Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love Is Colder Than Death)

"the film should create new feelings"

Fassbinder had imposed himself on the stage – first with the Action Theatre and latterly with antitheatre – but his first love remained film. With the positive feedback given his shorts (by Jean-Marie Straub amongst others), a company of actors ready to do his bidding, and a stroke of financial fortune, he was ready and eager to make his first feature. He would take one of the three leads, along with longtime acting chum Hanna Schygulla and a handsome young man he’d just met on a TV show (Tonys Freunde) named Ulli Lommel.

Living expenses were covered by his fee for acting in a TV film, Al Capone im Deutsches Wald (“Al Capone in the German Forest”) but his own film’s 95,000-mark budget (then around $27,500) came from eccentric artist and gallerist, Hanna Axmann Rezzori, friend of Ophuls, ex-lover of Nicholas Ray and Bosche heiress. She handed over the money saying “'if the movie makes a profit, you can pay me back, and if it doesn't, never mind” [2]. To stretch the budget, participation was carried out on a contractless, profit-sharing basis, with nominal per diems for the cast and an “official” production company in the form of Antitheatre-X-Film; their financial officer, Peer Raben, did not trouble himself with accounting: the first of many tangled productions that led to countless rights issues in the future.

"the first screenplay started from the premise that people are sitting in jail, are oppressed, and then try to make something of freedom. And that becomes a mirror image of society, if you want to call it that" [3]

Raben also looked after the music for the film, about which Fassbinder had firm ideas, and on which they had already begun before the script was completed: Raben reported that Fassbinder had the whole style, shape and feel of the movie in his head before the camera even started to roll. He had been studying not only the American cinema of the forties and fifties, with particular emphasis on the crime and film noir genres, and the male friendships in Hawks and Walsh, but also the previous decade’s burst of activity within Europe, spearheaded by Godard and the New Wave, and it was from both these influences that Love Is Colder Than Death was born.

“on the whole the film turned out pretty much the way I thought it might if everything went as well as possible” [4]

Fassbinder himself described the plot as follows:
“At the start a crime syndicate wants Franz (acted by me) to work for it. But he only wants to work for himself and keep all of what he earns. Bruno (acted by Lommel) works for the syndicate and is sent after Franz. Franz grows to like Bruno. He invites him to his place and wants him to sleep with his girl, just because he likes him and doesn’t question his liking. But then he can’t question anything, just like Bruno, who does what he’s told. Joanne, the girl, does the same. She (acted by Hanna Schygulla) is actually the main figure. Her character reveals that she is bogged down in middle-classness, despite her profession, even worse than the others; she wants to save her bourgeois relationship with Franz by being his whore and even by betraying Bruno and a bank robbery to the police. She would rather be alone than share Franz with Bruno. She just can’t stand that.” [5]

The basis of friendship need not be spelled out and thus need not be separated from sexual attraction. The Bieberkopf/Rheinhold template from Berlin Alexanderplatz recurs throughout Fassbinder’s career, wherein simply giving oneself to one another is impossible, both through unsurety due to that very lack of definition, and as a result of the power balance that is naturally established when one is desired and one is desiring.

As would always be the case with Fassbinder, it is primarily a film about people, even if gangster and prostitute are archetypically classic exiles from bourgeois society. It is about these specific people, but there are many others like them, sharing their predicaments. Franz is related to Mecki from Brecht’s Beggar’s Opera, the most recent anti-theatre production: neither wants to work for anyone but themselves, on simple entrepreneurial, capitalist grounds. But so too is he like Fassbinder’s consistent inspiration, Franz Bieberkopf (the surname is briefly mentioned), fresh out of prison and unwilling to go back to work for the Berlin Alexanderplatz gangsters. He therefore must have a Reinhold – Bruno –and their friendship has a vibrant homosexual undertow: when Bruno arrives at Franz’s pad and the latter pats him down, the look of unexpected, pleasant surprise on Lommel’s face is the perfect evocation of that unspoken desire. As per Fassbinder’s outline, Franz may not question his liking of Bruno, but the camera zooms in to emphasize their moment of communion (the sexual dimension will later be reinforced by an echo of the same shot, with Johanna and a john). Like Bieberkopf, Franz gives his friendship unreservedly, encouraging Joanna to sleep with Bruno. She breaks out laughing. He slaps her face, needing for justification only “Bruno is my friend”. Bruno will do his part for Franz also, waiting riskily outside the police station for him but, like Reinhold, his role is the traitor, whose position of power in the relationship enables him to take advantage.

"I want(ed the audience) to experience the kind of rage I feel, and…it also had to be beautiful" [6]

Franz’s declaration that he wants to work alone is undermined by the bond between the trio, as much of his own making as Fassbinder’s, their movie gang cool repeatedly emphasized in striking compositions.

