A Holy Whore

Reviews of the latest films.
Feb. 19 1997 3:30 AM

A Holy Whore

The fecund Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

"Rainer Werner Fassbinder"
Through March 20 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

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If you were a fan of art-house movies during the 1970s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's death in 1982 removed an essential feature of the landscape. Fassbinder was a constant. Every season brought at least one new film, sometimes two or three. They weren't just manufactured goods being pushed onto the shelf, either--they were difficult, often rewarding, sometimes emotionally punishing experiences. You'd take their grief or rage or cynicism home with you. Friendships were threatened by arguments over them. And the speed with which Fassbinder cranked them out made them seem all the more dangerous, as if his life and his work were inseparably headed for a flash point. In the end, that is more or less what happened. Fassbinder was killed by cocaine, which is to say that he was killed by the ravenous, explosively conflicted personality he put on display in his movies.

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Over the past 15 years, Fassbinder's work might seem to have died with him. His movies were seldom--if ever--shown, at least in America. At the same time, independent filmmaking was mutating from an enterprise of brave and sometimes foolhardy risk taking into concerted angling for the main chance. Young directors made shoestring pictures as calling cards to slip under the doors of the major studios. The very idea of a Fassbinder, of a filmmaker who would, several times a year, bet everything on commercially unguaranteeable work that exposed his every blotch and wart, retreated into antiquity. The current career retrospective on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the first for Fassbinder in this country, is a midnight visit from an unquiet ghost.

I had placidly assumed that I'd seen most of Fassbinder's movies, until I checked the screening list. As it turns out, he made no fewer than 44 of them in just 16 years, from 1966 to 1982, and that includes the television serials World on a Wire (equivalent to two features), Eight Hours Don't Make a Day (equivalent to five), and the monumental Berlin Alexanderplatz (equivalent to seven). This was not simply a matter of work ethic. With his obsessively interlocking themes, extremist disposition, and a repertory acting company that functioned like a volatile extended family (and included his own mother), it is clear that Fassbinder lived his work and worked his life, translating his emotional experiences onto the screen the way other people keep diaries. And the filming process was itself an integral part of his emotional life, so that, in more than one sense, every movie fed every subsequent movie. (It should also be noted that his prolific output was largely made possible by government subsidies, a luxury not available to most directors, certainly not American ones.)

In lesser hands, this self-consuming practice would have become tiresomely literal, an endless therapeutic rehearsal played out in public. But Fassbinder's imagination was too big for that, and so was his ego. Just as Jackson Pollock proclaimed, "I am nature," Fassbinder's movies declare that he is cinema and, in addition, that he is Germany. He had a vast formal knowledge and apparatus at his command (when, you might wonder, did he have time to see other people's movies?), and radically altered his style from project to project. His tips of the hat to his predecessors--ranging across the whole history of the movies from Griffith to Godard by way of his acknowledged master, Douglas Sirk--are free from film-school coyness. Fassbinder absorbed their work just as he absorbed every genre (World on a Wire, 1973, not previously shown in the United States, demonstrates he could even do science fiction), and all became elements in his working vocabulary. He could thus take a basic idea, that of a wife tyrannized by her husband, say, and explore it in back-to-back treatments of very different tone and substance: the coldly hyperrealistic Martha (1973) and the delicately stippled period piece Effi Briest (1974), based on Theodor Fontane's 1895 novel.

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F assbinder ran hot and cold at once. In his movies camp artifice and naked emotion coexist, and the tension between the two is what makes the movies themselves such a trial for the spectator--he refuses to allow you the comfort of untroubled identification. Take The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Essentially a three-character play, claustrophobically set in one room, it might have an autobiographical basis: Older homosexual manipulates and seduces young heterosexual, who goes on to turn the situation to an advantage and then to betray the seducer, while the masochistic servant seethes with rage throughout. The characters are all played by women (his two greatest divas, Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla and, in the servant's role, Irm Hermann, whom he seems to have typecast from movie to movie in order to exploit her resentment), who wear impossibly extravagant clothing evocative of '30s musicals. Every detail of staging, movement, and utterance is studied, affected to the highest degree, while the lust, anger, malice, and grief are wildly, shockingly real. Watching it, you find yourself taking sides in spite of yourself--all three at once, against the others. You come away reeling, as if you've just engaged in a fistfight with yourself. All Fassbinder's characters are compromised, and even the most caricatural are mirrors.

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Fassbinder's breakneck self-assurance meant that he turned out duds along with masterpieces. Some of his movies feel as though they were made up on the spot (as, indeed, some of them essentially were), and some are barely watchable, but they are never less than interesting. Whity (1970), for example, was his sixth theatrical feature and his biggest production to that date. Shot on sets in Spain in clot-red and pus-yellow, it is the story of a psychotic family in the American West of the 1870s as seen through the eyes of their abused black servant. It is a cartoon, alternately languid and frenzied, with details calculated for maximum kitsch repulsion. It flopped big time, but many of its elements (deranged family, murderous servant, race relations) can be found in subsequent movies throughout his career, which, in turn, all seem to comment on Whity. The movie was shot in April. In September (having made another picture in May), Fassbinder directed Beware of a Holy Whore, a barely fictionalized and unimpeachably hysterical account of what went on behind the scenes during Whity's production.

Fassbinder's identification with Germany can be seen in some form in nearly all his movies, but it achieved apotheosis in his last five years, by which time his budgets had become sufficiently large to do it justice. His "BRD" (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) trilogy--The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981), and Veronika Voss (1982)--is a trio of brilliant melodramas, each of which personifies postwar Germany as a woman: a widow on the make in the first, an overextended prostitute in the second, and a drug-addicted has-been in the third. They succeed equally well as metaphors, as genre studies, as leading-lady vehicles, as movies, period. Between the first and second installments, meanwhile, Fassbinder took less than a year (June 1979 to April 1980) to make his 14-part, 15-hour-plus masterwork, Berlin Alexanderplatz. The source novel of 1929, by Alfred Döblin, is a modernist classic, but Fassbinder's treatment, with its radically self-aware epilogue, is arguably greater. His pursuit of the small-time hoodlum in flux, Franz Biberkopf (whom he described as an incubating Nazi), in the turbulent Berlin of 1929, is an extraordinary triangulation of history, literature, and cinema, a natural culmination of threads from throughout Fassbinder's corpus. Dead at 37, Fassbinder left behind a body of work that will probably end up dwarfing those of virtually all his contemporaries, no matter how long they live.

 

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Claustrophobia and a baroque intensity in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (29 seconds):
Sound01 - fass2.avi or Sound03 - fass2.mov; download time, 4.25 minutes at 56K Sound02 - movie-fassbinder02.asf; or sound only

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