The subject matter of these films, eight of which are collected here in The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 2, are certainly still close to the filmmaker’s heart and his own personal experiences, with a strong core of similar themes elaborated on throughout. Fear and incomprehension lead to suspicion and intolerance of relationships that deviate from the social norm in films such as Fear Eats The Soul (1974), Fontane Effi Breist (1974) and Fox And His Friends where the central characters suffer for violating race, class and social conventions. The nature of family relationships, their influence on the individual and their fostering of small-minded attitudes, demonstrated as far back as Katzelmacher (1969) are seen here as contributing to the formation of these pernicious social attitudes and behaviour, and are most brilliantly realised in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).
Inevitably, contravention of these social laws rarely brings happiness to the individuals in question in these films. The social and emotional inequities are such that the course of events must often be difficult, if not insurmountable, and inevitably with the insufferable demands placed on the individual to conform to middle-class family values - such as with the housewife in Fear Of Fear - the results are often tragic, ending in depression, violent acts and death. It’s not enough for Fassbinder however to just depict these inequities, he also shows how those people in such vulnerable positions can be ruthlessly exploited – financially as in Fox And His Friends, and emotionally as in Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven.
Fassbinder’s brilliance and strength in these films – even more so than in his earlier films - is in how he himself exploits this highly emotive material and melodramatic situations and endows them with a heartfelt simplicity that is reminiscent of Douglas Sirk – still a major influence on the director – but applied in a manner that is particularly relevant and appropriate to German society.
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 2 is released in the UK by Arrow. Volume 2 is an eight disc set covering the director’s latter period from 1973 to 1982. The films included here are:
Fear Eats The Soul (1974)
Fontane Effi Breist (1974)
Fox And His Friends (1975)
Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven (1975)
Fear Of Fear (1975)
Satan’s Brew (1976)
Chinese Roulette (1976)
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
Reviews of each of the individual films can be found on the following pages 2, 3 and 4.
The majority of the discs are barebones, perhaps only with a trailer. Consequently the shorter films - Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven, Fear Of Fear and Chinese Roulette are on single-layer discs, while the longer features or those containing substantial extra features are on dual-layer DVD-9 discs. The set is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Most of the films in the collection are presented at 1.33:1 rather than the 1.66:1 that might be expected for theatrical presentation, but the image in all such cases looks opened-up to full-frame. There is consequently a little extra headroom, but it’s not excessive and, as Fassbinder often filmed for television, full-frame was probably allowed for in compositions. All of the colour films in the set look most impressive, colourful and deeply saturated. Most show excellent detail and clarity with very few marks at all on any of the prints. Shadow detail may not be quite perfect, but blacks are deep and solid and – all progressively encoded – there is fine stability in each of the films, with only the occasional flicker of digital compression artefacts. There is a touch of softness in most of the prints, most notably in Fear of Fear, which is quite fuzzy in long shots. Noise-reduction artefacts are evident occasionally in The Marriage of Maria Braun. Fontane Effi Breist’s black-and-white image is well-toned and clear. It’s pleasantly soft rather than crisp, but it suits the soft, delicacy of the film’s stylisations. There is the occasional flickering in brightness, but few noticeable marks or artefacts.
The audio tracks aren’t particularly notable, but aren’t intended to be. They are often quite functional, in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but clear with a rounded tone and little in the way of background noise, hiss or distortion. There is a minor break-up of sound on my copy of Fontane Effi Breist at around the 46-minute mark, but it is brief and doesn’t lose any dialogue.
English subtitles are optional on all films. They are in a white font and can be clearly read through each of the films.
Trailers are included for Fear Eats The Soul (3:03), Fox and his Friends (3:15), Satan’s Brew (2:55), Chinese Roulette (2:55) and The Marriage of Maria Braun - several of which give away almost the entire plot of the films.
Fassbinder in Hollywood (57:05)
The direction Fassbinder’s films were moving in have given much speculation to the kind of work he would have done in America. This excellent documentary by Robert Fischer makes use of recent interviews with Wim Wenders, Michael Ballhaus, Uli Lommell and Hanna Schygulla to reflect on the influence of American movies on Fassbinder and his interest in making films there.
Life Stories: A Conversation with Rainer Werner Fassbinder (48:29)
Outside of his films, there can be no better examination of the man himself however than hearing it described in his own words. This German interview from 1978 delves deeply into Fassbinder’s personal life, his childhood, his relationship with his parents, his marriage, his relationship with his actors and how being famous affected him.
