Eight Hours Don't Make a Day
For a long time, I let the Blu-ray discs of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 mini-series Eight Hours Don't Make a Day (Acht Stunden sind kein Tag) sit on the shelf. Watching them would mean I had very little left of Fassbinder's extensive body of work to see for the first time — mostly just a couple of TV films that have rarely, if ever, made it to home video anywhere. Everything else, I've seen at least once. It's been a quest and an obsession for more than a decade. Certainly, there are many pieces of Fassbinder's oeuvre that I will re-explore throughout my life, but the pleasure of first discovery has come close to an end. So the discs sat there, frequently glanced at, the case opened, the booklet read and re-read, but no more.
And now here we are in the midst of the new corona virus, isolating at home. What better time to watch 495 minutes of Fassbinder? And so I did, and it was glorious.
Eight Hours is unique among Fassbinder's work in being truly comic: not just funny, which it is, but also the opposite of tragedy. It's warm, humane, and optimistic — not words usually associated with Fassbinder! The series is often described as utopian, and that's justified, but I think comedy, in a Shakespearean sense, is a bit more accurate, because in the world of Eight Hours, bad things happen but they don't end in misery. The good people triumph, the bad people see the error of their ways, and everybody gets married. Fassbinder was, unsurprisingly, planning to complicate all that in the episodes he was not allowed to make (the series got cancelled before the last few planned episodes went into production), so what we're left with is a truly delightful dream of companionship, camaraderie, and the triumph of imagination over obstacles.
This made it perfect viewing for this moment, when we are living in fear of COVID-19 and are encouraged not to physically interact with other people for fear of spreading the virus or becoming ill ourselves. For me, at least, its honest warmth and humanity was comforting without feeling delusional or sentimental. It's quirky, even goofy, and yet deeply serious at its core, and often delightful — how often, after all, do we get a story where a subplot involves something like, for instance, the creation of an underground kindergarten?
And the performances are marvelous. There's some of the standard Fassbinder style of deliberately wooden or caricatured acting, but there are also more accessible and engaging performances than any other Fassbinder work before Fear Eats the Soul. Louise Ulrich is particularly wonderful as a loveable, indefatigable schemer/con artist of a grandmother. (If you watch nothing else of Eight Hours, watch the second episode, "Oma and Gregor" — it focuses on Ulrich particularly, and is an utter delight.) And because the series is concerned overall with how people become better as their environment becomes better, even most of the characters who are dislikeable at some point have a moment of grace.
When Eight Hours was broadcast, it became hugely controversial. Right-wingers obviously hated it for showing workers as having power in their workplace, but doctrinaire left-wingers also hated it because they thought it was not realistic enough, that it didn't give enough attention to unions, etc. This is hardly surprising, because when it comes to aesthetics, the right and left are often aligned, and Fassbinder typically annoyed them both for this reason, since he refused to create either capitalist realism or socialist realism. Fassbinder's political sympathies were with the anarchic left, but his aesthetic sympathies were first with the French New Wave of Godard and Straub–Huillet, with the pop art of Warhol and others, with classical Hollywood and film noir, then with the specific melodramatic style of Douglas Sirk (and also some of Joseph von Sternberg, particularly the von Sternberg/Dietrich films). Brecht is often mentioned in conjunction with Fassbinder, and there's no question that he was familiar with Brecht (indeed, he played the title character in Schlöndorff's 1970 film of Brecht's first play) and interested in distancing effects, but the Brechtian force in Fassbinder's cinema was always filtered through and inflected by his interest in film genres, especially (after 1970) melodrama. One of the things that makes Fassbinder's work so compelling is the contradiction in his desires regarding audiences. One part of him wanted to alienate and even assault the audience; another part of him desperately wanted to make popular, beloved movies. We might argue influences for ages (Artaud! Brecht! Godard! Sirk!), but the force in Fassbinder is more primal, like a dog that desperately wants you to pet it and play with it, and also, equally, wants to tear your face off.
With Eight Hours, though, Fassbinder was given the mandate to create something like a feel-good movie. As a filmmaker and theatre director, he had, by this time, gotten some notice in Europe, but he was still young, still new. Westdeutscher Rundfunk offered him more production money than he'd ever seen before, but it was for a specific purpose. They wanted him to make a leftwingish version of a series in the popular family story genre. Fassbinder was excited by the challenge. In terms of his skills and aesthetic, the timing was perfect. In August 1971, Fassbinder made The Merchant of Four Seasons, a film showing a tremendous step forward in his abilities, followed in January 1972 by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which uniquely melded a narrative situation from melodrama (or even porn; the two are often related) with the affect of the slowest of New Wave films, the mise-en-scene of Sirk, and Fassbinder's own abiding thematic interest in power relations. By the time he started production on Eight Hours Don't Make a Day in April 1972, he was an experienced avant-garde filmmaker who had begun to transition toward more popular forms, had developed a passion for Sirkean melodrama, and now was being offered a good budget to create an emotionally affecting, politically informed (but not too depressing!) TV mini-series for a broad audience.
After Eight Hours, Fassbinder soon went on to create his magnificent science fictional mini-series World on a Wire, a considerably darker, more disturbing, less hopeful vision. Other masterpieces would follow. But never again would he make something quite as friendly and likeable as Eight Hours. I'm glad I saved it, because now is exactly the time when its generous (but unblinkered) view of humanity and life are especially valuable.
(Dates and chronology of Fassbinder's work taken from Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Wallace Steadman Watson.)