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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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“Fox and His Friends” (1975)
While known as a hyper-prolific multi-hyphenate, it’s easy to forget that Fassbinder was also occasionally an actor who appeared in more than half a dozen of his own films (though often just in small, uncredited parts). In “Fox And His Friends,” the writer/director took on a rare lead role and dropped as much weight as possible to play the lean and earnest, uneducated and working-class Franz “Fox” Bieberkopf (named of course, for the protagonist in "Berlin Alexanderplatz," which Fassbinder would later adapt -- see below). Having just witnessed his male lover get thrown in jail for tax evasion and therefore losing his circus job, Bieberkopf believes his luck has turned and through the help of an older gay acquaintance, races to buy the lottery ticket which will turn his fortunes. Fate or clairvoyance is on his side and Fox wins around the equivalent of $350,000 U.S. dollars. But when he comes into big money, he suddenly finds himself keeping the company of affluent upper-class homosexual snobs. He soon hooks up with the unscrupulous Eugen (Peter Chatel), a prissy, priggish and hyper-critical son of a wealthy industrialist who drops his boyfriend like a bad habit when the cash-flush Fox rolls into his circle of “friends.” Quickly introduced to a polished world of wealth and influences, the inerudite Fox is both in over his head and beguiled by Eugen’s opulent milieu. With Fox so eager to please, and Eugen so willing to accept his newfound wealth, the fleecing quickly commences. Shot in Fassbinder’s traditionally workmanlike way, pacing and redundancy is an issue as the director spends two hours (which feels like 2 ½) reminding the audience just how naive Fox is and how badly Eugen is exploiting him. Arguably a drama that says greed and deception are not immoral behaviours exclusive to heterosexuals, the ironically titled “Fox And His Friends,” has its aforementioned issues, but is still an incisive and ultimately tragic look at how money divides. [B]

“Fear of Fear” (1975)
Starring Fassbinder troupe-regular Margit Carstensen, also the star of "The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant" and "Martha," this made-for-TV psychological drama centers on a working-class housewife who begins to come down with the symptoms of some mental illness resembling schizophrenia. As her disorder (and fear) grows -- the onset of disease is likely to cause panic in any human -- her caring, but ultimately ineffectual husband proves useless and her borderline abusive step-family do little more than point fingers at her “strange” behavior. To make matters worse she’s then followed by another mentally ill man in her neighborhood (the creepy Kurt Raab, who starred in 31 of Fassbinder’s pictures), who appears to have a kind of psychic connection to her: he unnervingly understands that she’s slowly going mad. Helpless, she turns to alcohol, valium and a pervy doctor (Adrian Hoven) willing to fill her prescription, if you get our drift, and the poor woman quickly slides into full-blown addiction -- anything to assuage the painful cognizance of descending into insanity. Clearly made for TV, with its episodic narrative and clunky opening, while “Fear of Fear” threatens to become an afterschool special on the dangers of housewives with psychological problems, ultimately the TV-film rallies and becomes quite the striking look at pain, indifference and callousness. [B]

Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven” (1975)
When a quiet and unassuming father goes postal at his chemical factory -- murdering a man and committing suicide when massive layoffs loom -- a gentle German family is torn asunder and destroyed by the news. Exacerbating issues is an invasive tabloid media which descends like so many ravenous vultures, exploiting the devastated family for all they're worth both in context-distorting quotes and manipulative photo opps. Matters worsen with the return of Corrina, the family's wayward daughter (Ingrid Caven) who shamelessly uses the tragedy to promote her singing career by sleeping with one of the journalists covering the story. One of Fassbinder's more politically-charged efforts, the other side of the wanton exploitation comes from the Communist party, masquerading as a kind, benevolent force in the lonely matriarch’s life, but just using the family catastrophe of her "oppressed proletariat husband" for their own agenda. The film has two endings; one is bold and tragic (detailing Mother Kuster’s death as she falls in with a group of anarchists in text over a freeze frame of her woeful face), and the other (the U.S. version) chronicles fate and futility (the anarchists give up their sit-in to defend her husband’s smearing in the tabloids, but she meets an older gentleman who hints at a spark of hope). Featuring many Fassbinder regulars including female stalwarts Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermannn (19 Fassbinder films to her credit) and the always wonderful Brigitte Mira (the star of ‘Ali: Fear Eats The Soul’) as the eponymous mother, Fassbinder’s sardonically dark drama acts as a scathing critique of self-serving opportunists of every stripe and of the bloodthirsty media, while asking if a sense of decency or shame exists in today’s society. [B+]

"I Only Want You To Love Me" (1976)
Shot for television and wearing the mark of limited funds and scope, Fassbinder’s docudrama centering on one man’s search for approval is no less effective than some of his strongest work. Peter is a young man desperate to provide for his wife and child, while also living up to the expectations of his parents, but, in a consistent streak of cruel irony, luck keeps leaving his side, as mounting debts and endless favors place him in one hole after another. Through it all, Peter repeats the title mantra, as a way of getting through the day, soon oblivious as to whom he’s actually speaking. The delicate balance of Peter’s everyday life naturally unravels through a spiral of bad decisions that prove fatal, all couched in an interview-framing device that puts a blackly humorous cap on his own existence. Though toned down from his usual work, Fassbinder is working in familiar territory, and the list of indignities allows for several bleak, eye-catching tableaux to be caught on film, in the service of a story about a man who can simply never find approval. [A-]

"In A Year Of 13 Moons" (1978) - MZ
Fassbinder must have loved Armin Meier dearly, because few directors would dare make a film that boils down to personal exorcism. A year with 13 moons spells trouble for protagonist Elvira (Volker Spengler), road tripping to reunite with Anton Saitz (Gottfried John). Anton funded Elvira’s sex change (she was once a butcher named Erwin, an intentional callback to Meier’s profession), but doesn’t want to accept the newly christened woman as anything other than Erwin. “In a Year of 13 Moons” is an endurance test, with several standout sequences, one set in a slaughterhouse and another an out-of-left-field dance sequence. Spengler is also compelling, expressing Elvira’s personal purgatory in which she is accepted by none of the people she desires and finds no peace from her struggles, just strife and hate. Whatever feelings Fassbinder had mixed in with his grief after Meier’s suicide, they are embedded in this film, notable for the director’s continued mastery over camera placement and perhaps an over-reliance on allegory. Like the best Fassbinder films, this one rewards the patient viewer and has gathered quite a loving cult 30 plus years after its inception. [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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