The City Tramp (11:27)
Fassbinder’s first film is a short made in 1966 about a homeless man who finds a gun on the street, but is unable to either get rid of it or use it. It’s a competent piece of work.
Todd Hayes Interview (15:12)
Interviewed in 2005, the director of the the Sirk inspired Far From Heaven compares Sirk and Fassbinder’s approaches to the melodrama.
A nice way of presenting filmographies of 15 of Fassbinder’s regular actors, this gives brief biographies and shows stills of the characters they played in many of his films.
Fassbinder Frauen – The Women of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (25:21)
This is a compendium of common scenes and themes featuring the women in Fassbinder’s films singing, being glamorous, hysterical, abused and abandoned. It’s a slight piece, but quite watchable, though clearly little more than a retrospective promotional piece (and indeed it has credits for the French Pompidou Centre).
Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1977 (29:09)
Interviewed in 1977 by Florian Hopf, Fassbinder talks about his approach to filmmaking and theatre, being a German director and where he stands with the current generation of filmmakers. He is seen on the set of Despair (borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg) filming a scene with Dirk Bogart.
The Little Chaos (9:20)
Starring Fassbinder himself striking gangster poses, the director’s second short film from 1966 shows again the early influence of film noir and French New Wave films. Two guys and a girl trying to pull door-to-door scams decide to use more “Hollywood” measures to make money. It’s all about living life to the movie dream.
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 2 claims to cover the director’s films from 1973 – 82, which is a bit of a cheat, since the earliest film here is from 1974 and the latest 1979. Nevertheless, although it doesn’t represent the final period of Fassbinder’s career – and there are some significant works there - it certainly captures his very best work, amassing an impressive set of films between the career highs of Fear Eats The Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun. That period is also characterised by a great deal of diversity, from period costume drama, Sirkian social and personal melodrama, through to historical drama. Viewed in isolation, an appreciation of many of the films here can be difficult without knowing anything about their context, the mind behind them and the development of the themes in them from film to film. With fine transfers and good supplemental features, the selection of films in this set, when viewed alongside the earlier The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1, provide a very accessible opportunity to view the work of one of the major directors of 20th Century German cinema.
Reviews of each of the films in the set can be found on the following pages 2, 3 and 4.
Colourfully confronting race issues and hypocrisy in a family melodrama, the spirit of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows looms large over Fear Eats The Soul. Being a Fassbinder film however, the transgressive issues are pushed even further, depicting a relationship between an elderly German cleaning lady, Emmi Kurowski (Brigitte Mira), who was once part of the Nazi Party during the war, and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a young Moroccan Arab, an immigrant working in a garage.
It’s an unlikely combination, but it’s intended to be, designed to draw out the deepest prejudices in the characters from all levels of the German society, and will even have the most liberal of viewers questioning their own responses to the situation. “It’s unnatural, it won’t work” says a prostitute in the ethnic bar where Ali and Emmi meet, “Of course it won’t work – so what?” replies the bar owner. And if there is some jealousy in those statements, they are at least both true, but whether the relationship would fail on its own terms or because of outside influence and prejudice is less clear.
Fassbinder doesn’t make it easy on the viewer either, throwing out a provocative situation and adopting a neutral stance that works extremely well with the heightened melodrama that unfolds. There’s no attempt to depict either Emmi or Ali as perfect models – they are human and have failings and even the nature of their relationship is questionable, as the earlier version of the story related in Fassbinder’s The American Soldier would indicate. Is there genuine love there or is their union a selfish action on each other’s part, with ulterior motives? Or is there something provocative in the gesture, delighting in shaking up conformist attitudes? Whether that is the intention or not, it certainly achieves just such an effect, splitting families, friendships and working relationships. More than just simply using the situation however to just show racist attitudes in German society, Fassbinder goes deeper to the root of such prejudices, showing the selfishness and hypocrisy and the all-consuming fear that lies beneath. The real dangers don’t come from outside – it’s the bitterness, hatred and fear inside that represent the real sickness in modern society.
Fontane Effi Breist (1974)
“He’ll say nice things, an affectionate word perhaps, and I shall sit and listen with guilt weighing on my soul. Yes, it is there, but does it weigh on my soul? No, it doesn’t and that’s what frightens me about myself. What weighs on me is something different; fear, a mortal dread that all will be discovered”.
