IMITATIONS OF LIFE: THE FILMS OF RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER and CLOSE TO HEAVEN: 25 GREAT CLASSICS - FASSBINDER'S FAVOURITES at Cinematheque Ontario, Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West). October 17-December 6. 416-976-FILM. Rating: NNNNN
Cinematheque Ontario's two-headed Fassbinder retrospective manages a bizarre achievement.
There is an undeniable logic in pairing Fassbinder's films with great films he loved and that influenced him - Sunday's screening of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows with Fassbinder's remake, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, is the double bill of the year (for complete schedule, see www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/cinematheque/schedule.asp), followed closely by the pairing of Lola with The Blue Angel.
But Cinematheque programmer James Quandt manages to contextualize the greatest and most controversial director of the New German Cinema by removing him from his historical context.
Yes, Fassbinder was a devotee of Hollywood cinema - like Jean-Luc Godard, he had a love-hate relationship with his own love of Hollywood movies. But he was also a leading figure in a very specific historical "movement" (a word one uses advisedly). To set up Fassbinder without reference to his contemporaries like Volker Schlöndorff, Margarethe bon Trotta (who, before her directorial career, was a member of Fassbinder's Antitheater in Munich and acted in several of his early films), Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, is like discussing Godard without mentioning Truffaut and Rivette.
Fassbinder's films, whether stark Brechtian "dramas" like Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods Of The Plague ( or Sirkian mid-70s melodramas like Fear Of Fear and Chinese Roulette are not assertions of Fassbinder's affinities with the great cinematic traditions as much as very specific emanations from one time and place.
I can't think of a great director during the studio period of the cinema who developed in isolation - there is always a context. The "Prague Spring" filmmakers took advantage of the loosening of political ties in mid-60s Czechoslovakia, and the "neo-Realist" filmmakers reacted against the Italian studio system and the sudden demise of Fascism.
Of course, it's probably far more marketable, from the Cinematheque's point of view to set up a screening of Sunset Boulevard or Hitchcock's Suspicion than to dig up prints, if they exist in good screening copies, of Alexander Kluge's Yesterday Girl or Schlöndorff's The Sudden Wealth Of The Poor People Of Kombach, films that aren't even available on tape. Which probably should be more of a Cinematheque priority than films already released on DVD.
Watching most of the Cinematheque's Fassbinder program last week, a more interesting question struck me.
What if Fassbinder had lived? If he were alive today, he'd only be 58 years old, the prime of life for many of the greatest directors. The question is interesting because virtually every director of note in the New German Cinema of the 70s had run completely off the rails by the mid-80s.
Schlöndorff had become a quality hack on big international co-productions. Kluge stopped working in 1986, von Trotta had developed a deadly combination of New Age philosophical musing and old left political themes. Wenders made his last good film in 87. Herzog became increasingly peculiar, which, given how peculiar he was to start, is alarming.
Fassbinder was a more protean figure than any of these, but he was also a more annoying one, who benefitted from the heavy subsidizing of the arts in 70s West Germany. In a way, his death was simply an instance of terminal burnout.
Fassbinder died in 1982, aged 37, of "an overdose of work," according to his long-time assistant director and occasional star, Harry Baer. Officially, it was an overdose of drugs, sleeping pills and coke, but as he was found with a script by his side, it's unlikely it was a suicide. He was a junkie with a killing work ethic.
By 37, Godard, the most prolific of the Nouvelle Vague directors, had completed 17 features and a handful of shorts. Spielberg, the most precocious of the American film brats, had made 10, if we count a trio of feature-length TV films. Fassbinder had made about 40, depending on how you want to count them. That does not include his efforts as an occasional actor in other directors' films, his 30 theatre productions and a hair-raising lifestyle as the sexually predatory, substance-abusing ringmaster of a production company that he held together, in part, through sheer prolific speed. He couldn't lose his stars to other directors if he kept them working all the time.
Fassbinder, like Godard, was a genius in the right place at the right time - the French New Wave had receded into the ocean of cinema, people were looking for a new new wave, and we wound up sitting in three-hour-long Wim Wenders movies thinking deep thoughts: "Alienation, man...."
Then there was Fassbinder, with three, four, five new titles a year, moving so fast that just when you thought you'd gotten a handle on him, he shifted direction again and became something else.
But Fassbinder existed in an era with no home video, when there was an audience for strange, daring films that seems to have vanished in North America. The list of good foreign festival films that don't find North American distribution these days is more than a little depressing, and when you talk to distributors at festivals and they ask about a film you've seen, the first question they ask is, "Is it marketable?"
The final phase of Fassbinder's career - the great political-historical melodramas like Lola, The Longing Of Veronika Voss and The Marriage Of Maria Braun, the Genet adaptation Querelle (an international co-production starring Brad Davis), the tortured personal drama b>In A Year With 13 Moons - are not unimaginable in today's atmosphere. But it's very difficult to imagine them getting wide North American release, with the possible exception of Maria Braun, because the market forces have altered so radically in the two decades since Fassbinder's death.
It's one of the interesting oddities of Fassbinder's career that one can actually talk about early, middle and late periods in a career of only 14 years, though if he'd lived, what we now call "late" Fassbinder would be "that time in the late 70s and early 80s when he was doing those wonky historico-literary adaptations."
Of course, what Fassbinder would have done following that period is an interesting question. The transition out of the early "anti-theatre" period of Gods Of The Plague and The Merchant Of Four Seasons into the middle-period melodramas (or out of the period when Dietrich Lohmann was his cinematographer and into the period when Michael Ballhaus was his cinematographer) has a logic.
