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The Films Of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
July 29, 2011 5:39 AM
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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+]

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  • Cameren | August 20, 2014 7:50 PMReply

    Nice to see Veronika Voss. That film takes the faded-silver-screen-starlet trope to such a dark place that it threatens to make Sunset Blvd. look trivial.

  • victor enyutin | October 31, 2011 4:35 AMReply

    R.W. Fassbinder’s “In a Year of 13 Moons” is dedicated to the analysis of the psychological nature of self-sacrificial love that is personified by the main character Erwin whose childhood was mutilated by the fact that he was abandoned by his mother and later on as a boy met with other situations that resonated with the primal rejection. Fassbinder scrupulously describes how Erwin’s childhood influences his behavior as an adult (including his decision to make a sex change operation to please the person he was in love with). In US today, sex change operations have become more widespread than before and even a popular topic of TV talk shows. For this reason for us, Americans of 21st century, it’s especially important to learn what Fassbinder thought about the readiness to maim the body so as to be in tune with the conventional morals or fashion. Erwin was not able to respect his homosexual desire and in a conformist way blamed his biology for not corresponding to “his true nature”. His sex change operation is a result of his inability to take responsibility for his unconventional sexual desire. The wider concerns of the film are the human ability to make genuine existential decisions instead of “choosing” between conventional ones and even more difficult the capacity to judge one’s decisions retrospectively as wrong. This film about Erwin/ Elvira‘s unique destiny can help us to contemplate about human life in general and our personal scripts inside it. Volker Spengler playing Erwin/Elvira impersonates the human soul wandering in between genders, as common denominator of a man and woman. It is an important step towards a new kind of humanity that refuses to be dichotomized into machos and pussycats. As always, in this film Fassbinder manages to make individual problem into a universal issue, and generously uses visual symbolism to make the points about human psyche, life, society and psychology of morality, amorality and immorality. Please, visit: to read about “In a Year of 13 Moons” and other Fassbinder’s films (with analysis of the shots), and also essays about films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Bunuel, Bresson, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Antonioni, Cavani, Alain Tanner, Anne-Marie Mieville, Bertolucci, Maurice Pialat, Herzog, Wenders, Ken Russell, Ozu, Rossellini, Jerzy Skolimowski, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.
    By Victor Enyutin

  • Christopher Bell | July 31, 2011 7:48 AMReply

    That's another one - viewed it last night, much too late to include it. Was a lot of fun, definitely.

  • hi | July 30, 2011 10:23 AMReply

    I'm really surprised that y'all left out "Satan's Brew"! IMHO, it's one of his funniest and surprisingly easy to relate to.

  • | July 30, 2011 8:20 AMReply

    Thank you :)

  • Glass | July 30, 2011 2:01 AMReply

    This is amazing - one of your best retrospectives yet, and I agree with almost every rating. Well done.

  • The Playlist | July 29, 2011 10:54 AMReply

    i feel bad about excluding the The Merchant of Four Seasons. I saw it ages ago and didn't really feel like i could do it justice and just ran out of time to find the time to rewatch it.

  • cosmo vitelli | July 29, 2011 10:50 AMReply

    Can't say that I loved Berlin Alexanderplatz, it felt really redundant in places, but the epilogue is the wildest two hours of RWF's career.
    The Merchant of Four Seasons might be my favorite overall, and Chinese Roulette is brutal but pretty transfixing.

    also I'll rep for Whitey but i think it's generally considered one of his weaker efforts? kind of a slight gothic melodrama set in the old west.

    still have alot to see, maybe I'll get around to I Still Want You To Love Me now. These retrospectives are a favorite part of the Playlist. Keep em coming!

  • Gatsby | July 29, 2011 7:32 AMReply

    Keep these up! The first one I agree with almost all of the ratings.

  • rotch | July 29, 2011 7:05 AMReply

    I'm a total Fassbinder neophyte. I've only seen Fox and his Friends and Ali. I'm ashamed to say that out loud.

    Will use this retrospective as a guide.

  • Dan | July 29, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    For those interested in Fassbinder out there (why else would you be reading this?), here's a very informative and comprehensive overview of the man's films:

  • cineman | July 29, 2011 6:06 AMReply

    Extraordinarily prolific for a guy who didn't make it to 40 - the brightest lights burn half as long

  • TGRubenfeld | July 29, 2011 5:58 AMReply

    Is it possible to ever discuss "Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?" without spoiling the ending? Because that's what every discussion of the film does--unapologetically spoil the ending, (more so than the title.) It's a much richer viewing experience if you don't know where it's headed.

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