An adaptation of Theodore Fontane’s 19th Century classic – adapted to the screen many times in Germany - Effi Breist makes for an intriguing companion piece to Fear Eats The Soul. A young woman married to a cold and unemotional older man, Baron Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenck) and left alone in the stagnant provincial estate at Kessin, Effi (Hanna Schygulla) has an affair with Major Crampas (Ulli Lommel) while her husband, a District Councillor, is away on his frequent business trips. As her soliloquy above suggests, it not the defiance of conventional morality that troubles her about her affair and causes her torment as much as her failure to understand the correct behaviour and feel the emotions society expects of her. When the affair is uncovered, her fears appear to be justified and she is alienated from her husband, child and even her own parents.
Like Fear Eats The Soul, Effi Breist looks at the restrictions placed on individual expression by society, the expectations towards conformity and the harsh treatment received by anyone who deviates from those rules. A period piece, filmed in black-and white with most of the action curiously taking place off-screen, the characters mostly talking around events, in letters, in thoughts, in narration and in gothic-script intertitles – it’s a very literary adaptation and can appear very stiff, formal and unemotional. It’s not really so different from Fassbinder’s contemporary films however, which are similarly unemotional, neutral and deliberately paced. It may seem very slow, but the points expressed chime perfectly with Fassbinder’s work and the ending is magnificent – low-key, but pertinent and still packing an emotional force.
Fox and his Friends (1975)
Switching the female roles for male ones, Fox and his Friends becomes perhaps even more direct than The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in its depiction of the exploitative nature of relationships, particularly inequitable ones. Although the unevenness of the relationship here is most clearly evident in the difference of social class between Fox and Eugen, in reality the tragedy arises out of the fact that one person loves more than the other.
Despite the fact that the police have closed down the fairground where Franz Biberkopf (Fassbinder) works as “Fox the Speaking Head”, Franz believes it is his lucky week. If only he had 5 marks to buy a lottery ticket. In his search to get the money he needs, Franz meets Max (Karlheinz Böhm) and is introduced to his circle of wealthy young homosexuals. Although he does indeed win half a million Deutschmarks on the lottery, “Fox” doesn’t however fit into the new circles he is mixing in. He is in love with Eugen (Peter Chatel), the junior manager of a printing firm, but it’s clear that Eugen is using the young man’s new-found wealth to help the business out of some financial difficulties.
The blatant financial exploitation of Franz is spelt out a little obviously and heavy-handedly, as are the embarrassing social gaffes the naïve and gauche young man makes at expensive restaurants and in front of Eugen’s family and friends – and the predictable outcome is never in doubt. As an actor furthermore, Fassbinder is still far from convincing. It’s hard to see why his character would have been drawn to someone like Eugen in the first place – they have nothing at all in common – and Fassbinder is not able to fully show that there is real love there. When he later confronts his lover, claiming that he has changed, you wonder what he is talking about - Eugen has been nothing but exploitative and embarrassed by Franz’s presence from the beginning. Love, as they say, is blind however – and you can sense that essential truth come through. More than that, there is a feeling that the story and themes are genuine and come directly from the heart, Fassbinder completely letting his guard down perhaps for the first time. All that is here however, Fassbinder would brilliantly surpass - artistically and personally - in In A Year of Thirteen Moons (1978).
Continued on Page 3.
“Everybody’s out for something. Once you realise that, everything becomes simple”, Mother Küsters tells her son Ernst at one point during Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven, and indeed exploitation is certainly the theme of the Fassbinder’s film, but things aren’t really all that simple.
In Frankfurt, an employee goes berserk in a factory, beats the son of the owner to death and then kills himself. The man is Hermann Küsters, an ordinary working man, and his actions are greeted with incomprehension by his family. The press question his wife Mother Küsters (Brigitte Mira) and her family and end up publishing a scurrilous article that presents a distorted version of the truth – depicting the “factory murderer” as a drunkard who would often beat his children. Mother Küsters is horrified, and when her Communist neighbours offer sympathy for her husband’s death and the nature of his predicament - misguided though his actions were - she feels inclined to join them in order to restore his good name. She soon finds that there are many other people - including her own daughter Corrina (Ingrid Caven), a singer in a nightclub - who are willing to exploit her husband’s actions for their own ends.
