He rose from obscurity to international fame, lived a flamboyant life-style filled with emotional cruelty, kinky sex, and extravagant gift giving. He was obsessed by the movies, making 35 feature films in 13 years. He was openly homosexual, married twice (once with his boyfriend as best man) and supported a 30-gram-a-day cocaine habit by demanding his salaries in cash.
His dream was to win an Oscar for best director and "to be ugly" on the cover of Time.
He almost made it.
On June 10, 1982, just after finishing post-production on Querelle, one of his most controversial films, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died.
Officially, the cause was a "cerebrovascular accident"a stroke. Unofficially, it was a combination of cocaine, barbiturates, alcohol and a nonstop schedule. He had been destroying himself for years, overworking and overconsuming in a mad attempt to cram as much experience into as short a time as possible.
Fassbinder gathered a family of talented neurotics around him, manipulated and loved them and was in turn loved and hated by them. He was vilified by the political Left and Right and was passionately adored and despised by film critics and audiences. He was raised to the status of cultural icon and dismissed as a flash in the pan.
He was Fassbinder. No one could be neutral about him.
At the height of his career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a household name in Germany and fast becoming one throughout the world. His works saturated German television. They routinely won the top awards (or at least inspired shouting matches) at the major film festivals. When The Marriage of Maria Braun was released in 1978, it broke box office records in Germany as well as becoming an enormous international hit. Money began pouring in. Producers camped on his doorstep with contracts. Fassbinder was bankable.
Years later it's easy to forget all that. Bankable directors, like bankable stars, come and go. Yet the memory of Fassbinder remains, his scandal-ridden life becoming grist for biographers. Most recently, Robert Katz's Love Is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder has emerged on the marketplace. It's chock-full of second-hand details concerning the exact quantity of drugs consumed and Fassbinder's excursions into fist-fucking and flagellation, but what the book lacks is any concrete understanding of the man's art. Katz practically ignores what Fassbinder lived and died forhis films.
In the spring of 1976, I saw my first Fassbinder film. I was an undergraduate at a very film-conscious school, the University of Illinois, and I had a reputation for film bingeing. During my first semester, I saw 60 films, sometimes taking in three a day. By the beginning of the second semester I was becoming jaded.
My best friend Michael (also a film junkie) first pointed out the long, almost preposterous German name of the director to me.
"Oh please," I said. "A recent German film." That semester if it wasn't French and didn't star Jean-Louis Trintignant, I was dubious.
But that name kept reappearing. I'd see it in film magazines or hear it mentioned in passing by professors. So when Fassbinder turned up on the film calendar again. I was curious. I bribed Michael with the promise of pizza after the movie, and we went.
For close to two hours not much happened.
In a hotel on the Spanish coast, the cast and crew of a film await the arrival of their director, their star, and the production money. When the director, a punky, good-looking blond wearing a leather jacket and having boyfriend trouble, arrives, he finds everything in chaos. Drunken accusations, destruction of hotel property, sleeping around, you name it. While the director broods, the production manager, an overweight, rather ugly little man, tries to calm everyone. Eventually they finish shooting the film.
People were walking out all during the screening. True, there wasn't much action, but the staging of the film was fascinating, the bickering and collapse of the characters so real. The whole experience was like being trapped at a bad party. You wanted to get away, you almost couldn't breathe, but the sight of so many people's claws coming out proved to be tooÖentertaining in a way. You couldn't budge. You wanted to see it through to the bitter, nasty end.
When the lights came on, about half the remaining audience stood up and applauded; the other half booed. I wasn't sure what I thought. How could I truly say I enjoyed it? I didn't even know what the title meant. Beware of a Holy Whore. Michael hated the film. I was stunned, shell-shocked.
Later I discovered that ugly little man was Fassbinder himself. Beware of a Holy Whore actually told the slightly fictionalized story of what had happened during the making of a previous Fassbinder film, Whity. The more I thought about it, the more resonance it had. But it also made me uncomfortable. In 1976 I was still adjusting to being out, trying to fit into a rather close-knit, small-town gay community, making friends, making enemies, gaining and losing a lover. I could never be as bitchy, as downright pathetic and vicious as those people in the movie. Could I?
Then there was the fact that Fassbinder was gay, and no one seemed to care. In the days of gay liberation and political consciousness-raising, that was an unusual, not to mention vaguely frightening, thought. What about the Struggle? What about the oppression of gay people? On the lighter side, here was a man who, when it came to casting someone to play himself, chose a pretty-boy and then east himself in an equally prominent role, as if smirking at critics who would cry "narcissism!" I was hooked. I wanted to see more.
