The great German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was no Alfred Hitchcock, in that he did not stick himself gratuitously into every movie he made. He did, however, appear in a lot of his own movies, so if you’re a Fassbinder freak you can amuse yourself by observing his insouciant brutishness on camera.
Fassbinder did act in other people’s movies on occasion. I didn’t know until recently that Fassbinder’s last starring role occurred in an amusing cyberpunk “thriller” (ahem) called Kamikaze ‘89 directed by a close friend of his named Wolf Gremm. The movie was released in 1982 but (as the title suggests) is set in far-off 1989, when Germany has become a totalitarian dystopia in which all problems are purported to have been solved (there hasn’t been a suicide in four years) and “everything is green,” whatever that means. The mandated diversions of the “bread and circus” formulation come in the form of state-sponsored “laughing contests.” In this edenic setting we follow a police lieutenant named Jansen (played by Fassbinder) who is trying to solve a string of murders mysteriously connected to an all-powerful conglomerate (“der Konzern”) which is run by a man calling himself the Blue Panther.
Introduced working on his squash game, Jansen wears a red shirt and a wonderfully garish leopardskin jacket in every single scene. (In this Germany alcohol is banned but he scores a furtive swig whenever he gets the chance.) Kamikaze ‘89 features plenty of faces familiar from Fassbinder’s work, including Fassbinder staple Günther Kaufmann as well as Brigitte Mira, the female lead of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The plot of the movie is confusing (possibly just confused), but even if the project was a lark Gremm still did a pretty admirable job of adapting Swedish author Per Wahlöö’s 1964 dystopian novel Murder on the 31st Floor.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot: in addition to certain passages from The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, all of the music is composed by Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. (Yes, the soundtrack is available.) The high point of the movie, in fact, comes about halfway through, when Jansen is investigating on the rooftop of a tall skyscraper and beholds the misty cityscape of Berlin, scored to one of Froese’s endlessly mesmerizing melodies.
Godard’s Alphaville is the ur-text for futuristic crime movies, of course, and the general territory of Kamikaze ‘89 cannot fail to call to mind various movies by David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, although I kept thinking of Repo Man and Tapeheads too. Of course the movie that it wanted to be (without any way of knowing it) is Blade Runner, which in a quirk of synchronicity had its US premiere about three weeks before Kamikaze ‘89 was unveiled to West German audiences. Sadly, Fassbinder passed away of a drug overdose at the age of 37 about two weeks before Blade Runner opened.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder gave a passing nod to Jean-Luc Godard and Bertolt Brecht with his second short film Das kleine Chaos (A Little Chaos). The story concerns three young wannabe criminals, who take their lead from the b&w gangster films of 1940’s and ‘50’s Hollywood. Made in 1966, it’s an assured and highly stylish nine minutes of celluloid that proves Fassbinder’s ability to adapt his influences, better them and make them his own.
A Little Chaos stars Fassbinder himself, Christoph Roser, Marite Greiselis and Greta Rehfeld.
In February 1962, a group of young German film-makers issued a statement at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in North Rhine-Westphalia. Called the Oberhausen Manifesto, the declaration stated, “Der alte Film ist tot. Wir glauben an den neuen” (“The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema”):
The decline of conventional German cinema has taken away the economic incentive that imposed a method that, to us, goes against the ideology of film. A new style of film gets the chance to come alive.
Short movies by young German screenwriters, directors, and producers have achieved a number of international festival awards in the last few years and have earned respect from the international critics.
Their accomplishment and success has shown that the future of German films are in the hands of people who speak a new language of film. In Germany, as already in other countries, short film has become an educational and experimental field for feature films. We’re announcing our aspiration to create this new style of film.
Film needs to be more independent. Free from all usual conventions by the industry. Free from control of commercial partners. Free from the dictation of stakeholders.
We have detailed spiritual, structural, and economic ideas about the production of new German cinema. Together we’re willing to take any risk. Conventional film is dead. We believe in the new film.
It was signed by twenty-six film-makers including Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz. But it would take until the end of the decade before a more radical and ambitious group of film directors put into practice the aims of the Oberhausen Manifesto.
Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Jean-Marie Straub and Rainer Werner Fassbinder allied themselves to a New Cinema that dealt with the interests and issues of their generation, and sought to achieve an excellence of creativity, rather than films made for purely commercial reasons.
Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema is a short documentary on the origins of New German Cinema, which features interview footage with Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
When she found him in the early hours of the morning, it seemed as if he was sleeping. Lying on the bed, with an ink-marked script beside him. Still dressed, his shoes carelessly kicked off, a television flickering in the corner. The room smelled of smoke and sweat. She noticed the table lamp was still on, his pack of cigarettes, an overfilled ashtray. It seemed as if he’d fallen asleep as he worked on his latest screenplay Rosa L., a film about the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. He looked pale. An unlit cigarette drooped from his lips, a small trickle of blood glistened from one nostril. For four years, Juliane Lorenz had been his partner, she had seen him tired out like this before, falling asleep while working late at night, geed-up by cocaine and alcohol, but this time there was something different. Juliane listened. He was too quiet. When he slept he snored. But now, all she heard - the ticking clock, the television, the hush of traffic outside - was his silence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was dead.
