Friday, April 25, 2008

Selected Films of Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote and directed 35 feature films, wrote 28 plays, and acted in 36 films, all on a steady diet of men, women, and pills and cocaine. All before his drug induced death at 37 in 1982. He apparently had a very disciplined work ethic as well as a debaucherous lifestyle. He was part of what is called the New German Cinema movement, which is when a group of young filmmakers started making distinctly German films again after World War Two. The movement played a role in Germany coming to cope with Nazism and redefining itself as a stable, sane and culturally viable country. Fassbinder was an outsider by all accounts, pulling together funding for his films from government grants, never working with a studio. His films are often about social misfits and convey a hate for conformity and violence, as well as a yearning for tolerance and understanding. Here are a few of his films, discussed:

The Merchant of Four Seasons. 1972. I went to Amoeba to find this film and it was only 7 dollars! All the other Fassbinder films cost 15 to 30 dollars (109 for his 14 hour masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz- I haven't seen it yet). I don’t know why it was so cheap because this is a good one. It is about a fruit peddler rejected by his wife and his bourgeois family. As his business takes off, he gets depressed and decides to drink himself to death. A lot of classic actors from Fassbinder’s crew are here: Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, and Kurt Raab. Fassbinder uses melodrama to tell a simple story of German life to great effect. The cinematography of early Fassbinder staple Dietrich Lohmann is more strait ahead than other films. It is basically static shots with the occasional zoom in and out for dramatic effect. A good place to start if you’re new to his work.

The second of the three films he made in 1972, the other being Bremen Coffee, was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Originally written as a play, this is a story about lesbian servitude, dominance, and love. Almost the entire film takes place inside Petra's, a rich fashion designer, apartment but every shot is framed so beautifully one does not notice. Petra has a servant that she treats like shit. It seems the servant is in love with or obsessed with Petra. One day Petra falls in love with a new girlfriend and the servant is forced to watch them make love. The story progresses from there and has one of my favorite endings to his films. Also, this is the only movie I can recall seeing that has no men in it.

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? 1971. A strange title for a strange film. The style of this film predates the Dogme 95 movement by 25 years. The takes are long, the camera often wobbly and very active, and the dialogue is very natural. Just people conducting there every day lives. Herr lives a banal existence and the monotony of it gets to him and one day he snaps. This film has another very dramatic ending and I particularly love the way he does the end credits in this one. They hit you pretty forcefully.

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul. 1974. This is (I think) one of his more popular films. It is a about a relationship between a young black Moroccan man, played by El Hedi Ben Salem, and a 60 year old German woman. Prejudices, race relations, and unbiased love are the main themes. The Moroccan man (pictured) was Fassbinder's real life lover in this period. He hung himself in a jail six years after this film. Fassbinder's next lover, an illiterate named Armin Meier, also committed suicide. The film has a slightly surreal quality to it and the colors are incredible.

Pioneers In Ingolstadt is another film from 1971. This is some of his more challenging work best reserved for devoted fans. It was the first movie I saw of his and have to admit I did not get through it. It is about some sailors that come to a town to build a bridge. They get drunk, fight, and fuck. One of them starts a destructive relationship with a woman, again played by Hanna Schygulla. I’ll have to take another look at this one and get back to you.

The Marriage of Maria Braun. 1979. This is one of his masterpieces, part of his “BRD trilogy” he made toward the end of his career about women rebuilding post war Germany. The film starts with an image of Hitler then we see a wedding happening in a war zone. The film freezes and the beautifully done credits appear. Maria has married a solider and the next day he is sent off to war. When she hears he is dead she takes solace in the arms of other men. Lots of other men. Hanna Schygulla delivers one of her finest performances here, she is in nearly every scene (and nearly every movie listed here). After a tragic and mysterious ending we see images of other German leaders, more respectable and revered. The film is loaded with symbolism about the state of Germany at the time and its future. A must see.

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