The Saturday Auteur

Rainer Werner Fassbinder: the illustrious filmmaker who worked himself to death
By Arijana Zeric | Film+TV | 15 January 2020

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972

This article is part of The Saturday Auteur

Text by Arijana Zeric

US critics once said that Rainer Werner Fassbinder is solely responsible for the resurgence of German cinema during the 70s new wave. Even though illustrious names such as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders were equally active at the time, it is understandable why Fassbinder gets so much credit. With over 40 films under his belt by the age of 37 we can only speculate how many more he would have made had he not passed away so early. Fassbinder died of his own productivity. He died of too much life, too much work, too many messy relationships and too much cocaine. He actually died while making a film. As much as his pace was fuelling his creativity, it was killing him. Doctors and friends had passed on those warnings but he was unwilling and unable to separate his private life and work. Constantly revelling in his passions, there was no other way for him to finish what he put his mind to.

Born in 1945 in Bavaria, Rainer Werner Fassbinder had his roots in theatre, where he started as an actor, director and writer at the age of nineteen. There he began to form his ensemble, amongst them his future star Hanna Schygulla. Inspired by Jean-Luc Godard and Douglas Sirk, he was driven by an extraordinary creative but ultimately self-corroding force. Competition was another driving factor: if Godard made three films a year, Fassbinder had to make four. Between 1970 and 1971 he made a total of ten feature films.

World on a Wire by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973

Fassbinder was interested in politics and used his films to shine a light on the undercurrent of society. Often compared to Pier Paolo Pasolini, his films are studies of the outcasts and unwanted. As an observer of minorities, women, the weak and unloved, it is the prostitutes, the elderly and foreigners who take centre-stage. Not only is he telling their stories, they are also meticulous studies presented in an austere and demanding manner. Fassbinder challenges the spectator and avoids any identification with his figures – creating a distance that asks the spectator to make their own opinion.

Eight Hours Dont Make a Day by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972

The auteur’s ensemble consisted of friends and lovers, mostly people he met during his early days at the theatre who he turned into actors, composers, set designers and editors – creating unique results born from new vantage points. A reoccurring theme of emotional power struggles run Fassbinder’s romantic relationships, mirrored by those on-screen. His personality on and off set was so difficult that some descriptions evoke images of sadism. When his ex-boyfriend and actor Armin Meier committed suicide, he processed his grief by making In a year with 13 moons.

Most of Fassbinder’s films are carefully constructed, and due to their minimalistic nature, every word and detail is integral. His background in theatre taught him the importance of perfect articulation and pronunciation – regional accents are used for comedic moments only. It is still astonishing how straightforward his stories are without ever being predictable. To say that Fassbinder was one of a kind would be an understatement. 

Chinese Roulette by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976

A wealthy middle-aged couple living in an affluent suburb of Munich have been secretly cheating on each other for years. While their handicapped daughter and her nanny know of their secret, the child’s disdain for the family’s situation grows. Together with her devious nanny she plots, arranging for both couples to meet at the family’s country estate.

Fassbinder’s only film with international superstar Anna Karina is captured superbly by Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder’s long time director of photography. Ballhaus’ artistry is fascinating, with the creative framing of each player mimicking the unnatural set-up: the characters have been likened to chess figures – they move slowly through the room, each step carefully calculated. The camera angles create a visual representation of the people’s relationship, as each face gets cropped, dissected, cut off or reflected by the many mirrors, door frames and other glass surfaces in the room. In a grotesque finale, we see two faces merged into one.

Chinese Roulette by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976

Beware of a Holy Whore by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971

In a hotel in Spain, a film crew is waiting for the director, the star and the budget to arrive. While everything is on hold, tension and mind games begin to occur. When the long-awaited director finally enters the scene, trouble, tension and alcohol consumption reach a new high. Fassbinder has said that this film is a depiction of the situation that unravelled during the making of his film, Whity.

The title stands as a surreal warning and in a way encompasses the chaos of making movies. Beware of a Holy Whore is about challenges, unusual demands, frustrations and tense dynamics that can easily build while shooting a film. Except that in this case, it is about the ordeal of not making a film – the characters simply can’t seem to make anything work. The reason for this seems profane: in Fassbinder’s universe, work and romances are inextricably entwined. Crew members talk about sex when they work and about work when they are in bed. Egocentric behaviour meets occasional strokes of genius all while everyone is under enormous emotional strain and hysteria and abuse of power is mere routine. Beware of a holy whore is a bitter monument to Fassbinder’s work life at that point.

Beware of a Holy Whore by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971

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