It’s hard to believe that had German filmmaker–playwright–actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder lived an average life span, he would soon be celebrating his 70th birthday. But of course, nothing about Fassbinder’s life was average; the auteur who burned twice as bright (and then some) only lived half as long, dying at age 37 in 1982.
Three years ago the American Cinematheque devoted two weeks to a wide retrospective of Fassbinder’s work (click here for my post, an intro to the one-man cultural movement that was RWF). Even spread across two theaters, that series was hardly comprehensive, because the astonishingly prolific Fassbinder made 30-odd features between 1969 and his death 13 years later. He also found the time to direct the 15½-hour TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and various shorts, as well as act and write plays. (Drugs helped fuel the tornado-like creativity.) This week the American Cinematheque and the Goethe-Institut co-sponsor a three-night series that’s a kind of RWF greatest-hits — a good intro to the oeuvre for anyone yet to discover Fassbinder, and a refresher course for aficionados.
The big attraction in the Egyptian Theater’s three-night series is the L.A. premiere of Fassbinder: To Love without Demands, a new documentary by Danish film critic Christian Braad Thomsen. When Fassbinder’s debut Love Is Colder than Death premiered at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, the movie was roundly panned (even booed), but the young Thomsen was there, and he perceived the arrival of an iconoclastic talent.
Thomsen filmed interviews with Fassbinder throughout the 1970s, right up to the director’s final weeks; selections from those interviews, never seen before now and reputed to be unusually candid on Fassbinder’s part, are the heart of the movie, alongside reminiscences from actors Irm Hermann and Harry Baer (who was also RWF’s longtime assistant director), and even Fassbinder’s mother.
Other highlights of this three-night series include Fassbinder’s best-known films, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), a showcase for the director’s muse Hanna Schygulla, and Cannes prize winner Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the story of a tortured love affair between a Moroccan ‘guest worker’ and an older German woman. The perennial strife about immigrants in German society gives Ali perpetual currency.
Also showing is Fox and His Friends (1975), the punishingly downbeat story of a working-class gay man (played by Fassbinder himself) who wins the lottery and falls in with a couple of snobs out to exploit him. Perhaps the biggest shock for 1970s German audiences here would have been seeing actor Karl-Heinz Böhm — famous for having played the young Emperor Franz-Josef in a hugely popular (and stupefyingly anodyne) 1950s trilogy about the Empress Sissi — as a middle-aged playboy trawling bathhouses in search of new partners. Perhaps this was a calculated provocation on the director’s part, but Fassbinder had a habit of rescuing the careers of older German actors by putting them in edgier new contexts.
Closing the series on May 30 is a personal favorite, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). It’s a strange and compelling chamber piece about an imperious diva of a fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) who becomes obsessed with a dewy model (Hanna Schygulla), who cannily exploits the older woman as a stepping stone. (The verb “exploit” is key to Fassbinder’s take on relationships of all kinds.)
The whole movie takes place in the designer’s gilded cage of an apartment, and it’s amazing to see the intricate choreography of blocking and camera movement that Fassbinder and DP Michael Ballhaus create here. Rarely has a diva suffered so beautifully, and Carstensen’s performance is a tour de force of histrionics where camp and tragedy become impossible to separate. Fans of Oliver Assayas’ current Clouds of Sils Maria might enjoy seeing this caustic precursor about the shifting power relations between two women.
If Fassbinder had lived to 50 or even 60, what would the movies have been like? He was such a scathing critic of West German society in the 1960s and ’70s that it’s hard to imagine him in the context of the reunified, normalized Germany of recent years. And given his ever-rising profile in the years before he died, would he have made it to Hollywood? (A Rosa Luxembourg biopic starring Jane Fonda was on his agenda in 1982, which might prompt some wags to remark that he died just in time.)
All films screen at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. In German with English subtitles.
Thursday, May 27, 7:30 p.m.:
Friday, May 28, 7:30 p.m.:
Documentary, 2015; directed by Christian Braad Thomsen
Saturday, May 29, 7:30 p.m.:
Fassbinder aficionados will enjoy this J. Hoberman essay recounting how Fassbinder slowly won an audience in the U.S. (i.e., New York City) back in the 1970s. A keyhole into a very different era of cinephilia.
For more on Fassbinder, including reviews of Lola and and Gods of the Plague, click here.