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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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"The American Soldier" (1970)
His third feature-length effort (‘Why Does Herr R. Run Amok’ was a co-directorial effort), and his second made that year, if you’re accustomed to the Sirk-ian melodramas of Fassbinder’s middle-section career, the French New Wave-ish “The American Soldier,” sticks out like a glaring anomaly; a stylish, noir crime picture that feels like it could have been made by Jean-Luc Godard (but it’s actually the third in his early gangster trilogy.) Almost. Using gangster tropes to express the frustrations of love -- and indeed, the eponymous titular hit man played by familiar and softspoken Fassbinder actor Karl Scheydt seems to spend a lot of time in bed naked with women, yet without ever feeling any true ardor -- the picture looks like a Raoul Walsh-made gangster picture, but feels more existential in mood and tenor (the closest comparison might be Godard’s “Alphaville,” but it’s not quite as odd). The plot centers on Scheydt, a restless American back from Vietnam hired to play assassin by the State and wipe out Munich’s underworld. He does just that, but then runs into trouble when three policeman hire him to knock out their own adversaries, but plan a double cross. Plot hardly matters though in this picture in which Fassbinder has a small role as a collaborating thug; it’s uniquely Fassbinder: a genre picture employed as a mask for something much more inscrutable. [B]

“Beware of a Holy Whore” (1971)
The good ol' film about filmmaking. Some of our best auteurs have delved into this sub-genre; the likes of Francois Truffaut, Woody Allen, Olivier Assayas, and Federico Fellini have all contributed to showcasing the often ridiculous moments that occur behind the camera. It's easy to see where these pros saw such ripe material -- use the medium to decry its inherent mayhem -- but it's tougher to see why we, as an audience, should ultimately care. Shot when the director was 25 and based off personal experiences had during the production of "Whity," the incredibly-titled "Beware of a Holy Whore" suffers from the same flaws that most of these movies do (with the likely unanimous exception being "8 1/2"; the other exception will probably be from whatever director you're particularly hot for). The plot concerns a crew who, led by a wavering film director (Lou Castel, who also makes an appearance in "Irma Vep") and a ticked-off producer (played by an angry Fassbinder), have trouble pulling together to block a single scene. Money is dropped, tensions rise, egos are bruised -- always the ingredients for a solid drama. As a director Fassbinder plays things slowly at first, then as the descent into frustration begins, scenes come and go much more frantically. It's not without its moments (such as the opening monologue about Goofy becoming a failed kindergarten teacher), but there's something unavoidably tenuous about the whole thing. Maybe it's the fact that we know all of these horrors already; or possibly it's that, Fellini's opus excluded, they all travel down a similar road to the same conclusion. Too "inside baseball"? Too "wink-winky" to filmmakers? Hard to say, exactly. The filmmaker's portrayal of himself, judging from reports on his personal life and behavior, seems to be spot-on and it's definitely worth seeing him at his rawest. Unless you're a fanatic, though, you might find the rest of the proceedings a tad unilluminating. [C+]

"The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant" (1972)
The term melodrama has come to have negative connotations: over-played, over-egged emotion, with little subtlety or subtext. But as Darren Aronofsky proved last year with "Black Swan," if you don't mind going full throttle with your drama, you can truly achieve something special, and Fassbinder kills it in "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant." Based on his play of the previous year, which itself, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, was heavily autobiographical, (a veiled version of the triangular relationship between the director, his black Bavarian lover Günther Kaufmann and his assistant/composer Peer Raben), the film follows the titular fashion designer (Margit Cartensen) as she falls deeply in love with the beautiful Karin (Hanna Schygulla), all the while tormenting her devoted assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann). It's unashamedly campy (its 2005 translation to opera was inevitable), nodding to Fassbinder's beloved Douglas Sirk (the helmer even visited the veteran director at his home in Switzerland at one point) and "All About Eve" (that film's director Joseph Mankiewicz gets a name check at one point), but it's also eminently quotable, and entirely gripping. Thanks partly to DoP Michael Ballhaus (who would go on to shoot "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Goodfellas" and "The Departed" for Scorsese, among many other Hollywood projects), it works where so many theatrical adaptations fail: rather than stagy, it feels almost impossibly claustrophobic, as the characters' bitter, unrequited love affairs trap them in the apartment that the camera never leaves. The acting too, is astonishing, particularly Fassbinder favorites Cartensen, entirely fearless, and Hermann, who steals the show in a virtually silent performance. The sexual politics might be problematic for some, but there's no doubt that it was close to the director's heart, and no surprise that it became one of his first films to break out to an international audience. [A-]

"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" (1974)
Fassbinder met Douglas Sirk at the Munich Film Museum in 1971, where he also saw six of his films. That experience would change the way Fassbinder saw and made films. Sirk's “All That Heaven Allows” provided the inspiration for “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” which today remains Fassbinder most famous film (not infamous for once), which went on to inspire Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.” No Fassbinder film conveys its message of everyday social evils as eloquently as “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” The basic premise is simple: middle aged German widow, Emmi, randomly meets and, quite soon after, marries, Ali, an Arab man she encounters in a bar after taking shelter from the rain. The first half of the film focuses on how Emmi’s family, neighbors and workmates deal with her second husband and the colour of his skin, negatively at first and then shifting towards acceptance. The second deals more with Ali’s reaction to their sudden acceptance, which brings its own set of compromises for him, and conflicts with Emmi once hidden by their mutual solidarity against racism also emerge. Fassbinder, never one for concrete conclusions or easy answers leaves us with a bittersweet ending with lovers reunited but the problems that divided them unsolved. [A]

"Martha" (1974)
Another Sirk-ian drama of domestic unhappiness -- the lead character even gives out "Douglas Sirk Road" as her address at one point -- like many Fassbinder melodramas, "Martha" places the titular female naif in a situation of emotional distress and then makes us watch, squirming helplessly, as she is put through escalating crises and disabused, practically brutalized, of all romantic notions. A film that could have been sarcastically titled, "The Good Wife," the melodrama centers on Martha (Margit Carstensen) who goes from one bad situation to another, and can arguably be called a bleak study in both cruelty and the capacity for human submission. While on vacation with her in Italy, Martha’s controlling father suddenly dies of a heart attack and she's forced to return home to Germany and take care of her mother: an alcoholic spinster and a grotesque, revolting human on every level who attempts suicide by pill overdose any time Martha tries to do anything against her wishes. Liberation seemingly comes in the form of Helmut (‘70s Fassbinder regular Karlheinz Böhm getting a juicy lead turn), a handsome and wealthy gentleman who wants to marry her and whisk her away. It all sounds well and good until Helmut reveals his true colors as a sadistic, domineering sociopath. We’ve seen this story countless times in Hollywood -- generally B-thrillers starring Tom Berenger or Patrick Bergin -- but Fassbinder’s 16mm TV film is no slice of late-night entertainment; it’s a punishing exercise as Martha continues to psychologically bleed at the hands of her abusive, tyrannical asshole of a husband. Eventually her humiliating capitulation turns into paranoia and then near-derangement that ends tragically. It’s not always easy to watch, but it is a cutting chronicle of domestic abuse through Fassbinder’s own amplified take on Hollywood ‘50s melodrama. [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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