Favourite Five Series: RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER
What I’ve Seen: Katzelmacher (1969), Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Satan’s Brew (1976), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lili Marleen (1981), Whity (1971), Martha (1974), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), The American Soldier (1970), Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), Querelle (1982), Chinese Roulette (1976), I Only Want You To Love Me (1976), Lola (1981), Love is Colder Than Death (1969), Pioneers in Ingolstadt (1971), Veronika Voss (1982), World on a Wire (1973), Gods of the Plague (1970)
I posted a list of my favourite directors in July 2012 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder made the forty-seven hole. If I was to do this same list today it would look considerably different; Fassbinder would easily make my top ten. Since compiling that director list I have seen fifteen additional titles from the Fassbinder. I have now seen a total of twenty-two films from the director. While I would hardly say that makes me a Fassbinder expert it certainly gives me enough titles to compile my favourite five. Many of the same talented faces turned up again and again through my Fassbinder journey; Irm Hermann, Günther Kaufmann, Volker Spengler, Ulli Lommel, Ingrid Cavan and Katrin Schaake to name a few. Fassbinder himself is in the vast majority of the films on my list in both main roles and brief appearances. When I think of the cinema of Fassbinder I think style, drama, humor and a one of kind presentation that makes his films a viewing experience quite unlike any other. And perhaps, above all, I think of the performances of Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen. Both actresses have been cast in lead roles and the strength they bring to their characters is something phenomenal. Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was the first I seen from the director and it made a lasting impression on me. The film takes place in one room; the bedroom and studio of Petra Von Kant. Petra is a successful clothing designer but an unhappy woman. She spends most of her time alone with the exception of her assistant Marlene who she consistently berates and abuses. We learn early in the film that Petra’s marriage ended badly, she has a strained relationship with her mother whom she supports financially and a teenage daughter who lives at boarding school. Her cousin Sidone visits one afternoon and introduces her to Karin. Petra is immediately smitten with Karin who she takes under her wing. Karin is new in town and Petra intends to help her embark on a modelling career. There is an unspoken commitment expected from Karin who is painfully aware of Petra’s love for her. Karin promises nothing and makes no apologies for her aloof behavior; she really appears quite detached from the situation. This drives Petra crazy and when Karin inevitably leaves her it pushes Petra right over the edge. Every one of the all-female cast puts their best foot forward in this emotionally-charged melodrama. Petra’s eccentric dwelling and designs reflect her personality in this wonderfully organized yet chaotic way. It is easy to write Petra off as a crazy bitch but I don’t think that is entirely fair. Petra is a smart, successful woman who has allowed her own drama to get the better of her. Margit Carstensen’s performance is intense and poignant but never sympathetic; you do not feel sorry for Petra. It is very much what makes the film work for me, no empathy just bitter tears as its title suggests. Twenty-two Fassbinder films later and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is still ultimately my favourite by the director which is why it is the first film on this list. Running a very close second in my heart is another Margit Carstensen lead role from 1974; Martha. Officially Martha was actually a made for TV movie; despite this I feel it is some of Fassbinder’s best work so I have no problem with including it on this list. Martha, like Petra, is a troubled, lonely woman who is not immune to emotional hysteria although this is where the parallels end. Martha is a quiet woman approaching middle-age and unmarried. She has been charged with the care of her ungrateful and nasty mother after her father dies during a trip to Rome. Martha’s boss is in love with her but she does not reciprocate and turns down his offer of marriage. However, as her mother’s insults and taunts escalate she becomes increasingly desperate. Martha dreads the idea of becoming an old spinster left to care for an icy and uncaring mother. She finds solace in the arms of Helmut; he eventually proposes and she accepts. Martha’s unhappiness spirals into a nightmare of mental and physical abuse as Helmut takes over every last aspect of Martha’s life. Helmut has her mother committed, offers her resignation to her employer (a job she loves) and forces her to move from her family home. Helmut essentially keeps Martha prisoner with threats and subtle