In trying on an American style, it was important to Fassbinder that his protagonists look the part, and indeed they do: Lommel, handsome, well-dressed and cool, even when hailing a taxi, especially when casing parked cars; Fassbinder himself, beefy and feral in his favoured leather jacket; and Schygulla, languid and sexy, saved from a sniper’s bullet at the end simply, it seems, because she looks so good. They go shopping for sunglasses “like the cop in Psycho”. Fassbinder’s star-making tendencies are already in effect, in frequently striking portraits; showing off Schygulla’s stocking tops or breasts; and devoting a long-held shot to Lommel’s entrance, lingering on his defiant, cool stare and his sensuously parted lips. He is the centre of attention, his most obvious antecedent the Delon/Melville hitman of Le samourai, the fedora ever present. And like that character, Bruno takes on a hint of mythos: the V-struts of the door against which he is first shown recall large wings, the wings of an angel, but an angel of death. In the film’s most mysterious and suggestive scene, Bruno heads out into the world from the syndicate’s imprisonment. The young woman across from him on the train can see his symbolic aura of evil for she carries some symbolic weight herself: Bruno grabs with gusto the apple she offers, and he ignores the breast she bares, rejecting mother and whore in one fell swoop (two later whores hold his attention only so long as they can help him find Franz). He declares his cold self-isolation in a brief, matter-of fact description of his earliest murders. Almost all the killing in the film is carried out implacably, patiently by Bruno, and each time the victim is given the chance to stare into the face of death before being dispatched.

Bruno has a mysterious, angel of death quality to him, not unlike Delon’s uncanny hitman in Le samourai. After shooting the motorcycle cop, he is eerily framed and haloed against the backlight of the sky. On each other occasion he removes his sunglasses, so that his victims may look Death in the face.

The relationship between the two men comprises the emotional core of the film, but Johanna stands at its thematic centre. Her desire to conform to bourgeois norms – have an apartment, a child, peace, just one man – motivates the actions that provoke the film’s climax. But she is also the first of Fassbinder’s many characters who submit willingly, eagerly and often unknowingly to oppression. Puttering about clearing the table or obeying Franz’s orders, she is content for him to be the master, and he knows he can wield that power since, as he tells her, “you love me anyway”. Relationships of love are never equal. She remains determinedly subservient even to the end, confessing rather than boasting that she had called the cops; and Franz’s final pronouncement of “whore” completes for her a happy ending, where she has gotten her man back to herself, and remains fully defined by his ownership.

The dynamics of these relationships are expressed briefly and simply. These are not characters who talk out ideas or feelings; they react, for the most part, rather than thinking and initiating. Action, not language, is the expressive mode of emotion, in a slap, or a caress. If Johanna wins in the end it is precisely because she has taken an initiative, even if she has won for herself only enslavement. The men lose in a different way: Bruno says to Franz “you don’t want to talk? It’s better that way” and the point is emphasized by having them walk three times past the same blank wall. There is a sense that he is unable to articulate his emotions, articulate his way out of his situation. He is capable of tenderness towards Johanna, even compassion towards a fellow prisoner, but at base he is a brute, and his almost subhuman inability to confront societal oppression is a badge, for Fassbinder, of pitiful dignity. One of the cops reminds us that this sort of guy in this sort of situation is nothing out of the ordinary. For Bruno, on the other hand, his hitman cool is fractured in classic style by an emotion, however understated, and it must prove his undoing. So it is Reinhold rather than Bieberkopf who is thrown from a moving car. Bourgeois values prove stronger than organized crime; love, or at least a twisted, parodic form, is more coldly calculating than Death. And Franz is still on the bottom.

"What remains when one has seen this film is not that six people were murdered, that there were a couple of dead bodies, but that there were poor souls here, who didn't know what to do with themselves, who were simply set down, as they are, and who weren't given a chance." [7]

Hanna Schygulla was an old friend of Fassbinder’s from the private acting classes he took in late 1963. Throughout his early films she was the actress most obviously presented as a “star” in the glamorous, Hollywood mould. But she would soon be joined by many others.

Johanna is at the centre of the film because she is the most mired in middle-classness, the bad faith Fassbinder most abhors, and she represents the invidious power of those values, the individual expression of a general tendency seen by Fassbinder throughout society and beyond: "the gangster environment is a bourgeois setting turned on its head, so to speak. My gangsters do the same things that capitalists do except they do them as criminals. The gangster’s goals are just as bourgeois as the capitalist’s" [8]. The syndicate boss acts like the head of a company, offering Franz security, a salary. The gangster milieu is not a mirror of bourgeois tendencies, however, but an extension: society's ability to oppress – its need, even –is not exclusive to the bourgeoisie, and human nature's fundamental drive to divide itself into oppressors and the oppressed is endemic throughout all strata of society. Outside the organised structures of both conventional society and the syndicate, these characters are not rebels but victims, the oppressed, those without chances or options, those with whose plight Fassbinder is always in sympathy. For him it was another form of crime story: "to me the everyday oppression people experience is criminal" [9] . Thus, the actual criminal acts in the film appear everyday. Killings are matter-of-fact; beatings take place offscreen. Franz’s dearest wish is “I want to be free”, but he can free himself from neither the syndicate nor his relationship; and he perpetuates the hierarchy in his overlording treatment of Johanna. It is not the syndicate that brings him down in the end, but his inchoate efforts to be free from sexual bourgeois norms that drive Johanna to betrayal. Despite the leather jacket and posturing attitude, he is a directionless schlub, a loner loser. By contrast, if Bruno sports an effortless cool, he can do so because he is secretly backed – up to a point – by an established power structure. “The syndicate gets what it wants”.

