Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Volume 1 Review

For such an amazingly prolific director and such an important figure in German and international cinema, it’s surprising that it is only recently that the majority of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder are now finding their way onto DVD and back in front of a major audience. Arrow’s two huge The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2 sets collected 17 of the director’s films and his two earliest short films, and Second Sight’s boxset of the director’s landmark television series Berlin Alexanderplatz made a considerable contribution, covering in particular the key early and middle periods of the director’s considerable body of work - almost forty films in total, all of them made in an intense period of work before his death in 1982 from a drugs overdose at the age of 37.

Elementary maths will tell you that Fassbinder consequently made three or four films a year, and indeed his working method was famously fast, the director having little care for contractual, technical, production and the legal issues involved in making a film, focussing his prolific talent on writing complete film treatments overnight, writing scripts on the day and shooting whole films often on the first take. This apparently haphazard and careless approach is deceptive however - each of Fassbinder’s films were made with the utmost artistic integrity, with a specific aim in mind, and a very clear idea of how to get it down on film, in the most direct method possible, capturing the intensity of the moment though a reliable troupe of actors and technical crew in tune with the director’s intentions. “So much, so fast, so good”, as Volker Schlöndorff succinctly puts it in the documentary film I Don’t Just Want You To Love Me, included here in Volume 1 of this latest set of Fassbinder films released by Artificial Eye.

Artificial Eye’s first Fassbinder collection contains three very different films which are representative of the early, mid and latter periods of Fassbinder’s extensive but compressed filmmaking career. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok (1970) – a savage satire of German middle-class values filmed almost like a documentary - features many of the Munich actors from Fassbinder’s experimental Anti-Theatre group who starred in his earliest films. Martha (1974), a shocking made-for-television drama about a woman trapped in an abusive marriage to a sadistic husband, is representative of Fassbinder’s move into Douglas Sirk-like melodrama as a means of examining dysfunctional family relationships. Lola (1981) is the third film in Fassbinder’s latter-period BRD Trilogy, a colourful updating of Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 classic The Blue Angel, using the experience of a cabaret singer in a brothel as a commentary on the German Bundesrepublik of the late 1950s. Full reviews of each of the films and DVD features can be found on the following pages of this review.



DVD
Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Volume 1 is released in the UK by Artificial Eye, as a 4-disc set. The DVDs are in PAL format, on dual-layer discs, and encoded for Region 2.

Video
The video quality of the original elements is variable on each of the films, but they have clearly been given superb transfers to DVD. Lola, the only widescreen film in the set, is in particular simply stunning in its anamorphic 1.75:1 transfer. The other films, an early low-budget film from the director (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok) and a made-for-television film (Martha) have lesser production values, but still look amazingly well. There doesn’t seem to be a single mark or serious digital issue with any of the transfers. More detail and screenshots are provided in the individual reviews of the films on the following pages of this review.


Audio
The original audio tracks are all presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 and present few problems. Even though there is little that is outstanding about their tone, the dialogue, music and other soundtrack elements are always clear.

Subtitles
English subtitles are included and are optional for each of the films and almost all the extra features. The exceptions are I Don’t Just Want You To Love Me which has fixed English subtitles, and the interview with Barbara Sukowa in the Lola extra features, which has no subtitles as the interview is conducted in English.

Extras
The Lola and Martha discs each have Interviews with key members of the original cast and crew, who relate their experience of working on the films and their impression of Fassbinder, as well as Trailers. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok only contains a Biography for the director. Details can be found on the individual reviews of each of the films on pages 2, 3 and 4 of this review.

Disc 4 of the set contains a good documentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I Don’t Just Want You To Love Me (1993) by Hans Günther Pflaum. The documentary makes extensive use of archive footage from Joachim von Mengershausen’s film End of the Commune (47:17) (included in full in the extra features of The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1) and Peter W. Jansen’s revealing 1978 interview Lifestories (included in full in the extra features of The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 2), but also extensively conducts interviews with many of the people who worked with Fassbinder in all aspects of his filmmaking. With a look at the circumstances of the making of a number of his films and analysis of them, it all adds up to a quite comprehensive and fascinating overview of the director.