"I know you hated the last one," I told Michael, "but this one's different."
The night before, I had experienced my second Fassbinder film, Fox and His Friends, and, with the fervor of one born-again, I persuaded Michael to see it with me that very evening. It was different. Fox was a film in which gay characters took center-stage, but one in which homosexuality was taken for granted. An illiterate, out-of-work carny named Franz (played by Fassbinder) wins a fortune in a lottery and then loses it all when his upper-class lover tricks him into investing in the failing family business. Once again destitute, Franz is deserted by his lover and ODs on sleeping pills in a subway station.
Grim, cynical, maybe even a bit melodramatic, it's true, but the film was a revelation. It wasn't about homosexuality at all, but about emotional and financial exploitation, about self-oppression. Franz's temper and extravagance are as much responsible for his downfall as his lover's greed, and thus his death, while sad, is also inevitable.
Not that I thought about much of this as I watched the film. A good film doesn't hit you ideologically first, it hits you visually. It gives you scenes you can't forget. In Fox, it's this one: Franz's lover, Eugen, takes him to a high-class clothing store run by Eugen's former lover. As Franz tries on suits in the dressing room, Eugen and his ex talk quietly. They obviously still love each other; we suspect that Eugen is only with Franz for his money. The camera moves away from them, making its way across the room, when suddenly it tilts up toward the ceiling. There, in the mirror used to keep an eye on potential shoplifters, we see Eugen and his ex-lover passionately kissing.
After the film, I was halfway down the row heading for the door when I realized Michael wasn't behind me. I turned around and saw him still sitting in his chair.
"Are you all right?" I asked, walking back to him.
He got up, glassy-eyed, and said, in a breathless whisper, "I loved it!"
For the next few years Fassbinder flooded the campus. Not only was there a backlog of early films, but the man kept cranking them out. They didn't all have gay characters. They weren't all even very good. Some were static, almost excruciating experiments linked to Fassbinder's early avant-garde theater days. Some weren't even available in America, adding to their allure. But the sheer number of really good, even great, films we saw was mindnumbing: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Effi Briest, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Chinese Roulette, Wildwechsel.
Fassbinder seemed to carve out his own film industry, using the same actors, the same crew, sometimes similar stories from film to film. His philosophy was, on the whole, bleak. Film critic Thomas Elsaesser called it "a cinema of vicious circles," noting that the typical situation in a Fassbinder film involved a dominating figure (parent, spouse, boss) who makes sadistic demands on, betrays, deceives or abandons the protagonist, who, for some reason, is unable to escape the domination. But the antagonist also has little control over his or her actions, possessing complex, sometimes unconscious motives. "What the films ultimately appeal to," Elsaesser says, "is a solidarity between victims."
Yet occasionally Fassbinder is capable of seeing a hopeful side to life as well. It can be the simple easing of loneliness which occurs at the end of Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven or the suggestion that the interracial, age-disparate relationship in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul will persevere in spite of everything. Life, as Fassbinder sees it, is never easy. It is a struggle, full of betrayal and drudgery and death. Economic, social, and political forces all work to an individual's detriment. If you do survive, you are never unscathed.
Grim, grim, grim...and yet Fassbinderís characters, even his most reactionary and despicable ones, are never ridiculed or viewed as inferior. Their humanity came through in never-to-be-forgotten moments on the screen, moments that made Michael and I hold our breath not only because we were astonished and moved; we also delighted in the visual, structural, and emotional soundness of these films. They made sense to us, even on some levels we couldn't quite understand.
By the time I graduated, Fassbinder was in his heyday. Andrew Sarris was teaching an entire class on Chinese Roulette at NYU. Michael and I became fanatics, spouting our favorite lines, spending hours condemning distributors for not making certain seminal Fassbinder films available. We had heard a few things about the man's personal life, read a few interviews. We knew he was flamboyant, always doing things to shock the status quo, never without his beat-up leather jacket and fedora. He was the enfant terrible, the bad boy of world cinema. We were thrilled. We wanted to be bad boys, too.
I wrote a screenplay about inescapable societal forces. Michael made a film about a woman obsessed with her blender and bought a leather jacket. We wanted to be Fassbinder, only not so fat and not so ugly.
In 1981, I moved to Houston. Michael and I traded our Fassbinder raves long distance now. In rapid succession, Lili Marleen, Lola, and Veronika Voss were released. Fassbinder's films had evolved, gotten more visually extravagant, more emotionally complex We had heard rumors of his 14 ½ hour television film, Berlin Alexanderplatz, of his new film based on Jean Genet's brutal and erotic Querelle. His next film was supposed to be a biography of Rosa Luxembourg starring Jane Fonda. The manís energy frightened us a little.