“right from the start we tried to go about film-making as if we were making real films. Even at a time when we couldn't get it right, and we didn't have the means, we always assumed that everything was already there, the experience and the finance.” [10]

Fassbinder’s fearless leadership in the theatre translated immediately to cinema. “Real” for him was American cinema, not the sort of rinky-dink German product of the late 60s. “Real” was also intellectual engagement, such as could be found in the works of his European mentors: Jean-Marie Straub, the French New Wave, and Godard above all. The baton was handed down at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, when Godard named Straub as one of the three film-makers capable of continuing his work after the dead-end of Le gai savoir (the others were Bertolucci and Rocha). In Fassbinder’s own relation to Straub, and his unstoppable self-belief, that made him the bright new hope of cinema.

Fassbinder was intent on getting across a message in his first film, as he had been doing repeatedly on stage, but he also wanted an audience. He was not alone in his love of 50s American crime films, and wanted to use the genre in the way that genre is always used, to provide a setting with which the audience is familiar, which they already know they enjoy. The crime story was an easily-managed vessel for his theme, like the dummy machine gun the trio buys: with the right trappings it’ll look like the real thing. As ever, there was something audacious in this: Fassbinder was “determined to be a commercial film-maker at a time and in a country where no viable commercial cinema existed.” [11]

The film plays largely as a deconstruction of the American gangster picture, but Fassbinder allows room for a climactic shoot-out, shot with steely precision in shot in the streets of Munich.

The title credit may contain a jokey pause, but from the plain, silent, white-on-black text, to the austere visuals and bursts of stately classical music (Henze), the bold starkness of the film looks like anything but commercial cinema, never mind the commercial psychedelia of the late 60s. Of the film’s dedicatees, the obscure Linio and Cuncho were from a popular but strange Italian western (Quien Sabe? aka A Bullet for the General, Damiani, 1966) and provided the male friendship template as well as the “Bruno is my friend” line; Chabrol, Rohmer and the Nouvelle Vague in general were important for Fassbinder, although his secret touchstone was Godard, whose increasingly socio-politically focused genre breakdowns had lit a fire beneath the young acolyte; but it is the last name, the gloriously uncommercial Jean-Marie Straub, whose influence is most felt. Fassbinder had acted for him in a filmed stage piece and the long car shot at night across store and house fronts was donated by Straub himself. Aside from neat, swift cuts for bursts of action, and the dynamic final gunfight, the film plays in long takes, a balanced mixture of static, tableau-like compositions and gently gliding camera movement: one particularly striking sequence, a Godardian back-and-forth track left and right, creates disorienting layers of movement on shallow planes as figures walk with and contrary to the path of the camera. This staginess extends even to having the prisoners lay out their blankets like set dressing. Fassbinder declared later: “in the theatre I always directed as if it were a film, and then shot the films as if it were theatre. I did that fairly determinedly” [12]. Dietrich Lohmann’s photography is elegantly austere, realising Fassbinder’s vision of having the characters emerge from bright whiteness – many of the stage-like framings foreground figures against a blank white wall or burned-out windows, and Fassbinder spoke almost regretfully of the Hollywood demands of the genre, which would forbid his presenting his message against an entirely blank white background.

Fassbinder’s tableaux are in full effect and he toys with some frames within frames and the bars of a telephone box. But his lifelong love affair with filming in mirrors begins here also: used to emphasize a dichotomy between speech and meaning, duplicitous, hypocritical or unconscious; to suggest doubling, duality and superficiality; to imply thought; to include more information in the frame; or simply to look more cool.

"The American way of making [films] left the audience with emotions and nothing else. I want to give the spectator the emotions along with the possibility of reflecting on and analyzing what he is feeling.” [13]

The described plot is pared to essentials. Even basic detail is obscured – it takes a while to realise the initial setting is some sort of prison (we never learn who Franz’s fellow captives are, or why. Doesn’t matter). The calculated monotony of form is a method of emphasis and the genre elements are reduced almost to absurdity as Fassbinder concertedly deconstructs easy methods of emotional involvement. Just as scenes are lit with no shadows, nowhere for the characters to hide, so too are narrative, editing, sound and music used to deny the audience an easy way out of engaging with the message. Discomforting technique and direct statements carry the day, through actions, language and camera, and distraction is removed. Fassbinder’s sole focus was to illustrate the hierarchies of power and the way that they oppress, in a manner that would allow the audience to think itself into emotional involvement.

A long take near the centre of the film shows the three protagonists simply walking down a country road. Fassbinder said that if he had ever seen something like that in a film, it certainly would have struck him. Divorced from context and genre definitions, these are simply people, the understanding of whom, and empathy with, would be fundamental to his entire oeuvre. His use of long takes was to ensure that the audience wouldn’t miss the point.