Overall
I quoted Volker Schlöndorff at the start of this review, and I think that he also best summarises the qualities of Fassbinder’s method, his charisma and his achievement – “If you were ever in a room with him, you could feel that life was a little more intense … No matter how much he tormented his staff, I believe the fun they had of being challenged and of living intensely outweighed all the pain”. Such a way of making films, at a rate of three or four a year, is almost unimaginable now, and it’s that intensity that Fassbinder brought to his way of making films that is most missed in modern cinema. Fortunately, the remarkable body of work that Fassbinder left behind is still with us, and while it may be sometimes painful, we are fortunate to be able to share in the intensity of that experience and the challenges they still present for the viewer.


Reviews of the individual DVDs of Lola, Martha, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and I Don’t Just Want You To Love Me can be found on the following pages 2, 3, and 4 of this review.
Lola (1981)

Taking the basic outline of The Blue Angel and suffusing it with Douglas Sirk colouration and lighting, the third part of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, Lola, casts a candy-coloured glow over the Adenauer years of Germany’s economic miracle of the late-fifties and early sixties when the country finally began to find its feet after the war. Like the other two parts in the trilogy The Marriage of Maria Braun and Veronica Voss, the central figure of power behind the rebuilding of the country who drives the German people forward into a new post-war era, is again a woman.


A perhaps unlikely figure to represent the driving force behind the rebuilding of a nation, Lola (Barbara Sukowa) is a night-club singer and prostitute in the kind of place that the town’s new building inspector Herr von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl) would never venture. Von Bohm is however just what the town needs, shaking up the complacency and corruption that is rife in the construction industry. Since a small group of influential people already have the whole town in their hands, Bohm can however do little to effect any real change – his efficiency rather only further lines the pockets of the mayor and businessmen like Schuckert (Mario Adorf). Lola is also intrigued and impressed by the man that everyone is talking about – a forward-looking modern man when it comes to business, but with old fashioned values in his relationships with women.

With its seductive cabaret singer, seedy bars, stark divisions between social classes, inequitable relationships often based on commerce and exploitation, Lola is familiar Fassbinder material and, as part of the BRD trilogy, one that is well suited to a similar social allegory in the style of The Marriage of Maria Braun. In the determined prostitute who knows her own mind and is intent on providing a better future for herself and her child, Fassbinder finds a perfect female character to blur the distinction between commerce and business, and between respectability and corruption. With a model of the classic The Blue Angel to aspire to, and a sensibility towards dramatic grandeur on the scale of Douglas Sirk, Lola then really ought to be a better film than it actually is.


Barbara Sukowa is excellent in the role of Lola, fully committing herself to Fassbinder’s vision, and the director’s customary working methods are expedient without being the least bit detrimental to the professionalism with which every aspect of the film is made. Lola looks simply ravishing, and as a take on the superficiality of appearances, it certainly makes a convincing case. Unfortunately, for all the attention placed on the perfect colouring and lighting and the bravura of the mise en scène, the same consideration is not given to the foundations of the social and historical commentary. Ultimately, for however appropriate is the director’s choice of a woman to symbolise the forces of growth during this period of the Bundesrepublik and the cleverness of depicting Lola as a prostitute, the film’s commentary is essentially on the actions and administration of the Adenauer government, and Fassbinder appears torn between whether Bohm or Lola is the best means of representing that.

The story is consequently much too smooth in how it plays out and, like the soft blending of one scene into another, the film lacks the necessary friction and conflict that its story of opposing ideologies should bring about. Its essential point is not lost however, and there is much to marvel over in Fassbinder’s audacious treatment, but like Veronika Voss, the second film in the BRD trilogy, Lola lacks the heart that is evident in The Marriage of Maria Braun or at least the passion that serves in its place.

Video
The picture quality on this film is simply outstanding, as it should be, presenting an incredible reproduction of the film’s Sirkian saturation and deployment of colour. The level of detail is also impressive – a sharp, stable progressive, anamorphic image without a flicker of macroblocking compression and not a fleck of dust. Closer inspection of the transfer will reveal some chroma noise – inevitably in deep reds – and some stepping in diagonal lines. As with Berlin Alexanderplatz, the editing technique introduces a mild level of grain in scenes immediately preceding and following blurred transitions. All of this is however of little consequence really, since the image is still quite stunning. It’s not perfect, but is just about as good as perfect, giving you everything you would expect from this film’s unique visual qualities.


Audio
The original German audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s more than adequate throughout. Dialogue is fine and clear, the music and songs are vibrant and sparkling, with a decent, if not perfect tone. There is a little bit of reverberation or minor distortion at the edge, but this will not be noticeable unless you are listening for it.

Subtitles
English subtitles are included in a clear white font and are optional.

