Feature by: Matt Bailey
Posted on: 17 July 2004
reviews: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
reviews: Chinese Roulette
reviews: Effi Briest
reviews: Pioneers in Ingolstadt
reviews: Satan’s Brew
reviews: The Stationmaster’s Wife
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who wrote and directed three short films, thirty-nine feature films, two television series (including the fifteen-and-a-half hour miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz), as well as several plays — all in the span of a little more than a decade — was perhaps, minute for minute, the most prolific filmmaker of the modern era and is still perhaps one of the least understood great filmmakers. Fassbinder was one of the many young German directors to benefit from state funding in the late 1960s that created the New German Cinema in, less a movement than a cultural explosion that launched the careers of Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, and Werner Schroeter, among others. Fassbinder arrived in a burst of creativity as a fully-formed artist with his first feature film Love is Colder than Death in 1969, and the work didn’t stop until his death at age 37. Fassbinder did more in those few short years than most filmmakers accomplish in a lifetime. Twenty years later, the world is still trying to catch up with him and his work.
Even though his entire film output was created in nearly the same number of years Stanley Kubrick took to make Eyes Wide Shut after Full Metal Jacket, Fassbinder’s films can be divided, very roughly, into three eras.
The first era covers the first ten feature films and the years 1969 and 1970. These first films were made while Fassbinder was active in the Munich theatre scene, specifically with the Anti-Teater group where he met many of the actors who would appear in his films including Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab, and Irm Herrmann. The films in this era are often based around simple concepts such as the introduction of a foreigner into a tightly-knit group of friends or homages to American genre pictures such as gangster films or Westerns. The ten films in this group are the aforementioned Love is Colder than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (all from 1969), Rio das Mortes, The Coffee House, Whity, The Niklashausen Journey, The American Soldier, Beware of a Holy Whore, and Pioneers in Ingolstadt (all from 1970).
The second era covers the nineteen films made from 1971 to 1977 (including some originally made for German television), up to and including Women in New York. Several of these films are based on the formula of the Hollywood melodrama, but tailored to the concerns of contemporary West German society. These films are often considered to have been inspired by a 1971 retrospective of the films of Douglas Sirk that Fassbinder organized as well as several meetings with the master filmmaker. Many of these films were photographed by the great Michael Ballhaus and his influence and skill are evident as the cinematography in the films moves from stagy, artistic tableaux in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in 1972 to the almost non-stop fluid camera movements of 1976’s Chinese Roulette. Fassbinder and Ballhaus broke in 1976 and Fassbinder began to photograph most of his own films thereafter. The films made during this era are The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971, often considered Fassbinder’s first great film), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Jail Bait (or Wildwechsel), Eight Hours are Not a Day, Bremen Freedom (all from 1972), World on Wires, Nora Helmer, Martha, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (all from 1973), Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends, Like a Bird on a Wire (all from 1974), Fear of Fear, I Only Want You to Love Me, Satan’s Brew, and Chinese Roulette (all from 1976).
Fassbinder’s final era covers 1977 through 1982 including the epic television miniseries, Berlin Alexanderplatz, made in 1980. This era is characterized by Fassbinder’s awareness of himself as a director making films for a world audience and can thus be termed his European Art Film phase. This era begins with the international production of Despair, a film based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, and starring Dirk Bogarde, Andréa Ferréol, and Klaus Löwitsch and ends with Querelle, an adaptation of the Jean Genet novel with another international cast including Brad Davis and Jeanne Moreau. Some of Fassbinder’s greatest films came from this period, but his international status as an outspoken iconoclast clouded his critical reputation and the flood of release of his new films (as well as the early films just then finding international distribution) made it difficult and overwhelming for audiences to keep up with his work.
With 2002 marking the twentieth anniversary of Fassbinder’s death, the foundation formed in his name has launched a campaign to keep his work alive and relevant. International retrospectives of his work toured the globe in 2002 and continue to do so in 2003. No less than four distributors have released DVDs of his work from his earliest short films to his final film. Some of the highlights released so far by Wellspring include all of the early films from his 1966 short, The City Tramp, to 1972’s landmark The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fantoma has released Whity and Pioneers in Ingolstadt) as well as several later films from the mid 1970s including Fox and His Friends and Satan’s Brew. Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video has released Fassbinder’s final film, Querelle, and Criterion is releasing Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and a boxed set of Fassbinder’s so-called BRD Trilogy which includes The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Veronika Voss. Criticism of Fassbinder over the past twenty years has relied heavily on his fascinating life (and perhaps rightly so, as so many of the films are based on autobiography), but now that the films can be widely seen, perhaps they will be able to stand on their own and can finally be assessed adequately and appropriately.