With this first film Fassbinder was off. The core of his stock company was already well formed from the theatre: of his lovers, Ingrid Caven and Irm Hermann have little moments, but Kurt Raab gets to show only a sliver of that distinctive, pinched profile. Peer Raben, Action Theatre founder Ursula Stratz and others lurk in the background. Lommel brought with him his wife, Katrin Schaake, to play the girl on the train. These would all be recurrently familiar faces in Fassbinder’s films, to be joined by many others; Lohmann would return to shoot most of Fassbinder’s pictures for the next five years; and the problems of these characters would return again and again throughout the whole of the rest of his oeuvre. Lording it over his company in fluidly communal living and working arrangements, Fassbinder’s obsession with power relations between individuals and within society had already been well developed on stage and in life. Cinematic technique he would learn as he went along: his debut is as cold as his late films are decadent, but the artistic temperament is on fire, and any first-time hesitation is masked by a perfect surliness.

Liebe ist kälter als der Tod was shot over twenty-four days in April 1969 and premiered at the Berlin Festival in June to a hostile response (boos, foot stamping). Fassbinder mounted the stage to jeers, and shook his clasped hands over his head as if in triumph. He treated the press with monosyllabic disdain. Contemporary reviews jumped on his comment that he made films “against emotion”. He would later amend that in private conversation to “against exploitation of emotion” [14] and as his film-making develops, he becomes more adept at distinguishing the two. If the contemporaneous critics were justified in noting the absence of emotion in service of intellectual process, their objections were amplified by the fact that such practices were rarely hung with genre trappings. Fassbinder’s was an unusual, and unusually assured, debut.

He was soon ready with his “comeback”. Fired with enthusiasm, already critical of Chabrol (too dull) and Godard (not radical enough), his prolific theatrical workflow took cinema in its stride, and with all these actors at his disposal and a little financial imagination, there was no need to wait around for approval. By August he was shooting again, an adaption of his own play Katzelmacher.

d/sc Rainer Werner Fassbinder pPeer Raben, Thomas Schamoni ph Dietrich Lohmann ed Franz Walsch (ie RWF) m Peer Raben, Holger Münzer cast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, Hanna Schygulla, Hans Hirschmüller, Katrin Schaake, Ingrid Caven, Ursula Strätz, Irm Herrmann, Will Rabenauer (ie Peer Raben), Kurt Raab, Rudolf Waldermar BRem, Yaak Karsunke
(1969, WGer, 88m, b/w)

[1]RWF interview with Jochim von Mengeshausen, Film, May 1969, reprinted in Michael Tüterberg and Leo A. Lensing, eds, Anarchy of the Imagination (John Hopkins UP, Maryland, 1992); [2]-[4] ibid; [5] RWF, quoted in Tony Rayns, ed, Fassbinder (BFI, London, 1979); [6] RWF interview with von Mengeshausen, Film, 1969; [7]-[9] ibid; [10] RWF quoted in Thomas Elsaesser, “A Cinema of Vicious Circles”, in Tony Rayns, ed, Fassbinder (BFI, London, 1980); [11] ibid; [12] RWF quoted in Peter W. Jansen and Wolfram Schütte, eds, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Hanser, Munich, 1975, 1987; Fischer, Frankfurt, 1992); [13] RWF interview with Norbert Sparrow, Cineaste VIII/2, Fall 1977, p20; [14] cited in Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder: the life and work of a provocative genius (Faber & Faber, London, 1991)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rio das Mortes

Michael and Günther are two young men without prospects, the former a tile-layer, and the latter just out of the navy (which despite their mutual vow to evade national service he joined to be a “good German”, he says with a mocking laugh. He’s black). They have an old hand-drawn map of the Rio das Mortes region of Peru, indicating buried treasure, and the film focuses on their attempts to raise money for the expedition. Unfortunately, despite selling a car and having Günther move in to save rent, they are not very good at it, perhaps because as members of the working class, they were never taught how – the mantra of Michel’s schoolteacher girlfriend is that children must be inculcated to succeed in society. They try to raise money from an investor, claiming to be planning a cotton farm, but with no sense of the realities involved, and they fail miserably to get funding from an academic body when they plan to take along a student acquaintance. Although, as Michel says, “you can never get what you want”, it is no surprise in their case as they are entirely unequipped to deal with the economic realities they face, as perfectly represented by the fact that although their reasons for going on the trip are “for life, for freedom”, their dream also based on escaping into fantasy from their workaday existence and discovering buried treasure (a further irony being that the Rio das Mortes region is in Brazil, not Peru).

