Film Studies: Please, please, don't make me write about Fassbinder

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The Independent Culture
"Rainer Werner Fassbinder," said my editor, fresh as a new page. "Does anyone remember him, do you think?"

Then she realised I was shuddering. "No, that's impossible," I said. "I can't write about him. There are some of us still trying to forget him."

"Really?" she said. "The National Film Theatre is doing a full two-month retrospective season. All of the films. How many was it?"

"Forty, I think, and only 37 years old when he died at last. Two months!" I moaned. "You could run everything the jerk ever did in not much more than 100 hours. Get it over with. No one will notice much about him now."

"How's that?"

"It was the 1960s and the 1970s," I tried to explain. "That terrible, wondrous time, when people were wounded and even ruined by outrage. And when Fassbinder was still alive, farting in the public face. He's a curiosity now."

"That sounds remarkable," she said. "So why are you afraid to write about him?"

"Afraid?" That stung, but it was true. "Don't give self-destructives a loaded weapon," I said. "You see, there are a few film-makers with whom, as soon as you begin to try a decent, useful commentary - something fit for a Sunday paper - you lose control. You become the person. You find you're in a movie they might have made."

"I'd love to see that," she said.

"No, you wouldn't," I told her. "You're not that cold. The last time I really tried to write about Antonioni," I said, "I had to be hospitalised as Monica Vitti. I was crouched in a corner, looking wan, for five months."

"You're joking," she guessed. "You haven't the patience. So Fassbinder turns you into one of his characters?"

"Or himself."

"That sounds so promising."

"Not at all, not when he was such an infernal bastard, so full of smug slogans about love being colder than death. Such a manipulator, so bent on humiliating his own actors, so violently messy - such a slob, such a thorn in your side. There was a time at film festivals when you couldn't escape him, him and his entourage - like actors determined to be stoned ghosts. It was very important to him that he lived so self-destructively, and that he kept making films - that contradiction was his greatest slogan: it was art as a kind of non-stop vomit. And when it was over, everyone suddenly felt the horror, and wanted to forget. Really, you must let me off this one."

"But he was important?"

"There's no great trick to that - not with movie, and its lust for promotion and novelty. He mouthed liberty, candour, openness, revelation, nakedness - and he was a tyrant. A great monster of a controlling force, just as sure as Goebbels had ever been that film was the favourite medium for fascists. He claimed he was just showing you a slice of life - raw meat with a pickle on it, and the pickle was one of your vital organs, squirting in your eye. He ran scenes from the shithouse of the rehabilitated Germany - he could only have been German - and he asked you to observe the gangrene, the hypocrisy ... "

"But people won't be offended still, or stirred?"

"You can't offend people any more, I think. And Fassbinder was such a mocker, such a tease, he turned offence into a camp game for kids."

"You're so passionate about him."

"There are great films. If you do 40, some will be grand."

"Which ones?"

"The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fear Eats the Soul, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The American Soldier, Beware of a Holy Whore. When he was working very fast, 10-day pictures, done for peanuts, with his weird family of actors - gross guys, faded queens, vicious hags and amazing beauties. He came out of his own theatre group, and in Germany nearly everything he did was for TV. And I'm not sure that he was truly a film- maker - he never had Godard's eye, or his love of rhythm. He was like a TV producer: he was a mix of Dennis Potter (without the lyricism, without the dream of cure) and Brecht and Celine. Throwing the vomit in the public's face and being so brazen about it - yet you couldn't help feeling his own warped tenderness."

"You met him?"

"Only saw him from the edge of the crowd. It was the films that were the warning."

"We should say that."

"Not in a Sunday paper."

"Why ever not?"

"Because Fassbinder didn't believe in your fine, neatly cut and folded sections - your Culture, your Real Life, your Business. He knew that paper had been stinking pulp yesterday, and that tomorrow it would be used to wrap fish, or some other kind of corpse. The paper for him - the society - was always stained and infected. The people above us - they'd hardly like that, would they?"

"Give 'em a chance." I like her.

She was looking back over the pages of her notes, briskly totting up the numbers. "Okey-dokey," she said, "I think we're a fit for space."

"OK," I sighed, and I was reminded of the new guy at the end of The Merchant of Four Seasons - the one who stares into the camera and knows he's signing his death warrant.