Raymond Durgnat

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

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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 developed in various fields by Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, and the Ugly Model Agency.

Possibly Fassbinder anticipates a perennial tendency in art, evident also in a chic-punk form: once venality and its charm are accepted, analysis has nothing to reveal, and irony replaces it. Whence the yin and yang in Germanic culture of the lyrical-transcendental, and of irony in the "Berliner," or Brechtian, or Sternbergian mode. We're not objecting to this world-view, only asking for a solution to the spectator's boredom that nondevelopment can reinforce. Given the Fassbinder conjunction of deadlock without surprise or suspense, his figures become icons of flatness and falseness, lacking irony and a sense of something living inside.

Fassbinder achieves his tone—somewhere in the vicinity of post-absurdism and magic realism—but his characters are clockwork oranges…. One admires Fassbinder's unusual freedom from class bias, and the evenness with which he promenades his vision through its projection onto all classes and conditions of men; but the equanimity and lucidity is foreshortened by something which freezes all these forms in their brittle perfection. The films have a shriveled consistency—like that of figures in a gay Marxist cuckoo clock. (p. 68)

Raymond Durgnat, "From Caligari to 'Hitler'" (copyright © 1980 by Raymond Durgnat; reprinted by permission of the author), in Film Comment, Vol. 16, No. 4, July-August, 1980, pp. 59-70.∗


Robert Hatch


Vincent Canby