Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In little more than a decade, Rainer Werner Fassbinder firmly established himself as the foremost director of his era, blazing a furious, irascible trail through the landscape of a medium indisputably enriched by his prodigious talent. With a seemingly endless well of caustic energy driving his ceaseless productivity (he made forty features in a thirteen-year career), Fassbinder devoted himself to a critical analysis of the world around him, frequently acting as an innovator in his radical and prescient examinations of class, gender, race and sexuality. Marrying Brechtian austerity with Sirkian melodrama, his greatest films display an idiosyncratic style in which fluid camerawork and astute colour schemes both compound and expound the social-emotional isolation of his disenfranchised heroes. Few of these characters can escape a Fassbinder picture unscathed by his relentless wrath: his is a cinema where the Left can be as misguided as the Right, where victims are as grotesque as the victimisers, where the proletariat is as prone to vapidity as the bourgeoisie. Yet to focus on the director’s anger alone is to miss the essence of his work entirely, for the bulk of his oeuvre’s eclecticism is motivated by an altogether different force: compassion. Tortured emotions and disintegrative psyches find their natural home in the Fassbinderian universe, which displays a keen solidarity with the outsiders and misfits who wander along society’s peripheries in pursuit of happiness. The director’s consistent refusal to allow his protagonists the salvation that they crave is a key component of his elaborate designs: his films shine a light upon marginalised suffering, examine the roots of that marginalisation, and then show its inevitably disastrous consequences upon the individual in order to awaken us from our mindless slumbers. Fassbinder demands empathy; his intellectually-stimulating, emotionally volatile work imploring us to make a daunting transition from passivity to activity. In asking so much from us, the director proves himself to be much more than cinema’s boldest enfant terrible – he’s also its most complex humanist.

ON THIS PAGE: Martha (1974), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), Veronika Voss (1982)

MARTHA (1974) – 720°

Quite possibly the most stunning shot in Fassbinder’s entire oeuvre: two dizzying orbits, and two destinies intertwined with consummate precision.

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) – Emmi Meets Ali

Loneliness is briefly overcome as a pair of tender souls unite. Like Ophuls before him, Fassbinder conceives the dancefloor as a refuge from a ruthlessly self-righteous society. The director freezes his secondary characters – the enforcers of that misguided sanctimony – rendering them fossilised statues in an inflexible world. Against this backdrop of unerring stasis (both moral and physical), Emmi and Ali’s nervously kinetic union has all the velocity of a lightning bolt, striking directly at the latent prejudice and blatant misunderstanding that’s too frequently synonymous with race relations. Alas, the safety of the dancefloor cannot shield this delicate duo forever – but although they’re all too aware of the socially-prescribed barriers that contrive to separate them (“German master. Arab dog.”), for now they will play ignorant; disregarding all inquisitive eyes, and allowing their hearts to quietly carve out a rare moment of mutual comfort. A gorgeous scene from the greatest of all melodramas.

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) – Sirk in the ’70s

Fassbinder’s adoration of Douglas Sirk is common knowledge, and this most perfect of the former’s films is often erroneously labelled as a remake of one of the latter’s finest (All That Heaven Allows). “Ali” doesn’t duplicate Sirk’s classic (though it borrows a few significant plot details), but it’s a work that’s undoubtedly inspired and informed by the underrated radicalism of the earlier masterpiece. Of course, although their respective institutional and political contexts were markedly different, Fassbinder’s radicalism was even greater in its profundity and vitriol. He works in a milieu that’s franker and grittier than Sirk’s bourgeois anti-paradise; where characters risk falling off the very precipice of civilisation unless they can buckle up and resolve their psychological dilemmas in a landscape of painfully conspicuous social mechanisms. In this explicit homage to the deservedly renowned “TV scene” from All That Heaven Allows, the deviation between the two directors’ approaches is glaringly apparent.

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) – Dreaming in the Bistro

What are Fassbinder’s heroes if not a ramshackle bunch of desperate dreamers? In this irrevocably poignant scene, an endless sea of yellow tables and chairs separates our ostracised lovers from the still-unyielding condemnation of society – and the trauma that ensues as a result of this man-made isolation forces those dreams out into the open. Emmi’s tortured confessional (part-defiant, part-defeatist) is finally offset by the warmth of the discovery that she so cherishes: love; a love that promises to heal all wounds and set the world to rights once again. If only it were possible to believe in it.

ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974) – That Foreign Object of Desire

An integral part of this film’s genius is its successful balance between the sensitive and the scathing. Fassbinder’s observations, for all their furore, create an extraordinarily nuanced portrait of (West) German society’s changing racial dynamics. In this exposé of small-minded hypocrisy, Emmi’s xenophobic friends succumb to the allure of Ali’s physicality like a pair of excitable schoolgirls. More pertinent however, are Emmi’s own actions: flaunting her husband like a caged animal and entirely betraying the unequal power relations inherent to their marriage, it is now she who functions as the film’s foremost xenophobe. And if that weren’t enough to prove the totality of the director’s worldview, there’s the silent Ali’s complicit role in his own objectification (note how he all too willingly shows off his muscles, despite the disgust that later overwhelms him). With ninety brief but critical seconds, Fassbinder eloquently articulates exactly how far there is to go for both his heavy-hearted lovers and his nation as a whole.

IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS (1978) – The Slaughterhouse

WARNING: Strictly not for the faint of heart.

In an engrossingly reckless career that’s littered with combative stands against all and sundry, this sequence from In a Year with 13 Moons might well be Fassbinder’s most controversial conception. A gruesome and confrontational recording of mechanised slaughter in an abattoir, set to a Handel concerto and interlaced with the rambling, hysterical voiceover of a tormented transsexual, these horrifyingly visceral scenes exemplify the director’s lacerating aesthetic at its apex. Never one to shy away from stating the obvious (given how frequently the obvious did and does need to be stated, this is something to commend him for), he rips apart civilisation’s humanist facade, cuts deep into its bloody heart, and then dissects his findings before our very eyes. The figurative allusion to Elvira’s castration aside, the slaughterhouse’s central purpose in Fassbinder’s narrative is to act as a mirror. For those that have the stomach to digest it, the parallels are as heartbreaking as they are provocative and transparent. After all, are individuals like Elvira not essentially indistinguishable from lumps of meat – strung up to dry by a society that’s unsettlingly methodical in shaping its citizens on a universal conveyer belt of subordination? In fact, don’t we all play both victim and executioner in this customary journey into maturation? The sad irony of this entire sequence is that our protagonist, once an agent within this system, now desperately yearns to be processed. Bad meat however, must always be consigned to the waste bin.

IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS (1978) – Sister Gudrun and Elvira’s Childhood

With operatic candour, Fassbinder channels the story of Elvira’s sorrowful boyhood through the medium of the atheist nun, Sister Gudrun (played, perhaps not coincidentally, by his own mother). As the Sister placidly perambulates down the peripheries of the orphanage’s garden (an Eden that Elvira can only stare longingly at), the director’s camera performs a ritualistic saunter of its own, lending her recitation a weighty, near-cosmological significance that’s too much for our unstable protagonist to handle: she eventually collapses under the weight of her repressed personal history, still unable to reconcile the scars of the past with the predicament that’s her present. In one fell swoop, the tragic tale of how Elvira came to be is made resoundingly apparent.

IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS – “Face the Music”

Elvira reunites with Anton Saitz, the man for whom she became a woman – only to discover that he cannot remember her. Cue a terrifically bizzare excursion into the movie musical, by way of Martin and Lewis. Led by the convulsive Saitz, a group of gangster-businessmen march up and down a tellingly empty room in unison as Fassbinder decries the hollow success of his nation’s “economic miracle”. All the while, he retains a sympathetic eye for his tragic protagonist, who desperately tries to keep up with the cronies’ absurdist endeavours in yet another futile bid for acceptance. Hilarious, grotesque and unspeakably moving – an eccentric encapsulation of the director’s life work.

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979) – Opening Sequence

Fassbinder’s (literally) explosive introductory statement; an obliteration of the national past which sets the incendiary, passionate tone for the rest of the film – not to mention its successors in the BRD Trilogy.

THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979) – Closing Sequence

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

Having ascended to the summit of the social hierarchy, what’s left for Maria to achieve? This stunning mirror of the film’s beginning savages the myth of a victorious nation whilst demanding an emotional and intellectual engagement with its then-current political climate.

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980) – Franz, Three Beers and a Kümmel

Re-released into a merciless society for the third time since the film began, the understandably-scarred Franz Biberkopf decides to retreat onto more familiar ground. Fassbinder rests his camera upon our sorry protagonist’s visage as he searches for (and finds) solace in the depths of an alcoholic stupor. Pathetic yet poignant, hopeless yet charming – the confessional scene proves emblematic of its director’s unique brand of difficult, but forever compassionate humanism.

