To mark the 35th anniversary of the death of West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Picturehouse Cinemas presents a selection of six of his most acclaimed films, all screening in new digital restorations. Deborah Allison previews the season.
Wunderkind provocateur Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was undoubtedly one of cinema’s most astonishing and original voices. His work had an enormous impact on the emergent New German Cinema and international film culture alike, and, after the breakout success of The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1979), he would become a leading light of the international art-house circuit.
After directing two short films in the mid-sixties, Fassbinder honed his skills in experimental theatre before making his first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death, in 1969. Continuing to work in both theatre and cinema, collaborating in both cases with a stock troupe of actors and technicians, he went on to direct more than forty feature-length films as well as numerous stage plays before his untimely death from a drugs overdose just days after his thirty-seventh birthday.
The sheer quantity of his output is amazing in itself – not only in that he found time and energy to complete so many accomplished films at such breakneck speed, but that he managed to secure funding for work that was both formally experimental and politically challenging. Many of his films were financed by German state television, so another surprise (when one considers television movie norms) is the exquisite detail of his visual style.
While Fassbinder’s approach to filmmaking shifted over time, becoming more audience-friendly through the course of the seventies, he never renounced his experimental roots, nor compromised his allegiance to firmly held beliefs. He characterised film as “a political instrument in the sense that it can describe and expose the underlying problems of society” – problems he invariably represented as arising from the social oppression, persecution, and exploitation inherent in a capitalist economy.
In exploring these themes, he showed how the persecution and exploitation intrinsic to political systems filter down to shape the dynamics of personal relationships. In some films, he dealt with class conflict head on. Fox And His Friends (1975) centres on a naïve working-class lottery winner (Fassbinder in one of his most raw and astonishing performances) who’s chewed up and spat out by the odious bourgeois clique among whom he seeks love and social betterment. By contrast, claustrophobic chamber pieces The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1972) and Chinese Roulette (1976) focus on the spiteful and sadistic dynamics of small groups sealed off from the outside world.
It’s worth noting that Bitter Tears and Fox are among several films centring on lesbian, gay, and transgender characters (Fassbinder was openly gay). Yet the most striking thing is not the sheer number of homosexuals in his films (though, given their time of production, this is indeed remarkable) but that he never represents homosexuality as a ‘social issue’ nor attempts to deify those characters. In his films, the social and sexual behaviour of lesbians and gays is as poisonous as that of straights, and their relationships every bit as dysfunctional.
Fassbinder’s portraits of a society within which “no authentic relationship is possible” undoubtedly express a deeply cynical viewpoint – but, if this all sounds like doom and gloom, fear not! Laced with black humour and savage wit, his films are anything but drab. Discussing how his approach to filmmaking had evolved, he explained in a 1974 interview, “I now think the primary need is to satisfy the audience, and then to deal with the political content”.
In the autumn of 1970, Fassbinder discovered and devoured the films of Douglas Sirk, which was a transformative influence on his subsequent work, marking the watershed between the first and second phases of his career. Sirk was another West German director who first made his mark in Brechtian theatre before achieving his greatest success in 1950s Hollywood where he smuggled socially challenging content to a mass audience through a series of lavish and lurid melodramas.
All the films in our season come from this second phase, which began with The Merchant Of Four Seasons in 1971. While Fear Eats the Soul (1974) draws most directly from Sirk, inspired as it is by his 1955 drama, All That Heaven Allows, all six betray Sirk’s influence, encapsulating political messages within melodramatic plot lines and with their intense hyper-reality amplified, in several cases, by a ravishing visual style. Despite Fassbinder’s notorious micro-management, much of the credit for their look must go to his regular collaborators. Especially striking is the contribution of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus who worked with Fassbinder on more than a dozen films, including Bitter Tears, Fox, Chinese Roulette and Maria Braun, and who later became Martin Scorsese’s cinematographer of choice.
The new restorations of these films, long absent from British cinema schedules but with their edge unblunted by time, have proved well worth the wait. I hope viewers old and new will join me in celebrating the return to the big screen of one of my favourite iconoclasts.
The Fassbinder season is coming to The Little (Bath), Picturehouse at Science Media Museum (Bradford),Duke of York’s (Brighton), Arts Picturehouse (Cambridge), Cinema City (Norwich), Hackney Picturehouseand Picturehouse at FACT (Liverpool). Dates and times vary.