Between now and Christmastime, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is hosting a retrospective called Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. One of the generation of German directors that produced Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, Fassbinder grew up in the aftermath of WWII, absorbing the instability of the time and place. Accordingly, his films are filled with paranoia, despair and corruption.
Fassbinder’s is a Germany pressed in on all sides, a Germany of cluttered offices, cramped apartments, narrow alleyways and windowless dive bars. The stories themselves unfurl through the constricted channels available to their characters, hedged in by the shame, distrust and greed that pervade the national character. The fashion designer heroine of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant sits trapped in her luxurious bedroom, isolated for her emotional instability and her illicit love for a beautiful aspiring model. In The Merchant of Four Seasons, a returning soldier finds himself worn down to nothing by the simple strain of daily life. Time and again, Fassbinder sees his heroes punished for their naiveté in trying to free themselves from life’s fascistic grind. These are 20th Century Grimms’ tales.
The past is inescapable in Fassbinder’s work, and the future isn’t too bright either. His BRD Trilogy drives this grim thesis home, following three women’s struggles for life and dignity in West Germany after the war. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, a young beauty makes a fortune in business, but finds herself moving further and further from her life’s dream. Veronica Voss, the second of the three films, tells the story of an over-the-hill starlet trying to stage a comeback while a treacherous doctor drains her of life and money, framed in the style of a Hollywood noir. In Lola, the trilogy’s final film, a much sought-after prostitute seduces an idealistic bureaucrat, bringing about the collapse of his crusade against corruption.
“This is where Hitler used to eat,” old Frau Kurowski cheerfully tells her young Moroccan husband as they go into a restaurant on their wedding day in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The film, rightly one of Fassbinder’s best loved, looks at the racial and social tensions that hung over German life as the generation that accepted Nazism carried on into old age. The old widow, a former party member, falls for a lonely migrant worker and finds herself abandoned by family and neighbours alike because of the unusual relationship that develops.
Fassbinder’s first features, beginning in 1969, were muted, cheerless, bluntly political avant-garde films. By the mid ’70s, he was a mature cinematic dramatist, much of his most interesting work already under his belt, including Ali, Petra von Kant, and the visionary sci-fi World on a Wire, in which a company devises a supercomputer containing a full simulated world. In 1975, a youthful Fassbinder starred in his own Fox and His Friends, playing an innocent gay carnival worker who wins the lottery and is set upon by the vampiric bourgeoisie. Himself openly bisexual, Fassbinder called it “the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem.”
Video interviews from a few years later show Fassbinder bloated and worn, suddenly middle-aged, a far cry from the lithe and boyish rapscallion Fox. Then, one night in 1982, the director’s girlfriend walked into his bedroom to find him slumped over his notes for a new film. Dead at 37 from cocaine and barbiturates, the notoriously workaholic filmmaker had produced forty feature films all in all, as well as a substantial body of work in radio, theatre, television and as an actor. Thus ended the prodigiously productive career of a storyteller whose central interest was in modern life’s toxicity to the soul.
As the name of the retrospective makes clear, Fassbinder wasn’t interested in realism for realism’s sake. Rather than recreating, he represented. He favoured allegory, as in The Marriage of Maria Braun, whose leading lady’s emergence from the rubble of the war mirrors the recovery of the Adenauer years in West Germany, as well as the tragic emptiness that Fassbinder saw at that period’s core. Throughout his filmography, characters operate first and foremost as representatives of social phenomena and political ideas, whether in the disenchanted youths of his early film Katzelmacher or the hapless, working class ex-soldier of The Merchant of Four Seasons. Ever the revolutionary, Fassbinder uses his characters to lambast society’s faults and to warn his viewers of the harsh consequences of moral weakness.
Fassbinder liked to use the same actors over and over, often asking friends and lovers to work with him because that was the only chance he got to spend time with them. One can tell he was a connoisseur of great faces, a fact attested to by the constant reappearance of Hark Bohm‘s magnificently humourless bespectacled mug, the harsh beauty of Fassbinder’s long time girlfriend Irm Herrman, and the majestic and imposing El Hedi ben Salem, star of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and another of his flames.
“Politics and culture, German and international cinema have all changed so drastically in the decades since Fassbinder’s death,” writes retrospective curator James Quandt, “that one wonders if he would be welcome in this world at all, much less be able to continue making his kind of films.” Maybe not. But whether we’re talking about his meditation on the immigrant experience in Ali, or the prophetic computer dream of World on a Wire, or the brash and complex feminism one finds throughout his oeuvre, it’s clear enough that the films he left behind have lost none of their relevance or potency since his tragic death.
Fassbinder: Imitations of Life is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from this Friday, October 28th, until December 23rd. For more information on the retrospective, and to read James Quandt’s essay on the director, visit the website here.