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Just try crunching the numbers. In a career — a one-man Kulturkampf, more like — that lasted only 13 years, from 1969 until his death in 1982 at age 37, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder produced a staggering 43 feature-length works for the cinema and television. He made the first 10 over 18 months. He made seven movies in 1970, 10 in 1971, a mere five in 1973. He worked in every genre, from gang ster noir, Sirkian melodrama and classical literary adaptation to national-historical epic, scabrous political satire and (in 1973's World on a Wire) science fiction. His sources were myriad, and yet Fassbinder's own productivity as a writer outstripped even his taste for radical adaptation. He tackled any and every issue concerning postwar Germany's poisoned historical and cultural inheritance: the exploitation of foreign workers; the nature of sexual identity; love as "the most effective, most insidious form of social control" (as Fassbinder once remarked in an interview); the persistence of fascism in everyday life, in politics and in personal relationships; the deep reverberations of history and the constant need to suppress the guilt they stir up. And then there are the filmmakers whose work he has so unmistakably influenced, from Pedro Almodóvar, to Todd Haynes, to Todd Solondz, to Aki Kaurismaki. However you approach him, Fassbinder is an unmanageable figure, too forbiddingly productive and protean, too ubiquitous in his time and place, to make sense of without the aid of diagrams, history books and itineraries.
Or start instead with a single moment in another man's film, Jean-Marie Straub's 23-minute short from 1968, The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp. The movie's third section is an eight-minute-long abridgment of Ferdinand Bruckner's 1926 expressionist play Sickness of Youth, performed in July 1967 by Fassbinder's Munich-based Action-Theater. Onstage are Fassbinder and the core members of his repertory company. Behind them is a partially obscured Maoist slogan: "Only when the arch-reactionaries are ________ will it be possible to ________."
Within a year, the Action-Theater would be vandalized by a nascent Red Army Faction impatient for direct action versus play-acting, and Munich newspapers would report Fassbinder's arrest in Paris during the May '68 evenements. The RAF's leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, had gestated in the same cultural and social soil as Fassbinder, who sat for the exams for the Berlin Film School — and failed them — on the same day as RAF founder-member Holger Meins, who passed, and later died in prison during the decadelong state clampdown on left terrorism that would galvanize Fassbinder's work. Sickness of Youth debuted on a double bill with Fassbinder's first play, Katzelmacher (1969), which became his second feature. (The theater was, for Fassbinder, always and only a way station on the road to filmmaking.) His first, Love Is Colder Than Death(also 1969), is dedicated to Straub, the most astringent avant-gardist then working in Germany; to Godard, from whom Fassbinder appropriated a playful radicalism, a taste for genre parody, and the use of prostitution as a master metaphor; and to Chabrol, whom he venerated for his meticulous and merciless detailing of bourgeois depravity. Even then, Fassbinder was no neophyte director; he had already (in '66) made his first two shorts. He already knew his idols and exemplars. He was already firmly plugged into the central political and aesthetic realities of his time. He was fully formed. He was 22.
Fresh prints of 20 works from the momentous years that followed are available for reappraisal at LACMA over the next six weeks. Attendance is mandatory. Fassbinder's genius remains untarnished by time — only the miniskirts are dated. His themes remain resolutely universal and contemporary. This is the kind of revival that, if attended by enough young filmmakers and writers, could spawn a new generation of disciples. Fassbinder may have lived in tumultuous times, in a country where the burden of history was intensely felt and palpably debilitating, and he may have worked at a level of creative intensity that few artists can hope to emulate, but his collected works are so insistently and entertainingly provocative, so tragic, anarchic, sarcastic, comically downbeat, so inventive, that no one with a belief in the transformative power of film can possibly walk away from them without harboring the most revolutionary impulses toward today's limp, intellectually timorous cinema. So get ready to ________ those arch-reactionaries in the heart, head and hindquarters. Only then will it be possible to ________. The blanks are for you to fill in.
"Imitations of Life: The Legacy of Rainer Werner Fassbinder" is at LACMA, April 4 through 26. For more information, see Film and Video Events in Calendar.
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