There are some pretty prolific filmmakers out there in the world, but none have been as relentlessly productive as the perversely driven Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose work is being celebrated this summer at the AFS Cinema.
The retrospective series "The Bitter Tears Of Rainer Werner Fassbinder" runs through July and the newly rediscovered and restored mini-series EIGHT HOURS DON'T MAKE A DAY screens throughout August.
Born into a ruined and fractured Germany in 1945, the young director began his work on the live stage, where he mounted a fierce ideological opposition to the official "safe" state theatre with his experimental "Antitheater" principles. These early theatrical productions, in a sense, continued the work of the exiled playwright and dramatic theorist Bertolt Brecht. From Brecht, Fassbinder learned that the dramatis personae need not be figures of personal identification for the audience, but may instead be unsympathetic or even abhorrent.
Fassbinder’s first film, LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH (1969), mixes Brecht’s sense of alienation with a story influenced by American film noir and the production aesthetics of the French New Wave. For the first few years, Fassbinder's
shoestring budgets forced him to make films at a lightning pace, often using the same cast and crew for multiple productions and stepping in front of the camera as an actor when needed. In LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH, the young writer/director cast himself as the small-time pimp Franz. In his leather jacket, sunglasses, and with a rebellious sneer that offsets his round face and baby-fat, he presents an iconic image of the post-war German generation's rebellion.
Fassbinder’s personal life was as explosive as his body of work. He didn’t really care to draw a boundary between his onscreen and offscreen lives, often adding lovers and friends to his recurring cast of film players. In 1969, Fassbinder began a passionate love affair with the then-married actor Günther Kaufmann, who would go on to play the lead role in the director’s 1971 western (and biggest flop) WHITY. By that year the relationship had run its course - leaving in its wake one broken heart and the copious driveway oil puddles left by the four (4!) Lamborghinis Fassbinder had purchased to win Kaufmann’s affection—three of them sold off and the fourth completely destroyed.
All the while, the work continued at a Herculean pace. Fassbinder did not even stop production for his marriage to Ingrid Caven, another member of his cinematic stock company. He instead recycled his own wedding reception for a film he was making titled THE AMERICAN SOLDIER (1970). By the time 1971's WHITY came along, Fassbinder’s off-screen drama had come to rival the turmoil that was captured by the camera. The tensions with WHITY’s production would be transmuted to a kind of shaggy comedy in 1971’s BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE, in which Fassbinder turns a sardonic eye to his own idiosyncrasies and the treatment of his cast and crew.
This year marked a turning point for Fassbinder: the end of his “Antitheater” films and the beginning of his relationship with the recently divorced actor El Hedi ben Salem. The two met at a bathhouse and began a rocky romance peppered with jealousy, violence, drugs, and alcohol.
Salem stars in Fassbinder’s ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974), in which his onscreen relationship with an elderly German woman subjects the pair to racism and ageism. This technique of analogizing other socially-challenging relationships to the dilemma of gay couples is, of course a Hollywood tradition. This film marks the period when the influence of the German-born Hollywood director Douglas Sirk had fully come to the fore in Fassbinder's work. Fassbinder loved Hollywood films and, along with the Brechtian theatrical tradition, they grounded the form of his greatest works.
The Fassbinder/ben Salem story had a decidedly unhappy ending. Shortly after their relationship ended, Salem stabbed three people in Berlin and had to be smuggled out by car. According to Daniel Schmid, a Swiss director and Fassbinder’s close friend, the filmmaker cried the entire ride home. There was to be more tragedy in these men's futures.
By this time, Fassbinder had reached international acclaim. He began seeing Armin Meier, a former butcher with no prior experience in show business. The relationship was especially lonely for Meier: when Fassbinder wasn’t around, no one would come visit him. After the director ended things between them in April of 1978 and neglected to invite him to his birthday celebration, Meier committed suicide—overdosing in the kitchen he had once shared with Fassbinder.
Fassbinder coped with this the only way he knew how: by continuing to work. That same year, he released IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS, his most personal and bleakest film yet. The last four years of Fassbinder’s life saw its most diverse work, the disbanding of his recurring cast, and his romantic relationship with editor Julienne Lorenz.
In 1982, while living with Lorenz, Fassbinder received the news that El Hedi ben Salem had hanged himself. Not only that—he had done so five years prior, a fact which had been kept from the volatile Fassbinder.
By then, the director was up to his neck in the in post-production work for the queer drama QUERELLE and looking ahead at the next project. The 37-year old drove himself relentlessly—he snorted cocaine to get going, drank whiskey to soothe the jitters, and popped downers to go to sleep.
In June of 1982, Lorenz found Fassbinder dead in his room, a victim of intoxicants and overwork. QUERELLE was released posthumously a month later and the film was dedicated to El Hedi ben Salem.
Fassbinder’s legacy is as complicated as his life. The numbers themselves are impressive: 38 feature films, several ambitious television miniseries, short films, and countless plays in a career that spanned a only 17 years and ended at an age when most filmmakers are just beginning to make their best work.
It is easy to romanticize Fassbinder’s tortured artistry, but his films are so consistent and compelling that they force us to deal with the whole of his existence—not only the person that Fassbinder was, but also the space and time he occupied in Germany - and in the world.
There is no isolating the political, sexual, or the personal in Fassbinder’s work. It is all caught up together in each soul-bearing film. Even today, we are still catching up with Fassbinder’s volcanic output. His back catalog has seen new rediscoveries as recently as two years ago with the restored television mini-series EIGHT HOURS DON’T MAKE A DAY (1972).
It’s safe to say Fassbinder is not done surprising us yet. He said it best himself: “I don’t throw bombs, I make films.”