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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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"Veronika Voss" (1982)
Loosely based on the true story of Sybille Schmitz, a former Nazi starlet, whose star faded after the Third Reich crumbled -- she committed suicide as a lonely old relic the nation would rather soon forget -- the captivating and lush “Veronika Voss,” is Fassbinder at the height of his powers and sadly, it is his penultimate film. It is his “Sunset Boulevard” and “Citizen Kane,” literally and figuratively as both films bear resemblances to the stylish, high contrast black-and-white picture that shows obvious traces of the sumptuous Hollywood filmmaking of the 1950s. On a dark, rain-soaked evening, the unbalanced and melodramatic Voss (Rosel Zech) meets and befriends an empathetic sports writer (Hilmar Thate) who takes a curious interest in her faded-glory story. The well-meaning writer soon discovers the erratic and often desperate former star is propped up by an unscrupulous “Dr. Feelgood”-like physician (Annemarie Düringer), who lords over her -- fueling her insecurities with a controlling dose of opiates, but only if she can pony up the exorbitant costs. Meanwhile, the self-sacrificing writer risks his own relationship to rescue the aging ingenue, but to no avail. Having long sought recognition within Germany -- the provincial media generally despised his always quotable “enfante terrible” mien -- Fassbinder finally received homegrown love when this picture rightfully won the Golden Bear at the 32nd Berlin International Film Festival. [A]

And The Rest: Three shorts preceded "Love Is Colder Than Death"; "This Night," which is lost, "The City Tramp" and "The Little Chaos." It was then followed by "Katzelmacher," which translates, roughly, as "Cock Artist" -- not, as the title might suggests, about Warren Beatty, but an adaptation of Fassbinder's play, about a Greek immigrant (played by the filmmaker himself). 1970 brought "Gods of the Plague" and "The Coffee House" (the latter only a TV recording of his production of Carlo Goldoni's play), while the year was topped off with "The Niklashausen Journey," co-directed with 'Herr R.' collaborator Michael Fengler.

That was swiftly followed by "Rio Das Mortes" and "Pioneers in Ingolstadt," both made for TV, while "Whity" is one of the better-regarded films that we didn't get to see. "The Merchant of Four Seasons" followed 'Holy Whore,' and is seen as one of the director's very best, although it slipped between the cracks for us. 1972 had another theater-to-TV translation, "Bremen Freedom," the 5-part TV series "Eight Hours Are Not A Day," while 1973 brought "Wild Game" (based on the Kroetz play), and the aforementioned "World on a Wire," which we covered in detail last week. It was followed by "Nora Helmer," a version of Ibsen's "A Doll's House" for TV.

The black-and-white "Effi Briest" is another great one that we didn't have time to cover, while 1975 brought the short "Like A Bird on a Wire" (unconnected to the Goldie Hawn vehicle, unsurprisingly...). 1976 gave us "Satan's Brew" and "Chinese Roulette," while 1977 had "Women In New York" and "The Stationmaster's Wife," both made for TV, while he directed a segment of the omnibus "Germany in Autumn" the following year.

"Despair" was his closest flirtation with the mainstream, adapting a Nabokov novel with a Tom Stoppard script (in English, no less), starring Dirk Bogarde, while 1979 brought "The Third Generation" a terrorism black comedy starring Eddie Constantine, star of "Alphaville." Finally, he made his sole venture into documentary with 1981's "Theatre in Trance," and ended his career with 1982's "Querelle," another English-language film, based on Jean Genet's novel and starring Franco Nero, Jeanne Moreau and "Midnight Express" lead Brad Davis.

-- Rodrigo Perez, Christopher Bell, Sam Chater, Gabe Toro, Mark Zhuravsky, Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton

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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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