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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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“The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979)
The first in Fassbinder’s BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy, which deals with three different women making their way in a post-WWII Germany, the script went through several hands and drafts from Fassbinder's original unrealized TV project "The Marriage of our Parents". Fassbinder was already working on the script for the epic "Berlin Alexanderplatz" when shooting began on "The Marriage of Maria Braun" and he continued to shoot during the day and work all night on the script for his next project. Rumour has it to sustain this work schedule Fassbinder consumed large quantities of cocaine, and this was the main reason the film went over budget -- Fassbinder’s biggest but still under a million USD. Of course this caused problems with his financiers, producers and crew, causing rifts in many of his long-term creative partnerships including those with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and producer Michael Fengler. Making “The Marriage of Maria Braun” was probably not the greatest period in Fassbinder’s life, but the film turned out to be one of his most successful and fulfilled his desire to make a German equivalent of a Hollywood movie. Starring Hanna Schygulla as Maria (she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress in 1979), a woman whose relationship with her husband, Hermann is constantly thwarted by circumstance - or rather desire, pride and greed which inevitably leads to violence, cruelty and destruction. Fassbinder paints a picture of an insatiable and unfeeling Germany, its inhabitants (the survivors) are damaged goods, both morally and emotionally warped from their experiences. Like any good Hollywood film it ends with a big explosion - like any good Fassbinder film the meanings and motives behind it are open-ended. [A]

"Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1980)
Yes, we've seen it. Yes, all of it. Yes, it's glacially slow in places, and admittedly hard work. And yes, it's absolutely worth doing at some point in your life. Fassbinder's 14-part, 930 minute made-for-TV (but theatrically released in the U.S.) epic has a fearsome reputation, entirely deserved (particularly the impenetrable, fitfully brilliant, occasionally eye-rolling epilogue), mostly because it's arguably as close to a novel as cinema's ever gotten. A straight translation of the plot would have been far shorter, but Fassbinder, a rabid fan of the 1929 source material (by Alfred Doblin), digresses and dwells, stretching and repeating tiny, intimate moments, with trademark long, unbroken takes, in a way that slowly brings you into the psyche of protagonist Franz Biberkopf (an astonishing performance by Gunter Lampretcht), and indeed, the psyche of a nation in turmoil (hindsight obviously gives Fassbinder permission to use Biberkopf as a metaphor for interwar Germany, adding up to arguably one of his most political films. And of course, it always feels like a Fassbinder film, particularly in his tinkering with his hero's relationship with Reinhold (Gottfried John), which gains all kinds of homo-erotic undertones absent from the novel. More than anything, however, it's a tragedy; an ex-convict, desperate to go straight, just can't escape. An old story, to be sure, but one that's never been told with as much detail. There are amazing moments throughout, and awful ones, none more so than in that epilogue, which sees Fassbinder essentially deconstruct (aided by Lou Reed and Kraftwerk tracks) the thirteen hours you've just sat through. It's both infuriating and intoxicating, and a fitting capper to the whole whopping saga. File it with "War and Peace" and "Infinite Jest" as something to catch up on during a long holiday or prison sentence: you'll certainly not regret it. [B]

"Lili Marleen" (1981)
The insurmountability of social barriers, and the war between private desire and public image are staples of the Sirkian melodrama Fassbinder emulated throughout his latter career. So as a backdrop, Nazi Germany, an oppressively totalitarian state in which private lives were often forfeit to the political machine, and racial, gender and national barriers were not just reinforced, but codified into an ethos that permeated every aspect of life, must represent some sort of melodrama jackpot. Strange, then, that "Lili Marleen," a WWII-era tale of the forbidden love between a German nightclub singer and a Swiss Jewish conductor, should end up such an unengaging affair: the pieces are all there, and the onscreen emotional register ranges from the peaks of ecstasy to the depths of suicidal despair, as one might expect, and yet, we never feel much of anything at all. Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla's performance as the central Willi is part of the problem, coming off as oddly schizoid - her reactions, while fittingly overwrought, are often inappropriate to the point of incomprehensible. And without the kind of tragic empathy the great heroines of this genre manage to engender, it's hard to care for the pragmatic, self-absorbed, narcissistic Willi (we're not even sure she'd be morally opposed to Nazism if it didn't keep her from her lover) especially when the very thing that makes her famous is her rather underwhelming rendition of the titular song. The film is not bad, exactly, its lush costuming and dewy soft-focus photography hit the mark, and there are moments of sudden, weird surreality (the drunken sequence in the luxurious white house, a uniformed Nazi arriving on stage via a slide) that perk things up immeasurably. But there are also times when these experimental forays don't pay off (the interminably returned-to scene in which Willi's lover is tortured with incomplete snatches of the song endlessly repeated, layers unintentional irony on top of intentional as we, the audience, pray for the damn thing to stop too) and ultimately nothing can distract from the emptiness at the film's heart. It's where a real woman, or at least melodrama's exaggerated version of a real woman, and someone we can care about and become involved with, should be. [B-]

"Lola" (1981)
Fassbinder's fetish for exquisitely staged Sirk-ian melodrama, an obsession for at least part of his career, is well-documented, so if one wants to see the picture that likely lathered up Fassbinder the most (and was probably also an influence on Todd Haynes' similar Sirk proclivities), it's the lush, candy-colored and sumptuous-looking "Lola." Another BRD trilogy film set in post-World War II West Germany, the film stars Barbara Sukowa and the great Armin Mueller-Stahl ("Night on Earth," "Eastern Promises"), and centers on a pious building commissioner looking to eradicate the corruption taking place within the business of local construction entrepreneur (Mario Adorf). Gradually gathering evidence against his prey, the straight-arrow man then meets and eventually falls in love with the titular Lola (Sukowa). Consequently, he’s shocked to learn that she’s a prostitute and cabaret singer in a local brothel. Not only that, she’s the plaything of Schukert, the crooked construction magnate he’s trying to topple. While he now possesses all the ammo he needs, Mueller-Stahl's Von Bohm fails to reconcile his righteous duty with his lust for the fetching woman, instead falling prey to seduction and soon, to the temptations of money and power. In Fassbinder’s absorbing morality tale, we watch a honorable man become the very vile thing he attempted to fight against. A darkly, yet subtly satiric nod to the persuasive charms of capitalism, as usual, Fassbinder feels no need to underscore or underline the obvious, we watch this beautifully-shot fall from grace and any judgement is our own. [A]

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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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