Cleaning out the Closet: Fassbinder's Fashion
Style can refer to any number of onscreen elements, but even at a glance, it’s easy to recognize a hallmark of the Fassbinder aesthetic: his characters really look like characters. They are distinctively, sometimes outrageously costumed. Part one of the Film Society retrospective, which spans 1969 to 1974, provides a good opportunity to examine how seemingly disparate films from a varied body of work can be examined in terms of fashion and stylization. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (72) is the most obvious fashion film of the bunch, with an all-female cast, and the titular fashion-designer character decked out in embellished pseudo-bondage outfits and a wide variety of wigs. The fashions of that film have already been intelligently discussed in this magazine's pages, but there’s no shortage of sartorial interest to be found in other films of the early half of Fassbinder’s legendarily prolific career.
Beware a Holy Whore
Beware of a Holy Whore (70) is a hot-tempered entry in the canon of films about filmmaking. The cast and crew of a film congregate at a Spanish hotel, awaiting the arrival of their director, Jeff (Lou Castel), and star, Eddie Constantine, playing himself. This is no idealization of the filmmaking process: Jeff is verbally abusive and bitter, and most of the players move through the hotel’s corridors with fashionable ennui, rather than the excitement we might expect behind the scenes. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, close to the end, the characters lie in repose atop one another outside by the water, a pile of limbs barely clad in skimpy, soft-colored garments. It’s perhaps the film’s sole moment of anything resembling calm. For the most part, the characters behave badly—women get slapped in the face multiple times, drinks are hurled across the room with near-cartoonish abandon—but they look good, and the cool aura they project keeps us from being turned off by their unlikability.
One of Turberville's bathhouse photos
Beware of a Holy Whore operates in a mode of weird languor shot through with screams (many of them out of the mouth of Fassbinder himself), as the camera pans over tableaus of people grouped in clusters alternatively swaying (as one girl in a Pucci-like minidress does frequently), fighting, necking, and gossiping. The bold outfits draw our attention, acting as focal points in scenes that might otherwise feel overcrowded with visual information. Hard-edged personalities are dressed up in appealing colors: jewel tones for many of the women and spiffy light suits for Constantine and Fassbinder. The ways in which the characters are consistently arrayed like pieces on a chessboard, sometimes for stretches without dialogue (set to songs by Leonard Cohen) suggest fashion photographs of the time, particularly those by Deborah Turbeville (who in turn claimed the influence of Fassbinder on her own work). One can’t know for sure whether Fassbinder was looking at such images, but his knowledge of Hollywood mythology is evident. Around the time of this film, through his next one, The Merchant of Four Seasons (71), Fassbinder watched 20 Douglas Sirk films. The two directors’ modes of stylization may be different (while Beware of a Holy Whore has emotional outbursts, it isn’t a melodrama) but Sirk is one who expertly utilizes expressive wardrobes and bursts of luscious color. A shot of one of the constantly put-upon women wearing a blood-red dress and gazing off forlornly surrounded by crystal-blue water has a color-as-emotion quality that shows Sirk’s influence and is made all the more powerful by the fact that this is one of the few moments that breaks from the highly populated scenes. More obviously Hanna Schygulla, herself a star within Fassbinder’s world, is often seen wearing a perilously short, low-cut white dress. The effect, combined with her fluffy blonde hair and cherubic face is that of a constantly bemused Marilyn Monroe for the 1970s. Hanna (as the character is also named) is enigmatic. She watches the others, and trades a few kisses with Constantine, though their relationship isn’t fully explored. In a late tableau, she sways dreamily in her white dress, lost in her own world. “I imagine Marlene Dietrich ice cold, like a businesswoman,” she says to Jeff. She’s aware of the iconography of movie glamour, and though she may be difficult to read, she’s less cold than some of the other figures that populate this simultaneously alluring and abrasive film.
Merchant of Four Seasons
In The Merchant of Four Seasons, Schygulla again takes on the look of a screen icon. This time around, she recalls a woman out of a film noir, with tailored suits and hair pinned up. She is the sister of Hans, a man home from the war who becomes a fruit merchant. Whatever uniform Hans wore before is replaced with a plaid shirt that he wears consistently as he peddles his wares in a loud, singsong voice. It’s a thankless job, one that disappoints his bourgeois family. His wife, Irmgard, is taller and slimmer than he is, and often shown in close-ups that allow her somewhat stony features and pursed red lips to convey a degree of melodrama. Like many of the women in Beware of a Holy Whore, Irmgard is a victim of male aggression, and gets slapped around by Hans. She isn’t languorous like the characters in the prior film. Rather, she is a mother trying to pull her life together. She appears well dressed, as many characters in foreign movies of the past do—foreignness and age can make even mundane outfits intriguing—and frequently wears reds and blues. When we first see her, she is clad in a long blue and red plaid dress, adjusting her garter (an act that can serve as either seductive or necessary, depending on the situation) and glasses. She only seems to wear the glasses when she is outside assisting with the fruit stand, perhaps as a means of spying on Hans, for he is unfaithful. Irmgard wears the plaid dress on repeated occasions throughout the film, and other characters repeat outfits as well, which provides a degree of verisimilitude. The Merchant of Four Seasons is a slice of life—less outwardly stylized than Beware of a Holy Whore, it uses fashion to signify the everyday, rather than to create eye-catching tableaus.
World on a Wire
Just two years later, Fassbinder made World on a Wire (73), a two-part philosophical science fiction film in a world far removed from these films that preceded it. Like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, World on a Wire is filled with wild costumes and makeup, and many of the women are striking in their severity. Beware of a Holy Whore alludes to classic Hollywood in some of its costuming, and so too does World on a Wire. Eva Vollmer, the daughter of a scientist who died in a mysterious accident, wears a leopard jacket with matching hat and back seam stockings. Another character, Maja, is made up dramatically in a way that suggests a Hollywood glamour portrait and David Bowie simultaneously. Such costumes make for an intriguing interplay with retrofuturistic sets filled with mirrors, curved furniture, glowing blue light, and bulky electronics. What most powerfully unites all of these films is their purposeful aesthetics, and while the subject of Fassbinder fashion, considering his impressive output, merits still more thinking and writing, perhaps it’s best to end (for now) on the words of one of his characters. Near the end of Beware of a Holy Whore, Jeff discusses his vision for the lighting of the film. He wants light with an “artificial tension.” Costumes introduce tension in Fassbinder’s films: hard versus soft, natural versus artificial, the costumed figure versus the background. Jeff continues: “It doesn’t matter if it seems unnatural.” Looking at the characters on screen, we can’t help but agree.