30 Years After Fassbinder: Where to Begin?

On June 10, 1982, thirty years ago today, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died. He was among the most remarkable filmmakers of all time, a director whose work I've wrestled with and adored for a while. His extraordinarily rich, diverse, and vast oeuvre has become the single body of film work that most fascinates me, though I still haven't been able to see it all (few people have).

I've written a bit about Fassbinder, and specifically his astounding TV movie World on a Wire, previously, but I've resisted writing about him more, partly out of a sense of humility in the face of his accomplishments and partly because I still feel, even after years of watching his movies, very much a beginner as a Fassbinder viewer.

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

But even with the acclaim Fassbinder has received and the esteem in which he is held by many cinephiles, his films seem to have trouble staying available to viewers — though roughly 75% of them have been released on DVD at one point or another in the US or UK, many of those editions have long gone out of print, and some, like the US DVD of Effi Briest, now sell for quite a lot of money on the used market. (I am grateful to my past self, who bought it for a perfectly reasonable price when it came out in 2003. The Arrow Films UK DVD is available, though.) Recently, Criterion's magnificent boxed set of The BRD Trilogy went out of print, though Criterion has reportedly said there will be a re-release at an unspecified time in the future.

I have decided to try to write a bit more about Fassbinder, then, to keep his name out there, to try to express some of what I find so affecting about his films, and, most importantly, to proselytize in his favor, with the hope that other people will do so as well, because it is only through proselytizing that more of his work may become, and remain, available to audiences worldwide. (If anybody out there wants to join me in writing about Fassbinder over the coming months, please feel free to put links to what you write in the comments here, or email me.)

Fox and His Friends (1975)

For this first post, it seems most appropriate to offer some suggestions for newcomers to Fassbinder.  Certainly, the immense amount of material he created makes beginning seem daunting, but even more than that, if you start with the wrong film, you may be put off too soon. Fassbinder's not for everybody (who is?), but I strongly believe you can't tell if he's for you if you begin in the wrong spot.

For instance, I spent years thinking I hated Fassbinder because the first movie I watched knowing it was a Fassbinder film* was The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I have since come to cherish it, but I really spent about five years avoiding everything by Fassbinder because I had so hated Petra von Kant on a first viewing.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

At his invaluable Fassbinder pages, Jim Clark suggests starting with The Merchant of Four Seasons. Not a bad suggestion, but it depends on who you are and what sorts of films you're used to. A lot of people could find Merchant a little hard to get into, a little too slow or ponderous. (If there are multiple movies you like that other people have called slow or ponderous, then by all means, start with Merchant of Four Seasons, because it's wonderful and full of many of Fassbinder's major concerns.)

The film that cured me of my Fassbinder-hate was Fear Eats the Soul. I went into it with low expectations, since I thought I hated Fassbinder, but I was fascinated by Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, so I thought, "Okay, I guess I have to break down and watch one of those godawful Fassbinder movies, since Far From Heaven is as influenced by Fear Eats the Soul as it is All That Heaven Allows..." It was actually the perfect attitude to have, because it caused me to put up the wrong defenses, and by the end of Fear Eats the Soul, I was weeping, absolutely shattered, utterly entranced, and totally and completely in love. After that, there was no turning back. I put every available Fassbinder movie on my Netflix queue and watched them all in about six months or so.  

Fear Eats the Soul is the only Fassbinder movie I've used in a class, and some of the students liked it very much, which is another reason why I'm pretty confident suggesting it as a starting point, especially since the majority of my students have never encountered much beyond recent Hollywood movies. No undergraduate class in my experience entirely loves any film in a language other than English, never mind one quite as "weird" (read: "not mainstream Hollywood") as Fear Eats the Soul, but there were at least a few students who really fell under its spell on the first viewing.

I think the next one I watched was The Marriage of Maria Braun, which I had seen in high school but hadn't known anything about, and had more or less forgotten. It's become my sentimental favorite of Fassbinder's movies, and would also make, I think, a pretty good starting point. It's among Fassbinder's best, certainly, and while there are others more accomplished in various ways, Maria Braun has, for all its difficult moments, a real likeability — perhaps "approachability" is a more accurate word. The story moves along at a faster rate than some of Fassbinder's others, and Hannah Schygulla's performance is entrancing and unsettling.

After that, you may want to watch the rest of the BRD Trilogy (Veronika Voss and Lola), Merchant of Four Seasons, or try World on a Wire. If you're feeling ready to branch out to some of the more ... idiosyncratic ... corners of Fassbinder's world, The Third Generation wouldn't be a bad choice. Or you may be ready to appreciate the slow, tense, suffocating world of Petra von Kant. If you can find a copy of Effi Briest, by all means watch it. If you want to explore Fassbinder's more explicit (in every sense) and controversial portrayals of sexuality and identity, try Fox and His Friends, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Querelle. By this point, you'll certainly know whether Fassbinder is for you, and if he is, you will want more, more, more — which means, it's time for Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The Third Generation (1979)

There's plenty more, of course, and all sorts of avenues to explore. But that's not the real challenge; the real challenge is to calibrate yourself, and it should only take a few movies to do that. Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Merchant of Four Seasons — not only some of Fassbinder's best, but films that will prepare you for the more difficult, challenging, messy others. The pleasures of Fassbinder's movies are inexhaustible.

We have been thirty years without him. And yet the world seems only to be beginning to know him.

*I had seen, and more or less enjoyed, The Marriage of Maria Braun and Effi Briest previously — the former because my father had a VHS of it, and I watched it sometime in high school when I was falling in love with German cinema; the latter during my senior year of college, when a 35mm print was shown at the University of New Hampshire and my German teacher told us if we didn't see it, we were depriving ourselves of a sublime experience. She was right, though I didn't fully appreciate it at the time because I thought the story was trivial and tedious. I was an idiot.

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