mind games and she eventually falls apart. It all ends in the worst way possible that had me cursing Fassbinder and calling him a bastard! That bloody ending! Helmut is worse than any villain in a horror film; he is one of the most unlikable characters I have ever stumbled upon. Karlheinz Böhm is brilliant in the role of Helmut and Margit Carstensen is absolutely devastating as Martha. There was no doubt in my mind what three of the five films on this list would be and Martha holds a firm placing for me right behind Bitter Tears. The aforementioned third film also features Margit Carstensen but in a more minor role; Fassbinder’s 1973 sci-fi odyssey World on a Wire. World on a Wire is based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye and stars Klaus Löwitsch as central character Fred Stiller. The film was initially made for TV and was presented in two parts. The film itself is over three and a half hours long; and yes, I have included two made-for-TV films on my list. What of it? Professor Vollmer is the technical director of a new supercomputer program created for the Institute of Cybernetics and Future Science. The program is a simulation of an alternate universe whose inhabitants interact as human beings in a world not unlike our own. Vollmer begins to suspect other forces are controlling the project and becomes increasingly paranoid when he suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances. Vollmer’s colleague Fred Stiller is charged with taking over Vollmer’s position. Disconcerting events begin to surface the minute Stiller is in his new position. Gunther Lause, who worked with Vollmer has valuable information to share with Stiller but suddenly disappears. The deeper Stiller investigates the more surreal and threatening the program becomes forcing him to flee his position. Eventually the two worlds collide in the most fantastical way. World on a Wire may be Fassbinder’s most impressive film visually. Without any special effects he manages to construct sets and set pieces that perfectly capture a futuristic and other-worldly feel. Modern sterile fixtures including plenty of mirrors and other reflective surfaces are used to great effect. The performances, especially Klaus Löwitsch are fantastic and the outstanding story kept me intrigued every last minute of its runtime. Paranoia, betrayal and love in a futuristic hell like only Fassbinder could create. Choosing the last two films for this list of five was more challenging than I expected it would be. I volleyed around six films and was so torn I re-watched four of them (I will discuss the films I left off the list a little later). The next film to make the cut was Fassbinder’s 1973 film Whity starring Günther Kaufmann. Kaufmann had minor roles in several Fassbinder films but this is the first I watched that had the actor in a lead role. After completing my fifty favourite director list, Fassbinder was one of the first I embarked to see more from and Whity was the beginning of that journey. One could argue that they find something undiscovered in every subsequent viewing of a Fassbinder film; I could not disagree with this statement. Whity, for me, is the film in Fassbinder’s oeuvre that I discover something new each time I visit it. Kaufmann plays Whity; Butler and servant to the depraved and dysfunctional Nicholson family. When not servicing the Nicholsons Whity spends his time at a saloon in the company of his lover Hanna who performs there nightly. Whity is in fact a Western melodrama; a period piece that resembles something akin to a warped version of Dallas. Whity is humiliated and abused by the Nicholsons much to the chagrin of Hanna who does not understand his loyalty to this most heinous of bloodlines. The colors used in Whity are particularly lush even inside the gloomy Nicholson’s residence. The Nicholsons themselves however look like death warmed over! The foundation chosen for the family members gives their skin tone the look of a walking corpse. They look as sickly on the outside as they are on the inside. The Nicholsons played by Ron Randell, Katrin Schaake, Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel are convincingly nefarious and perfect but the spotlight belongs to Günther Kaufmann. Kaufmann plays Whity with a subtle pathos relayed through gestures more than words that I found wholly compelling. The lovely Hanna, played by Hanna Schygulla, is the only light in Whity’s life and she shines bright. Whity is betrayal, perversion, delusion, influence, dominance and at the end of it all, love; a beautifully warped and wicked bit of cinema. Hanna Schygulla is the titular character in the final film on my list; Fassbinder’s 1979 film The Marriage of Maria Braun. To truly appreciate Hanna Schygulla as an actress I think that The Marriage of Maria Braun is mandatory viewing. The Marriage of Maria Braun is the first in Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) a trio of films that focus on the life of a German woman during (and/or following) World War II. Maria marries a soldier