Rainer Werner Fassbinder was certainly a workaholic. He directed 44 films, including a 16 hour epic, directed over 30 plays for the stage (four for the radio as well), while also acting in 12 films directed by others.
It’d be logical to think that Fassbinder didn’t have much of a personal life, but work was his personal life. As the director’s friend Christian Braad Thomsen says in Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius, “For Fassbinder there was no boundary between work and leisure, between colleagues and outside friendships, between art and life.” As Thomsen remarks, “many of the characters in his films come to grief because the conflict between work and leisure cannot be solved in this society.” The director attempted to supersede the trivialities of work-life balance to mixed results: he was married twice and had many lovers throughout, and for him, there was no such thing as a quiet breakup – lovers might kill themselves or go on murderous rampages, they never just get over it.
By most accounts, he was a challenging and inspiring director. Thomsen charts Fassbinder’s theatre background and how he was interested in creating a troupe and fellowship of dedicated performers and technicians that would ideally stay with him through his career. Lovers, friends and even his mother would get roles. He believed that conflicts should be aired openly and loudly and that tension was best defused by having it all out in a screaming row. He locked his first wife out of the master bedroom on their wedding night while sleeping with a male lover, and later would have her re-enact this horrible life moment on camera. Although he played Fox in Fox and His Friends, he was often the cultured, sophisticated, rich prick that would expect his lovers to learn how to keep up appearances themselves or risk banishment from his circles.
The majority of Fassbinder’s films about relationships seem to focus on the issue of “loving, without making demands”, to quote a phrase Thomsen uses. In Ali, for example, Ali cheats on Emmi, but instead of being angry, Emmi decides to love unconditionally. However, that happy insight would be an exception to the majority of Fassbinder’s films about relationships, which delve into how much cruelty one person can possibly inflict on another in the name of holy matrimony. Stabbings, poisonings, lots of infidelity, beatings, child abuse, blackmail, drugs, more infidelity, eternal damnation, nervous breakdowns, ulcers, and rape – it’s all in his oeuvre somewhere. Fassbinder seems to believe that loving without making demands is the ideal; however, he realizes that many people do make demands, and when those demands are unfulfilled, someone gets hurt, and, often, fatally. Let’s have a look at some examples from his films.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) obviously makes Petra cry. Petra is a successful fashion designer, even though she has her maid, Martine, do the sketches. When meeting an attractive young woman named Karin, who wants to be a model, Petra falls head over heels in love. Petra begins to school Karin in the ways of life, not realizing how much life experience Karin has under her belt. Because Petra “educates” Karin about life and gives her many opportunities to go forth in the fashion world, Petra believes that Karin owes her love and affection, and becomes rather possessive. The tears are not far in coming, and the film has an ironic ending when it comes to the relationship between Petra and her submissive maid, Martine.
By watching this film, we can see some of the director’s preoccupations. Firstly, as is often the case with Fassbinder’s films, the central couple has an imbalance of status. There’s often a high-status character (as in Fox and His Friends and Lola for example), and this high-status character is the one that makes the demands beyond subtle and not-so subtle threats. Love for Fassbinder appeared to be a battle of wills, a sadomasochistic play between a dominant person and a submissive one – sometimes the tables would flip, as they do in this film. While I enjoyed the status play in this film, I found it too long for my taste and the dialogue too expository (the whole movie takes place mostly on Petra’s bed, as she is languishing from various depressive and lethargic states).
The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) was mostly forgettable for me, but does expand upon Fassbinder’s concerns about relationships. The protagonist is a fruit seller who is abusive to his wife. As Thomsen indicates, the film showcases the cycle of violence – husband beats wife, wife slaps child; and the cycle could have potentially began with the husband’s abusive mother or the economic deprivation the fruit seller has experienced. I found the film to be slightly formulaic, and not tonally consistent throughout – the abuse seems to be forgotten in the second half of the film, and no one learns or develops as a result of their experiences.
Veronika Voss (1982) was poorly received by critics since they thought it was a rip off of Sunset Boulevard. However, I disagree since Sunset Boulevard doesn’t have an evil doctor who imprisons the star and forces her to die of withdrawal symptoms. The evil doctor aspect is the weakest part of the film, for me, as I think there’s already enough in there to make Veronika a flawed character. Veronika is loosely based on the real-life story of Sybille Schmitz, a German actress who found prominence in the 30s but refused to cater for Nazi propaganda and was shunned in her old age, eventually dying from an overdose in the 50s from morphine.
Again, we have an unequal status. The film star, Veronika, and an awed sports reporter fall in love. However, the sports reporter has a partner, who, weirdly enough, knowingly helps him get Veronika’s attention and affection. When Veronika meets the sports reporter at a museum cafe, she’s enthrallingly beautiful and well-lit (she asks the staff to ensure she is well-lit). She explains that the magic of film is found in the lights and shadows (I concur!), and Fassbinder doesn’t hold back. Veronika quickly demands money to buy a brooch and runs off to buy it. This is a brilliant introduction for a brilliant character that is underserved by the melodramatic exploits of the “evil doctor” cliche at the end. There were some great story strands here, I thought, but ultimately they are discarded for some other purpose. At first, Veronika’s manner is that of Marilyn Monroe as depicted in My Week with Marilyn; however, later she’s mentally ill and requires appropriate support. That in itself is fine and a worthy story as well, but the evil doctor is very much a caricature.
In this piece, we examined the relationship dynamics of several of Fassbinder’s many couples, some which are same-sex couples, but who are ultimately no different than his straight ones. Love and vulnerability are dangerous in Fassbinder’s mind, and usually always associated with some power dynamic and specific conditions, that, if not met, will be the cause of much pain and suffering. This may be a reason why I have enjoyed few of his films as much as I would have liked, but I can appreciate certain aspects of each one.
Read our introductory article to Fassbinder’s TIFF retrospective here.