By Aliza Ma in the May-June 2017 Issue
Throughout Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s colossal career, which shifted between theater, TV, and cinema with greater ease than that of any other postwar European filmmaker, public television in the German post-studio era proved to be a fecund medium, yielding some of his most rigorous work. In 1972 West Germany, his miniseries Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day was broadcast to nearly six million viewers. Commissioned by the channel Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), it was envisioned by its producers as an eight-episode working-class drama focusing on themes of civic progress. However, against their expectations for a socialist-realist portrait of Cologne, Fassbinder delivered a brilliantly layered chamber drama about an eccentric family and their economic and cultural environment, which functions as both trenchant social critique and populist entertainment.
Only five out of the eight episodes aired. According to Juliane Lorenz, his longtime editor and the head of the Fassbinder Foundation, German trade unionists intervened when they felt misrepresented by the series, and even after he incorporated their feedback into his screenplay, the producers at WDR were unsatisfied with the quality. Fassbinder was paid for his writing, but the final three episodes never went into production. Thanks to the efforts of the Fassbinder Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art, the existing segments have now been fully restored with new subtitles, and they premiered to sold-out crowds at the Berlinale this past February.
With Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, the 27-year-old auteur’s public reputation in Germany transformed from that of a radical art film director to a prominent TV star. It stands out in his filmography as not only his second-longest effort, after Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), but also his most empathetic, with depictions of working-class people, their daily struggles and even little moments of redemption, making the show immediately relatable and entertaining to mass audiences. Lorenz clarifies in her crucial personal essay about Fassbinder, entitled “Wunderkind,” that he intended for the final episodes to take a more pessimistic turn. However, as it stands, the series depicts a tender family portrait—if always lined with Fassbinder’s characteristic sardonic humor—revealing a rare softer, subtler side to the auteur.
Episode one opens with the pop of a cork, the first of countless bottles of spirits to be imbibed liberally and with gusto throughout each installment. The whole family is gathered for a dinner party celebrating Grandma’s birthday: her daughter Kathe (Anita Bucher); Kathe’s husband, Wolf (Wolfried Lier); their twentysomething son, Jochen (Gottfried John); Aunt Klara (Christine Oesterlein); Aunt Monika (Renate Roland); Monika’s husband, Harald (Kurt Raab); and their little daughter, Sylvia (Andrea Schober). The celebration almost immediately takes a tense turn: Klara slaps Jochen for spilling sparkling wine on her lap, then Harald slaps his daughter for not sitting up properly. Grandma (a radiant Luise Ullrich) and Jochen are revealed to be kindred spirits when they rise from the table of bickering relatives to dance together.
On the way to fetch more bubbly for the party from a vending machine, Jochen meets Marion (Hanna Schygulla, in her seventh role for Fassbinder), who happens to be at the same machine, and the pair are immediately taken with each other. Later, Grandma sets her eyes on a retired gentleman reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover on a park bench. This is Gregor (played by the legendary cabaret comedian Werner Finck), whom Grandma summarily lures on a date in a flurry of chitchat. Both Grandma and Jochen swiftly embark on their respective new relationships without hesitation: Gregor gets swept up in Grandma’s plans to find a nice, cheap apartment and open a kindergarten in a decommissioned library, while Marion assists Jochen in his ruse to first overthrow the new foreman at the factory where he works and then implement a plan for laborers to organize their own workflow, increase productivity, and earn money directly from the manufacturer, forgoing the middle management of the foreman and factory supervisor.
Jochen and Grandma are the heroes of the series. They make no pretensions about their petit-bourgeois background, but by proposing simple ideas that challenge preconceived notions of how things should be and setting them into action, they create revolutionary possibilities within the everyday. They fight persistently to improve their world: Grandma stages a demonstration with a group of boisterous kids at city hall to save her thriving kindergarten from loafing bureaucrats; Jochen works hard to maintain motivation and morale in his fellow coworkers to realize his near-anarchic aim of carrying out self-organized work. Eventually, both succeed in obtaining their seemingly quixotic goals.
Just as Grandma and Jochen demonstrate how an uncomplicated credo and simple, determined actions can be subversive, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is a sort of Trojan horse in which Fassbinder smuggled radical style and content into millions of German living rooms. The show was initially faulted by critics of various national newspapers for seeming too artificially optimistic, but Fassbinder was trying out ideas of how he could mobilize a TV viewing public through the depiction of positive heroes, instead of resorting to hollow socialist-realist aesthetics and blatantly political dialogue, which always presuppose predetermined class-based relationships. In his own defense of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day to critics he argued, “We’re not interested in an analysis of conditions; we want to give people courage. As a group, there exist possibilities that an individual doesn’t have. That’s a good thing, and it can lead to something.” Indeed, Grandma’s declaration, “If you’re doing something, then you’re always right” is a loud echo of something Fassbinder liked to say in his writing and interviews, “Do something in order to feel alive.”
