R.W. Fassbinder, Twisted Genius

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the preeminent force behind Germany's "new cinema" of the seventies, would have just turned 64 had he lived. Sadly, last Thursday marked the 28th anniversary of his death from a drug overdose.

Looking over his intense, meteoric life and career, one confronts a mass of contradictions. Fassbinder was openly gay, yet twice married. A true hellion, his appetite for drugs and sex never abated, yet he was unfailingly professional, sharp and exacting on-set each morning.

It was as if he knew he had little time, and wanted to compensate for it via sheer intensity of experience and an almost supercharged productivity. Indeed, in just over fifteen years in film, he managed to act in, write, and/or direct over 40 features, in addition to tackling other chores like editing, production design and music composition. Viewing all he was able to achieve, the term "wunderkind" feels like an inadequate description of the man.

Beyond his nihilistic, bad-boy credentials and prolific output, Fassbinder was that almost extinct phenomenon today: a fearless cinematic genius with a distinctly original voice and vision. Most of his movies presented variations on the theme of human alienation, tracking the fates of ordinary, anonymous people either broken by predatory souls they've trusted, or oppressed by larger societal forces they can't control. Stylistically, Fassbinder had a gift for the kinky and grotesque, lending his work (and characters) a dark, offbeat edginess that was hard to ignore or forget.

The fact that by today's alarmingly lax standards, Fassbinder's work may not be always agreeable or easy to watch, should not dissuade those possessed of reasonable curiosity and intelligence to experience what remains an astonishing -- and highly relevant -- body of work. His films may not always be fun, but they are never, ever trivial.

My own favorite Fassbinder is listed below.

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) -- The title character (Kurt Raab) is a draftsman at an architectural firm whose bourgeois existence with his wife and son appears orderly and untroubled. He gets along with his coworkers, attends PTA meetings, and dutifully plans for the future. He even gets a clean bill of health from his doctor at his annual check-up. Quietly, however, his inner frustration mounts. One night, while watching television with a garrulous neighbor, Herr Raab snaps. Co-directed by Fassbinder and Michael Fengler, this bleak psychological study of social conformity examines a seemingly well-adjusted Munich father's sudden, inexplicably explosive turn into violence. As ever, Fassbinder digs into the question of why mild-mannered men crack up, depicting the lifeless routine at the heart of middle-class life with a mix of genuine empathy and a caustic sense of impending doom, especially as we're privy to how Herr R. hears superficial chit-chat: as so much white noise.

The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) -- Hen-pecked by his unhappy wife and disdained by his mother-in-law, fruit vendor Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmuller) is a man whose empty, loveless existence drives him to drink excessively. When he encounters Harry (Klaus Lowitsch), an old friend from the Foreign Legion who once saved his life, Hans offers him a job, and soon sees an uptick in his business. But behind the scenes, Harry is quietly poaching Hans' wife and home. One of my favorite early Fassbinder titles, Seasons is a sour drama about a man's dispiriting fall from middle-class respectability (at least in the eyes of his beastly family) into disgrace and near ruin. Hirschmuller is brilliant as the morose fruit seller whose plaintive cries and longing, hangdog look, aimed at his ex-mistress (Ingrid Caven) are the film's emotional anchor. Fassbinder, who appears in the film as Hans's friend Zucker, paints not so much the tragedy of a failed man, but the catastrophe of a person hobbled by the petty cruelties of those nearest him.

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974) -- Lonely, dowdy German cleaning lady Emmi (Brigitte Mira) enters a bar catering to Arab immigrants one evening and dances with handsome, strapping Moroccan mechanic Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem), a much younger man. Despite their age difference, the two hit it off and Ali moves in, over the venomous protests of her adult children. Prejudice then bubbles up all around the couple, from Emmi's co-workers, neighbors, and even a greengrocer who refuses to serve Ali. Will their love survive? A scathing satire on romance, racism, and German-Arab relations, Fassbinder's Ali is a brilliant reminder that love can soothe only when it is sanctioned by a social community. Inspired by Douglas Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows, the film deals with human vulnerability and the alienating effects of isolation due to age, class, and one's skin color, glimpsing a tender but troubled relationship between two outcasts. Mira, one of Fassbinder's favorite actresses, is heartbreaking as Emmi, a 60-ish woman with a realistic outlook on sex and love. Achingly intimate and peppered with poignant humor, Ali is one of the writer-director's most soulful works.

