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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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"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

This article is related to: Films, Vintage Directors, Feature, The Essentials, '70s Films, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, World On A Wire


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