Thursday, April 3, 2014

Love Is Colder Than Death: The Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

There was a massive retrospective of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films in the Bay Area this past autumn/winter.  The Roxie, YBCA & PFA had multiple screenings of Fassbinder films.  The PFA program was titled Love Is Colder Than Death: The Cinema of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and ran from October to December.  The YBCA program ran for a similar period.  The Roxie program screened one film per night for seven consecutive days.  Between the three venues, there must have been over 40 screenings of Fassbinder films although some films were screened more than once.

I saw nine films directed by Fassbinder.

The Marriage of Maria Braun starring Hanna Schygulla; German with subtitles; (1978)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul starring Brigitte Mira & El Hedi Ben Salem; German with subtitles; (1973)
Effi Briest starring Hanna Schygulla; German with subtitles; (1973)
The Merchant of Four Seasons starring Hans Hirschmüller & Irm Hermann; German with subtitles; (1971)
Fear of Fear starring Margit Carstensen; German with subtitles; (1975)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant starring Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla & Irm Hermann; German with subtitles; (1972)
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? starring Kurt Raab; co-directed by Michael Fengler; German with subtitles; (1969)
Despair starring Dirk Bogarde & Andrea Ferreol; German with subtitles; (1977)
Querelle starring Brad Davis, Franco Nero & Jeanne Moreau; (1982)

I watched Querelle, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul & Effi Briest at the YBCA.  I saw all the other films at PFA.

I was ambivalent about the films I watched.  I had previously seen Fassbinder's World on a Wire and Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Given Fassbinder's reputation and the magnitude of the retrospective series, I was initially anxious to see as many of the films as possible.  By the end, I was fatigued (both mentally & physically) and did not see as many of the films as I initially planned.


The Marriage of Maria Braun was a tremendous way for me to start the series.  During WWII Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries soldier Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch).  After the briefest of honeymoons, Hermann is sent back to the front.  After the war, Maria is informed that Herman was KIA.  To make ends meet, Maria begins working in a club (Fassbinder plays the proprietor) which caters to American GIs.  Essentially, she is a prostitute servicing Americans because they're the only one with any money in post-WWII Germany.

Maria eventually takes up with black soldier Bill (George Byrd).  When Hermann shows up at the house and catches them in bed together, Bill and Hermann begin to fight.  Bill gains the upper hand but Maria strikes him with a bottle to aid Hermann.  The force of the blow kills Bill.  Hermann takes the blame for the death and is sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

On the train after visiting her husband in prison, Maria meet Karl Oswald, a wealthy older man who doesn't know what he is getting into.  Brazenly forward, Maria quickly insinuates herself as Oswald's assistant, mistress and confidante.  Instrumental in the post-war success of Oswald's company, Maria shares in his increasing wealth.  Oswald would like Maria to himself so he pays a visit to Hermann in prison & convinces him to abandon Maria after his upcoming release.  Hermann, who is susceptible to suggestion, complies with Oswald's suggestion.  The love triangle is set - Maria & Oswald in Germany and Hermann abroad.  Upon Oswald's death, Maria discovers the arrangement made between Oswald and Hermann.  Hermann has returned to Germany to be with Maria but news of the arrangement has upset Maria.  She inadvertently leaves the gas stove on after hear the news about Oswald and Hermann's pact.  Later, she lights a cigarette and the house blows up, presumably killing Maria & Hermann.

The character of Maria Braun & Schygulla's portrayal of her are stupendous.  It's said that the characters represent different aspects of (West) German society in the post-war period.  Braun represents the German people's sordid past, ability to put it behind them and ruthless ambition for financial security in post-war era.  However, viewing the film in that manner lessens the beauty of it.  The Marriage of Maria Braun succeeds without having recognize metaphors.  Maria Braun is like a heroine in some 18th century novel who goes from mousy to desperate to confident.  The rise of Maria Braun would be uplifting if not for her casual cruelty and cold ambition.


Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was also a tremendous film.   Emmi (Brigitte Mira), is an elderly cleaning woman.  Walking home one day, she ducks into bar to escape a rainstorm.  She encounters a foreign world in the bar - Arabic music and expatriate community of Arab speaking immigrants.  One of them, Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem) is goaded into asking Emmi for a dance.

