Curators Essay

The first newspaper review of a Fassbinder film in New York, and perhaps the United States, was Vincent Canby's favorable notice of Recruits in Ingolstadt. It was the ninth feature-length film Rainer Werner Fassbinder had made in two years, and the earliest shown at the New York Film Festival. Fassbinder, who had trained as an actor, tried unsuccessfully in 1966 to enter the recently established German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. In 1967 he joined a Munich "basement theater" group, whose space was soon closed by the police; his colleagues and he immediately created another group, the antiteater, for which he wrote, directed, and acted. It was with antiteater members, including Irm Hermann, Kurt Raab, Peer Raben, and Hanna Schygulla, that Fassbinder began making feature films the following year. In The New York Times (October 11, 1971) Canby described with his customary perspicaciousness the mood of Recruits in Ingolstadt as "comic melancholia" inflected by Brechtian theatrical strategy. A curious and affecting tension between realism of location and costume, and artifice of performance and makeup, suggested the characters' interior drama while it intensified the surface one. Ingolstadt as "comic melancholia" inflected by Brechtian theatrical strategy. A curious and affecting tension between realism of location and costume, and artifice of performance and makeup, suggested the characters' interior drama


Over the next six years Fassbinder made fourteen films, and every autumn Richard Roud, of the New York Film Festival, would show one: in 1972, The Merchant of Four Seasons; in 1973, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; in 1974, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; in 1975, Fox and His Friends; and in 1976, Fear of Fear. Meanwhile, museum film programs, like those at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, or the Pacific Film Archive, University Art Museum, Berkeley, would include the occasional Fassbinder film in various German series, and the pioneering distributor-exhibitor Daniel Talbot, under his New Yorker Films banner, would provide theatrical engagements for Fassbinder films that had premiered at the New York Film Festival. Even though Fassbinder's reputation as a major contemporary filmmaker was growing, accessibility to his works was limited.


In 1977, after Fassbinder had completed twenty-two theatrical films, Americans could see twelve of these thanks to New Yorker Films' traveling exhibition Fassbinder—The First Major Festival. Even for those of us already impressed by the artist's originality, insight, and energy, this series, which included the American premieres of such important features as Jail Bait, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, and Effi Briest, proved a revelation beyond our anticipation. Not only was Fassbinder a prodigiously talented, edgy, always surprising filmmaker of acute psychological insight and empathy, but he was also a penetrating social cartographer. He illuminated the ways society circumscribes and influences personal choice: without cynicism and with a natural affection, he made the everyday extraordinary and the bourgeois heroic. Even the films that failed were of enormous interest, sending the viewer's sense of space, rhythm, and dramaturgy whirling.


In 1977 Fassbinder finished his first English-language film, Despair, adapted by Tom Stoppard from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was released nationwide in February 1979, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, one of the filmmaker's favorite works, was given the honor of closing the New York Film Festival in October 1979. Maria Braun was the first in a trilogy Fassbinder wanted to make about the country that formed him, the Germany in which he spent his childhood and adolescence. This was the Germany of the Economic Miracle, presided over by Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of the Federal Republic. The Adenauer era began in 1949 with a nation in defeat and occupied, its cities in rubble; fourteen years later, Germany had recovered financially, and its citizens were living comfortably, somewhat expansively, and certainly aquisitively. Fassbinder speculated about the moral and psychological price of this breakneck turnaround, and he believed that with it came forgetfulness. How an individual knew himself was of paramount importance to Fassbinder, and thus the question of personal identity was critical. Identity is formed through engagement with a social whole, and Fassbinder, being German, was eager to explore the notion of German identity. Between the making of Maria Braun and his two subsequent narratives of Germany in the 1950s, Lola and Veronika Voss, Fassbinder completed several other films, including two significant works dealing with earlier periods of modern German history. In 1980 he finished his monumental (fifteen-and-a–half-hour) adaptation for television of Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. In this epic, Franz Biberkopf, an urban Everyman, makes his way through both the 1920s and a distressed society whose idealism is compromised by unemployment, violence, and radical politicians promising order. Through Biberkopf's experiences Fassbinder traces the Weimar Republic lurching toward the Third Reich. Lili Marleen, made in 1981, is Fassbinder's only film set in Nazi Germany, and it is one of his most lavish. Made with an international market in mind, its cast was multinational, its narrative pure Hollywood melodrama, and although it was dubbed into German for its American release, it was originally made in English.


