Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have been 69 this coming Saturday. Tragically, however, he died in 1982, just days after his 37th birthday. Somehow, he managed to cram 44 directorial credits and 43 acting credits into this all-too-brief lifespan. In the process, Fassbinder managed to become Germany’s most noteworthy filmmaker since the golden age of Expressionism, the mostly Weimar era of F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and G. W. Pabst. Fassbinder expressed a unique sensibility despite being heavily influenced by somewhat-overwrought Hollywood directors like Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller, but also by more contemporary figures like Jean-Luc Godard and Andy Warhol. (Andrew Sarris commented on the latter, declaring that “the least of Fassbinder’s films is infinitely more serious than the best of Warhol’s.”) Fassbinder did share a certain cynicism, what Sarris designated as “a bleak view of the world.” The director, for example, expressed the not-very-romantic opinion that “love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.” This could easily be considered the prevailing theme of Handler der Vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons) (1971).
Fassbinder had already directed a dozen films (several for television, to which he intermittently returned, including his monumental 1982 miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz) before The Merchant of Four Seasons brought him to America’s attention. The director was clearly indebted to the great German playwright (turned Hollywood writer by the rise of the Nazis) Bertolt Brecht (Threepenny Opera, Caucasion Chalk Circle, Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children), who returned after World War II to manage the Berliner Ensemble in Communist East Germany. Brecht was known for his “alienation effect,” an effort to prevent the audience from becoming too emotionally involved with the characters in the drama, forcing them to focus on larger themes than the individual. In The Merchant of Four Seasons Fassbinder uses his unsympathetic and essentially pathetic protagonist Hans, whose story is presented somewhat artificially, to raise questions that challenge the film-goer to deal with issues beyond the superficial soap opera he or she is witnessing. (There is perhaps a sense, too, that Fassbinder is presaging his own sadly suicidal fate a decade later.) This methodology, with its relentless depiction of—and wallowing in—misery, has not always endeared Fassbinder’s work to everyone. Sarris observed that the director’s “taste for fragmentation and alienation has never been my own cup of tea,” but he concedes that Fassbinder “appeals to the unregenerate pessimist in me.”
Although Fassbinder had many roots in what I would call the post-classical Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s, his work was extremely modern in being virtually devoid of sentimentality. Last week we showed Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, another film from 1971 with unsympathetic entrepreneurial protagonists drifting toward bad consequences. This was a period of considerable transition in the movies. Directors like Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich (whose The Last Picture Show we will be showing in mid-June) upheld the cinema’s traditional romantic values, while directors like Fassbinder, Altman, and Godard were pushing the medium in a new direction. What we will see emerging in the ensuing decade is a bit of an amalgam in a generation of directors schooled in the old cinema, but striking out in new personal directions, somewhat liberated from censorship, convention, and audience preconceptions. These will include more comforting figures like Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen, but also a manic strain, directors like Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. All were well aware of auteur theory and felt comfortable asserting it.