Fassbinder A to Z
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the juggernaut of the German New Wave—a writer, director, actor, producer, editor (as Franz Walsch), and occasional art director and DP who made 40 features in barely a dozen years. His creative élan is all but unrivaled, such that it’s tempting to think of him as a one-man studio, but his prodigious output relied heavily on the standing army of collaborators he maintained, exalted, and tormented. “He was like a cat coming at you with his paws,” confided muse Hanna Schygulla. “You never knew whether he’d stroke you or claw you.” That typifies the can’t-live-with-him-can’t-live-without-him sentiment shared by many in his coterie, who even now attribute their careers to him as well as stories of emotional and physical stress (or abuse). Fassbinder was the head of a hermetic and deeply dysfunctional “family” whose members would walk miles on broken glass for him but often not an inch farther. Presented below are sketches of just a few of these key performers and collaborators (with more planned).
Note: Only works exhibited in the Film Society’s upcoming Fassbinder series, spanning his first five years as a filmmaker (1969-74), are discussed here.
Hanna Schygulla (b. 1943) is the sole member of Fassbinder’s stock company to achieve international stardom and arguably the foremost actress of the New German Cinema. She met Fassbinder at the Fridl-Leonhard Studio for actors in Munich, beginning her creative partnership with him in 1965 and playing the starring role of Joanna in his first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death (69). She appeared in roughly half his films, often cast as a naïf, gradually hardened by misplaced love or dire circumstance. Slight but voluptuous, her mien was a blend of soft femininity and Teutonic reserve; writer Georg Stefan Troller called her “a narcissus bereft of vanity.” Fassbinder lovingly crafted her look—ruby lips (apparent even in black and white), teeth like a double string of pearls, golden hair swept into a 1940s-style updo—frequently accenting her glamour at the expense of her co-stars. Critic Roger Greenspun captures the mix of painstaking construction and elemental grace, noting “[Y]ou have to have dreamed a lot of dreams in movie theaters to understand the level of labor that is somehow made evident behind the faultless, effortlessly magic image on the screen.” Her relationship to Fassbinder, both in terms of fertility and codependency, mirrors that of Dietrich and von Sternberg; indeed, there are shades of Morocco’s Amy Jolly in her portrait of Berta, a maid consumed by devotion to a soldier in one of their least-known pairings, Pioneers in Ingolstadt (71). She personifies saintly fidelity as the beleaguered fruit vendor’s sister and lone champion in The Merchant of Four Seasons (71), and fashions a biting study of opportunism borne of adversity in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (72). She fell out with Fassbinder over clashing interpretations of the victimized and disgraced Effi Briest (74), which led to a five-year hiatus. Since his death Schygulla has worked with a gallery of global auteurs including Godard, Scola, Wajda, and Sokurov, but her immortality owes to Anna, Karin, Effi, and Maria—the indelible heroines she shaped with her svengali.—Steven Mears
Irm Hermann (b. 1942) is perhaps best understood as Schygulla with no illusions to shed. Her characters’ arcs tend to begin where her counterpart’s end—already bitter, determined to mine what bounties she can from a wicked world. Fassbinder often juxtaposes the two actresses, giving Schygulla the human tragedy but Hermann the survivor’s edge. In Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Hermann is Alma, a confident local who trades favors for money. Though only a few inches taller than Schygulla, she towers over her in their shared scenes, Berta’s innocence in matters of love cast in ludicrous relief by Anna’s brazenness (propositioning soldiers in the park) and pragmatism (“If I were as smart as you, I’d starve.”) In The Merchant of Four Seasons, she’s married to Schygulla’s brother Hans (Hans Hirschmüller), an unraveling alcoholic. Ignoring her in-law’s aspersions, she takes a lover while Hans recuperates from a heart attack, then plots with him to cheat her husband at business. Again her height is salient; in a moment of intimacy, she confesses to the much shorter Hans that their difference in stature amuses her. She bears a faint resemblance to the lanky, offbeat character actresses then thriving in the New Hollywood (Shelley Duvall, Karen Black), and like them, can transform from scene to scene, taking on unexpected coltishness. But for much of the time, Fassbinder makes Hermann appear dowdy, cloaking her lean, porcelain frame in drab housedresses and unflattering glasses in Merchant and a wardrobe of black as the mute assistant who regards Schygulla with contempt in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The latter role, a mistreated servant, uneasily echoes her own association with Fassbinder, whom she claims beat her severely following a rejection. She featured in almost all the director’s early films, but worked with him only sparsely after 1975. “He could never let go,” she professed. “…Death was Rainer’s relaxation.”.—Steven Mears