The third part of the Adenauer Trilogy, Veronika Voss, opened the New York Film Festival in September 1982. In December The Museum of Modern Art hosted the American premiere of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The filmmaker, however, could not receive the accolades fast arriving from New York. Fassbinder, who had turned thirty-seven on May 31, died at home in Munich a week and a half later, on the morning of June 10. He left behind an astonishing legacy: forty-three films, produced for cinemas and/or television, made over sixteen-and-a–half years. About a quarter of these, early feature films and works for broadcast television, have not yet been seen in the United States. Of the remaining works, many, like Despair, Veronika Voss, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, have dropped out of distribution since their original release, while others, like I Only Want You to Love Me, have only recently become available through Leisure Time Features in New York. So, while it has been possible until now to admire Fassbinder's films individually or in small groupings, this retrospective for the first time allows us to see the work as a whole, to trace, both chronologically and thematically, his development, narrative strategies, and concerns, and to judge each of his films within the context of his entire body of work.


Another factor inhibiting receptiveness to Fassbinder was the media folderol attending his life. He was one of the first internationally celebrated filmmakers who was not embarrassed by being thought of as homosexual. He was often photographed in a leather jacket, defiant and unkempt; this image stood for the man, and this trite representation constantly intruded upon critical judgment of his works. His sudden death, reportedly due to exhaustion and substance abuse, only exaggerated the media's fascination with the ephemera of his naughtiness. When Fassbinder's late works, like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lola, Veronika Voss, and Querelle, appeared in America, their reception vied with the sententious "lesson" of his recent death, but the notion of achievement won out.


Fassbinder's oeuvre is breathtaking. While making films, he continued to direct for the theater and to write stage plays; for other filmmakers he wrote scripts and produced their works. He acted in about forty films. His activity was furious and his art unique. In the fifteen years since his death, his cinema has proven inimitable, but why is not apparent. His films appear effortless, and yet they are virtually impossible to parse. It is astounding that such organicity happened in what is fundamentally a collaborative art form. Part of the answer may be that Fassbinder worked consistently with a team whose members included intimates of the artist. Juliane Lorenz edited all of Fassbinder's films from 1976 to 1982, Kurt Raab was art director from 1969 through 1977, and Peer Raben composed twenty-seven original scores for Fassbinder. Barbara Baum was the costume designer for many of his films, and, when he was not shooting the films himself, he worked primarily with three cameramen: Dietrich Lohmann from 1969 to 1976, Michael Ballhaus from 1970 to 1978, and Xaver Schwarzenberger from 1979 to 1982. The stars of a Fassbinder film were part of an exceptional repertory troupe, and although a performer like Armin Mueller-Stahl in Lola, or Günther Lamprecht in Berlin Alexanderplatz, was memorable in the rare Fassbinder film in which each appeared, it is those protean actors and actresses who appeared from film to film, like Harry Baer, Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven, Irm Hermann, Hans Hirschmüller, Gottfried John, Gunther Kaufmann, Udo Kier, Ulli Lommel, Klaus Löwitsch, Brigitte Mira, Lilo Pempeit (Liselotte Eder, Fassbinder's mother), Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla, Volker Spengler, Barbara Sukowa, and Elisabeth Trissenaar, that give the Fassbinder canon such a satisfying heft. Although troupes are a venerable theatrical tradition, Fassbinder appropriated the idea for the cinema, using it so profoundly and liberally that the notion was both modernized and refreshed.


In the fifteen years since Fassbinder's death, public morality, always a matter of contingency, has caught up with, and in some ways raced beyond, the behavior described in a Fassbinder film. This retrospective therefore will allow viewers for the first time since the films were made to experience each directly and clearly, minus the shock and bewilderment of the new. It will, I believe, be evident that what was radical and original about Fassbinder—a restless and inquiring mind; an ability to unsettle convention, transforming it again and again into something original; a passion for honesty; and a tremendous capacity for beauty—;remains so.


This essay was excerpted from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Published by The Museum of Modern Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, the lavishly illustrated, 120–page book is edited by Laurence Kardish in collaboration with Juliane Lorenz. Included are essays by Kardish, Fassbinder scholars Thomas Elsaesser and Wolfram Schütte, and critic Georgia Brown with selections from Fassbinder's own writings; personal recollections by Lorenz, Harry Baer, Jeanne Moreau, Wim Wenders, Hanna Schygulla, and Volker Schlondörff; and a complete annotated filmography. The book is available in paperback for $16.50 at The MoMA Book Store.