made by anyone else; he has attempted, and is still constantly attempting, to reconcile the way he stamps them with an approach which is distinctively his own with the demands of revolutionary art as he sees them….

Fassbinder, instead of having a message, is concerned to pitch a message, to generate responses among his audience (and his actors), responses they can live out and act upon. If film cannot reflect reality in any simplistic sense, it can portray the inhuman consequences of the social mechanism. This means we must recognize that film is not a reflective device but a transformative agency. Fassbinder has thus been stubbornly working to liberate not only the heads of his audience but the politically committed cinema itself. (p. 17)

Paul Thomas, "Fassbinder: The Poetry of the Inarticulate," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1977 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXX, No. 2, Winter, 1976–77, pp. 2-17.


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