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German requiem
Fassbinder at the Harvard Film Archive

Who remembers Rainer Werner Fassbinder? Once declared "the most dazzling, talented, provocative, prolific and exhilarating filmmaker of his generation" by The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, the late director’s films today seldom pique the interest of any but the most hardened cinephiles.

His diminished recognition today is not due to any lack of trying. Before his death in 1982 at the age of 37, the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema made some 44 films in 14 years. In addition, he rolled out countless plays and television programs, including the 14-episode Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980; screens Friday through Sunday, October 17–19, at 6 p.m.), one of the most astounding series ever made. Now, however, the New German Cinema is old and forgotten, and Fassbinder’s legacy has dwindled to the occasional retrospective, such as this essential series at the Harvard Film Archive, co-presented by the Goethe Institut and the Department of German at Harvard University.

Is this eclipse because Fassbinder is "too German" as Hanna Schygulla, one of the stars of his repertory ("the suburban Marilyn Monroe"), suggests in Robert Fischer’s otherwise shapeless documentary Fassbinder in Hollywood (2002; screens Friday, October 3, at 7 p.m., with an appearance by Fassbinder actor and co-writer Ulli Lommel)? Or because, as Fassbinder declares in the same film (in an excerpt from Wim Wenders’s documentary Room 666), the "sensation movies" of Hollywood and its imitators have supplanted genuine cinema?

In fact, Fassbinder was never really very popular with the Germans (he had the knack for alienating everyone in his homeland), and as for Hollywood, it was perhaps his ultimate goal. His films reflect a love-hate affair with the dream factory, beginning with his first stylized renditions of macho genre films such as The American Soldier/Der amerikanische Soldat (1970; screens Saturday, October 4, at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, October 8, at 9 p.m.), a Godardian gangster parody.

Ricky (Karl Scheydt), a German ŽmigrŽ who served in Vietnam and now employs the skills he learned there as a contract killer, has returned on assignment to his hometown of Munich. In between jobs, he reacquaints himself with the old neighborhood, finally calling on his mother and epicene brother, suggesting an Oedipal complex rivaling that in White Heat (Fassbinder pays homage to director Raoul Walsh by naming the character he plays in the film "Franz Walsch").

Mannered and absurd but oddly affecting, Soldier and its alienating Brechtian artifice — a Fassbinder trademark that would degenerate into the brittle folly of his Nabokov adaptation Despair (1977; screens Saturday, October 4, at 9 p.m.) — are punctured by whimsy and dread, the odd asides more satisfying than the self-conscious, sophomoric story.

More straightforward in its social criticism and narrative and perhaps more "German" in its content is Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?/Warum lŠuft Herr R. Amok? (1969; screens Sunday, October 12, at 7 p.m.), a grueling portrait of the charmless bourgeoisie. Herr R. (Kurt Raab), a technical draftsman, seems at first to have his act together, tolerating the soul-robbing inanities of his fellow workers, his family, and his neighbors with sullen silence and only an occasional lapse into hostility or drunken boorishness. His final breakdown comes as no surprise, however, as Fassbinder captures with diabolical and hilarious precision the meanness, hypocrisy, and tedium of middle-class existence.

Another bewildered and hapless patriarch stumbles through The Merchant of Four Seasons/HŠndler der vier Jahreszeiten (1971; screens Friday, October 10, at 9 p.m. and Monday, October 13, at 7 p.m.), but in this case the caustic objectification of Herr R. has softened into a more compassionate and conventional portrait. Movingly portrayed by Hans HirschmŸller, Hans Epp endures the contempt of his family and the treachery of his wife to eke out a living as a fruit and vegetable peddler. After he’s laid low by a heart attack, his life paradoxically improves, but despondency strikes just as he seems to have achieved success.

Merchant came out around the time that Fassbinder had become enamored of the work of Douglas Sirk, the Danish-born master of Hollywood melodrama. The film evokes Sirkian formal and stylistic tropes — the dynamics of personalities and relationships caught in mirrors and frames; human fate distilled into a formula of victimization and sacrifice — that transform this otherwise sordid tale into an elegant and resonant tragedy.

