Thomas Elsaesser

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1729

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.

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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 commercial cinema has evolved, Fassbinder makes virtually no use of suspense, comedy or horror. His films have been described as sentimental, mawkish, moving between pathos and bathos, and it is true that he seems to concentrate rather exclusively on the varieties of pathos, understood as the emotional rhetoric of bourgeois tragedy and melodrama. The forms that this pathos takes, strident, with ironic overtones, or low-key, as in Effi Briest, might tempt one to think of it as personal, a kind of direct translation of what Fassbinder 'feels' about the world. On the other hand, it might well be a matter of translating his chosen theme: what romantic or domestic melodrama connotes in an unambiguous way is the presence of subjectivity in the discourse, a necessary precondition for an audience to feel affected by the victimisation in his films. However, the general basis on which this communication takes place—a certain diffuse emotionality, a mixture of nostalgia and regret, of operatic sentimentality and a somewhat cloying intensity—is not peculiar to Fassbinder….

[The] problem as it emerges from the films, is how to articulate threatening and aggressive emotional states (moments of betrayal, deception, manipulation, emotional cruelty, but also equally 'aggressive' manifestations of unconditional love, self-sacrifice, exuberance) in aesthetic forms that make them tolerated, acceptable. Fassbinder has ventured out into regions of extremes, where the directness of the emotional assault has to be mediated, and the spectator's susceptibility managed, channelled via the mechanics of identification and distanciation. (p. 28)

Fassbinder is right; there is something masturbatory about [his early] films, even if the shoddiness of the decor and the tinsel glamour of the actresses manages to moralise the attitude of self-satisfaction into a critical stance. Not only is the recurring topos of inadequacy the explicit sign of that ambition to make a 'real' Hollywood movie, of which the film one is watching is the touching, pathetic, melancholy echo, but the discontinuity which inadequacy implies also places the king-size dreams of the characters—defiantly asserted against an unresponsive environment—as ambitions fated with ludicrous inevitability to fizzle out ignominiously. The films thus reflect a twofold frustration: an imagination at second-hand is further foiled at the level of performance, and Fassbinder shows himself a realist with critical intentions only insofar as these are documents, records of what one might call emotional starvation fantasies….

The dialectics of escapism and realism, deeply embedded in the fabric of the American action film, are pulled apart by Fassbinder's gangster films. Voyeuristic projection is allowed to float dangerously out of its unconscious self-evidence (where an autonomous fictional spectacle normally keeps such impulses fixated), and emerges disjointedly as the unpleasant perception of the film as an artefact, or the exaggerated gesture of self-conscious make-believe: we begin to worry whether the actors themselves can keep up the pretence. This discrepancy, forced to the point of physical discomfort in films like The American Soldier and Whity, a discrepancy between awkwardness and beauty, lends itself to an ambiguous dialogue about the cinema itself, its manipulative images and its rhetoric of effect. But it also represents a provisional formulation of Fassbinder's moral theme, for he everywhere makes palpable—whether deliberately or by default—the sometimes terrifying and often grotesque distance between the subjective mise en scène of the characters and the objective mise en scène of the camera…. (p. 29)

What is ambiguous and at the same time attractive about Fassbinder's early protagonists is that the degradation of their imaginative-emotional language (their imitations of tough guy or femme fatale mannerisms) and the degradation of their moral and social environment (they are failures, marginals, 'small fry') seem to cancel each other out, to create a precarious, momentary dignity: the typical commitment of Fassbinder's humanism. (p. 30)

Fassbinder since [The Merchant of Four Seasons] has moved from an essentially self-conscious form of distanciation … to a more straightfaced psychological and emotional realism. (p. 31)

