Rainer Werner Fassbinder – widely considered the greatest German director to emerge since the Second World War – is the subject of a huge DVD reissue programme at the moment.
Two boxset collections of his colossal film output – around 40 films between 1969 and his premature death in 1982 – have recently been released, as has the entirety of his epic TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz. A successful theatre production of his film and play The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant has just finished its run in London.
Fassbinder is typically presented as a rarefied, arthouse figure. In fact he was anything but that. His work is an example of how radical artists can make use of and comment on the most popular cultural forms of the day.
His films took Hollywood archetypes and tried to turn them inside out to produce highly politicised cinema. This might be a familiar move in the case of vaguely left wing or anti-war thrillers and action films – but Fassbinder had little interest in these kind of heroics.
The Hollywood form that most fascinated Fassbinder was melodrama, the “weepies” and “women’s films” of the 1950s.
In the sufferings of these films’ housewives and mothers, the opulence and stylisation of the sets and the emotional manipulations of the plots, Fassbinder saw a way to criticise the conformist and conservative world of post-war West Germany – a society dominated by the US and by denial of the recent past.
So many of Fassbinder’s 1970s films were strange attempts at making politicised weepies. The greatest example of this is arguably his 1974 film Fear Eats The Soul. This was partly an adaptation of All That Heaven Allows, a 1950s weepie that unusually touched on the sexism and class conflict lying behind the US suburban dream.
Fassbinder changed the film’s central couple to a lonely working class woman in her sixties and her much younger North African lover – one of West Germany’s “guest workers” whose cheap labour helped create the country’s post-war “economic miracle”.
Fear Eats The Soul is sharp and emotionally affecting in its critique of racism, ageism and snobbery. Here and elsewhere, Fassbinder used the devices of popular cinema out of love for their form and critique of their content.
Unlike other radical directors he had no interest in social realism. Instead, his films are stylised, often cold and glossy, unafraid of glamour and artifice.
The lack of counter-cultural machismo was intended as a more insidious, stealthy way of getting a left wing message across – a critical, alienating misuse of Hollywood devices deployed as a political weapon.
Fassbinder was “out” as both a gay man and a supporter of the far left. Both positions made him many enemies in the 1970s. He claimed that his phone was tapped as part of the “war on terror” of the time, against the Baader-Meinhof group of left wing terrorists.
By the late 1970s Fassbinder’s films started confronting Germany’s Nazi past. His Federal Republic trilogy started with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978). It used studies of successful but compromised women to show how the prosperity of the era rested on repression and amnesia.
Fassbinder would frequently use TV rather than film as a way to break out of the arthouse and reach a mass audience. His TV work included Eight Hours Are Not A Day (1972), a drama series about a working class family that aimed to show how workers could achieve their aims through solidarity. It never finished its run.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) is perhaps his most famous TV work, a sweeping drama set in Berlin’s underworld just before the Nazi takeover.
It was broadcast in full by Channel 4 in the early 1980s – something unimaginable today as audiences are ever more patronised. Fassbinder, for all his love of Hollywood, never talked down to his audience.
Just before his death Fassbinder had finally come some way towards finding the wide audience he always wanted for his attacks on conformity, consumerism and capitalism. His last film, Querelle (1982) was shot in English as an intense, dreamlike fantasy based on Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle de Brest.
Tragically, Fassbinder died of a heart attack at the age of 37, brought on by drugs and overwork. At the time he had just started work on a biopic of the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.
We will never know exactly what this would have been like, although apparently he wanted Luxemburg to be played by Jane Fonda. Perhaps it could have been the film where Fassbinder’s revolutionary politics and his abstract version of Hollywood could really have collided into the popular radical film he dreamt of.
Despite his early death Fassbinder left behind a huge body of work in which the popular culture of capitalism is interrogated, plundered and abused in the service of the left.
Today we are still dominated by Hollywood’s dream factory – but Fassbinder’s work suggests ways in which we might take it apart and use its techniques against it.
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection is available in two DVD boxsets from Arrow Films. The TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz is available on DVD from Second Sight Films, while Artificial Eye has also recently released a two volume DVD compilation of Fassbinders’ work.