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980) – The Birth of Mieze

The final participant in Berlin Alexanderplatz’s twisted love triangle, “Mieze” makes her entrance eight hours into the film’s runtime. It’s a momentous occasion, as articulated by composer Peer Raben’s hitherto ominous orchestrations, which abruptly morph into a sweet, enchanting melody. Does this change in sound allude to the hope that’s heretofore been absent? Or does the ludicrous change-up render Mieze’s promise of innocence but another illusion, thereby signifying a misfortune that’s yet to come? The dynamics of this initial meeting (possession, subordination, paternalism) and the delicate manoeuvres of Fassbinder’s camera (keep a close eye on its final trajectory) leave the answer all but clear for the viewer.

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, an Epilogue (1980) – Into Purgatory

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

After spending some thirteen hours tracking the fall and fall of the hapless Franz Biberkopf before leaving him on the edge of psychological disrepair, where else is there for Fassbinder to go? Directly inside Biberkopf’s fragmentary, regressive psyche – that’s where. In this stupendous conclusion to his cinematic behemoth, the director conjures up a spiritual netherworld where the lovers, friends and acquaintances of our past are recast as demons hell-bent upon terrorising our souls. Time and memory finally collide, thereby causing an explosion of repressed and unspoken sentiments that viciously gnaw at the subconscious. Dumping the bewildered Franz slap bang in the middle of this sensical delirium is not an act of cruelty on the creator’s part, but an offer of salvation for both protagonist and viewer (an offer that at least one of these parties will prove incapable of taking up). Only by diving head-first into our own private nightmares can we plausibly dream of an escape, and Fassbinder’s magisterial visualisation of this emotional labyrinth is the greatest act of compassion in a career that deserves to be defined by it.

BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, an Epilogue (1980) – Franz and Reinhold Meet Again

SPOILER WARNING: Do not watch this video if you wish to avoid crucial plot details being disclosed.

There is a look, a single, devastating look which he and Franz share during this allegorical onslaught, which in itself manages to state everything that one could ever need to know about the anguish of forbidden love.

Full write-up

VERONIKA VOSS (1982) – “Memories Are Made of This”

Fassbinder was a filmmaker as erratic as he was prolific, and that volatility remains a fundamental part of his enduring genius; the forthright emotional candour and raging political angst together leaving a legacy of electrifying potency. Yet there are numerous moments in his brash, schizophrenic oeuvre that suppress that mercurial temperament enough to allow the supreme technician within to take centre stage. This musical interlude from his penultimate feature, the postmodern noir Veronika Voss, is possibly the greatest of those moments. In two-and-a-half utterly beguiling minutes, the director masterfully interweaves the film’s principal concerns (spectator vs. spectacle; the pre-eminence of artifice; the creation of the image; prisons, both psychological and physical; celebrity, desire and destiny) in an orgiastic cavalcade of light and shadow – all the while elucidating upon the relationship between the titular chanteuse and the human leeches that orbit her. As broken dreams and shattered illusions crystallise in the shape of rain-soaked (read: tear-stained windows), Fassbinder stakes his claim to greatness before surpassing it altogether. With this brief but brilliant display of artistry – an exercise in precision and control where every shot selection expands and embellishes the melancholic drama at hand – cinema’s regining ‘enfant terrible’ achieved only this: perfection.

Fassbinder was a filmmaker as erratic as he was prolific, and that volatility remains a fundamental part of his enduring genius; the forthright emotional candour and the raging political angst together leaving a legacy of electrifying potency. Yet there are numerous moments in his brash, schizophrenic oeuvre that suppress that mercurial temperament enough to allow the supreme technician within to take centre stage. This musical interlude from his penultimate feature, the postmodern noir “Veronika Voss” (1982), is possibly the greatest of these moments. In two-and-a-half utterly beguiling minutes, the director masterfully interweaves the film’s principal concerns (spectator vs. spectacle; the pre-eminence of artifice; the creation of the image; prisons, both psychological and physical; celebrity, desire and destiny) in an orgiastic cavalcade of light and shadow – all the while elucidating upon the relationship between the titular chanteuse and the human leeches that orbit her. As broken dreams and shattered illusions crystallise in the shape of rain-soaked (read: tear-stained) windows, Fassbinder stakes his claim to greatness before surpassing it altogether. With this brief but brilliant display of artistry – an exercise in precision and control where every shot selection expands and embellishes the melancholic drama – cinema’s reigning enfant terrible achieved only this: perfection.
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