An unlikely friendship and romance develops between Emmi & Ali.  In addition to their ethnic differences, Ali is 20+ years Emmi's junior. As the film shows, it is Emmi & Ali's friends' reaction which is the biggest impediment.  Ali shacks up at Emmi's place (she is a widow) which draws the ire of the landlord about violating the terms of the lease.  Impulsively and fearful of losing Ali who is the sole source of happiness in her life, Emmi announces to the landlord that she & Ali are about to get married and plan to live there as man & wife.  Ali doesn't bat an eye and agrees to the indirect marriage proposal.

Emmi's neighbors, co-workers and children (Fassbinder plays Emmi's son-in-law) react with anger & contempt to her relationship with a foreigner.  Emmi & Ali take a vacation to escape the hostility.  Upon their return, they are welcomed back without any of the previous ill will.  However, this is more for convenience than changes in attitudes.  The shopkeeper wants Emmi's business, the daughter wants Emmi's babysitting services, the co-workers need Emmi covering their shifts, etc.

Emmi begins to tacitly adopt racist attitudes of her previous tormentors.  She objectifies and belittles Ali in front of others, she refuses to prepare or eat couscous because it is a foreign food, etc.  In response, Ali turns to the Barbara (Barbara Valentin), the female bartender at the bar he first met Emmi.  Apparently having been intimate with her before, Ali increasingly spends time with Barbara until Emmi becomes concerned about his absence.  She shows up at the garage he works at and Ali pretends not to know her.  This implies Ali has kept the relationship a secret from his co-workers.

Later, Emmi returns to the bar where Ali is drinking with friends.  Barbara puts the same song on the jukebox as when they first met.  Emmi & Ali dance again and is seems as if they will reconcile except Ali collapses to the floor.  We next see Ali in the hospital.  His ulcer, which has been acting up peridocially throughout the film, is the cause.  The doctor tells Emmi that immigrants frequently suffer from ulcers due to the discrimination they face and although surgery will fix this ulcer, Ali will likely develop another in a few months.  Emmi says she will try to prevent it from happening.  Given their history, it's ambiguous if she will be successful.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a wonderful film about a romance which defies expectations and faces considerable obstacles.  Strong performances by Brigitte Mira & El Hedi Ben Salem but the backstory of the actors is also interesting.  Salem was Fassbinder gay lover despite Salem being married to a woman at the time.  His only movie credits are in Fassbinder films.  Later, he stabbed some bar patrons in a drunken frenzy and was deported to France where he committed suicide.  Barbara Valentin, whom I found extremely sexy, would go on to be Freddie Mercury's lover in the 1980s despite his seemingly open homosexuality.

The Marriage of Maria Braun and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which were the first two films I saw in the Fassbinder set of series, were also my two favorite films of the nine I saw.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was jagged little pill of a film.  Based on Fassbinder's play, the film takes place in the fashionable apartment of Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), a successful fashion designer.  Karin Thimm, a friend of Petra's cousin, arrives after several years abroad.  Von Kant, twice married with a daughter who is off to boarding school or university, is immediately attracted to Karin (Hanna Schygulla), whose husband has stayed overseas.  Petra suggests Karin model clothes and pledges to help by using her contacts within the industry.

Six months pass and Karin is living at Petra's place.  I should note that Petra has a live-in assistant named Marlene (Irm Hermann) who functions as Petra's assistant designer, secretary, hostess, maid and whipping boy.  Marlene doesn't say a word throughout the film but occasionally her facial expressions give a glimpse into her inner thoughts.  Anyway, Petra & Karin's sexual relationship which was red hot at the beginning is cooling off after six months.  Karin's ambivalence and cruelty undermine their relationship.  She has just stayed out all night, is evasive about whether she slept with a man and reveals that she is still in contact with her husband who is now in Zurich.  Karin had told Petra she was planning on divorcing her husband but now asks Petra for money for a flight to Zurich to be reunited.