"How can he do it?" Michael asked, his voice too far away.
"I donít know," I said, and then thought, quite suddenly, heís working himself to death.
When I read in the newspaper he had died, I was working a boring job in an incredibly oppressive environment. I felt trapped. I felt I was living in a Fassbinder film. I went home sick that afternoon not because I was particularly upset, but because Fassbinder's death seemed to signal an end to a period of my life. Things were different after that.
Michael and I called each other less and less. It wasn't that we had nothing to talk about; it was other things. Michael was involved in an obsessive love affair. I was getting caught up in politics. Neither one of us was making enough money to support our phone bills. Life was like that. Fassbinder would have understood.
Over the next five years I learned more and more about Fassbinder's personal life, mostly from Ronald Haymin's excellent book Fassbinder Filmmaker. He emerged as alternately a paranoid, vicious oppressor of those closest to him; a shy little boy in a grotesque, gargantuan body; an exploiter of people's talents and emotions; and a charismatic genius. Somehow, amid all the overindulgencethe drugs, alcohol, food and sexFassbinder channeled his obsessive, tormented personality into his films, creating a distanced, fictionalized mirror of his life.
So when I read a slick, "tell-all" biography like Robert Katz's book, Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I wasn't "shocked." Oh, there are a few more grisly details, a few more glimpses into the neurotic group psychology of Fassbinder's "family," but far from illuminating "dark depths of a genius," Katz merely stands back and doles out sleazy tidbits, pretending to be worldly, pretending not to judge a man whose talent far outstrips his biographerís. Nevertheless, Katz canít help holding his nose from time to time. He canít keep himself from interjecting snide little comments which tell us more about the narrator than about the subject of the book.
Besides being permeated with a thinly veiled homophobia (Katz even claims someone "became" homosexual just by associating with Fassbinder), Love Is Colder Than Death seems second-hand and padded. Half of the interviews and recounted incidents have appeared in other booksnotably Haymin's critical biography. The original interviews Katz provides are with the most unreliable of Fassbinder's acquaintancesones who either held violent grudges against him (like actor Kurt Raab) or who were too naive to see what was going on around them (Juliane Lorenzthe second Mrs. Fassbinder). The book has been stretched out to 200 pages by using a large typeface and including appendices, a sketchy filmography, and a "cast of characters"a listing of who's who in the book, what their relationship was to Fassbinder, and what they are doing now.
But the biggest problem with the book remains Katz's silence concerning Fassbinder's work. While Haymin's thesis mixes the man's life with his films, making only cursory distinctions between them, Katz treats the films merely as titles or as brief stops on the road to Fassbinder's inevitable end. That view, to anyone who knows the films at all, is hogwash.
Fassbinder and his films were one and the same. He put everything he was into them, even when it meant they would suck him dry. I think he knew it would happen like that. Like a character in one of his films, Fassbinder was unable and unwilling to escape from the thing that was consuming him, the thing he loved the most.
The Holy Whore is the cinema. And Rainer tried to warn us.
But he found a way of beating his devouring lover. He joined with it, became a part of it, leaving behind the mess he had made of his life and encoding himself like a strand of DNA on every frame of celluloid he shot. When Michael and I, thousands of miles apart, watch his films, Rainer Werner Fassbinder replicates before our eyes.
Recently I rented a video of one of Rainer's films that had managed to slip through my fingers. It was his only film in Englishhis version of Nabokov's novel Despair. Afterwards, I thought of Michael. I tried calling him several times over the next few days, but he was always out. When I finally did reach him, I didn't identify myself. I simply put on a thick German accent and spoke one of Michael's favorite Fassbinder lines from The Marriage of Maria Braun.
"Hello, Mr. Bill," I said, "Would you like to dance?"
It was as if the intervening years hadn't happened. It was as if Fassbinder had never died. But then, of course, for us and for thousands of others, he never did.
"The more real things get, the more like myths they become. There have always been myths, but the myths of earlier times were, Iím convinced, bad ones, because they made people sick. So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well."
Fassbinder Filmmaker, by Ronald Haymin, Simon and Schuster, $9.95, paper.
Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, by Robert Katz, Random House, $19.95, hardcover.
All Fassbinder quotes taken from interviews which appeared in:
Fassbinder, edited by Tony Rayns, British Film Institute, London, 1980.
Fassbinder, various authors, translated by Ruth McCormick, Tanam Press, New York, 1981.
Originally published in The San Francisco Sentinel, August 21, 1987