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The Films Of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 29, 2011 at 5:39AM

"I'd like to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theatre, Marx for politics and Freud for psychology: someone after whom nothing is as it used to be,” German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder once declared, likely half-seriously, half facetiously.
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Rainer Werner Fassbinder
"I'd like to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theatre, Marx for politics and Freud for psychology: someone after whom nothing is as it used to be,” German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder once declared, likely half-seriously, half facetiously.

Fassbinder died in 1982, at the age of 37, from a lethal combination of painkillers and copious quantities of cocaine. Legend has it he was working right up to the moment of his death, and pages and notes from an unfilmed script were found next to his body. In anyone else's case, this might be mythmaking, but Fassbinder's back catalogue does prove he was a man constantly, constantly at work: in the course of his short lifetime, as if hemorrhaging emotions and ideas, the uber-prolific filmmaker made an astounding 40 feature films, two television series, three shorts and 24 stage plays. Which begs the question, what have we done with our day? However this frenetic pace exacted a heavy toll; his drug-fueled work ethic was beneficial neither to him nor to those he worked with and many of his relationships (most notably with actress Irm Hermann) were complex (Fassbinder's bisexuality a factor here) and borderline abusive. He attracted bitter, personal criticism in the press, but at the same time he was fiercely loyal to his collaborators, often employing the same actors over and over again, at least until he alienated them. He was undoubtedly a difficult man, so incandescent with creative and chemical energy that in retrospect it seems inevitable that, burning so brightly, he would burn out early.

But in the midst of his tumultuous personal and professional lives, he became a great director, in his best moments attaining a level of craftsmanship and deeply felt emotion that rather belies his gonzo, wildchild reputation. His finest films show a filmmaker somehow both compassionate and almost aggressively unsentimental in his unromanticized portraits of suffering, lost souls. A central figure in that generation of German cinema that also produced Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, of course, anyone who made as many films as Fassbinder did wasn't going to knock it out of the park every time -- he himself equated making movies to building houses and some films were plumbing or messy wiring -- but there are several bleak classics in his oeuvre, and it's rare to find one of his films that isn't worth watching to some degree.

Something of an obscure lost classic from the director, the made-for-TV two-part sci-fi film "World On A Wire," is currently being re-released in theaters around the U.S. (read our review here, and check the official site to see when it's playing near you), and we thought we'd use that as an excuse to cast an eye over Fassbinder's back catalogue. It's an intimidating collection -- we're not sure anyone on staff has seen more than 45% of his films -- but we've got a decent spread between us, and for anyone who has yet to discover this fascinating filmography, we hope you'll find a good place to start here. Check it out after the jump.

“Love Is Colder Than Death” (1969)
Booed at Berlin but now evidence of the arrival of a truly talented individual, Fassbinder's debut film offers a personal take on the gangster genre in a French New Wave palette. Thug Bruno (Ulli Lommel, who would become a Fassbinder regular) gets embroiled in a crime syndicate's plan to kill bad-ass pimp Franz (good ol' Rainer Werner in the flesh), only for a friendship to spring up between Franz and Bruno. After a successful operation, the team (complete with prostitute Joanna) decide to rob a bank, though trust begins to waver and things don't go as planned. Like a smash-combination of "Band of Outsiders" and "Le Samurai" with a vague dash of Orson Welles's "The Trial," "Love is Colder Than Death" is passionate filmmaking bursting from a head full of creative, boundary-pushing ideas. Confident long takes are constantly employed, the fourth wall is broken without a wince, and occasionally an ethereal, somewhat dissonant soundtrack coats the scenes (even a trip to the grocery store feels heavenly). Some may decry the very apparent low-budget behavior; the biggest culprit being the lack of gunshot wounds (POP, the murdered fall to the ground). However, Fassbinder makes his lack of scratch work: his characters are so unbelievably nihilist that they couldn't possibly comprehend the weight of their actions. By making the sight of bullet holes and blood seem irrelevant, the director instead focuses on the weight of death -- in a stunningly patient sequence, Bruno kills a man and the camera follows him as he struggles to get the body into the car, drives to a dump, and proceeds to bury the body. Topped off with a sense of humor (the trio draw out their theft of sunglasses just to screw with the saleswoman; an arms dealer operates out of a shoe repair shop), "Love is Colder Than Death" isn't perfect, but it's the kind of first flick that should inspire energy and optimism in this generation's young filmmakers… if they haven't already drowned in student loan debt. [A-]

“Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?” (1970)
Quite possibly the man's simplest feature (not in terms of substance but in style of storytelling), 'Herr R.' attempts to study the circumstances that may (or may not) cause an extremely average person to commit murder. Fassbinder examines the titular character's life down to the most mundane, minute detail, from helping his son with homework to enduring his peers' stand-up routine. These scenes become even harder to swallow during a post-screening (or second watch) analysis, as Kurt Raab's expressiveness yields many complexities -- it would've been easy to play the character empty or neutral, but the Czech actor lumbers around, taking in each moment in a way that suggests that each irritation, disrespect, and awkward moment is slowly piling up, and may be about to break him. Or maybe they're not. One can certainly debate the impact of any given scene and argue about whether it, on its own, flicks the switch; but one can always also look at the other side of the coin and argue for innocence. The way the filmmaker lays out the complicated birth of violence without giving any concrete answers gives the proceedings both a psychological respect and an almost inexplicable horror -- Fassbinder knows human beings are much too complicated for simplistic and reductive labels. His approach is enticing; indeed, Michael Haneke made his bread-and-butter out of it and a more modern take on this slow-burn observation can be seen in Cristi Puiu's "Aurora." It's admittedly a bit of a patience-tester, but there's something undeniably engrossing about it. It's worth noting that the authorship of this one is somewhat controversial: Hanna Schygulla, one of Fassbinder's favorite actors, claims that co-director Michael Fengler was basically responsible for the film. [B+]

This article is related to: Films, Vintage Directors, Feature, The Essentials, '70s Films, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, World On A Wire


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