Karin's reconciliation with her husband sends Petra into a drunken tailspin.  On her birthday, Petra's cousin, mother & daughter come to visit but Petra is most anxious for Karin to make an appearance.  As she becomes more drunk, her acrimony becomes more pointed.  Although she does receive a phone call from Karin, it is clear that the relationship is least as far as Karin is concerned.  Petra apologizes but the damage to her friends and family has been done as evidenced by Marlene's packing her suitcase and leaving as the film ends.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant never strays far from its theatrical roots.  The action never leaves von Kant's apartment so the effect is claustrophobic.  These three women are locked in a dysfunctional codependence.  The older, successful woman is smitten with the younger woman who eventually gains the upper hand against the older woman.  All the while, the masochist looks on and is forced to watch someone supplant her.  It's easy to imagine Marlene starting the same way as Karin but Karin's mercenary streak takes her in a different direction -  the casual sadist vs. the earnest masochist.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is Fassbinder's chamber piece cum Southern Gothic à la 1970s European aesthetics.

I also enjoyed Fear of Fear which starred Margit Carstensen as Margot a housewife and mother of two who develops a fear of being alone with her newborn.  Her self-absorbed husband and busybody in-laws don't help matters.  Ultimately prescribed Valium, Margot becomes addicted and unable to get her doctor prescribe more, she resorts to sleeping with the pharmacist in order to get the pills.  This is just the most obvious step in Margot's descent which I took to be as much as an indictment of the isolating effects of modern society as the story of Margot's inner turmoil.  Unable to love her children or feel a connection to anyone, Margot's psychological issues are manifestations of her isolation.  Packaged as a melodrama, Fear of Fear is really an observation of the human condition.  That could be said of all of Fassbinder's films but unfortunately, I found the other films in the series nearly inscrutable.


I've had a sense of deja vu with Querelle since seeing it.  I recently read Patti Smith's Just Kids and discovered that Robert Mapplethorpe was a fan of Genet's novel.  I also ran across it in an article I recently read which I cannot recall.

Brad Davis (who also starred in Midnight Express which plays at the Castro Theater on April 17) stars as Querelle, a sailor with bisexual tendencies.  A murderer, when Querelle's ship pulls into Brest, he visits a brothel run by Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau).  Querelle's brother Robert happens to be Lysiane's lover while Lysiane's husband, Nono, likes to play a dice game with prospective paramours of his wife.  If they win, they can proceed.  If they lose, they have to submit to being sodomized Nono.  I think that at this point, I started to lose interest.

The sets of Querelle looked artificial and the plot seemed secondary.  Instead, Querelle seemed more of a homosexual manifesto.  Moreau belts out a soulful rendition of Each Man Kills The Things He Love and I don't recall much else.  I am curious about Genet's novel.

Effi Briest was based on a novel by Theodor Fontane.  Hanna Schygulla looks radiant as Effi, a woman whose adultery is revealed years later by letters she has kept.  Her husband, a baron, has to challenge the man to a duel which cause a scandal and ultimately cost Effi her daughter and her family.  I'm sure there were some strong criticisms of a patriarchal society and the foolishness of honor but I could quite concentrate enough to enjoy Effi Briest.


I don't have the energy to write up the other films properly.  I didn't really enjoy them or take much away from them.  Given Fassbinder's reputation, I feel as though my inability to appreciate several of them reflect poorly on myself.  My only excuse is that I have hard time concentrating as I get older.  I cannot watch serious film after serious film on consecutive nights and fully comprehend and appreciate what I'm watching.  I remember being cinematically fatigued in the period between Thanksgiving and mid-December.  I came down with a bad cough a week before Xmas.  I wonder if the illness was sapping my energy before the symptoms became obvious.

The PFA screened a washed out print of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?  I think that may have been the worst 35 mm print I've ever scene at PFA (but not ever).  The film required tremendous concentration to pick up on the subtle signals that Herr. R was going to run amok.

The Merchant of Four Seasons is about Hans (Hans Hirschmuller) a fruit seller with a nagging wife and unloving mother.  He has a heart attack and his old army buddy comes to himself to Hans' wife and business.  Depressed by the turn of events, he drinks himself to death.  Then we are treated to Hans' life as it could have been if he had stayed on the police force.  Hans was fired when his superior walked in on him receiving fellatio from a criminal suspect.  It was a very bleak film which made it more difficult to pay attention.

Despair did feature a strong performance by Dirk Bogarde.  He plays a chocolatier give to dissociative states.  He's a Russian in 1930s Germany, his wife is cuckolding him with her fatuous cousin and he finds a vagrant who he thinks looks like himself.  He murders the vagrant assuming people will think it is him.  That way, he can walk away from his life.  Absurd and with noir elements, my opinion of Despair is rising as I write these words and recall portions of the film.

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