[ The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 15, 2000

He made dark, powerful films
By Ervell E. Menezes

IS grey the colour of hope or despair? Well, that depends on what zone you come from. Black or white. From black it could be hope, from white despair. But in the case of New German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he was perpetually in the grey zone and if there was any movement it was towards black.

Whether it was a lonely childhood (his parents were divorced when he was five) or the permissiveness of Germany in the 1960s and 1970s or the markedly class-conscious society that conditioned his thinking, it is hard to say, but his films reflect a desperate loneliness and this is because he found human relationships the most difficult part of life.

That Fassbinder was a homosexual was the cause of greater alienation and to make matters worse he tried to be exhibitionistic about it. But as a filmmaker he virtually worked himself to the bone because of his spark of genius. Death claimed him at the tender age of 37.


Rainer Werner FassbinderFassbinder was as eccentric as most geniuses are but his films are a legacy which puts the German national character under close scrutiny and he pulled no punches in exposing its weaknesses and bringing out the utter selfishness of human nature, worldwide. They are depressing, as life often is, and at times unnecessarily digressive but it is the honesty with which he set out to capture life and its many tribulations that make him the most celebrated German filmmaker.

So when the Max Mueller Bhavan in conjunction with the National Centre for the Performing Arts decided to have a festival of Fassbinder films it was an opportunity for the younger generation to make a study of his films. The last Fassbinder film festival was held in 1993. It has been my pleasure to see his films as he evolved and even before he became a celebrated filmmaker and it is the association with those turbulent decades (the 1960s and 1970s) heralded by terrorism (remember the Baader-Meinhoff gang?) and other contemporary problems (the Berlin Wall) that one has to see his work.

Some of his films were loosely constructed like for example Lili Marlene which dealt with the life of the German singer who immortalised that famous war song (Marlene Dietrich was the Hollywood actress who often played the German blonde) but there are a good many loose ends and unexplained stuff. Besides, he is too indulgent, and may have tried to make his version of cabaret. However, there were some deft touches like Goebbels calling the song "crap, with the stench of death".

For me, one of his best films was The Merchant of Four Seasons. It is an excellent cameo of German life with the hero a misfit in society because he was not allowed to do what he wanted ó to become a mechanic ó it was too lowly for his class-conscious mother. After deserting the foreign legion he is unsuccessful as a police officer. Hans, for that is his name, then becomes a merchant but with problems with his life he suffers a heart attack. More at home with his male friends Hans quarrels with his wife who is often unfaithful to him. It is also his open nature that works against him and when he asked his foreign legion companion to help him in his business, he finds himself being marginalised and hence drinks himself to death. "Life is a trade-off,"the film seems to say and says so strongly.

Most of his characters seek human contact and warmth but are unable to break out of their innate loneliness to achieve a real communion with others. This is because Fassbinder was wary about love itself. "I think this system we live in, is no system in which you can love. Because, this is a system of exploitation; this system is also made to exploit love, and to be sure, thatís exactly how it functions in every case. This is something dreadful," he said in an interview.

This comes across strongly in Fox and his Friends where Franz is exploited by his upper class friend Eugen. They are homosexuals and Fassbinder himself plays Franz, a person obsessed by the class but treated with scant respect by his friend. It is an uneasy foray into a life of luxury only to be allowed to fall harder and what a tragic end he comes to. Nora Helmer is in a similar situation with her husband in Dollís House but it is her stronger will that enables her to stand up to her husband and what a final speech she makes.

Yes, Fassbinderís women are stronger, more rounded. His explanation (also in an interview): "Women, like men, have to play roles, too. Thatís obvious. Itís just that the roles men play are more limited. Women have more space ó thatís why they are stronger in the end." He also felt that women were more imaginative. Hanna Schygulla, whom he met in Munich Acting School was to remain one of his favourite actresses and good though she was, she was at times miscast as in Lili Marlene. She is much better in The Marriage of Maria Braun and how that character grows influenced no doubt by the permissiveness of the times.

Fassbinderís first phase of film-making was marked by expressionistic self-projection and a desperate loneliness. It is only after Beware of the Holy Whore! (not screened at this festival) that he passed on to subjects of social relevance. Holy Whore was about the role of the director in filmmaking vis-a-vis his crew. The director does exploit his crew, living off their talent in order to realise his film, but it is his energy that furnishes the galvanising force, giving an aimless group a sense of purpose. Both the director and the crew ultimately subjugate ó prostitute óthemselves to the holy whore, which, according to Fassbinder, is the film itself. And yet his films stand out for their lighting, camerawork and a kind of obsession with mirrors.

His third phase was marked by the German Hollywood film, especially Lili Marlene which began after The Marriage of Maria Braun. It is in this last phase that Fassbinder tends to digress in his stories. They arenít as pure or powerful as his earlier phases. Despair ó A Journey into Light is hardly what it says and its hero Hermann, a Russian living in exile is the epitome of confusion and Fassbinder didnít have to meander unendingly to make his point. But Veronika Voss is more the old Fassbinder and through his heroine Fassbinder touches the soul of desertion and despair. This is the very essence of Fassbinder whose philosophy is closely linked with the pessimism of English novelist Thomas Hardy.

But in doing so he also captures the German psyche and the post-World War II scenario and that made him the leader of the New German Cinema movement. But his career was made up of highs and lows. Before making Berlin Alexanderplatz (1978-80), a 16-hour film about post-World War II Germany, he thought of committing suicide. It was because of the uncertainty of being able to make such an ambitious film. After completing the film he said "now, I control the trade, now Iím secure." But may be it was only a temporary high.

On June 10, 1982, Rainer Warner Fassbinder was found dead in his Munich apartment. The cause of death was heart failure resulting from an interaction of sleeping pills and cocaine. He was only 37 but by then he had made over 40 films and gained immortality.

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