Anti-semitic Fassbinder play draws Jewish fury

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The Independent Online
NO ONE ever accused Rainer Werner Fassbinder of subtlety or of pussy-footing around sensitive subjects. In his lifetime the German film director rarely failed to shock, and now, it seems, his talent has endured beyond the grave.

In 1976 Fassbinder wrote a play that, for some very sound reasons, has been kept off the German stage. The announcement by a theatre company in Berlin that it has dusted off the Fassbinder oeuvre and plans to share its contents with the audience has provoked a furious reaction from Jewish groups. "A document worthy of Goebbels," was the verdict of Andreas Nachama, president of Berlin's Jewish community.

The play, entitled The Rubbish, the Town and Death has been performed in New York - twice - as well as in other places, including Amsterdam and Copenhagen. It has been described in some quarters, and even by some prominent Jewish theatre people, as worthy of merit.

Its reception in Germany has been, as its publisher might say with just a hint of understatement, "mixed". A critic in 1976 practically drained his pen of all vitriol: "Stupid, ridiculous, deadly dull, hurriedly cobbled together" were some of the epithets that sprinkled the normally restrained columns of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Fassbinder tried hard to bring his play to the German people, but died in 1982 without realising the dream. Three years after his death, a theatre in Frankfurt decided the country was ready for Rubbish, the Town and Death, only to be confronted with the first-ever manifestation of Jewish power since the war. Abandoning their low profile, a group of Jews occupied the stage, aborting the production, it was thought, once and for all. There was a big scandal, from which intellectuals and artists drew the conclusion that Germany was still not "normal" enough to handle controversy of this kind.

Today, with the election propaganda of racist parties plastered over his neighbourhood, the director of East Berlin's renowned Maxim Gorki theatre has decided to give Fassbinder an airing. He is prepared to have discussions with Jewish leaders about the play's merits. They, however, are not prepared to have any discussions with him. "It is a scandal of the highest order to bring this piece to the stage," Mr Nachama replied tersely to his invitation.

The story is set in 1970s Frankfurt, during the city's first building boom. There are three main characters: A. Rich Jew (A is his initial), Roma the Whore and Hans von Gluck, the unreconstructed Nazi.

Both A. Rich Jew and von Gluck are property speculators, raping the old town of Frankfurt for profit. They wreak havoc on the city, evicting the little people from their homes so that they can build glimmering skyscrapers for banks.

This much of the background is said to be non-fiction: in the 1970s, Frankfurt's landscape was transformed, and many local people, especially left-wing squatters, reacted violently to the developers. Fassbinder, a true Socialist, naturally sided with residents who were turfed out of their homes. It is also true, according to the Gorki Theatre's producer, Manfred Mockel, that "quite a few property speculators were Jewish".

Mr Mockel believes the play is "frightfully misunderstood". "As always, Fassbinder writes not from his head, but from the guts," he explained. The play is breaking a post-war taboo, which dictated that no Jew should be presented as an anti-hero in German art.

Fine, but how far can the Nazi stereotype of Jews be pushed? Fassbinder goes for broke. Von Gluck, a business rival of A, wants to find out about his competitor's edge, and interrogates Roma, the prostitute who knows him intimately. Roma reveals that A is well-endowed: "20 centimetres long and thick as a beer bottle". That explains everything: Von Gluck curses and wishes all Jews had been gassed.

There is no complex character-building in this play. Fassbinder portrays Nazi fear of Jews crudely, bringing the story to his customary tragic end. The moral? Draw your own conclusion. "Fassbinder was never good at explaining things," Mr Mockel said.

Nor were his politics ever clear. Since the Second World War, some of the German left has had a problem with Jews, as witnessed by urban terrorists' attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets. Fassbinder lived in the anarchistic milieu on the fringes of this movement, centred around Frankfurt and nurtured by the city's squatter rebellions.

Maybe that is reading too much into a work that by-passes the brain and comes straight "from the guts". But whatever his motives, and whatever points he was trying to make, he makes them by airing the most repulsive anti-semitic cliches. "There are people who feel hurt by the way this topic has been handled," Mr Mockel admits. Still, the theatre is going ahead with plans to stage the play early next year.