While the boys are running around trying to raise money, Hanna Schygulla watches unamused as Michel’s girlfriend. It is she who is the real star, opening the film casual in lingerie, and thereafter in a succession of smart outfits and hats. She thinks their idea is stupid, and besides she wants to get married (although this may well be more for social form than anything else, as her mother badgers her over the telephone, and she reacts with irritation to the landlady’s calling her “frau”). There’s something fatal to the film about the disjunction between her character and its presentation, and the activities of the boys; although she too has a same-sex friend, another teacher, their joint educational aspirations are not given enough emphasis (treated as a childish joke in one scene that turns the USSR into a phallus) to balance those of the boys (who even wrestle like hawksian/fordian/walshian buddies), and as great as she looks, she’s too Hollywood-overdressed for the movie; by the end she is literally dressed to kill, but exchanges her revolver for a lipstick, twin signifiers if ever there were, of Fassbinder’s American cinema. Based on an idea by Volker Schlondorff, the film feels tossed off, with the air of being casually formulated over a few drinks in the bar and never refined. The boys get a fairytale ending as a random patroness stumps up the cash; it would be a shameless deus ex machina – in Fassbinder’s fantasy the working class gets a well-deserved break – were it not for the fact that Fassbinder himself had received the funding for his first feature the previous year in almost exactly the same way, from eccentric patroness Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, here more or less playing herself. Nonetheless, the meandering feel gives it an enjoyable lightness and the stylistic disjunctions – if not the over-used zoom – can be borne with for the presence of the always-captivating Schygulla. And the best scene of all has no relation to the plot whatsoever, as Schygulla, in a sizzling red and lace dress dances up a storm to “Jailhouse Rock” on the jukebox in the company of an oafish leather-jacketed youth, Fassbinder himself.

d/p/sc Rainer Werner Fassbinder ph Dietrich Lohmann ed Thea Eymèsz pd Kurt Raab m Peer Raben cast Michael König, Günther Kaufmann, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Baer, Ulli Lommel, Marius Aicher, Walter Sedlmayr, Franz Maron, Hanna Axmann-Rezzori
(1971, WGer[TV], 84m)

Das Niklashauser Fart (The Nicklashauser Journey)

Clad in 1970 peasant garb various figures sleepwalk through fields or remain motionless in posed tableau, where they intone, declaim and converse without emotion on problems of property, labour or the economics of bear-hunting, firmly on the side of “the people” and the smashing of fascism. With undisguised citations from Godard, Rocha, fashionable Marxism and the slogans of 1968, Fassbinder takes the story of a 15th-century peasant, instructed by a vision of the Virgin Mary to overthrow his oppressors and subsequently burnt at the stake, as pretext for an enquiry into revolution. But there is deep ambivalence as to the effectiveness of armed struggle and the “happy” ending is sarcastically dismissive; Fassbinder’s character argues for the enjoyment of wealth and represents the doubtful value of art. His most directly political film is, as ever, less a thesis than a fervid call for self-examination.

d/sc/p Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Fengler ph Dieter Lohmann ed Thea Eymèsz, Franz Walsch (RWF) pd Kurt Raab m Peer Raben cast Michael König, Hanna Schygulla, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Günther Kaufmann, Michael Gordon, Margit Carstensen, Kurt Raab, Walter Sedlmeyr, Carla Egerer
(1970, WGer[TV], 90m)

Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats The Soul)

“if .. depressing circumstances are merely reproduced in a film it simply strengthens them. Consequently the dominant conditions should be presented with such transparency that one understands how they can be overcome.”[1]

From the hysterics of Martha, Fassbinder now switched to a quieter but no less incisive mode for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf), one of his most accessible and ostensibly conventional films, and the one most directly inspired by the Sirk retrospective of 1970. It is a loose remake of All That Heaven Allows, in which Jane Wyman’s middle-aged widow takes up with her young gardener Rock Hudson to the horror of all around her, translated through the story told in The American Soldier of an old cleaning lady who marries a Turkish gastarbeiter. As in Katzelmacher, the foreign worker (now a Moroccan, played by Fassbinder’s lover, El Hedi Ben Salem M’Barek Mohamed Mustafa) serves as a repository for the fears, jealousies, insecurities and suppressed erotic desires of the working classes, exacerbated by the “shamelessness” of his relationship with a cleaning woman over twenty years his senior. Fassbinder also changed the ending, in which Emmi is originally murdered by her husband; he is no less clear-eyed about the perils of society, relationships and one’s own short-comings than in his earlier films, but in his bid to create a seductive cinema through which to examine the ways in which “happiness is not always easy” (the film’s prefatory subtitle) he can now allow the audience to hope that it is at least possible.

Fassbinder had in mind the story of Fear Eats the Soul for some time before meeting Brigitte Mira at the Bochum theatre, where he performed in 1972. She was known mainly as a cabaret artist and light actress until this unexpected turn, which won her the German Film Award for Best Actress. Her guileless face was perfect for the first film (and one of the few) in which Fassbidner presents characters with whom the audience can easily identify and sympathise.

“Sirk has made the tenderest films I know; they are the films of someone who loves people, and doesn't despise them as we do.”

“Later I tried to do a remake of what I’d seen in it (Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows) .. but the story is set in a coarser more brutal world” [3], translated to Fassbinder’s own time and experience.

Fassbinder takes for himself the brief role of Emmy’s son-in-law, Eugen. Lazy and abusive, his marriage to Krista (Irm Herrman) is an extreme example of the power structures that are inevitable in any relationship. Also vehemently racist, he is in complete denial and powerlessly inarticulate with regard to his Turkish foreman. Fassbinder had no time for religion, but an occasional prop serves to emphasize his characters’ hypocrisy.