Brigitte Mira (1910-2005) worked with Fassbinder just once in the showcased period; however, she created a character not merely iconic, but feasibly responsible for his transition to heightened Sirkian melodrama. As Emmi, the cleaning woman who falls for a Moroccan gastarbeiter half her age in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (74), Mira brings blowsy dignity to an outwardly pathetic figure. From her first dance with Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) in an unfamiliar bar, Emmi is drawn to him—shared loneliness and decency collapse their differences. Though retiring by nature, she invites him back to her home and into her life (“It’s good to talk to someone,” she declares earnestly), and as their relationship is tested by a petty, bigoted community and Emmi’s narrow-minded adult children, she weathers each insult with flinty resolve. Mira’s tired face betrays a lifetime of disappointment, and conceivably real empathy for her character (Mira was forced to conceal her father’s Jewish heritage to find work in Nazi Germany). At times her tenacity ebbs, as when she breaks down to Ali in an outdoor café and admits that the constant scorn is killing her, or when, in a brief surge of nationalism, she denies him his beloved couscous. One is inclined to read the Emmi/Ali romance as emblematic of Fassbinder’s off-screen affair with Salem; the short, unprepossessing Mira feels by turns protective, desirous, and mistrustful of the macho emigrant. But (in what may constitute wish-fulfillment on the director’s part, and a rare crack in his cynicism), her nobler traits always win the day. When her disparaging landlady asks her to store some belongings, Emmi gleefully offers Ali’s services as a mover; Miri’s singsong “Guten tag!” marks a victory, an impertinent request having been co-opted into a chance to prove Ali’s worth. The role could have lent itself to mawkishness, or bolstered accusations of misogyny in Fassbinder, but Miri would have none of it. Her portrayal, which secured her future work with the director, is a valentine to self-acceptance and an outcast’s right to love.—Steven Mears
El Hedi ben Salem (c.1935-76) occupies a singular niche in Fassbinder’s canon, since the voluble scribe gives him very little to say on screen. Fassbinder’s partner from 1971-74, the Moroccan-born Salem was typically cast for his aloof exoticism. He first features in a moment-of-death flashback at the close of Merchant of Four Seasons, as an Arab torturing Foreign Legionnaire Hans Hirschmüller until his comrades come to his rescue. Salem later appears in Martha (74) as a hotel guest sent by the concierge to deflower the repressed heroine, who abashedly dismisses him. In each, he mutters but a few untranslated words. His career-defining role was the title character in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but even there he is limited to simple, grammatically flawed declarations (“Couscous good”; “That woman bad.”). His Ali at times recalls Frankenstein’s monster—soulful, persecuted, capable of rage but loyal to those who show him kindness. To Salem’s credit he conveys these qualities almost nonverbally. He’s further attuned to the unjustness of his situation (“German master, Arab dog”) and to patronizing conduct, as when Emmi makes him flex his muscles for the titillation of her friends. Salem plays Ali as masculine but needy, firm but childlike (he extends his arms to show Emmi how much he loves her, as would a son to his mother). He hints at the depths of a man whose soul is indeed being eaten—if not by fear, by disgust at the indignities of the underclass. It’s possible that life imitated art; a drunken Salem stabbed three people in a Berlin bar, later hanging himself in prison after telling Fassbinder: “Now you don’t have to be afraid anymore.”—Steven Mears
