Film: Beneath the underdog

Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Not a very nice man, by all accounts. However, a major London retrospective of his films in the new year will enable us to examine his talent, which was immense
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The Independent Culture
AFTER HIS death aged 37 in 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was enshrined as the sacred monster of European cinema. No new article about him failed to mention his voracious consumption of alcohol and drugs, or his despotic behaviour towards friends and colleagues. Biographers, journalists and old colleagues did for him what Albert Goldman did for Elvis, mythologising his excesses, and slowly turning him into a grotesque comic-book figure in the process. Fassbinder was the overgrown baby, flabby and soft-skinned. ("The tantrums he threw, even while in the bath, made the resemblance undeniable," wrote his spurned lover, Kurt Raab.) He was the sadist, once beaten up by his own film crew for continually trying to humiliate a colleague. He was the tormented, suicidal bisexual.

Fassbinder's widow, Julianne Lorenz, wants us to stop concentrating on the life ("it's so unintellectual"). She edited all Fassbinder's films from Despair (1977) onwards, and was sharing an apartment with him in Munich when he died. Her account of living and working with him doesn't tally at all with the myth. "We led a normal, normal life. We got up, we ate, we went to work, we came home, we went to restaurants. Sometimes he was very honest with people and it hurt them. But I never found him a monster."

Next month's retrospective at London's National Film Theatre, organised in collaboration with the Fassbinder Foundation (which Lorenz now runs) includes all of the director's film and television work. It ought, at the very least, to remind cinemagoers what a protean talent Fassbinder's was. The season includes little-seen Westerns (Whity), science-fiction films (World on a Wire), period pieces and television dramas, as well as all the movies that made Fassbinder the darling of the festival circuit - films such as The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fear Eats the Soul, Lili Marleen, Querelle and Veronika Voss.

What made Fassbinder special? As one critic put it, he was West Germany's Balzac. Between 1966 and 1982 he made dozens of films that probed the reality of life in the brave new post-war world - a German Comedie Humaine. His movies revealed the racism of the society, its intolerance towards sexual difference, and its troubled relationship with the not-so-distant Nazi past.

An outcast himself, Fassbinder stood up for types regarded as pariahs or nonentities. His favourite figure in fiction was Franz Biberkopf, the former convict released from Tegel prison into the maelstrom of Twenties Germany in Alfred Doblin's Modernist masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Biberkopf is the little man as hero, a well intentioned, none-too-bright figure stumbling through life, always being dragged down. In Fassbinder's 13-part television adaptation of the novel, made in 1979-80, he is played by Gunter Lamprecht as the reliable, honest everyman. His counterpart (Gottfried John), with whom he falls in love, is the absolute opposite - unctuous, dissembling and disloyal. According to John, each man is the other's alter ego. "I think that's what fascinated [Fassbinder] about the original novel: the good personality and the negative one who are absolutely one and the same."

He may speak up for losers and outcasts, but he seldom sentimentalises or patronises them. As the film historian Thomas Elsaesser notes in his book Fassbinder's Germany, "one finds [in his work] an almost Bunuelian vision of the rights of outcasts and underdogs to be as mean, inhuman and evil as anyone else." Some of his characters behave with a viciousness that can hardly even be countenanced. You think, for instance, of the lacerating psycho-drama in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) or the casual brutality shown towards the Greek worker in Katzelmacher (1969).

But the films often also contain moments of great delicacy. There is a magical (if slightly kitsch) scene in Veronika Voss in which the sports reporter comes to the aid of the ex-movie star caught in a rainstorm. "Umbrella and protection," she smiles at him, as if he is an old-fashioned knight. As a rule, though, the women characters in his films are stronger and more complex than the men. "To my mind, women don't exist to turn men on. They don't have this function of merely being objects - that is one aspect of the cinema I really despise," he said. Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Barbara Sukova and Ingrid Caven all became international stars on the back of performances in his films.

Fassbinder was inspired by Hollywood melodrama and Brechtian theatre in equal measure. His range of influences was immense and often baffling. At the start of his career, when he was trying unsuccessfully to get into film school, he suggested that the play he most wanted to adapt for the screen was John Mortimer's Lunch Break. At first glance, the idea of the rebellious wunderkind of German cinema tackling a play by the creator of Rumpole is wildly improbable, but many of his projects were equally unlikely. Whoever would have imagined that he would want to make an austere, black-and-white adaptation of a classic 19th-century novel such as Fontane's Effi Briest, or that he'd tackle Nabokov, in Despair?

Fassbinder's films are often rough. They were made at such speed that they could hardly be otherwise. Even towards the end of his career, when he was working with bigger budgets, he still struck a ferocious tempo. Lorenz recalls that Lola was made in 24 days. She edited while the film was shooting and had the final cut ready two days after shooting was complete. The Marriage of Maria Braun took 30 days, "which was a lot for Rainer".

Both Despair and his final film, Querelle, were shortened to meet the whims of the producers, who refused to accept films more than two hours long. Lorenz insists that they were much stronger in their original state. She hopes to restore them. Who knows? The next Fassbinder retrospective may boast "director's cuts" of both. In the meantime, audiences should reacquaint themselves with the director. They'll find that, 18 years on from his death, his films are as uplifting, infuriating and entertaining as ever.

The Fassbinder Retrospective is at the National Film Theatre, London throughout January and February