The typical situation in a Fassbinder film, where a mother/father, wife/husband or friend/colleague make demands on the hero/heroine that are sadistic, or betray, deceive or abandon him/her is dramatised in such a way that these dominating figures, from whom there is objectively or subjectively no escape, also have their reasons, are sometimes well-meaning or possess complex motives over not all of which they have control (Merchant of Four Seasons, Wildwechsel, Fear Eats the Soul, Martha, Fear of Fear). The hero, by contrast, is given a moral/emotional innocence that almost makes him the holy fool in a Dostoievskian world of universal prostitution. His simple-mindedness, his obstinacy in hanging on to simple truths and direct feelings become a form of higher wisdom, the gesture that unmasks the stupidity of self-interest, prejudice and oppression. Evil then appears depersonalised, as somehow inherent in the social system as a whole. What the films ultimately appeal to is solidarity between victims. (pp. 31-2)

Fassbinder's melodramas can and do make the very important distinctions between the different levels of individual motivation, between private morality and class morality, between human impulses and ideological impulses. It is by these disjunctions and discontinuities that Fassbinder develops his pathos, and through it he creates the vacuum in which social and psychological pressures become visible as they distort natural instincts and needs into manifestations of evil. But insofar as these pressures and forces cannot be named or analysed other than by pointing to their absence from the characters' consciousness, the purely inter-personal drama tends to imply that to understand is to forgive….

[However, Fox and Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven] seem to indicate that Fassbinder himself is having doubts: they show an even more definite parti-pris for the hero/heroine, and they are less scrupulous about balancing the other characters' points of view. The spectrum of identification becomes narrower, and with it perhaps more radical. The villains are more like villains, their portrayal is elliptical to the point of parody. For that reason, these films are less convincing aesthetically, even though the director's point of view becomes clearer. That a certain moral ambiguity should be directly proportional to aesthetic persuasiveness seems to suggest that the path between making committed, critical cinema and being 'popular' within a basically bourgeois art form is a narrow one. (p. 32)

Fassbinder's notion of realism is … remarkable not least for its frank admission of the habitual functions of escapist entertainment: encouraging daydreams, private fantasies, wish fulfilment … except that he talks about liberation and utopia rather than escape.

More important than whether the films actually permit an audience to dream their own better future is that Fassbinder, in his search for an unprovocative realism that makes audience identification possible, has discovered for the German cinema the importance of being artificial in order to appear realistic….

Where the 'young' German film of the Sixties produced at best a flat, black-and-white naturalism, Fassbinder's carefully composed colour schemes, his selection of the typical detail available for an unobtrusive symbolism without being pressed into it, represent the kind of heightened realism that makes the traditionally closed world of the melodrama take on topicality, even where it wants to be existentially timeless. (p. 33)

His greatest talent as a story-teller lies perhaps in the way he can give his material the shape of an apparently inescapable, fatal logic. This logic may be false somewhere: it is after all the overwhelming chain of miseries, humiliations and defeats seen from the point of view of the eternal victim, in a world where even the oppressors are shown to be victims. It almost amounts to a form of apologetics for leaving things as they are. But what his critics have been quick to spot as a mystification, the endless litany of victimisation, accompanied by a lugubrious celebration of despair ('the gesture of impotence'), is in another sense the craftsman's delight in creating ever more perfectly constructed vicious circles. In this case, the films are autobiographical in a very straightforward manner: they translate into fictional terms and formal configurations the personal experience of film-making…. Fassbinder wants to articulate a message of utopian liberation while being himself in chains. The realism of such a cinema, and probably its radicalism, cannot be in its overt social criticism alone, important though this may be, but in the contradictions it sustains when expressing in formal terms the conditions of its existence. The films themselves offer no way out: the more Fassbinder courts his public by dramatising the agonies of social and emotional victims, the more his cinema is in danger of becoming formalistic, static inside his own perfected dramaturgy. So far he has treated his theme as a tragedy—which it is; to break the deadlock of too facile a pessimism and still make a cinema of enlightenment for a mass audience, he may have to see it also as a comedy. In the meantime, the fact that such a cinema continues to exist is Fassbinder's real achievement, and the implicit challenge that makes his work political. (pp. 35-6)

Thomas Elsaesser, "A Cinema of Vicious Circles" (copyright © Thomas Elsaesser), in Fassbinder, edited by Tony Rayns, British Film Institute, 1976, pp. 24-36.

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