Effi Briest (1974) -- Effi (Hanna Schygulla) is a precocious 17-year-old girl who, with the approval of her parents, agrees to marry an older count, Baron Geert Von Instetten (Wolfgang Schenk). Unhappy in her new home and longing for companionship, Effi begins an innocent friendship with an army major that soon turns romantic. Years later, the Baron discovers the lovers' letters, and challenges the major to a duel. Fassbinder's frequent leading lady Schygulla gives one of her saddest and most moving performances in Effi Briest, adapted from the 19th-century novel, playing a young woman exploited by everyone around her and ultimately cast out of her home for a short-lived sexual indiscretion. As always, Fassbinder is keen to reflect on the rigid social norms, then and now, that imprison us all. It's a bleak, chilly story, but Effi Briest is formally dazzling (mirrors and frames are a thematic element) and absorbing.

Fox and His Friends (1975) -- Gay carnival worker Franz "Fox" Biberkopf (Fassbinder) loses his job when the police arrest his lover and close up the fairground show that employs him. Strapped for cash, Fox picks up Max (Karlheinz Bohm), an older, cultured man who helps him get a few marks for a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. Soon, Fox is introduced to all of Max's classy friends, including the scheming Eugen (Peter Chatel), who sets out to seduce and fleece him. One of writer-director Fassbinder's most affecting entries, Fox considers the class struggle in terms of the exploitative relationship between a naive, blue-collar outsider and his predatory bourgeois lover. Fassbinder himself delivers a tragic, moving performance as a gay man swindled out of his winnings and self-esteem, a scenario partly based on the director's own experiences. Exploring both human marginality and the culture of affluence, "Fox" remains a bold, compelling work by the pre-eminent auteur of 1970s New German Cinema.

Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy (1979-1982) -- In The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), an opportunistic newlywed (Schygulla) convinced her husband has perished on the Russian front struggles to remake herself, taking a job with a wealthy importer (Ivan Desny), who becomes her lover. Veronika Voss tells the satirical story of the titular film actress (Rosel Zech), who becomes a self-destructive morphine addict when her fame recedes. And in Lola, a cabaret dancer (Barbara Sukowa) seduces a by-the-book building inspector (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who is stunned to find his cherished sweetheart performing in a brothel. Three women make their way through various ethical and romantic dilemmas in Fassbinder's celebrated trilogy, which casts a gimlet eye on the "economic miracle" of Germany's postwar period, questioning the moral character and integrity of his native land through a memorable trio of female protagonists. Maria Braun was Fassbinder's most commercially successful venture, displaying the vivid powers of his social critique and masterful, visually stylized handling of the melodrama genre (again, somewhat inspired by Fassbinder's hero, Douglas Sirk). But in tandem with the less-seen Lola and Veronika Voss, these films collectively show Fassbinder at the height of his technical and creative powers, as he takes a brutally honest but also compassionate view of desire, ambition, and faded glory.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) -- Released from a Berlin prison in the late twenties after serving four years for killing his girlfriend, the hulking Franz Biberkopf (Gunter Lamprecht) takes up with Lina (Elisabeth Trissenaar), promising to lead a more honest life. But his acquaintance with a womanizing criminal named Reinhold (Gottfried John) soon leads him back onto the road of depravity -- and murder. Director Fassbinder's crowning achievement, made two years before his untimely death, is an adaptation of Alfred Doblin's modernist epic about a man attempting to cleanse his soul of impurity. Biberkopf's dark odyssey through Berlin between the wars spans all manner of political and emotional territory, and Fassbinder handles it with characteristic attention to cruel ironies and twists of fate. At 15-plus hours, Berlin requires several sittings, but you'd be robbing yourself of a profound dramatic experience if you passed on its despairing, one-of-a-kind insights. Truly a must-see for any serious film fan.

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