Emmi and Ali meet in a bar where she has taken shelter from the rain. Goaded by a bitter girlfriend, Ali asks her to dance and, touched by her friendliness, he walks her home. Ali paints a sad picture of his position in the workplace (“German master. Arab dog”) but accepts that that is the way things are, that it is better not to think about it (a sin in the Fassbinder universe). They communicate easily and directly, and find they have in common the solidarity of the working class and surprise that the other is takes a kind but genuine interest in them. The deft progression of their conversation makes it natural that Emmi should offer him the spare room. When she wakes the next morning with him in her bed, she is full of joy and full of fear; his broken German lending itself to easily digestible epigrams, Ali tells her that “fear eat soul” (“Angst essen Seele auf”). Her fear is both self-doubt (she weeps at the sight of her aged face in the mirror) and fear of social transgression, primary obstacles to happiness as Fassbinder stresses time and again.

The static tableau of Fear Eats The Soul often freeze the characters in the act of looking and, as ever, there are no looks without judgment. Elsewhere, Fassbinder uses these static images in combination with measured fade-outs to create a rhythm for the film that allows room for and actively encourages contemplation on the part of the audience.

Fassbinder’s distinctive framing of characters in doorways and windows is particularly marked in Fear Eats the Soul. Here Emmy and Ali are framed together as a couple for the first time; elsewhere characters will by isolated by frames masking off more than half the screen or, as in the osteria where the couple stares back at the camera from the back room, framed and isolated as a static tableau for our contemplation.

“The primary need is to satisfy the audience, and then to deal with political content. First you have to make films that are seductive, beautiful, about emotion or whatever..”[4] RWF in mid-1974.

Drinking Emmi’s renowned coffee and eating at her kitchen table becomes a relationship ritual for the couple. Their rupture towards the end of the film is all the more harsh as they sit in their same positions but are no longer able look one another in the eye.

“Human beings can’t be alone, but they can’t be together either.”

Emmi has fallen in love like a teenager, distraught when she cannot find Ali at the bar, but scampering when she sees him waiting outside her apartment, her eyes shining – Fassbinder’s commitment to the glamour of a “Hollywood in Germany” can even find radiant beauty in a 63-year old grandmother. When they decide to marry, however, they find themselves ostracised and scorned by all around them. Emmi’s family react in disgust (her son takes out his frustration on her television set rather than on Ali, exactly as Jane Wyman’s children make her the soulless gift of a television to replace the company of a man in All That Heaven Allows); at work her colleagues will not eat lunch with her, leaving her sitting on the stairs, the camera isolating and imprisoning her behind the balustrade; and the local shopkeeper goes out of his way not to serve Ali. But this is the self-defeating, Brechtian bickering of the working class – the landlord’s son and two young policemen treat them with normal respect; the former remarks that they seem very happy. Emmi’s neighbour replies, summing up the distorted social code: “What’s happiness? There’s still such a thing as decency.”

Emmy’s gossiping and interfering neighbours are the epitome of Germany’s net-curtain-twitchers, but Mrs Kargas spends much of the film observing the stairwell through a cage-like grill on an interior window of her apartment, trapped in her self-constructed and parodic role.

“Sirk’s film is a kind of fairytale. Mine is too, but one from everyday life.”

“In Douglas Sirk movies, women think. I haven’t noticed that with any other director. Usually the women just react, do the things women do, and here they actually think. There’s something you’ve got to see. It’s wonderful to see a woman thinking. That gives you hope.” [7] RWF

The couple celebrates their wedding at Hitler’s favourite osteria and Emmi feels no shame at having been a member of the Party (“almost” everyone else was). The tenets of National Socialism are alive and well amongst the working classes (particularly her cleaning lady colleagues), so invidious that even as good-hearted a person as Emmi accepts them as a normal part of life.

Isolated and adrift by the very happiness they have created, Emmi and Ali are hemmed in by a mass of horizontal yellow bars. The colour is linked to their happiness, most strikingly in the garish shoes Emmi is wearing on the morning after their first night together, and later, in the bright yellow blouse she will wear on return from their getaway to Steinsee.

Beleaguered from all sides, Emmi and Ali plan a retreat. Seated alone in an outdoor café, Fassbinder’s most stylised tableau of onlookers representing the opprobrium of society whose judgmental gaze is weighing so heavily on the couple, they declare their love in child-like words and gestures and decide to go away where no-one knows them and no-one stares. When they come back it will all be different, Emmi promises. And by the time they return it is. Self-interest has overcome jealousy and socially-prescribed aversion: the grocer prefers not to lose a customer (“in business you must hide your aversions”), a neighbour and Emmi’s son need favours, and at work she joins with her colleagues in sidelining a new girl, in an exact repetition of her own previous scene of ostracisation. With the pressure from outside relieved, the power balance in Emmi and Ali’s relationship can now assert itself. It had been bubbling under – inevitable in any Fassbinder relationship – with Emmi never asking but always telling Ali to do something, and occasionally patronising in as glibly unthinking a way as she excuses her membership of the National Socialist party. Now, visibly swelled by regained respect, she takes on a more commanding matriarchal role, more clearly ordering him about; when she tells him she won’t make couscous and that he must get used to how things are in Germany, she sounds barely different from the racist shopkeeper.