named Hermann Braun whom is called to duty immediately following their union. Maria restlessly awaits her husband’s return but instead is informed of his death. Maria takes a job as a hostess where she meets Bill. Meanwhile, Hermann has returned from the dead and catches Maria and Bill post-coitus. The two men fight and Maria smashes a bottle over Bill’s head inadvertently killing him. This does not bode well for the newly reunited Brauns. Once again they are separated when Hermann takes responsibility for the death and goes to prison. Maria meets a wealthy industrialist who offers her a job and becomes his lover; Maria also continues to make regular visits to Hermann in prison. Fassbinder has written some truly awesome roles for female characters; this list is a testament to that. Schygulla’s Maria character is an intelligent and sassy woman who easily adapts to the business world and becomes a success. Maria is as strong as she is sentimental and despite everything, in her way, she stays faithful to Hermann. Schygulla is confident and poised as the bold Maria. And that ending! Again a Fassbinder ending that left my mouth agape. What is with Fassbinder and those nasty, crazy finales? To recap, my five favourite Fassbinder films with cast list and images:
THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972)
Cast: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Irm Hermann, Gisela Fackeldey, Eva Mattes
Cast: Margit Carstensen, Karlheinz Böhm, Barbara Valentin, Peter Chatel, Gisela Fackeldey, Adrian Hoven
WORLD ON A WIRE (1973)
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck, Günter Lamprecht, Ulli Lommel, Adrian Hoven, Margit Carstensen
Cast: Günther Kaufmann, Ron Randell, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Harry Baer, Ulli Lommel, Elaine Baker
THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979)
Cast: Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny, Gisela Uhlen, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Gottfried John, Hark Bohm, George Eagles
I mentioned earlier that there were four other titles that were strong candidates for this list. The first of the four is Fassbinder’s 1971 film Beware of a Holy Whore; which made my list of favourite films watched in 2014 (Fassbinder’s Martha and World on a Wire also made the same list). The film is about the making of Whity and the drama on and especially off set. Beware of a Holy Whore is full of humor, colorful sexy sets and costumes and jam-packed full of Fassbinder regulars. A favourite among Fassbinder fans and well worth checking out. The second candidate is Fassbinder’s 1978 film In a Year with 13 Moons; chronicling the last few days of cross-dresser Elvira. Elvira visits a slaughterhouse, the convent where she grew up, and an old lover among other interactions. It is very sad and beautiful and Volker Spengler gives a heart-aching performance as Elvira. Kudos also to Ingrid Cavan who is especially charming as Elvira’s best friend. The third candidate was Fassbinder’s 1976 film Chinese Roulette. It was really tough leaving this one off of the list. Chinese Roulette is a guessing game the family and acquaintances play together in the film’s final chapter. Ariane and Gerhard Christ have both been engaged in long term affairs and make arrangements to meet their lovers at their house in the country. Needless to say things get awkward when the two couples meet face to face. They make the best of the situation at least until their manipulative pre-teen daughter decides to also join the party. A solid story with smart and seething dialog and outstanding performances from Anna Karina, Margit Carstensen, Ulli Lommel, Volker Spengler, Alexander Allerson, Macha Meril and Andrea Schober. The final consideration was Fassbinder’s 1982 film Veronika Voss. The film is loosely based on the career of Sybille Schmitz. Veronika Voss was a formerly successful actress who now struggles to get roles. She meets a reporter named Robert who becomes caught up in the complicated emotional rollercoaster that is Ms. Voss’s life. This is the second film in Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy (The Marriage of Maria Braun was the first and Lola is the third) a trio of films that focus on the life of a German woman during (and/or following) World War II. A gorgeous black and white masterpiece with a poignant performance from Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss. In reality, I have enjoyed every Fassbinder film I have seen with the exception of I Only Want You To Love Me (1976) and would recommend checking out any and all of them! I bought myself Criterion’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant a new release from this past January. I also treated myself to the Criterion Eclipse series Early Fassbinder set. Fassbinder is a force of nature whose work can affect my emotional state unlike any other.
I Kill Them – Antiteater: Music from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Western Melodrama WHITY (1971) – played during the opening credits.