It’s still hard to believe Fassbinder managed to do so much in his short thirty-seven years of life. That fact he was working on a script at the moment he died, says everything about his dedication to his art. In less than fifteen years, Fassbinder made forty feature films, three short films; four TV series, twenty-four stage plays and four radio plays. He also acted in thirty-six productions and worked scriptwriter, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.
Born into a middle class family, his father was a doctor who worked near Munich’s red light district. His mother helped with her husband, and neither had much time for their son. After their divorce, Fassbinder lived with his mother, who worked as a translator but was often absent, hospitalized with tuberculosis. Then, Fassbinder spent his time with neighbors, listening to their life stories or, going on his own to the cinema - he later claimed he saw a film a day during his childhood.
“The cinema was the family life I never had at home.”
His favorite films were melodramas, his favorite director Douglas Sirk, of whom Fassbinder said:
“The important thing to learn from Douglas Sirk’s movies is that on the screen you are allowed to, or better still, supposed to, enlarge people’s ordinary feelings—as small as they may be—as much as possible.”
Fassbinder started writing plays, and read about the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, who had over 1,800 plays attributed to him. This became the gold standard to which Fassbinder aimed his ambitions. At eighteen, he joined a theater group, and the first hint of his incredible talents and ambitions became apparent.
Within two months of joining the Action Theater group, he became its leader. This proved too much for other, older members, who led to the group’s disbandment. Fassbinder then created a new company and drew together a team, or family of actors - Peer Raben, Harry Baer, Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann - who were to work with him until his death.
His first movie was a “deconstruction of the gangster films”, called Love is Colder than Death, it caused considerable controversy at its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969, where Fassbinder was jeered and denounced as a “dilletante” by members of the audience. Even so, it established his reputation as a talent to watch, and led on to his next film, Katzelmacher, which was adapted from his stage play. It was the start of his movie career that saw such an unparalleled output. Everything in Fassbinder’s life went towards his film-making. He was often ruthless and allegedly pimped some of the theater group actresses to raise money for his films.
“I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
The turning point came in 1971 with the release of The Merchant of the Four Seasons, the tale of a merchant who is slowly destroyed by circumstances beyond his control. the story epitomized Fassbinder’s world view as tragedy. Life was battled out against insurmountable odds, at great cost to its players. Though his films were often described as “bleak”, I never found them less than engrossing, for the theme to all his films is love - the cost love has on us all.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Fassbinder made such unforgettable films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) (adapted form his play); World on a Wire (1973); his first major international success Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the story of love between an older woman and Moroccan immigrant, played by Fassbinder’s then lover El Hadi ben Salem; Effi Briest (1974); Fox and His Friends (1975); Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975); Despair, his first English film, with a script adapted by Tom Stoppard form the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978), Fassbinder’s bleakest and personal movie, made in response to the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier; The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), which became a breakthrough movie in America; Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a 13-hour TV series adapted form Alfred Döblin’s novel; Lili Marleen (1981), another big budget English movie; Veronika Voss (1982) which was inspired by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; and his last major feature, which progressed cinematic narrative in a new and original way, Querelle (1982), adapted form the novel by Jean Genet. Fassbinder had just finished editing Querelle when he died.
The official cause of his death was “an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills”. The cost of his lifestyle and his ambition took too great a toll. Before he died, his body had bloated from an excess of drink, food and drugs, and he once said, he became fat to make it harder to be loved. Fassbinder used his body, as he used chain-smoking, or his excessive drinking, as means to protect and distance himself from others. His sense of being unloved or, of being unworthy of love, stemmed from the parental indifference of his childhood. When he was older, he often treated his lovers and those closest to him badly, testing their loyalty and love for him. Emotionally, Fassbinder was childlike, as he always searched for that imagined lack, which would make him feel loved. It was this, Fassbinder’s own emotional biography that underscored his films.
Thirty years after his death, we can more fully appreciate the scale and quality of Fassbinder’s genius; and see the real beauty of the man who was Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
During the Cannes Film Festival in 1982, Wim Wenders set-up a static camera in a room at the Hotel Martinez. He then invited a selection of directors to answer a series of questions on the future of cinema:
“Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?”