The mirror objectifies, divorces body from self, as Emmi admires the beauty of Ali’s physique while he showers. Elsewhere, she will weep at the sight of her aged face the morning after their first night together, and Ali will slap the face of his mirror self repeatedly in frustration at being unable to choose a positive course of action to rebuild their relationship.

Ali’s fault, meanwhile, is that he remains as passive as ever; hurt and unsure he goes to the bar owner, Barbara, more for comfort and couscous than for sex, but the outcome of his visit is inevitable. After Emmi has paraded him and his muscles before her friends (and proudly told them he showers every day) he returns to Barbara’s, and this time does not come home. Emmi goes desperately to his place of work and his colleagues joke about her age; where Ali had previously defended her honour in the bar however, he now merely looks down in shame. Emmi confesses how much she needs him, but he is still hurt and (with the usual Fassbinder distrust of dependence) makes no move to patch things up.

Barbara Valentin asks Ali if he is happy and he says he doesn’t know. She asks if he is scared of his wife and he looks away, a persistently repetitive gesture throughout the film (and Fassbinder’s oeuvre) to indicate the character’s (self) knowledge that they have done or said something of which to be ashamed.

“You can’t make films about something, you can only make films with something.” [8] Douglas Sirk expresses his belief that a film must ask a question, not answer one on the audience’s behalf.

Ali tries to lose himself in gambling and drinking at the bar, impotently slaps his face in front of the bathroom mirror: he has no idea how to make things better. Emmi enters, asks Barbara to play their song on the jukebox (“The Black Gypsy”) and they gaze at one another across the room – they have already shown they need no words to communicate. Their walk to the dance floor is triumphant, crossing the screen like cowboys going to the final showdown in Walsh or Hawks. Throughout the film we have heard other characters say the relationship is unnatural, that it will not last, but as they reaffirm their love, it looks finally as though they have found how to be with one another – “together we are strong”, says Emmi. Immediately, in one of Fassbinder’s cruelest ironies, Ali falls groaning to the floor: a perforated stomach ulcer. At the hospital the doctor explains it is a common complaint among the gastarbeiter, exacerbated by their being denied time to convalesce – Ali will likely be back in six months. This is Fassbinder’s “thrust into reality”: the couple has overcome pressures from other people and pressures created by themselves, and now real-life socio-economics conspire to keep them apart. As Emmi sits at Ali’s bedside, there is no way of knowing how the story will continue, whether they will have the strength to remain together in the face of all the difficulties we have seen them endure – whether happiness is even possible in such a society – but the optimistic note is that we know they will try; for Fassbinder, the important thing is that we must act as if circumstances could be changed.

Emmi and Ali dance together three times in the film, the first at his request, the second at hers, and the third time in recognition of their mutual need for one another. The power relationships between them have become balanced, they have gained acceptance from the people around them, and all that can harm them now is some blow from the very fabric of society.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
played in competition at Cannes in May 1974 (by which time Fassbinder had already completed Effi Briest, appeared in Ulli Lommel’s The Tenderness of Wolves and in Hedda Gabler on stage in Berlin, shot Fox and his Friends and opened Die Unvernünftigen sterben, directing and taking the lead, on stage in Frankfurt-am-Main). Ali won the prizes of the international critics (FIPRESCI) and the ecumenical jury (beaten to the Palme d’Or by Coppola’s The Conversation). Following the festival successes of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fassbinder’s international reputation was further consolidated. He and Mira were afforded a rapturous reception on the red carpet, but there was some surprise that the leading man was not present. Fassbinder had broken with ben Salem the previous December; in distress, the latter went to a bar and stabbed three men. Believing he had murdered them (he had not), with Fassbinder’s assistance he fled to Morocco. In January of 1974, Fassbinder took up with another outside, the free-spirited Armin Meier, an orphaned result of experiments in Aryan eugenics and sausage-griller at the gay hangout Deutsche Eiche that Fassbinder frequented in Munich. It to was to him that Fassbinder dedicated his next film, Fox and his Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit).

“I don’t consider human beings incapable of change.”[9]

d/sc/pd Rainer Werner Fassbinder p Christian Hohoff ph Jürgen Jörges ed Thea Eymesz cast Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Karl Scheydt
(1973, WGer, 92min)

[1] RWF interview with Christian Braad Thomsen in Politisk Filmkunst (Copenhagen, 1973); [2] RWF “Imitation of Life: on the films of Douglas Sirk” in Fernsehen und Film (Hanover, Feb. 1971); [3] RWF, “Reacting to what you experience” conversation with Ernst Bukel and Sirk in Suddeutscher Zeitung 8 Mar 1979; [4] RWF interview with Tony Rayns, “Forms of Address” in Sight & Sound 44, 1 (Winter 1974/75); [5] quoted in “Imitation of Life: on the films of Douglas Sirk” in Fernsehen und Film (Hanover, Feb. 1971); [6] RWF, ibid; [7] RWF, ibid; [8] RWF, ibid; [9] RWF, “At some point films have to stop being films” in Zoom-Filmberater 2 (1976) / Film-Korrespondenz (Cologne), February 1974

Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear)

