What makes a man do the things he does? Why do we choose one second over another? Every day men will make hundreds of tiny decisions and thus life. We decide to stop to drink from a fountain. We choose to think briefly about religion. We choose which character will live or die. There must be a reason for all of them, otherwise why would we make them. We make these decisions every minute. These thoughts come to me when I listen to music and hear all the ways the music could have gone. When I hear Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. When paintings show women one way and not another. These thoughts come to me after I watch movies of a type. Mostly foreign movies, mostly German movies. Mostly Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies.
by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
For a good half-dozen of his staggering output, I treated Fass like one of my cinematic nemeses; I felt ok writing off him as too strange for his own skin. He made strange movies and he made straight-forward movies, but they were all about the same stylistically. Slow, languorous, sexual, iconoclastic, claustrophobic, pensive... It seemed that until about 1978 his movies were almost always too stifling for me to sit through. He seemed to care more about the thoughts and images he was suggesting than getting a natural performance out of any of his actors (I hadn't discovered Bresson yet, reader. Pity me.) He frequently cast himself or one of a few of his stock players as people with no control over their circumstances. Men taken advantage of by those with power, women who felt old and dry because of their oppressive social surroundings. His movies were all very similar in a few ways. Their pace: running is a rarity in his films and no one speaks quickly when they can take their time. Their style; the outrageous fashion statements and bizarre characterizations. People cry, kiss, give monologues to no one, demand insane things from those below them. To me he was like the Klaus Nomi of film; the few who know him love him and defend him, but they also tend to read too much into his insanity. Not that there aren't things to be found in the canon they leave behind. I could complain about the hours that felt like days spent watching his movies hoping desperately for something to leap out of the malaise and prove Fassbinder's worth as a filmmaker, but a more interesting course of action is to ask why. Why do people love him? Not so interesting, too broad. Why did he do what he did? Why are there barely more than 60 lines of dialogue in The American Soldier? Why move from the completely unique style of the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant to the neorealist social drama of Fox and his Friends? It doesn't make any sense how one man could be as motivated as he was (43 feature films in 26 years, I'm not sure anyone but Joe D'Amato or Takashi Miike has matched his productivity while still leaving so distinct a stamp) could have made such lackluster examinations of the world he lived in.
He was a troubled man. He was a homosexual with two ex-wives who used production times to sleep with his leading men. His movies did scratch the surface of his problems (I feel like Fox & his Friends was as close as we come to Fassbinder the man). He tackled just about every dramatic genre there was and did his part to question (if not piss on) their assumptions. He often challenged the racist attitudes of early american films (while still perversely paying tribute to them) as in his disturbing western Whity, and his Douglas Sirk inspired melodrama Fear Eats the Soul. Learning of his admiration and later support for Sirk did a lot to warm me up to him. Fass punishes the womanizing heroes of his noir cycles (and his audiences by making them as slow and bleak as possible) and makes sure to give them sexually charged motives from both sides of the id. He spent so much time making tiny films with total control that when money started flowing in and expectations mounted there was bound to be change. Sweeping, beautiful changes.
Fassbinder loved the book Berlin Alexanderplatz for a long time before he made his film. He chose the name of its hero Franz Biberkopf, as the name of the man he plays in Fox & His Friends, the only time he built a film around himself. He used Berlin as a vehicle to display every complicated emotional hang-up he had ever experienced. He also cast just about everyone of his favorite actors. If El Hedi Ben Salem hadn't been in a french prison, I'm sure he'd have been in there too. It was a labor of love unlike any other. It took a year to complete and the finished film is nearly 16 hours long. It is among the longest movies ever made (yet somehow it feels shorter than The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant). It follows the life of massive, abrupt but sweet-hearted Franz Biberkopf after he is released from prison (his four year stint, we learn, was the product of his beating his girlfriend to death). He experiences unemployment, many girlfriends, deceitful acquaintances, rejection, highs, lows, insanity, love, and hatred. I was struck watching it realizing that this man had so much to offer the world but waited until this time in his life to finally let it all out. I imagined Maximilian Schell's harried lawyer Hans Rolfe in Judgment at Nuremberg "I want to leave the German people...with a shred of dignity." There has never been a more complete depiction of Weimar-era Germany. But that's not why I love this movie. Anyone could make a film about the horrors of living in Germany (Ingmar Bergman did it with David Carradine in The Serpent's Egg, and if that bizarre-o-world collaboration could yield results, then anything can), but not everyone can pour their heart into reels of film like Fassbinder did in 1980.
