Arts: Perchance to dream: Fassbinder is coming to the ICA. Chris Petit remembers an original

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The Independent Culture
SLEEP WAS always a problem. He died alone some time in the middle of a night in June 1982, slumped in front of the television watching an old movie, 2000 Years in Sing Sing, obese and burnt ed out and not yet 40. By the end, his intake was prodigious a minimum of three grams of cocaine, some heroin, a bottle of bourbon, a few beers, 100 cigarettes, four square meals and three handfuls of sleepers a day. Fassbinder was a liability, to himself, to his actors and technicians, and to his lovers. Two boyfriends committed suicide in that same spirit of bewilderment that he, in his genius, managed to channel into his work.

He (ab)used people shamelessly but abused himself most of all. You can see from any filmed interview that he was lonely and insecure, but unafraid. He was a prodigy, with the terrible certainty of youth: if popular music was the prerogative of the young, then why not cinema? He applied the principles of Andy Warhol's Factory, with its superstars and porno outrage, to a publicity-shy West Germany, where, since Hitler, aggressive self-promotion had been frowned upon. There, cross-fertilised with the gangsterish radicalism of Baader-Meinhof, his work became a cultural terrorism. Fassbinder enfant terrible of the New German Cinema rampaged through the West German state-subsidy system, coercing it into paying for product intrinsically hostile to it.

No one made films like him, so fiercely uncompromising and yet with such tenderness. He was a similar riddle of contradictions gentle and tyrannical, a radical and an autocrat, profligate and disorganised in his private life, economical and swift in his work, which was a monument to the protestant ethic: a film for more or less each year of his life, some scrappy, at least half- a- dozen masterpieces. Between April 1976 and January 1979, with only 175 days' filming, he produced five features, his excerpt for the feature film Germany in Autumn, and two feature-length television productions. The discipline was extraordinary.

His private life was a rehearsal for the films, finally indistinguishable from them, with the greatest cost to himself: it was the only possible way. His actors were his fragile family, a childlike parody (with all the attendant cruelties) of the adult version, full of forbidden games, while the films felt like adult versions of the dressings up of childhood. Weekends were abolished, boredom banished by work.

On set he ruled by fear and favouritism. As an actor himself, he had a clearer idea of what he wanted from actors than most directors, and they relied on his estimation, which made them vulnerable. There were terrible ostracisms, along with the tantrums and power plays brutal versions of the truth game from which some never recovered. No one has exposed the cruelties of human behaviour so remorselessly on (and off) film.

His ambition was to be fat and ugly on the cover of Time magazine. 'When ugliness has finally reclaimed all beauty, that is luxury,' he wrote. He himself was strangely beautiful in his ugliness when young, like the sort of urchin street boys that Pasolini favoured. Fassbinder started on the streets - prostitution and cinema-going provided him with all he needed to know about being a film director and actor.

He is now in danger of being forgotten, partly because few have dared follow his path. If he has a successor, it is probably Madonna. 'For Nothing is more fascinating than fame,' he wrote. 'For Nothing is equal to the terror of dreams come true.'

He has some pale , brattish imitators in young film-makers like Kaurismakichk and Tarantino, but the true comparison is with Orson Welles. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was the talent that Orson Welles never realised. He had Welles's genius for cinema plus an application and access to constant insfundingend production money that Welles never had. And as an actor he bad had the screen presence of Welles he was the only other actor director who could have played Harry Lime.

(Photograph omitted)