A single, singular, boldly prolific filmmaker was an unstoppable force at the turn of the eighties, much as Godard had been in the early sixties when he turned out tasty, provocative film essays a couple times per annum. But Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most prolific of the 1970s German New Wave directors, went out with his bad-boy image intact when he died thirty-seven years ago (at the age of thirty-seven), slumped over a flatbed editing machine after yet another long day of dogged work, plentiful cigarettes, bountiful beer, intermittent barbiturates, a taste of Jack Daniel’s and more than a tincture of cocaine.
At the center of Fassbinder’s output were twenty-eight stage plays and forty-three or so films, including the magnificent parable of postwar German life, “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” and the epic fifteen-and-a-half-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (as well as the more apparently personal gems like “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” “Fox and his Friends” and “The Third Generation”). “Maria Braun” is a bravura masterwork, tender and lovely, about destruction and loss. It’s one of Fassbinder’s greatest, and to a greater audience, the best-known, as it may be one of his most accessible. It’s a melodrama every bit as good as anything Douglas Sirk ever committed to film, and watching it, the loss of Fassbinder is ever more painful to contemplate. While there are brilliantly orchestrated metaphors for the state of postwar German society, the film functions as sterling drama on its own.
There are so many restless, brilliant variations on elemental film language in the trilogy, not limited to oppressive framing, intensely precise short tracking shots, and inventive variations on the convention of reverse angles during conversations. There are reaction shots that lack reactions, starkly theatrical compositions and a sense of humor that goes beyond gallows. Three women swim near, drown, rise, sink, rise. The decors, costumes and especially the lighting, are beyond vibrant, nourishing even, breathing beyond history. Where is the light coming from? (Inspiration.)
Fassbinder’s name and the blooming density of his work have come up again and again in conversations with filmmakers of many levels of experience, the influence of his work spiraling in many directions. Jonathan Glazer, when “Under the Skin” was released in 2014, expressed his own form of awe at how a bit of cinema can be both banal and wondrous. “Sometimes the clearer something is, the more mysterious it is, actually. There are films I love that are made by filmmakers that made… Fassbinder made god knows how many? Fifty films, fifty-five films? [Forty, maybe?] Forty films. I’ve seen as many as I can manage to get my hands on, probably most of them. You watch them like pages of a diary, really. Those films were there because that is how he felt. He was on planet Earth, and this was his experience of being on planet Earth. I wish the way I could just roll it out back-to-back like that. I don’t seem to be able to do that. People talk about a box set of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’ my box sets are Fassbinder, and I will watch them back-to-back. And the impact is absolutely extraordinary.”
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of his “BRD Trilogy”—“Maria Braun,” “Veronika Voss” and “Lola,” three portraits of powerfully defined women that critique postwar Germany, or the Bundesrepublik Deutschland—updates the 2003 DVD box set with new 4K digital restorations of “Maria” and “Lola,” with uncompressed mono soundtracks, and a high-def digital restoration of “Veronika,” with uncompressed mono soundtrack.
The movies and extras are on three Blu-ray disks, eliminating the fourth, extras disk of the DVD set, which put Fassbinder’s pugnacious mug at the end of the line of his glamorous actresses.
Beyond the elemental transfers—I stopped for a walk around the block the first time after watching but ten minutes of “Maria,” floored once more by the bold, elemental storytelling—the disks hold the 2003 commentaries by Wim Wenders and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (“Maria”), film critic Tony Rayns (“Veronika”) and film scholar Christian Braad Thomsen (“Lola”). Multiple instructive interviews include the three stars: “Maria”’s Hanna Schygulla; “Veronika”’s Rosel Zech; and “Lola”’s Barbara Sukowa; as well as cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, screenwriter Peter Märthesheimer and film scholar Eric Rentschler. The three documentaries on hand include “Life Stories: A Conversation with R. W. Fassbinder,” filmed for German television in 1978; “I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me,” a feature-length 1992 documentary.
“Fassbinder understood that he had to build his house quickly if it was going to have any meaning, which means that he did something almost impossible: he acted at the speed of his emotions and his thoughts,” Kent Jones writes in a superb essay. “He wanted and got a direct correlation between living and fiction-making. This is almost impossible in film, where there’s a lot of atrophy-inducing waiting time because of the effort, the money, the needed manpower, the tactical and strategic difficulties, the endurance tests, and the care required to get a presentable image. It’s no wonder he resorted to cocaine and an assortment of other drugs. Indeed, it would have been shocking if he hadn’t. Fassbinder’s nonstop work ethic also allowed him to break through the God’s-eye view that comes all too often with the territory of modern cinema. He’s always right there with his characters, in time, space, and spirit. ‘Should you sit around waiting until something’s become a tradition,’ he once said, ‘or shouldn’t you rather roll up your sleeves and get to work developing one?’ Too much time spent listening to the music of your own voice gives rise to a temptation to round everything off into a definitive statement; it gives you a sense of false confidence that you’re delivering the last word on human affairs.”
[Jones’ essay is here.]
In the decade or two after his death, I nourished the fantasy that Fassbinder, had he lived, would have made his way to Hollywood, and become like the filmmaker he most esteemed, sterling satirist Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s films, like “Written on the Wind” and “Imitation of Life,” took popular forms at face value yet freighted them with irony and extra layers of meaning. Fassbinder’s “Bond 25”? Fassbinder’s “Batman”? (There’s enough potential innuendo and leather to keep the fetishistic side of Fassbinder happy.) Fassbinder’s “Schindler’s List”? In my dreams.
But those cotton-candy counterfactuals are surpassed by how his work has filtered into the 2019 consciousness of filmmakers around the world. Fassbinder’s rapidly shot, micro-budget output with the late Michael Ballhaus, who made fifteen of his movies with him in a nine-year span, brought to America what he learned in collaboration with the driven director and became house cameraman for the American industry’s top filmmakers for a couple of decades, shooting, among other movies, Redford’s “Quiz Show,” Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” a passage of Scorsese’s work from “After Hours” to “The Age of Innocence” (including “Goodfellas”), and work signed by Frank Oz, Mike Nichols and James L. Brooks. Fassbinder’s influence lives on in incalculable ways; not only filmmakers, but also fashion designers have found both riches and plunder in his work. Fassbinder’s films are fully-fashioned and sculptured works of high art often in low places, yet their psychological portraits (largely of need) and class consciousness (largely, too, of need) and aromatic formal subversion (far surpassing needfulness) will expand consciousness each time his legacy lights a screen, large or small. Until we see their films, we don’t know which of the expressive new generations of filmmakers are lifting Fassbinder’s soul from Criterion’s “film school in a box.”
A chunk of Fassbinder’s output is usually in rotation on the Criterion Channel.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.