Fassbinder's Romantic Anarchy

RogerEbert.com has just published a good overview of the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Godfrey Cheshire, "Regarding R.W. Fassbinder: Letter to a Young Cinephile", inspired by the major, two-part Fassbinder retrospective at Lincoln Center in New York, currently underway and then continuing in the fall. If you're in traveling distance of New York City and you have any interest in film, you should try to go to some of these. (Also, the Mizoguchi series at the Museum of the Moving Image. I can't get to the city until both festivals are over, and so my jealousy of you will be intense, though at least I may get to see some of the Mizoguchis at Harvard Film Archive's similar series.)

I've written about Fassbinder here before, and created a video essay last summer for Press Play about Fassbinder's earliest films. He is simply, completely, unquestionably my favorite filmmaker, the one whose work most deeply and consistently fascinates me, challenges me, and engages me. This is a personal response, and I don't expect anyone else to be as besotted as I am with RWF, especially given how idiosyncratic a lot of his work is, but on the other hand I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have an interest in cinema and is not in some way touched by the most accessible of his works — indeed, I'm not sure I know how to communicate with someone who gets nothing from either Fear Eats the Soul or The Marriage of Maria Braun; I would feel alienated at a certain level from any such person.

Godfrey Cheshire gets at some of the important qualities of Fassbinder's work, and proposes some reasons for Fassbinder's relative obscurity and neglect, especially among younger cinephiles and filmmakers. As Cheshire notes, it's certainly possible that some of that obscurity and neglect results from feeling overwhelmed in the face of Fassbinder's massive output and wondering where to begin. That obstacle can be relatively easily overcome, and it's not like other, hugely influential filmmakers such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock created small oeuvres. No, the problem is more with the kinds of films that Fassbinder made and the way he made them: "There’s something else, which I’ll approach via a musical analogy in the form of a question: Why aren’t the Sex Pistols played on rock radio?"
In a sense, Fassbinder was international cinema’s closest equivalent to punk rock, which reached its peak during the same years that his career did. In the previous decades, Europe’s art cinemas (French, Italian, Swedish, Polish, etc.) had developed in the direction of refined aestheticism and intellectuality. Fassbinder’s cinema initially came as a shock because it was just the opposite: rude, raw and aggressively non-pretty. Its settings were seedy, its characters low-lifes, its actors often plug-ugly (except when they were beautiful). Yet this was just the starting point. As he rocketed forward, it was if Sid Vicious morphed into Beethoven.
This seems to me to point to some of the challenge of Fassbinder for today's audiences, particularly as the "refined aestheticism and intellectuality" of the 1960s European art cinema petrified into a template for the Meaningful Movie. I think Cheshire's actually wrong in identifying the settings, characters, and actors as the challenge; the bourgeois high-art sensibility loves a romp in the slums. The problem for the films' popularity is aesthetic and ideological. Love Is Colder than Death was booed in Berlin because it didn't present any sort of noble vision of the working classes and it skewered the pretensions of the revolutionary class. If I'm paying good money to go to a prestigious film festival, I want my taste lauded, I want my weltanschauung confirmed, I want to know that I'm not just a good person, but one of the best — someone deserving of his position, not just a happenstance carrier of privilege, a vector of social disease. (In this approach to his audience, I think Fassbinder links to the plays of Wallace Shawn.)

Cheshire is correct (and not unique) in seeing Fassbinder's major theme being exploitation, both the systems that encourage and perpetuate it and the personality flaws that feast on it. It's insightful to connect this to Fassbinder's lifelong obsession with the effect of the Nazi era on the German psyche. (That connection and obsession is so complex that I can't possibly even begin to untangle it all here. Thomas Elsaesser's Fassbinder's Germany does an excellent job of some of that work.) Cheshire points to one of the central appeals of Fassbinder's work for me: his unwillingness to let anyone off the hook, no matter their social standing or marginal status:
The two melodramas focused on gay characters in his second period, "Fox and His Friends" (in which Fassbinder plays a working-class gay guy who wins a lottery that makes him a target of more well-heeled types) and "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (a tale of lesbian betrayals), depict gays as every bit as exploitive as their straight counterparts, and both films duly drew protests from gay political groups.
Fox and His Friends may be my favorite Fassbinder movie, if such a statement can even be meaningful (how can I have one favorite?!). Fassbinder was intersectional before the word became vogue, but his intersectional analysis was caustic and cynical rather than ennobling, because ultimately his analysis was about the corruptions of power. Much as I want whatever marginalities I might inhabit to make me into a good person deserving of pity and love, in truth I'm probably just as awful as you are.

And yet in most of Fassbinder's work, especially as he matured, there are moments of grace, and they can be overwhelmingly moving. The ending of Fear Eats the Soul is probably the most obvious example of this, but that's mostly because it is at the end, and Fassbinder generally avoids putting grace there. Endings are, for him, usually the sites of annihilation or reckoning, moments for the audience to wonder how we got here, and what we must do to avoid such personal or social apocalypse. We might state one of Fassbinder's major themes as: "In a world set against you, a world that will eventually destroy you, how do you live so that, at the very least, you don't deserve to be destroyed?"

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