Margot Staudte is a pregnant middle-class mother and housewife and she is going insane. She’s not sure why, but she’s terrified of losing her grip on the real world. Initially she clings to her daughter’s companionship for comfort, desperate when she makes to leave the apartment to go upstairs and see grandma, but at other times Margot is barely aware of her existence, and experiences with detachment the arrival of the new baby. Her hateful mother-in-law knows how to play the role of mother and housewife well, and is scornful of her abilities, while her sister-in-law contemptuously does her grocery shopping; her husband is a harmless dope, assuming without glaring signs to the contrary that she is happy and too absorbed in his upcoming exams to pay attention, and the doctor merely wants to seduce her. As the last puts it, she’s an attractive, healthy young woman, so why should she feel like she is going insane? The source of her fear is that she cannot answer that question herself, but she knows it’s to do with a fatal disconnection with the world around her, a fearful failure to understand it, and a fathomless inability to find meaning in the everyday (cf most other Fassbinder characters in one way or another). She dulls the pain with cognac and valium and starts a desultory affair with the doctor as some sort of action, something to do. The only person who tries to care – touchingly – is her brother-in-law upstairs, but he is helpless in his inability to understand her, and by that time she’s too far gone to notice this one expression of sympathy; she has already cut her wrist semi-accidentally, desperate in order to feel something, to take her mind off the fear.

As the title suggests, this fear of the world, fear of looking in the mirror, fear of insanity, is self-perpetuating. It is a very ordinary madness, born from a very ordinary and orderly existence, and born from an inability to find meaning in that order and to understand it. The extra-sensitivity that has revealed to her the emptiness of her domestic and social roles is the same that feeds her fear of going insane, of not being normal; she is unable to ask, as her sister-in-law does (fantastically steel-eyed Irm Hermann, her own face redolent of an abnormal, twisted psychology) “who’s normal?”. Certainly not Mr Bauer, the man not-right-in-the-head who lives across the street. With Kurt Raab’s red-rimmed eyes (and memories of Herr R, a close brother in this sort of inarticulate madness of frustration) he is a ghastly and sorrowful sight from whom Margot hides her daughter. But he’s the only one with understanding of her – he tells her so and we believe him – and her fear of him is a combination of recognition and denial of herself.

This is an (almost) dispassionate case study presented in vignettes, the narrative progressing only through the gradual disintegration of the heroine’s mind. But it is presented in such circumscribed and stock surroundings as to make it clear that her case need not be unique; she is a close relative of Gena Rowlands’s Myrtle under the influence, Deneuve’s Carole and Belle de Jour, Seyrig/Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Julianne Moore’s Carol White and others, tormented by the opaque and pervasive ennui of elision specific to the middle-class housewife, and in Fassbinder shares with Herr R, Nora Helmer (via Ibsen) and plenty of others (not least the ever-present shade of Biberkopf), that claustrophobic feeling of entrapment, confounded by an inability to make sense of and fit comfortably into an apparently ordered world. She is also an eerily subdued partner to Martha (whose insanity is presented and part-externalised through the melodrama of masochism – here Margot is effectively Gaslight­-ing herself), both roles taken by the stick-insect-like Margit Carstensen, with her clear-skinned toothy death’s-head, a perfect angular, awkward beauty to embody such a brittle emotional state so awkwardly unhinged. Both films too are amongst Fassbinder’s “women’s pictures” and in the best tradition of classical Hollywood he uses an ascending-descending woodwind motif to take us inside Margot’s madness, and undulating waves of focus for her point of view – it could almost be a Joan Crawford picture. But he also steps back to observe as Margot is watched repeatedly from windows and across the street, in the swimming pool and the psychiatrist’s waiting room (the sign on the door ominously emphasised: “praxis”. Practice at the customs of living is precisely what she needs). She is a specimen, constantly watched and constantly under judgment. Everyone but her husband, who scarcely looks at her, has formed a judgment, decided what she is, be it a madwoman, a fool who cannot step up to the demands of mother/wife-hood or simply a beautiful physical body (appropriate it should be the physician who holds this view). Part of her problem is an inability to make such a judgment herself but also, one senses, an inarticulate knowledge that to do so would be to accede to bad faith; her fear stems not only from incomprehension of the outside world but also from the unknowableness of self, deeper than simple incomprehension of what she is currently experiencing. In the end it is Margot who looks down from a window, but her gaze is entirely without judgment, without feeling, almost without understanding. She has been fully anaesthetised, prescription drugs severing all connection with the exterior world. Her inability to make sense of it remains but now the waves of focus are less a distortion of her view of reality than a barrier to it. The isolation brought on by her fear of the world still cripples her, but she can no longer feel it; the fear of insanity has been suppressed. In no sense has she gotten well. And this blind unknowing acceptance is made all the more devastating as what she sees from the window is her own likely fate.

d/sc Rainer Werner Fassbinder p Peter Märthesheimer ph Jürgen Jürges ed Liesgret Schmitt-Klink ad Kurt Raab m Peer Raben cast Margit Carstensen, Ulrich Faulhaber, Brigitte Mira, Irm Hermann, Armin Meier, Adrian Hoven, Kurt Raab, Ingrid Caven, Constanze Haas
(1975, WGer[TV], 88m)