In 1971's Beware of a Holy Whore, Rainer Werner Fassbinder bottled the anarchic atmosphere in which his art was created. In the lobby of a Spanish hotel, an idle group of technicians and actors waste time passing around bad karma like the clap, as we see the backstage drama, microcosmic dysfunctional family and brazenly homosexual milieu of a typical flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants Fassbinder film. Substance abuse and romantic confusion prevailed in Fassbinder's circle, as emotional turbulence behind the camera stoked the emotional turmoil in front of it. Could anyone have imagined that such a kamikaze method was sustainable?
A 16-film retrospective would be fairly comprehensive for many filmmakers. But when Fassbinder was found dead in 1982, with cocaine at his bedside, he had completed more than 40 feature-length works for cinema and television, plus the 15 ½-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz — “one motion picture every hundred days for … 13 years,” wrote biographer Robert Katz. It's a mountain of work that we are still sorting through, still discovering.
The American Cinematheque's Fassbinder retrospective is timed to overlap both the 30th anniversary of the moment when this creative dynamo was stilled (June 10), and what would have been his 67th birthday (May 31).
Born a few weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Fassbinder passed a neglected boyhood in Munich's movie houses. He briefly trained as an actor and joined a “basement theater” troupe in which he fast asserted himself as the dominant personality.
That group, renamed Antiteater, would supply Fassbinder with his repertory cast and become the base from which he would launch himself into filmmaking.
Playing Jeff, Fassbinder's directorial alter ego, handsome, blond Lou Castel improves on the original: Fassbinder had a face that looked like it belonged pressed against a specimen jar, his spotty skin, sour squint and wet, cowlicked hair giving him a surly, adolescent air that he retained to the end of his life.
Jeff is carrying on an unhappy affair with a married man, evoking Fassbinder's own relation with Günther Kaufmann (who died May 10 in Berlin), a black Bavarian who became part of the director's constellation of amateur stars.
Fassbinder's next lover, El Hedi ben Salem, stars as a Moroccan gastarbeiter (guest worker) who becomes the companion of a German cleaning lady 20 years his senior (Brigitte Mira) in 1974's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Made under the guiding light of Danish-German Douglas Sirk's Hollywood melodramas, which galvanized Fassbinder when he discovered them in 1971, Ali often is considered the director's most accessible film.
Fassbinder's ultimate statement on the need for and impossibility of love is, however, 1972's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Two of the director's favorite actresses, Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen, play lovers, a callow blonde bunny and a sophisticated fashion designer, the latter gradually denuded of her pretense until she breaks down into a heartbroken, blotto mess, swilling gin while adrift on a sea of shag carpet in front of her posh wall mural of a Poussin bacchanal. Watching this spectacle, you see the tiptoe walk on the razor's edge between ironic distance and total empathy that defines Fassbinder's mature art — “I let the audience feel and think,” as he succinctly put it in a 1977 interview.
Fassbinder's protagonists find themselves, one way or another, at odds with society, which is putative in response. Fear of Fear (1975) depicts a housewife and mother's gradual alienation from her very reflection, centered on Carstensen's brittle, keeping-up-appearances smile. It reiterates one of Fassbinder's favorite figures, the ordinary person who one day finds their ordinary life unendurable — also seen in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), in which a workplace shooter's widow (Mira) is exploited by the press, communists and anarchists.
The searing sense of everyday agitation is aided by the lurid Mitteleuropean chintziness of Fassbinder's settings, usually dressed by Kurt Raab, recalling Ignatius Riley's musing in Confederacy of Dunces: “Every asylum in this nation is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television and subdivisions.”
If there is any exception to take at the American Cinematheque's series, it's in the selection of Fassbinder's later work, which probably was determined by print availability. Veronika Voss (1982), starring Rosel Zech as a faded Third Reich film star, is among his finest big-budget works, but Chinese Roulette (1976) shows Fassbinder's limitations in dealing with the ruling classes, a movie built around the stunt of tracing eye lines with cat's cradle camerawork.
Of Fassbinder's “experimental” one-offs, the sadomasochistic screwball of Satan's Brew (1976) is maddeningly engaging, a Theater of Cruelty sitcom with Raab playing a '68-vintage revolutionary author in crisis mode. A typical exchange: “The man who knocked you over is a poet!” “It doesn't hurt so much, then.”
But we are still talking about Fassbinder today because few artists have hit us so directly with the essential things — and the collision hurts still.
CRUELLY, MADLY, DEEPLY: THE FILMS OF RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER | May 31-June 14 | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre and Aero Theatre | americancinematheque.com