Any seasoned art fan can tell you about the many reappraisals they've experienced. In general, they're personal, chance encounters with one piece of an artists oeuvre. A boyfriend recommends a record, you spy a photograph that clashes with the pieces around it. Some people will tell you it happened when they saw Jeff Tweedy's breakdown in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, or one of the thousands of Rolling Stones documentaries out there. I can tell you what made me want to give Rainer another chance was seeing the picture of him making Berlin Alexanderplatz. I'd seen it before on the Criterion Collection webpage above the New German Cinema page, but I had no idea it was him. I'd seen him in Fox, Whity, and Fear Eats the Soul and a few other of his movies and he looked...well, he kind of looked like me. He had a pale, round face, he was kinda short and a little out of shape and he seemed meek and unimposing. I felt bad for him in most of the roles he'd given himself. But then I saw that picture again with his name in the margins. What had happened? I knew he'd died prematurely (a drug overdose in 1982), but that didn't really explain how he'd gone from the awkward chubby guy in 1975 to the gruff, arthouse biker staring provocatively at the camera in 1980. At the end of his life, Fassbinder was a mess of a man. His lover would hang himself in prison the same year.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is a beautiful film, one of the thousand or so best. The cinematography is incredible (proto-West Wing sunbathing aplenty), the characters are fascinating, the music is perfect, the production design is remarkable, the acting is phenomenal, there isn't much wrong with the movie. It flows unlike any other Fassbinder film (which in a movie that already takes a day to watch is pretty fucking important). If I had to cite one thing that I was displeased with at the time, it was the epilogue. The movie is told in thirteen one hour chapters and a two hour epilogue. The epilogue is Fassbinder's id run wild as it never had before. Here we see the beautiful, logical, colorful narrative we've been following so closely for the last day and a half dissolve into piles of naked bodies, brothels, satanic boxing matches, biblical judgment, quarreling angels, and all kinds of other madness. Not that it isn't effective, but, I feel like there was some way to explain the madness of Franz Biberkopf better than playing Elvis and Kraftwerk in the 1920s. It's like he had spent so long making this serene movie and needed at the last to take a knife to it. To slash his canvas, as the saying goes. Was this inevitable, that someone as self-destructive as Fassbinder would unhinge the story. He couldn't get through one film without harping on bisexuality and zombie-like sexuality. Before this point, Berlin was one of the most thoughtful films I'd ever seen. It still is, but I wish he hadn't slipped up like that and felt the need to show Gottfried John kissing his cellmate or Gunter Lamprecht in boxing shorts (he looks like Tor Johnson). He needed to squeeze his caberet in the back door. But the more I've thought on it, the more I see: it wasn't his until the epilogue. The man may have vanished behind a beard, sunglasses and a leather jacket, but he was still the chubby kid from those early features, and that kid saw the world just so. I can't begrudge him these final moments to himself - they are his soul bared.
Whoever that guy is at the beginning of I Am Trying To Break Your Heart who says that ambition doesn't equal record sales couldn't have been more right. Berlin was a cult favorite when it came out, and has since disappeared. I don't think it ever got a vhs release because of its excessive length, and it appeared on American television exactly twice, in the 80s. It has to this day never been publicly shown from start to finish without interruption. I'm not sure what Rainer would have to say about this. He had to know he wasn't making Gone With The Wind (though I don't think I need to tell you which I'd prefer to watch), but still, the fact that there is a Rainer Werner Fassbinder Society and not one of them has paid to show the man's best film in its entirety in a movie theatre is a little disheartening. I can sit through anything (Female Vampire without once hitting fast forward. All of Carl Theodor Dreyer's films. Any DW Griffith film you put in front of me. All of Ed Wood's films. Gamera vs. anyone. 1900, anyone? Raymond Bernard's Les Miserables. Length or quality mean little to me. Watching movies is just what I do), but, I feel like there's gotta be someone out there who liked it as much as I did. This picture below is of him in Fox. He's the one with his eyes open. The photo below this one is of him making Berlin.
The reason I get so upset about this is because after I saw the tole that making films to the sounds of crickets had on Fassbinder, I questioned my future. If the reality of making movies or just trying to live as an artist could drive a man to this kind of devastation, what chance do I have? He might have been self-destructive, but no one had ever managed to put a leash on this guy and his work. Say what you will, his films are entirely his own. I respect him immensely even if I can take or leave a lot of his work and obviously recognize his contribution to the world I live in, but more than anything I feel some kind of connection to the guy. He was emotionally confused, clearly very awkward, stylistically alienating, and something of a pariah. Berlin Alexanderplatz is the work of a brilliant mind and his visual transformation is what confirmed this. People feel this way, I think, when they hear about Ian Curtis' suicide. What made this man so haunted? What made his world so dark that his music sounds like darkness and that made him end his life? Why did he do what he did? Why do we keep going back? Their lives frighten and excite us and their art does twice that. I'll be giving Fass and his films another chance from now on.