The directors, in order of appearance were:
Mike De Leon
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Each director was alloted 11 minutes (one 16mm reel of film) to answer the questions, which were then edited together by Wenders and released as Room 666 in 1982. Interestingly each director is positioned in front of a television, which is left on throughout the interview. It’s a simple and effective film, and the most interesting contributors are the usual suspects. Godard goes on about text and is dismissive of TV, then turns tables by asking Wenders questions; Fassbinder is distracted (he died within months) and quickly discusses “sensation oriented cinema” and independent film-making; Herzog is the only one who turns the TV off (he also takes off his shoes and socks) and thinks of cinema as static and TV, he also suggests movies in the future will be supplied on demand; Spielberg is, as expected of a high-grossing Hollywood film-maker, interested in budgets and their effect on smaller films, though he is generally buoyant about the future of cinema; while Monte Hellman isn’t, hates dumb films and tapes too many movies off TV he never watches; all of which is undercut by Turkish director Yilmaz Güney, who talks the damaging affects of capitalism and the reality of making films in a country where his work was suppressed and banned “by some dominant forces”.
A brand-new HD restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s seldom-seen World on a Wire will be screening at Cinefamily in Los Angles this Sunday, September 18th at 7:00pm:
“A textbook example of a film that was ahead of its time—a movie that anticipates Blade Runner in its meditation on artificial and human intelligence and The Matrix in its conception of reality as a computer-generated illusion.”—Dennis Lim, The New York Times
A dystopic science-fiction epic, World on a Wire is German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s gloriously cracked, boundlessly inventive 1973 take on future paranoia. With dashes of Kubrick, Vonnegut, and Dick, but a flavor entirely and unmistakably his own, Fassbinder tells the noir-spiked tale of reluctant action hero Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitsch, who also starred in Fassbinder’s WWII masterpiece The Marriage of Maria Braun), a cybernetics engineer who uncovers a massive corporate and governmental conspiracy. At risk? Our entire (virtual) reality as we know it. This long-unseen three-and-a-half-hour labyrinth is a satiric and surreal look at the weird world of tomorrow from one of cinema’s kinkiest geniuses.
Before the artist Ming Wong re-located to Berlin in 2007, he decided to learn German by immersing himself in the country’s culture. The result was a 10-minute performance tape, where Ming learnt the lingo from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, loosely autobiographical film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
Believing that one of the best ways to get insight into a foreign culture is through the films of that country, the artist has adopted one of his favourite German films as his guide, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) by Fassbinder, about a successful but arrogant fashion designer in her mid-thirties, who falls into despair when she loses the woman she loves.
Putting himself in the mould of German actress Margit Carstensen in the role of Petra Von Kant - for which she won several awards - the artist attempts to articulate himself through as wide a range of emotions as displayed by the actress in the climactic scene from the film, where our tragic lovesick anti-heroine goes through a hysterical disintegration.
With this work the artist rehearses going through the motions and emotions and articulating the words for situations that he believes he may encounter when he moves to Berlin as a post-35-year-old, single, gay, ethnic-minority mid-career artist - i.e. feeling bitter, desperate, or washed up. („Ich bin im Arsch”)
With these tools, he will be armed with the right words and modes of expressions to communicate his feelings effectively to his potential German compatriots.
Since then, Singapore’s foremost artist Wong has continued with his examination of “the performative veneers of language and identity, through his own World Cinema,” going on to use Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life to question ethnicity and identity.
Life of Imitation was commissioned by the National Arts Council for the Singapore pavilion in the 53rd Venice Biennale. Re-staged at SAM with a new design and additional works, it will thereafter tour other cities.
Re-inventing a Hollywood drama on racial identity by Douglas Sirk, the film — set up with two screens showing the same film simultaneously — evokes a peculiar sense in the viewer.
The film’s main protagonist are a black mother and her mixed race daughter who denies her mixed origins and pretends she is white. Initially denying her visiting mother an intimate meeting, she eventually breaks down in her mother’s arms.
Through the powerful images and execution of concept, Wong also attempts to erase the different ethnicities by having three male actors from three ethnic groups in Singapore take turns playing the black mother and her mixed-race daughter, with the identity of each actor changing after each shoot.
This year, he re-visualized, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema in the work called, Devo Partire, Domani (I Must Leave, Tomorrow). The title is taken from one of the few lines spoken by Terence Stamp in the film, whose arrival into the home of an upper class Milanese family, alters their lives.
Produced by Napoli Teatro Festival Italia 2010 and Singapore Biennale 2011, Devo Partire. Domani is a 5-channel video installation inspired by the cult arthouse 1968 Italian film ‘Teorema’ by Pier Paolo Pasolini. In this work the artist plays every character of a bourgeois Italian household which goes through an identity crisis after the visitation of a mysterious Stranger.
Ming Wong has adapted the story to contemporary times and to the setting of Naples. Entirely filmed on location, the work makes extensive use of the Neopolitan landscape - including the Scampia drug ghetto, the failed industrial desert of Bagnoli, the volcano of Vesuvius, the archeological museum and the vibrant streets of Naples – to offset the attempts by the Singapore-born artist to pass off as archetypal Italian characters inhabiting these genuine spaces. Ghosts of the past revisit their lives; statues of Gods come alive. Visions of an apocalyptic future, references to Italian cinema and cinema history enter the picture, recalling not just Pasolini’s work but also his persona and legacy.