Margit Carstensen (b. 1940) perhaps best embodies Fassbinder’s fixation with toxic unions, especially between persons of unlike social backgrounds. Her Petra von Kant is a wealthy, neurotic fashion designer who attracts a younger woman of modest means (Schygulla), believing Petra can help her career—a configuration well-known to the director, who invited his share of hangers-on. Carstensen credits Fassbinder with being “the first person who was interested in seeing me the way I was. He made me aware that the character I was playing was also about myself,” in the process eliciting a soul-baring display of insecurity and possessiveness. Two years later the spider becomes the fly, as Carstensen limns Martha, an unworldly librarian passed from her domineering father to marriage with the cruel, wealthy Helmut (Karlheinz Böhm). Though the plot feels indebted to Now, Voyager and Gaslight, Carstensen’s performance draws explicitly from the Sirk playbook. (To crystallize the affinity, Martha lives on Douglas Sirk Street and her last name is “Heyer”; Sirk directed second-string starlet Martha Hyer in 1957’s Battle Hymn). Like her character’s namesake, Carstensen plays the camp lines straight, rendering a woman who is both self-deceiving and outwardly victimized, defined by her need to please. Few actresses have been so methodically groomed for a role; every aspect of her bearing invokes Hollywood melodrama. She tackles the role with abandon, embracing all the incumbent hysteria and pathos. It amounts to one of Fassbinder’s most despairing portraits of human relations, but it came at a dear price. Her recollection that “[h]e provoked and tormented me daily with snide remarks; what he demanded was love, or let us say, voluntary submission” could be Martha’s very own words.—Steven Mears
Michael Ballhaus (b. 1935): Among Fassbinder’s close collaborators, the brilliant, self-taught cinematographer Michael Ballhaus—who shot 14 of the director’s films between 1970 and 1979—was one of the first and most successful to start a second career in Hollywood. Ballhaus grew up in northern Bavaria to a family of theater actors. His youthful passions were photography and stage acting; when he eventually came to filmmaking, it was partly because of the complex give-and-take it allowed between camera and actor. His transformative first exposure to the medium was a visit to the set of Lola Montes at the invitation of Max Ophuls, a friend of his parents, and the influence of Ophuls’s sensuous, mobile camera style runs through his work—from Martha’s famous 360-degree panning shot to the extended kitchen crawl in Goodfellas.
By the mid-Sixties, Ballhaus was working as the head cinematographer for Baden-Baden’s Südwestfunk television station. He shot Whity, his first film for Fassbinder, in 1970, and working under the director’s tight shooting schedules, economic budgets and stringent demands forced him to develop a highly original visual language on the fly—not to mention a working speed that later endeared him to American directors habituated to diva-like collaborators. Like Fassbinder, Ballhaus had come of age in the theater, and he retained a lifelong attachment to the idea of cinema as an artificially created space. (He never, like many of his contemporaries, gravitated towards the use of natural light.) At the same time, he was responsible for pushing Fassbinder towards a lighter, more fluid, arguably less theatrical cinematic style.
It’s jarring to think of Ballhaus shooting The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and a trio of John Sayles-directed Bruce Springsteen videos only five years apart. But it’s fitting that, after nudging Fassbinder’s small crews towards a style that would—in Tony Rayns’s words—“meet Hollywood on its own terms,” Ballhaus would give his Hollywood crews lessons drawn from working with the German giant: how to work fast, move light and adapt easily, how to choreograph a tracking shot like a theater director blocking a scene, how to make the camera show respect, even love, for an actor. After three decades spent in America—including a legendary seven-film collaboration with Scorsese—Ballhaus moved back to Berlin, where he lives, teaches and works today.—Max Nelson
Peer Raben (1940-2007) composed original scores for 28 of Fassbinder’s thirty features, beginning with Love is Colder Than Death and continuing through Querelle. When he first met Fassbinder, he was at the peak of his first career as an experimental theater director. Well versed in Brechtian dramatic theory, he had spent time working first at the Living Theater, then with Peter Zadek in Wuppertal. He played a key part in founding and operating Munich’s action-theater, where he and Fassbinder directed several productions together. The pair, who were lovers for a brief period in the late Sixties, kept up a close, symbiotic working relationship until the end of the director’s life; Fassbinder would often suggest sources and provide lyrics for Raben’s scores, and it was Raben who first introduced Fassbinder to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk.