With Ali: Fear Eats the Soul/Angst essen Seele auf (1973; screens Friday, October 10, at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, October 15, at 9 p.m.) Fassbinder achieves his greatest success combining the raw material of social injustice and human turmoil with the artifice of genre. One of the highlights of The American Soldier is a story told by a chambermaid (played by future filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta) about an older woman named Emmi who by chance steps into a bar and falls in love with a much younger Arab foreign worker named Ali. That story, and Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1956), provide the basis of this ornate but limpid look at alienation, prejudice, and the persistence of love. The grotesque hostility they arouse only makes Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) more determined in their attachment, a conflict that, as in many Fassbinder films, expresses itself ultimately in physical catastrophe. It is one of Fassbinder’s masterpieces, and a reproach to those who might shift Sirk’s mantle to Todd Haynes and his Far From Heaven.

Though Ali can be seen as the triumph of love over social conformity, Fassbinder was at best ambivalent about the sentiment. In the relatively prosaic I Only Want You To Love Me/Ich will doch nur, dass ihr mich liebt (1976; screens Monday, October 13, at 9 p.m.) — the title of which, together with that of his first feature Love Is Colder than Death/Liebe ist kalter als der Tod (1969; screens Friday, October 3, and Sunday, October 5, at 9 p.m.), could summarize Fassbinder’s life and career — a young man builds a house for his parents. They are pleased but still despise him, so he redirects his self-destructive, delusory love to his unwitting wife, a passion that enslaves him to debtors and his employer and ends in the typical, abrupt, and unhappy Fassbinder manner.

Extreme even for Fassbinder is the fate of the hero/heroine of the nightmarish and sublime In a Year of Thirteen Moons/In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (1978; screens Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m.). Long ago, Elvira, nŽe Erwin (a stunning Volker Spengler, who looks like Mrs. Doubtfire) went to Casablanca to undergo a sex-change operation for the ruthless man she loved. Rejected by her beloved, now a powerful businessman, she hovers in a gender netherworld, on the brink of suicide.

As in Merchant of Four Seasons and Ali, the wages of love and capitalism are literally paid for with the flesh. That transaction reaches a crescendo of eloquence and horror as Elvira recounts her history with nihilistic exaltation while taking a tour of a gruesome slaughterhouse. Grim though the film is, Fassbinder still has a knack for wacky Hollywood shtick — at one dramatically critical moment, the film turns into a Jerry Lewis spoof.

Were Fassbinder ever to have made the transition to Hollywood, it would have come with The Marriage of Maria Braun/Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1978; screens Saturday, October 11, and Monday, November 17, at 7 p.m., presented by Issa Club and Kate Elmore from the Criterion Collection, who will introduce their new addition of Fassbinder’s "BDR Trilogy"). It is at once his most Americanized and most German film. It is an allegory of postwar German history, no less, with Hanna Schygulla’s radiant Maria embodying the downtrodden but resilient national spirit forced to survive when, as is so often the case in Fassbinder’s films, the father figure is absent or incapacitated.

The title nuptials take place under heavy bombardment as Maria and Hermann (Klaus Lšwitsch) just get their vows in before the registry office is obliterated. The war is over by the next scene, with Maria waiting amidst the rubble and rags at the train station for her missing Hermann’s return. With irrefutable cinematic logic, a soldier apologizes for a sexual insult to Maria by giving her a pack of Camels, Maria trades the cigarettes for a brooch, exchanges the brooch for a dress and stockings, wears the new clothes to get a job at a bar catering to GIs, and before you know it, the German Economic Miracle is born, with Maria its self-proclaimed "Mata-Hari."

And what of love? It endures, of course, its consequences not always pretty or pleasant, and though Maria gets a little soiled in the process, she prevails, sort of, in the end. The film was never nominated for an Oscar, as Fassbinder may have hoped, and subsequent films in this more accessible style — the Nazi era-set Lili Marleen (1980; screens Saturday, October 11, at 9:15 p.m.), also starring Schygulla, for example — prompted some talk that he might be selling out. Had he lived long enough to do so he might still be a big deal today. Instead he must be content with the obscurity of the truly difficult and the truly great.

Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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