Extras
Interview with Peter Märthesheimer (5:55)
A brief but informative interview with the film’s screenwriter notes the difficulties of writing to meet Fassbinder’s uncertain requirements. Feeling quite detached from the final product, Märthesheimer discusses the problems encountered when the film came to be edited, speculating that Fassbinder’s growing dependence on drugs at the time may account for his lack of emotional involvement in the story.

Interview with Xaver Schwarzenberger (4:19)
The cinematographer talks about the films that influenced the Technicolor look-and-feel of Lola and recounts how much freedom he was given by the director to be as bold with the lighting and colouration as he liked.

Interview with Barbara Sukowa (20:03)
Sukowa found her roles in Berlin Alexanderplatz and Lola particularly difficult to relate to, particularly as she had little direction from the director, but trusted that Fassbinder knew when he was getting what he wanted. Fassbinder’s typical rapid filming method and use of often only one take also brought its own problems, which Sukowa recounts over a number of on-set anecdotes. The actor also talks about her own feelings and experience of the period that is depicted in the film, about Fassbinder himself and his use of women in his films.

Trailer (3:07)
The film’s original Theatrical Trailer is also included.

Continued on Page 3.

Martha (1974)

Fassbinder’s 1974 film, made for German television, is only a recently rediscovered treasure. Certainly controversial and quite shocking at the time for its depiction of domestic abuse, it also languished for many years in legal limbo when it was claimed that the film’s story resembled to some degree – probably coincidentally – a story by Cornel Woolrich.


The film stars Margit Carstensen in the type of role she would often become associated with in Fassbinder films – the somewhat neurotic woman, used, abused and betrayed by friends, family and her lover. As Martha, she is a straight-laced 31 year old spinster, a librarian by profession, who has never been able to let her hair down due to her rigid and oppressive parents. Even while on holiday in Rome - with her father of course, trying to keep up with his demanding nature – she is scandalised by the sexual advances made at her by a man in the hotel. She even refuses a wedding proposal from her manager at the library, but when her father dies of a heart-attack and her mother’s behaviour starts becoming increasingly unstable, she finds herself submitting to the forceful advances of Helmut Salomon (Karlheinz Böhm), a man she met at the German Embassy in Rome. The lack of self-confidence and independence instilled in her by her parents, and the belief that she is in some way to blame for her father’s death and her mother’s alcoholism and suicide attempts, allows Martha to submit to the increasingly absurd and sadistic demands of her abusive husband – a man not unlike her father in many ways.

Martha consequently can seem rather like textbook psychology applied to a melodramatic, soap-opera-like television movie, but through Fassbinder’s assured touch, the film magnificently achieves a Douglas Sirk level of majesty in its heightened realism. Like Fassbinder’s later Sirk-inspired films, Martha is not simply a slavish imitation of the German-born Jewish director’s style or his treatment of class, race and social issues, but it is very much within Fassbinder’s own experience. His view of the corrupting influence of bourgeois family life, the need to maintain outward appearances and the exploitative and abusive nature of sexual relationships can been seen to have a similar violent consequences in everything from Why Does Herr R. Run Amok (1970) and The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972) through to Fear Eats The Soul (1974) and Chinese Roulette (1976), and Fassbinder’s conviction and belief in the material is never compromised by the marvellously staged elements.


Most notably, Fassbinder would revisit similar themes a year after Martha in Fear of Fear (1975), again starring a superb Margit Carstensen as a housewife who, made to believe that she is an inadequate wife, housewife and mother by her relatives, starts to suffer from intense anxiety and hallucinations. Like that film, another made-for-television movie, Fassbinder is less explicit than usual, but does not shy away from depicting the harsh realities of an abusive relationship. I daresay Karlheinz Böhm - even more disturbingly demented here than in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom - would have taken his sexual violence a little further than lovebites on Martha’s neck, but the real violence enacted against Martha is the mental kind and implications of what isn’t actually shown are still fully felt in a way that few other directors would have dared show at that time.

Video
Made for television, Martha is inevitably in an aspect ratio of 4:3 and of a lesser quality in visual terms than the usual Fassbinder theatrical feature (although both are often made with the same professionalism and speed regardless of the budget and production values), but it still looks very good indeed in its transfer here. On a dual-layer disc and progressively encoded, the image is nevertheless a little bit soft, slightly faded in terms of colour, and a little pallid with regards to contrast, which looks boosted. There are however no marks or scratches on the print and the image is relatively clear and accurate, the film looking no better or worse than you would imagine it could possibly be.


