Why Fassbinder’s sleazy gangsters and slackers are worth watching today

“Eine knallharte Geschichte”: a hard-hitting story! Fassbinder’s feature debut, 1969.

Like Stanley Kubrick, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982) was fearless about venturing into practically every movie genre. He specialized in all manner of melodramas, but his oeuvre includes prestigious literary adaptations (Effi Briest, 1974), docudrama (Germany in Autumn, 1978), acidic political satire (The Third Generation, 1979), an outrageously campy western (Whity, 1971), and one distinctly peculiar comedy (Satan’s Brew, 1976). Fassbinder even tackled science fiction, with surprising success, in the two-part World on a Wire (1973), which has been aptly described as “The Matrix 25 years before The Matrix.”

The director takes aim: Fassbinder in LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH. © Copyright the Criterion Collection.

Each genre became a vehicle for the director’s acerbic sensibility, while also allowing him to riff on his influences, such as Godard (the Paris-set World on a Wire is in no small part an homage to Alphaville) or Douglas Sirk (in too many movies to mention).

Fassbinder started messing with genre almost as soon as he picked up a movie camera, with an informal trio of gangster pictures. These early movies have a stop-start, hit-or-miss quality — the 24-year-old auteur was a couple years away from coming into his own — but the tough-guy genre was a good training ground for Fassbinder. As the new Eclipse box set shows, the loose trilogy of Love Is Colder than Death (1969), Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier (both 1970) forms an arc of growing confidence and focus on the director’s part, not to mention an increasingly evident mastery of film technique.

Fassbinder’s hardboiled outings suggest a collision between 1940s American noir and a late 1960s underground movie. This was clearly a guy who knew his Hollywood “B” pictures (Raoul Walsh was a favorite), but Fassbinder’s take on the genre is no slavish, uncritical homage. In keeping with the spirit of critical thinking that defined the New German Cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, here noir has been relocated to Bavaria and updated, to allow Fassbinder to jab at what he felt was a complacent West German society.

The movies are still impressively seedy today. Here the sleaze and cynicism that were once implicit in the noir genre become foregrounded. An endemic level of corruption is a given. Hardcore porn, in the form of magazines and playing cards, is rubbed in the viewer’s face.

Of course, the fact that many of these Bavarians are decked out like hoods and molls from a mythic 1940s Chicago — alongside other characters who are more likely to evoke French New Wave, or the late 1960s counterculture — lends an aspect of deadpan absurdity to the proceedings, as Fassbinder was surely aware.

L-r: Hanna Schygulla and Fassbinder — with Ulli Lommel in the Alain Delon part. © Copyright the Criterion Collection.

Fassbinder’s B&W debut, Love Is Colder than Death (love those titles), suggests that he seized on the gangster genre as a means of dramatizing his sadomasochistic view of relationships in the most bluntly literal fashion. Franz Walsch (played by Fassbinder himself) is a small-time pimp who is under pressure from a crime syndicate to work for them. For all his thuggish nature, Franz is the rugged individualist here, whereas the corporate office nature of the gangsters’ digs suggests an early critique of capitalist culture from Fassbinder. Franz’s defiant stand can’t go well for him or his prized streetwalker Johanna (Hanna Schygulla, in the first of her 10 movies with Fassbinder). The two of them form a rough alliance with fellow independent operator Bruno (Ulli Lommel), and they resolve to rob a bank together.

The movie’s listless atmosphere is punctuated at random moments by beatings, women getting slapped around and the odd intimation of kinkiness. (An African-American enforcer in hipster shades lounges around bare-chested save for a shoulder holster, and the head gangster can’t take his eyes off him.) Things pick up during the climactic heist, which turns into a semi-jokey shootout a la 1960s Godard.

Students of the German language, be sure to ask your teacher what “Katzelmacher” means.

After Love Is Colder than Death, which earned an unfriendly reception at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, Fassbinder detoured from the Krimi genre to make Katzelmacher (1969), based on his own play. The movie is a caustic portrayal of lower-middle-class deadbeats in a Munich housing complex whose petty hypocrisies and gossip eventually a find a target in a poor Greek immigrant, who is played by Fassbinder himself.

Latter-day critics have commented that with Katzelmacher, it’s as if Fassbinder made the first indie slacker film. In fact, watching a lot of Fassbinder today, it’s not hard to be struck by how much his work anticipates the indie cinema of the ‘90s — and I often have the nagging feeling that the guy who got there first did it better.

What Katzelmacher and Love Is Colder than Death share is rock-bottom production values; scene after scene consists of an actor posed against an overexposed, blank white wall, or a tightly framed shot of two people at a humble kitchen table.

Not the Munich that tourists see: the local crew in KATZELMACHER. © Copyright the Criterion Collection.

But what makes the movies fascinating — and one reason why film students should look at them today — is the way Fassbinder’s adamant refusal to be impeded by a lack of money shines through. The man behind the camera is determined to make features, and his formal ingenuity will turn presumed defects into assets. The minimalism-by-necessity becomes an aesthetic: the bare apartments and a simple railing outside the housing complex in Katzelmacher become a stage on which characters can strut their seedy lowlife charisma or petit-bourgeois venality.

Of course, if you’re going to pose an actor against a bare white wall, it helps if you have not only Fassbinder’s experience directing theatre but an actress of Hanna Schygulla’s caliber to focus your camera on. Even in this bare-bones context, it’s interesting to see how Schygulla is already becoming the director’s designated Star. That blank white wall is all she needs.

For more on Fassbinder, including reviews of Fear of Fear and Lola, click here.

The auteur and his muse: Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla.

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