The way the middle melodramas pivot into the historical/literary films of the late period, hinging on The Marriage Of Maria Braun, makes sense. But where would he have gone out of Querelle? At the time of his death, he had a screenplay on Rosa Luxemburg, which suggests more history films, but one suspects that one of the causes for Fassbinder's restlessness was a low boredom threshold - after five or six period pieces, where would he have gone?
It seems unlikely that he might have become a hack like Schlöndorff, who has done work that has quality (the telefilm of Death Of A Salesman with Hoffman, adaptations of Proust and Atwood)
but utterly lacks the distinction of his best early work. He might have returned to theatre, but that's a retreat, and Fassbinder liked to move forward.
The early period extends through the period when his Munich theatre company was most active, the Antitheater finding its filmic equivalant in the deadpan Brechtian minimalism of films like Love Is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher and Gods Of The Plague, climaxing with the extraordinary The Merchant Of Four Seasons, which boils the gestural economy of the early films into one wrenching cry.
Ballhaus has noted that Fassbinder hated Spielberg "because he was too good - he made people forget they were watching a movie." The lesson that Fassbinder learns from Brecht is that illusion is a trap.
The middle period is where Fassbinder fell in love with melodrama, from The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant to Maria Braun, which is also the first film of the late period, when Fassbinder moved from being a star of the international festival circuit to a commodity whose films played the world in real theatres.
Not that his films became any more ameliorative or difficult - his penultimate film, The Longing Of Veronika Voss, is as emotionally difficult as The Merchant Of Four Seasons. It was just working a bigger room. The later films are more "realistic" than the first films, they seldom take place in empty rooms with no set decoration, and the acting is rather less deadpan, but they are also constantly aware of their "cinematicness."
Like Sirk and Godard, Fassbinder is fond of reminding the audience that they are watching a movie, and that they are responding to an artificial construction.
RANDOM THOUGHTS ON A GREAT DIRECTOR
Ten Best Performances in a Fassbinder film (alphabetically):
Fassbinder, Fox And His Friends
Irm Hermann, The Merchant Of Four Seasons
Günther Lamprecht, Berlin Alexanderplatz
Brigitte Mira, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul
Armin Mueller-Stahl, Lola
Kurt Raab, Satan's Brew
Hanna Schygulla, Effi Briest
Volker Spengler, In A Year Of 13 Moons
Barbara Sukowa, Lola
Elisabeth Trissenaar, Bolwieser
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Fassbinder may have been the last major filmmaker to continue to work in the oft-maligned Academy ratio of 4:3. While he occasionally worked in wider ratios - including Maria Braun and Veronika Voss in 5:3, the redheaded stepchild of aspect ratios - he worked through most of the 70s in the old square screen, which tended to highlight how much his middle period films played like baroque soap opera.
* * * *
Julianne Lorenz, who was Fassbinder's last editor, last lover - she's the one who found him dead in their home - and is now the head of the Fassbinder Foundation, published a collection of essays. The title was Chaos As Usual. It's hard to imagine a more apt description of a director who was capable of producing six feature-length films in a year, usually with the same creative team before and behind the camera.
One of the odd things one continually hears from people is how "seductive" Fassbinder was, which, when one sees pictures of him, seems improbable - he ran to fat, he had a broad, Slavic face, bad skin, the temperament of a petty tyrant and a taste for vicious psychological game-playing.
Which raises another interesting issue. Fassbinder's gayness. He came out in his teens, perhaps with the idea of shocking his parents to death (he came from a bourgeois family and loved to shock). And while one of his male lovers committed suicide - In A Year Of 13 Moons, arguably his greatest and certainly his most nakedly personal film is a response to that - and another was found dead in his apartment, he married actress Ingrid Caven, had a long relationship with Irm Hermann, who acted in almost 20 of his films and claimed that he abused her, and his last relationship was with a woman.
His "gayest" films - The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, Fox And His Friends and Querelle - tended to be intensely disliked at the time by the gay community, particularly the more political gay community, because they were films about relationships as a series of lethal power games.
Short pick list for the series, or my favourite Fassbinders:
*In A Year Of 13 Moons - see above.
*Lola - The third of Fassbinder's trilogy on the German economic miracle and a candy-coloured remake of The Blue Angel, with Barbara Sukowa as the night club entertainer/whore and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the straitlaced city planner who falls for her.
*Chinese Roulette - Fassbinder's "Chabrol" film, with an adulterous couple turning up independently at their country house with their lovers for a weekend of "aren't we all tolerant" nastiness. One of the director's most baroquely stylized films, all sinuous camera moves and reflecting surfaces, and a rare intersection between Fassbinder and Godard - Anna Karina is one of the stars.
*The Marriage Of Maria Braun - His most popular film with good reason.
*Effi Briest - An austere black-and- white adaptation of Theodore Fontane's novel about the marriage of a romantic young woman into a proper family that suggested Fassbinder might have become the German Merchant-Ivory. "At that point in my life, I felt like making a film like Effi Briest. I don't plan to make it a habit."
* The Merchant Of Four Seasons - Wim Wenders argues for Merchant, the culmination of Fassbinder's early period, as the director's greatest film. He also makes the interesting observation that after making six films in 1970, he made only this one in 1971, resulting in a film with a more concentrated energy and emotional focus. Hard to argue with him.