Close to Heaven
A New MICA Retrospective Examines Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Uncommon Combination of Heart, Groin, and Brains
Although he had turned 37 less than two weeks earlier, Fassbinder looked 10 years older, the result, perhaps, of his perpetually frenetic work pace. During the previous 15-plus years, when he emerged as a standard-bearer for the New German Cinema that also included Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, the writer/director/actor/cinematographer had completed an astounding 44 films--most of them full-length--14 plays for the stage, four radio dramas, and countless essays, not forgetting his numerous roles in others' movies, all while earning the admiration of critics and the loyalty of a coterie of viewers far beyond his native Germany. That formidable output prompted his best-known leading lady, Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen, Berlin Alexanderplatz), to ask rhetorically, "Did he die so young because he was in such a rush, or did he rush so because he was destined to die young?"
His death also posed a more obvious, if lurid, question: accident or suicide? Either way, his OD eerily echoed the demise of one of his most memorable screen protagonists, Franz "Fox" Biberkopf, the initially affable sideshow performer who hits the lottery for half a million Deutsche marks only to be methodically, pitilessly exploited--ultimately driven to gobble the entire contents of a vial of valium--by intimates in 1975's riveting Fox and His Friends. Fassbinder, not incidentally, cast himself as the anguished Fox.
That film, plus nine more, make up the heady Fassbinder mini-retrospective, presented by the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Maryland Film Festival, that begins Jan. 29 at MICA's new Brown Center with 1978's The Marriage of Maria Braun. Curated by MICA chair of video Patrick Wright, the series runs as a counterpart to Wright's course "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder."
Perched on a comfy sofa in a corner of the Evergreen Café in Roland Park, Wright explains that for both "personal reasons and broader intellectual reasons" he wanted to scrutinize Fassbinder. "He was of a generation that began to talk about things that one was not supposed to talk about," Wright says, citing as an example 1980's 14-episode TV movie Berlin Alexanderplatz, which, in part, confronts Germans' embrace of Nazism. "He wanted to look at the hard things, and he did so in artful ways."
Wright was first exposed to Fassbinder's films while living in Seattle in the late 1980s. "I've always held a special place in my heart for him. He was so pivotal for me when I was, like, around 20, right before I went to film school," recalls Wright, now 37. "Coming upon his work was transformative for me, because I realized that [as a filmmaker] one could be both emotionally engaging and gripping--one could have emotions about characters and be wrapped up in a plot--and yet at the same time there were things to think about and wrestle with."
Bearing out this last point, Fassbinder, in his final interview, conducted eight hours before Lorenz discovered him dead, told documentarian Dieter Schidor, "What I would like is to make Hollywood movies--that is, movies as wonderful and universal as Hollywood, but at the same time not as false."
Born just three weeks after Germany surrendered to the Allies in May 1945, Fassbinder grew up in Munich, where his father, a doctor, frequently administered to prostitutes. (Hookers often are portrayed affectionately in Fassbinder's films.) His father left home when Fassbinder was 6, and his mother, in order to make money, began to work as a translator, packing the boy off to the cinema, a surrogate baby sitter. In his teens Fassbinder declared his homosexuality, and by the early 1960s he was studying acting, writing stage plays, and making his own 8mm movies, eventually becoming the creative whirlwind of an avant-garde collective called Action-Theater in 1967. As a member of a spin-off from that group, Fassbinder worked tirelessly between 1968 and '70, writing plays and radio dramas, making a fistful of films, and acting in his own and others' movies. Bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual, he married Ingrid Caven, an actress who appeared in his pictures.
Fassbinder's filmmaking underwent a crucial metamorphosis in 1971 when he fell under the spell of the German-American director Douglas Sirk, whose sumptuous 1950s Hollywood melodramas comprise All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. After visiting Sirk at his home in Switzerland, Fassbinder determined to fashion a cinema with a significantly broader appeal than his previous efforts, which he dismissed in 1974 as "films for my friends, for people who think just like me . . . made in order to learn how to make films."
Melodrama would be his new mantra. But instead of slavishly aping American melodrama, which in 1977 Fassbinder chastised as offering "emotions and nothing else," the writer/director sought to impart to his viewer "the emotions along with the possibility of reflecting on and analyzing what he is feeling." He wanted his audience to examine--to question--their lives, their culture, their society.
For Wright, melodrama presented the perfect vehicle for Fassbinder to convey his principal theme: "How someone uses love and affection in a controlling manner--that's in every film, whether it's a prostitute [1981's Lola] or a middle-class husband or wife [The Stationmaster's Wife, released in '77]. And there is always someone who falls victim to that. His constant argument is that power infuses relationships, pushing away this notion of purely romantic love."
Boldly, Fassbinder expanded cinema's conventional depiction of couples to include gays (Fox and His Friends) and lesbians (1972's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), portraying them as victims and victimizers, no different than straights. "Those [films] are all really before their time," Wright notes. Fassbinder also addressed what Wright terms "social division, whether it's class in Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven  or race in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul . His characters are never easy. There is never anybody to love or admire, but you don't not like them. The people who you're rooting for have flaws. In a literary way, they are exquisitely rendered characters. Like Maria Braun: Is that woman a hero or a victim?
"For me it returns to this age-old question, 'What is an artist?' When you go to a Spike Lee film or an Oliver Stone film, I feel like they are the stars. They're so present in their works." But Fassbinder, he contends, brought a "plasticity" to each of his remarkably diverse projects, always "responsive to the narrative," and not intent on imposing a signature look or style on the proceedings. He was, in Wright's estimation, both auteur and populist.
"I would like to build a house with my films," Fassbinder once averred. "Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others are the windows. But I hope that in the end it will be a house."
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