Vincent Kling

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

[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.

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Heads they lose, tails they lose: when Fassbinder's characters grasp the courage to assert their human freedom in an uncompromising way, they achieve neither happiness nor even reasonable contentment. However much external conditions appear to them as doors to freedom, the doors open only onto more insidious traps. On the other hand, as soon as the characters attempt a gradual or tactful method of getting what they want, they reveal their essential helplessness by giving way to pressures and adversities from their surroundings in a manner sufficiently out of proportion with the cause to expose some prior and long-standing weakness. (pp. 66-7)

In lieu of showing immediate outer causes of his characters' guilt and frustration, Fassbinder gives hints, but no more, that unresolved childhood conflicts may be at the roots of the disturbances. He does not develop the study of origins in any systematic way, probably because he is more interested in their effects than their causes, and when he gives them fleeting treatment, he often casts them in the form of tedious verbal motifs all the more convincing as illustrations of weakness for being lachrymose and sentimental. Fassbinder has a gift for showing the hypnotic power of self-pitying platitudes. (p. 68)

Fassbinder's visuals, decors and settings help reveal the absence of freedom, reinforcing the viewer's awareness that the characters are inexorably trapped. Effi Briest is constantly being seen through doorways, framed in the limits of domesticity; the camera rarely opens out to any appreciable distance when it is on her. Though sartorially apt for her time, the veils on her hats convey to the contemporary viewer a feeling of forced concealment. (p. 69)

For all the undeniable unity, coherence, and grasp of technique that Fassbinder demonstrates in his films, his artistry sometimes remains questionable in the viewer's mind…. [Admiring] critics are now discussing some aspects of Fassbinder's films as manifestations of great artistic control, as highly disciplined techniques for subtly creating alienation and distancing, when they may in fact be manifestations of mere impatient sloppiness. (p. 71)

Despite the number of films already to his credit, it is much too soon in the development of Fassbinder's craft to make a definite judgment about his technical ability. Surely it is not critically sound to begin with the assumption that everything about his work is outstanding and then justify as special inspirations moments that would be considered lapses in any other director. It may indeed be that Fassbinder is leaning very much toward structuralist method, attempting to make the medium part of the message by using technical discrepancies and incongruities for distancing and for Verfremdung, but no one has yet explained this in detail…. On the other hand, Fassbinder is clearly not a prisoner of his occasional slovenliness, or at least not inevitably so. (pp. 71-2)

His increasing popularity accords well with Fassbinder's self-portrait as the artless and naive filmmaker driven on by the confessional urge. What the self-portrait fails to include is any reference to a subtle and persistent technique of allusion, which reveals in Fassbinder and demands from his viewers a great deal of knowledge about literature and film.

If these allusions are missed, the theme is not lost. To the viewer who can catch some of them, however, Fassbinder seems either more or less of an artist (depending on the viewer's disposition) than he would seem without them—more because they raise the particular story line to a universal level by recalling other and similar fates, or less because they often appear to be short-cuts designed to avoid working out the story elements fully in their own terms. (p. 72)

Vincent Kling, "A Second Gold Age? West German Cinema and One of Its Directors," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1977 by Chicago Review), Vol. 28, No. 3, Winter, 1977, pp. 59-74.

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