Fassbinder began making TV-commissioned work in the early 1970s, a time that marked a turning point in both his personal approach to filmmaking and his country’s television production system. He had discovered the visually and emotionally extravagant melodramas of Hamburg-to-Hollywood (by way of Berlin) transplant Douglas Sirk during an eight-month break in 1970, the longest “vacation” of his 41-film career, and his exposure to these works, as well as a visit to Sirk’s retirement home in Lugano, Switzerland, prompted a revelation in Fassbinder. Describing his renewed sense of purpose, he said: “I would like to make Hollywood movies, that is, movies as wonderful and universal but at the same time not as hypocritical.” Stylistically, his films were a severe departure from the cold, detached high-modernist mode that he had been working in since his 1969 debut feature, Love Is Colder Than Death. At approximately the same time, German broadcasters were being incentivized by the government to corral young directors to create representations of a “new Germany.” This period of TV production not only helped alleviate for Fassbinder the drawn-out tedium of red-tape-filled grant-funded production, which lagged far behind his pace of productivity, but also empowered his stern refusal to align himself with the classifications of either high or low culture—a dichotomy he strove to overturn in every aspect of his work.
Fassbinder’s first major made-for-TV production was The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), about a policeman turned fruit vendor (Hans Hirschmüller, also a star of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day) who is driven to self-destruction under the social pressures of his surroundings. According to Lorenz, Fassbinder initially took on the project because he was in dire need of funds. He circumnavigated a clause in the broadcaster’s contract banning theatrical screenings in Germany before the airdate by premiering it at the Venice Film Festival, where it was received with high praise. This unprecedented international recognition opened new opportunities for him in his own country, and when WDR secured him to make Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day that year, his reputation had become that of a rising auteur in Germany.
The Merchant of Four Seasons and Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day were Fassbinder’s first Sirk-inspired melodramas, both centering around working-class protagonists. But whereas the former shows the unendurable sadistic demands of external circumstances on the individual and how personal motivations for change, no matter how virtuous, can be ineffective, the latter depicts its characters as having not only strong visions for how to reshape their surroundings to their advantage but also possessing the ability to realize these visions. Quite unexpectedly, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is perhaps Fassbinder’s most humanist—even approaching feel-good—work. Although married couples Kathe and Wolf, and Monika and Harald, exhibit the cruelty and morose, dejected qualities similar to those of the domestic relationships in both his earlier films (Katzelmacher, Whity) and later ones (Martha, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), the love between Grandma and Gregor, and Jochen and Marion, is supportive and affectionate. Generosity within the world of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day comes in the form of couples and friends drinking together. The pouring of a drink is a Hawksian ritual, and imbibing is a shared expression of merriment. A shot of the elated Grandma and Gregor sitting at their kitchen table brings to mind the grandparents in Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer (1951) sitting on their tatami mat in an image silently brimming with sentimentality. Nowhere is Fassbinder’s tenderness for older people and children more explicitly showcased than in Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, revealing a solidarity with his characters and the public.
Correspondingly, in contrast to The Merchant of Four Seasons’s muted emotions and Brechtian performances, or the demonstrative long takes of such earlier films as Love Is Colder Than Death, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day exhibits an unapologetically sumptuous and baroque mise en scène. Interiors are arrayed with rich textures and patterns, while the factory looks like an elaborate constructivist assemblage, and Fassbinder’s unrivaled, idiosyncratic use of mirrors within shots to disorient and pivot perspective and subjectivity is exhibited often and with dexterity. Grandma’s favorite café, where she orders glass after glass of schnapps, is a surreal chamber decorated with cages of live exotic birds. Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, working in 16mm, uses quick zooms, rack focuses, and even swish-pans, making sparing use of long, meticulously choreographed takes to monumental effect, as in an overhead shot following a secret message being passed among workers on the factory floor, which gives a feeling of levity. The sophisticated style and accelerated rhythm of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day prefigures the designs and techniques of sci-fi showpiece World on a Wire, which Fassbinder made for TV a year later, also rediscovered owing to restorations by the Fassbinder Foundation and MoMA, in 2010.
With Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Fassbinder channels his unique capacity for self-interrogation and curiosity about new social modes of existence into mass media, proving—at least for five episodes—that it is possible to create popular entertainment that manages to be multifaceted, provocative, and meaningful. In an interview for the series, he explained that he wanted to “give [his] audience courage and tell them there are possibilities . . . You have a power you can put to work, because your oppressors are dependent on you.” Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is revolutionary precisely because it rethinks the very definition of what it means to be revolutionary.
Aliza Ma is a New York–based programmer and writer specializing in Asian cinema.