Raben’s music for Fassbinder is often structured around repeated melodic fragments derived from—among other sources—music-hall and cabaret numbers, military marches, German pop songs and traditional liturgical music. In that respect, it’s as important as any other element of Fassbinder’s films at suggesting the historical, cultural and social forces at work on the director’s characters. It’s a distinctly urban music, evocative of wind-up street-corner barrel organs and smoke-filled piano bars, filled with diverse elements contrasting and colliding like sounds on a city block. That said, Raben’s compositions are consistently gorgeous and, with their recurring use of simple melodies and twinkling instruments like glockenspiels and xylophones, frequently childlike. “Melody,” Raben once said, “seemed entirely appropriate to break up Fassbinder’s laconic characters and, consequently, make them speak in a different way.” (The haunting piano theme of Berlin Alexanderplatz, for instance, both channels Franz Bieberkopf’s idealistic vision for a new life and hints at his tragic inability to bring that vision to light.)
Raben continued working prolifically after Fassbinder’s death, but his film music wouldn’t arrive at the same profile again until 2004, when he began a brief but fruitful collaboration with Wong Kar Wai. (His music appears in 2046 and “The Hand,” Wong’s contribution to the Eros omnibus.) Between 1971 and 1981, he directed three films himself. Two feature some of Fassbinder’s closest collaborators (Ingrid Caven, Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab); as of this writing, all three have gone undiscovered on these shores.—Max Nelson
Kurt Raab (1941-1988), nearly as versatile and virtuosic as Fassbinder himself, contributed to three-fourths of his film projects in capacities ranging from actor and screenwriter to costume designer, assistant director and editor, and arguably his most accomplished role, production designer. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Raab studied in Munich and began his association with Fassbinder in Love is Colder Than Death, playing the stiff-backed shop assistant who reprimands him for smoking in the store. His appearances soon widened in scope, including the depraved Bishop in The Niklashausen Journey (70)—dominating an ornately gaudy set which he also designed—and the art director in Beware of a Holy Whore, a niche he also filled off-screen. His portrait of middle class existence as a cauldron of angst answered the question posed by the title of Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (70), a performance made more immediate by his use of his own name. It’s impossible to envision Fassbinder’s work without fixating on Raab’s sets, sometimes oppressively claustrophobic, other times sublimely sumptuous (and in the case of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, both). He had a genius for infusing spaces with inner lives; the dwellings that first insulate and then imprison Margit Carstensen in Martha are bastions against independence. Whity (71), Fassbinder’s least successful film at the box office whose troubled shoot informed the premise of Holy Whore, was distinguished by Raab’s crafty embellishment of Sergio Leone’s Spanish sets. Though his solo work proved less illustrious, his vision is indivisible from Fassbinder’s and his protean talents make him a true merchant of four seasons.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-82) might be the most undervalued member of his own stock company. He appears in 10 of the features screening in this series and receives billing for just one, Beware of a Holy Whore (71). Fassbinder portrayals tend to incorporate his scowling, slovenly, perversely righteous persona, inaugurated in the opening shots of Love Is Colder Than Death when his small-time hood resists pressure to join a crime syndicate. Sometimes his roles are laden with symbolism (the Black Monk in The Niklashausen Journey, 70) or disruptive to the world of the film (the reviled Greek worker of Katzelmacher, 69). In Beware of a Holy Whore, about a troubled and finally abandoned film shoot, Fassbinder plays Sascha, the tyrannical production manager who bullies and manipulates the crew but expects their absolute loyalty. Speculation that he’s indicting himself (hence the rare screen credit) is complicated by the figure of Jeff (Lou Castel), the film-within-the-film’s director—a mercurial, abusive, bisexual alcoholic who wears Fassbinder’s trademark leather jacket. More likely he channels bits of himself into all his personages, their souls devoured by his own rampant fears (loneliness, poverty, ostracism). Maybe, then, Hermann’s epitaph is fitting. Especially to a man for whom love is colder than death.—Steven Mears