Fassbinder depicts the increasingly bizarre and melodramatic developments in his customary clear and straightforward way, but there are several elements that make this more interesting and not quite as simplistic as it appears. The film has two endings, a hysterical unfilmed ending that is told only in captions and a much neater US ending. Fassbinder is clearly aware that the film’s subject is inevitably going to lead the film into exploitative territory and brilliantly plays on this with both endings. The reaction of the press however is another interesting element that is too easily dismissed as intrusion and exploitation. Inevitably, their search for answers in the Küsters household reveals nothing significant and the story is inevitably sensationalised, but Fassbinder knows there is something in these everyday household activities and relationships that holds the key to dysfunctional behaviour in German society. It’s something that he himself has personally experienced and it underpins the subjects explored in many of his films. The answers are no clearer here, but the underlying causes are scarcely more brilliantly examined.
Fear of Fear (1975)
Illness and dysfunction caused by family relationships and middle-class values is also the subject matter of Fear of Fear. Although, made as a TV movie, the treatment is perhaps not quite as graphic and hard-hitting as a typical Fassbinder film might be, there is at the same time no flinching from the harsh realities of the deep depression engendered by this lifestyle.
While pregnant with her second child, Margot Standte (Margit Carstensen), a regular middle-class housewife, becomes subject to sudden waves of panic and indefinable fears. She continues to suffer from the same symptoms after giving birth, behaving hysterically and confusing those around her, particularly her rather proper in-laws, who think she is going crazy. Gradually, Margot starts projecting those fears out onto those around her, becoming hypersensitive, seeing threats in everyone she meets, but particularly men. She tries various means to keep the panic attacks at bay, using prescription drugs, alcohol and even having an extra-marital affair, but her problems continue to mount.
There’s certainly an element of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper about Fear of Fear (the walls of the Standte apartment are indeed yellow), as bored housewife Margot sinks into the depression when made to feel that she is inadequate in her role as a good wife and mother by her interfering relatives in a neighbourhood of twitching net curtains (the normally sympathetic Brigitte Mira fabulously demonic here, forming a terrifying team with a typically prim and prissy Irm Hermann). Her fears however are shown to stem from her inability to fit into this social role model, and that clearly is something Fassbinder could identify with. Reportedly victim himself to irrational fears of death which cause insomnia and accounting for his workaholic filmmaking pace, the methods for blocking out those problems are also ones that the director has experienced for himself. Consequently, although the film is slight and the subject delivered simply, it is remarkably effective and authentic – the rippling camera effects and the anticipatory trill of woodwind that accompanies each of Margot’s attacks serving to deeply unsettle the viewer in the same way.
Satan’s Brew (1976)
The subject matter and themes of Satan’s Brew remain close to much of Fassbinder’s work, and are very much self-absorbed – pondering the state of mind of an artist going though a crisis, creatively and in his personal life, using and mistreating those around him. Unlike the self-important treatment of this subject in Beware of a Holy Whore however, Satan’s Brew plays the subject as an absurd knock-about comedy and - although it will certainly not be to everyone’s taste – it at least seems to get to the essence of a crazy lifestyle completely out of touch from normal reality in a much more entertaining manner.
Walter Kranz (Kurt Raab) is a pompous, self-absorbed, arrogant and mediocre poet. Desperately short of finances, but unable to deliver any new work to his publisher or get any further money from the friends he already owes money to, he finally manages to persuade a rich mistress to sign him a cheque before he kills her in an kinky sex-game. Back home, looking for creative inspiration, he hires a whore to do some “research” for a book of interviews, but all he is able to come up with is a lyrical passage that bears more than a passing resemblance to a poem by Stefan George. Finding himself relating to the work of a conservative German classicist – and a homosexual moreover – plunges Walter into a creative as well as an identity crisis.
This ridiculous state of affairs is played out with unrestrained abandon, with absurdist humour, explicit nudity and all manner of sexual perversions, including a character who wants to have sex with flies. Walter Kranz is of course a parody of Fassbinder himself - a monster out of control, neglectful of his family and those around him, abusing them, gathering a bunch of acolytes and paying them to validate his indulgent work. In a rare moment of reflection he realises the absurdity of his lifestyle and that somehow he has to change his life, but so detached is he from the real-world that Walter has no idea how to get back there.
