Every decent director has a single subject, and in the end they just make the same film over and over. My subject is the exploitation of feelings, regardless of who exploits them. It never ends. It is a permanent theme.
When he was found lifeless in his Munich apartment at three in the morning on June 10, 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder has just turned thirty-seven. Of these, nearly half had spent working, directing films, TV series and plays, and most of all writing. Even on that last night, next to her body crushed by an overdose of drugs and barbiturates are the notes for what should have been her new project, a film about the life of the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. In just three decades of activity, the indefatigable Fassbinder had collected twenty-four feature films for cinema and thirteen for television, three miniseries (including the monumental adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin) and fifteen plays, without counting further publications and short films: an impressive legacy, legacy of a feverish and bulimic creativity.
Born on May 31, 1945 in Bad Wörishofen, an idyllic Bavarian spa town, and raised amidst the difficulties of post-war Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder developed an all-consuming passion for all things art, culture and literature from an early age. After trying in vain to enter the Berlin film school, he returns to Munich and begins to devote himself to the theater: an outlet for his impressive prolificacy, but also a training ground for his aspirations as a filmmaker. And it was in 1969 that he finally managed to get his directorial career off the ground, with two very low-cost projects that already summarize several key aspects of Fassbinder’s work: Love is colder than death, noir with mélo veins selected in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, and The manufacturer of kittens, sarcastic and ferocious bourgeois fresco. The merciless description of German society will remain a constant in his poetics, as well as the vampiristic and sado-masochistic components of sentimental and sexual relationships.
In the first half of the 1970s, thanks to titles such as Petra von Kant’s bitter tears (1972), based on her own play, and Fear eats the soul (1974), the acclaimed reinterpretation of Douglas Sirk’s classic Second Love (one of its fetish-directors), Rainer Werner Fassbinder is consecrated among the leading standard-bearers of the New German Cinema, alongside names such as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. A courageous and controversial author, always ready to question conventions and take taboo topics head on, Fassbinder would have been a reference model for several directors to come: first of all Pedro Almodóvar, at the time enfant terrible at the beginning, and François Ozon, who from Fassbinderian texts would have drawn Drops of water on hot stones in 2000 and the very recent Peter von Kant, to be released next month in France. And for those wishing to deepen their knowledge of the great German filmmaker, here are five of the best moviesin chronological order, of its immense production.
1. The bitter tears of Petra von Kant
The most perfect example of Kammerspiel of Fassbinderian cinema, as well as an ideal collection of his crude vision of human relations, is precisely The bitter tears of Petra von Kant, directed in 1972 and starring his friend and long-time collaborator Hanna Schygulla, with whom he will shoot a total of twenty films. All set within the walls of an apartment furnished as an artistic laboratory, the film explores the link between the designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) and her new model, the young and charming Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), who immediately becomes Petra’s object of desire and, shortly thereafter, her mistress. Love and eroticism, however, are declined by Fassbinder as a game of power, centered on relations of force at a socio-economic level and on subtle psychological mechanisms which, over time, can result in devastating consequences.
Peter von Kant, the review: intentionally sacrilegious portrait of an artist
2. The right of the strongest
The theme of eros as a mirror of the imbalances between social classes and of the unscrupulous opportunism of human beings returns with arrogance in The right of the strongest, which in 1975 sees Rainer Werner Fassbinder also as an actor, as well as as a director. In fact, Fassbinder plays the role of Franz Bieberkopf, nicknamed Fox, a penniless boy who, shortly after being out of work, gets a winning lottery ticket. Fox’s unexpected wealth gives him access to the microcosm of the Bavarian upper middle class, where he is seduced by the treacherous Eugen (Peter Chatel), determined to exploit him by taking advantage of his naivety. In The Right of the Strongest, the mélo is thus intertwined with social analysis, according to a perspective of lucid disillusionment.
3. Maria Braun’s marriage
In 1979 Rainer Werner Fassbinder scored the most praised film of his career, as well as his greatest commercial success (one million admissions in his homeland and excellent box office even in the United States): Maria Braun’s wedding, a work in which the history of post-war Germany frames the vicissitudes of the eponymous character (Hanna Schygulla), wife of the soldier Hermann Brain (Klaus Löwitsch), who will use her charm to undertake an ambitious social climb. The union between the rise of the protagonist and the collective identity of a nation will make Maria Braun’s wedding one of the cornerstones of the New German Cinema, also thanks to the magnetic interpretation of Schygulla, rewarded with the award for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival .
4. Veronika Voss
Maria Braun’s wedding will be the opening title of a trilogy on the Federal Republic of Germany based on three female figures: a trilogy that would continue in 1981 with Lola, the story of chanteuse of a brothel (played by Barbara Sukowa), and ended in 1982 by Veronika Voss, with Rosel Zech in the title role. Portrait of a 1930s ex-diva who fell from grace after the collapse of the Third Reich but still a prisoner of her own cult, Veronika Voss is a sort of Fassbinderian reinterpretation of Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder, centered on a decadent figure sucked into a spiral of self-destruction. Released in theaters not even four months before her death, the film would have earned Fassbinder the Golden Bear at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival.
Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder’s Hollywood horror
5. Querelle de Brest
Instead, it is a posthumous film Querelle de Brest, completed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder immediately before his death and then presented at the 1982 Venice Film Festival. Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Genet, it is one of the most original and ‘extreme’ trials of the German director, to the point of suggesting a potential turning point (unfortunately never continued) in the direction of an increasingly surreal and expressionist style. The story of the sailor Georges Querelle (American actor Brad Davis) unfolds in an hyperstized Brest, characterized by baroque scenographies and bright and antirealistic colors, at the heart of a tangle of rivalries, attractions and obsessions that also involve Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero) and Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), brothel keeper. Between a homosexuality experienced as an instrument of oppression and the disenchantment in illustrating the ferocity of human passions, Querelle de Brest would have remained the dazzling point of arrival of a very rich filmography, but which was dramatically interrupted soon.
Venice, seventy years of scandals on display