Audio
The original German audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and has no notable issues. Dialogue is clear and there are no underlying analogue tape noises or distortion at all.

Subtitles
English subtitles are included in a clear white font and are optional.

Extras
Interview with Michael Ballhaus (19:49)
The famous cinematographer now working with Scorcese, who photographed a large number of Fassbinder’s films, talks about how he was first called upon to work with the director and their method of working. With regards to Martha, Ballhaus provides a few interesting anecdotes on the technical set-up and the creation of the famous 360º shot of Martha’s first meeting with Helmut at the German Embassy.

Interview with Karlheinz Böhm (19:19)
In another newly commissioned interview, Böhm recalls the mixed impression made on him during his first encounter with Fassbinder, and the high regard he has for the director, the work they did together and the influence it has had on his career and personal life. On Martha, he gives his impressions of Helmut and how it was working with Margit Carstensen.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder Biography
Noting that Fassbinder made on average a film every hundred days, the bio provides an extensive list of the many films he made in the short time before his death at the age of 37.

Trailer (0:43)
The trailer, made for the film’s revival at Venice in 1994, relies solely on press notices, with no actual clips from the film.

Continued on Page 4.

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970)

The answer to the question suggestively posed by the title will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It’s because the normally mild-mannered, rather square Herr R. has become bored with the tedium and sheer mediocrity of bourgeois life, of his own domestic family life, of his career as a technical draughtsman that allows no room for creativity and little opportunity for promotion, over-burdened by the very need to be upwardly mobile for the sake of his son’s education and to impress the neighbours so as to better fit in with their social aspirations and conform to what his parents, family and friends all deem to be tasteful and fashionable with modern trends in culture and art. In a nutshell.


The reason I answer the question posed in the title is because otherwise, perhaps not being familiar with Fassbinder the themes commonly broached by the director and his unusual treatment and style, the unwary viewer might wonder why they are being subjected to scene after scene of domestic tedium and banal conversations, shot in a seemingly haphazard manner. Herr Raab (Kurt Raab) seems to almost sleepwalk through his dreary existence, listening to the petty concerns of his wife over some damage to the car, is forced to endure the tedious bickering of a Sunday afternoon visit by his parents, is ridiculed by clerks at a trendy music shop for his lack of musical taste, is undervalued and unappreciated at work, where he is treated dismissively and rudely by his boss, has to attend a parent-teacher meeting where he is appraised of the shortcomings in his son’s educational development, and is constantly harassed and harried by his wife to improve their social standing so that they can impress their cultured and successful neighbours at parties. Filmed handheld like a documentary in an undisciplined and almost improvised method of filming (which in reality it is anything but), the scenes could certainly stretch the patience and will of many a viewer, not just Herr R.


The title however should offer a clue as to the inevitable outcome of such stultifying tedium on the sensibility of any self-respecting individual, but as to the manner in which Herr R. does indeed Run Amok, I’ll leave that for the viewer to find out for themselves. Let’s just say that in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? Fassbinder fashions a dark satire out of the bourgeois lifestyle long before Michael Haneke got there.

Video
Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? doesn’t look much on DVD, but - probably shot on 16mm - it’s almost certainly about as good as the deliberately naturalistic intent and low-budget nature of the original elements allow it to be. Colours are a little on the dull side and can appear a little smeary, the image is rather soft and tones aren’t particularly strong, but largely, this looks absolutely fine, with no marks and little in the way of artefacts. Without any extra features, this film is presented on a single layer disc, but there do not appear to be any significant compression issues. There is a little bit of instability at the end of some scenes, but this is just as likely to be down to how the original elements were handled.


Audio
There is certainly nothing exceptional about the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track either, but this is also intentionally shot naturalistically and within the means of a limited budget. Nevertheless, dialogue – tedious though it is and recorded on location – comes across clearly, with no underlying issues. Again, this is about as good as could reasonably be expected.

Subtitles
English subtitles are included in a clear white font and are optional.

Extras
Rainer Werner Fassbinder Biography
The only extra feature on the disc is the same biography that can also be found on the Martha disc, with its extensive list of the director’s filmography.

View Page: 1 2 3 4
I hate paged articles! Show me the whole thing!

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 00:36:56

Did you enjoy the article above? If so please help us by sharing it to your social networks with the buttons below...

Tags

Latest Articles