It’s wonderful to see a director like Fassbinder send himself up so uproariously like this (and in a manner far more original than imitating 8½) - but not everyone will see the joke. Seen on its own with no context of Fassbinder’s real-life circumstances or understanding of the satire of German culture and behaviour, I imagine Satan’s Brew could appear very confusing and irritating. There’s certainly nothing profound here, but one can’t deny the marvellous verve and commitment with which Fassbinder and his cast play out the grotesque comedy of lifestyle out of control.
Continued on Page 4.
In Chinese Roulette, Fassbinder again examines family relationships, the harm people in them do to themselves and each other, and at the same time creates a dark and bitter satire of the German middle class. The manner in which the true face of these horrible personalities is revealed is perhaps more conventional than is common in a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, but the party game of Chinese Roulette is at least an apt means by which their cruel toying with people’s lives and emotions is exposed.
While his wife is away on a business meeting in Milan, and he is supposed to be away on a business trip to Oslo, Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson) meets up with his Parisian girlfriend Irène (Anna Karina) to spend the weekend at the family’s country manor. Arriving there however, he finds that his wife Ariane (Margit Carstensen) has taken advantage of his absence to spend the weekend there herself with her lover Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). It’s a situation that the manor servants Kast (Brigitte Mira) and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler) usually ensure never occurs, but the embarrassing encounter has been engineered by the Christ’s disabled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober). Believing her parents are responsible for her being crippled and intending to hold them to account for their actions, Angela turns up at the manor with her governess Tramitz (Macha Méril). Her presence makes an already awkward situation almost intolerable.
The stage having been set, the airing of grievances between these grotesque characters is played out through a game of Chinese Roulette, a parlour game that allows people’s true feelings to be revealed through oblique and often cruel comparisons. Inevitably dark secrets are revealed and there is much bitterness vented – but there is effectively as much revealed about the characters who make the accusations or defences as there is about the mystery person who has been selected to take the brunt of criticisms. It’s all a little self-consciously staged however, the underlying awkwardness of the characters – particularly the underused Anna Karina and Ulli Lommel whose characters are reluctantly caught up in the Christ family’s power games - tending to drag the pace and tone of the film down. For a Fassbinder film, it’s all a little too structured and stagy, but Michael Ballhaus does wonders with the cinematography, using mirrors as a reflection of the characters’ personalities being revealed, making the whole thing a bit more visually interesting and meaningful.
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
Having delineated the nature of the German people, men and women, their attitudes towards the family, class, race, love, sex and their exploitation of each other through their differences in his preceding films – albeit in a very personal manner – Fassbinder would examine many of the same issues from a historical perspective in The Marriage of Maria Braun - again in a highly individual way, viewing the reconstruction of post-war Germany as a Douglas Sirk melodrama.
In one of the most memorable openings of any movie, the wall blows out of the Berlin registry office where Maria (Hanna Schygulla) is marrying German Army officer Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), the city falling apart around them as the allied forces move in at the close of the war. Crawling through the rubble to ensure that their marriage licence is signed, stamped and authenticated, in the first scene of the film you can see the courage, determination, tenacity and pragmatism that will ensure that Maria will meet the overwhelming odds that will confront her in the future. The scene also instils a sense of melodrama that is borne out in the practicalities of having to survive in a destroyed, US-occupied city, married to a man she has known for all of half-a-day and a night and who very well may now be dead, like many others. Working in a bar for US troops, the bar maid tells her “Love’s only a feeling. It’s not the truth... The truth is what you have in your belly when you’re hungry. Feelings are what you have between your legs, like an itch when you scratch it.”.
It’s a distinction that Maria Braun keeps in mind in the long journey ahead, doing whatever is necessary to scratch that itch and fill the bellies of her family, preferring to make miracles rather than wait for them to happen. Certainly one of the best scripts Fassbinder has worked with, The Marriage of Maria Braun is strong on drama, but performed matter-of-factly with no over-emphasis, the direction matching the tone and temperament of the subject. In Maria Braun is the perfect summation of the German spirit - the necessary sacrifice and pragmatism that was needed to rebuild the country in the post-WWII years. And in it you can find the cold, ruthless quality that this attitude has also engendered – one that can be found in Fassbinder’s other films. In The Marriage of Maria Braun all those themes come together and reach their apotheosis.