Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Volume 2 Review

Rainer Werner Fassbinder Volume 2 brings together four films from the latter part of the German director’s career -a period that is generally regarded as showing both the man and his work slipping into decline, or at least producing work that lacked the edge and intensity of his best work. Before that decline – which at least in the case of the director’s personal circumstances is certainly indisputable – there was however a peak. Both aspects are evident in this, the second of Artificial Eye’s Fassbinder collections.

The latter part of Fassbinder’s filmmaking career – cut short in 1982 by his death from a drugs overdose at the age of only 37 – sees no real change from the style and themes that have preoccupied the director throughout much of his work. Although his visual approach and tone varied according to input of his regular collaborators and in line with the production values of whichever medium he was working in - whether documentary, television or feature - the speed with which Fassbinder undertook his projects, the artistic quality of those films and their themes remain essentially the same. Those themes return often to the corrupting influence of the dysfunctional middle-class German family on the individual, and the negative impact this has on their subsequent relationships with other people. It also examines how this inevitably leads to the formation of a deep moral sickness within society as a whole, that is expressed in abhorrent attitudes and behaviour. In the latter films however, these themes take on a greater political undertone, looking back historically at the events and behaviour that has shaped the German people today.

This theme is prominent in three of the films included here. Veronika Voss (1982) is the third part of the director’s BRD trilogy, where he uses the format and sheen of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and its story of a faded movie star as a post-war examination of Germany’s uncomfortable accommodation with the glorified image they once had of themselves, and may perhaps still retain. In The Third Generation (1979), Fassbinder again challenges the attitudes fostered within succeeding post-war generations, seeing it as being directly responsible for the wave of terrorism sweeping the country at that time. Even more controversially, Fassbinder makes the film as a farce. Germany In Autumn (1978) is a docudrama made by a collective of German directors which deals with the same subject, looking at the wave of guilt and paranoia expressed by people as well as the most repugnant attitudes that it brings out of German society and the state authorities. Fassbinder’s contribution stands out from the rest as the most outspoken and personal statement in the film.


As a product of that society and upbringing, Fassbinder’s life and his films are consequently inextricably linked. The single most significant event in Fassbinder’s life during this period was the death of his lover Armin Meier, who committed suicide after their relationship broke up. The situation directly inspires what is Fassbinder’s most personal and perhaps his greatest film, In A Year Of Thirteen Moons (1979). In the film, he uses the story of a man who has undergone a sex-change operation as his bleakest, most direct and profound meditation on identity and on society. Such was the depth of Fassbinder’s personal crisis at this time that his friend and the editor of many of his latter films, Juliane Lorenz, believes Fassbinder would have killed himself if he had not made the film. He may not have killed himself then, but the impact of Meier’s death no doubt contributed to the increasingly wayward and dissolute lifestyle that would indeed see the death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder just three years later.



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

Video
All the transfers are progressively encoded. Veronika Voss and In A Year Of Thirteen Moons are anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.75:1. Both films are on dual layer discs, with extensive extra features. The Third Generation is in its original ratio of 1.33:1. Germany In Autumn is presented letterboxed at a ratio of approximately 1.66:1. The latter two films are on single-layer discs, but have no extra features. There are few notable issues with any of the transfers which present the films with an image quality that is about as good as could be expected considering the age and production values of each of the films. More detail and screenshots are provided in the individual coverage of each DVD 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 all the extra features.

Extras
Extensive extra features, consisting mainly of informative interviews and panel discussions with relevant people involved in the making of the films and close to Fassbinder himself, are included for two of the films in the set. Specific details on the extra features included on each disc can be found on the individual reviews of each of the films on pages 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this review.


Overall
Individually, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder can be problematic, swaying between kitsch and documentary realism, between political commentary and social observation, often apparently flavoured with a great deal of personal obsessions and rampant egotism. Seen as part of a greater body of work - which thematically is incredibly consistent despite the various technical means and styles in which they are each presented – and inextricably connected to the personal circumstances of the director himself, the films however take on greater sense and meaning, and one’s appreciation for the artistic qualities and the tremendous personal input that goes into them grows with each film viewed. In the UK we have been lucky to see those films collectively in a number of fine boxset collections, and Artificial Eye’s two sets have contributed greatly to a fuller appreciation of the director’s work, the four films included in Artificial Eye’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder Volume 2 collection in particular presenting a fascinating perspective on the neglected and misunderstood latter period of Fassbinder’s filmmaking career. Superbly presented in terms of A/V qualities, and well supported with informative and illuminating interviews with key collaborators, rather than being given an academic analysis, Fassbinder has been well-served yet again on DVD.


Reviews of the individual DVDs of Veronika Voss, In A Year Of Thirteen Moons, The Third Generation and Germany In Autumn can be found on the following pages 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this review.
Veronika Voss (1982)

The second part of Fassbinders BRD Trilogy, Veronika Voss was made and released after the third part but, set in 1955, it comes second in chronological terms - before Lola’s Adenauer period of the late fifties, and after The Marriage of Maria Braun’s immediate post-war years up until the economic miracle. The second part of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy also presents a unique personal perspective on the political climate in post-war Germany as the basis for what the country is in the present day, in his own way through the sum total of all three films, Fassbinder ambitiously attemptes to create a work to rival Döblin’s vision of post-WWI Germany in Berlin Alexanderplatz, the single most important influence on his career, and adapted by him for television in 1980. In The Marriage of Maria Braun, the first part of the BRD Trilogy, Fassbinder certainly created a work of equal artistic power and historical resonance but, marvellous though they are in their own way, the same can’t really be said for either Lola or Veronika Voss.


The political implications are immediately apparent in the film’s story of Veronika Voss, a once great movie star who reached the peak of her power and influence in the war years of WWII – some even say she had an affair with Josef Goebbels – but by the end of the war, Veronika was also out of work, no longer in demand and even an embarrassment that the film industry would rather quickly forget. She still has some old friends however, who remember with affection the glamour of her glory years, and Veronika is sure she can count on them to bring her back into the spotlight and help her regain her old magic. Finding her alone and in despair in the rain, Robert Krohn, sports reporter for a newspaper and mediocre poet, becomes attracted to this glamorous woman, with her alcohol and pill fuelled delusions about her looks, fame and her ability as an actress, intrigued by the traces of the unusual, complex personality that lies beneath her eccentric behaviour. He soon finds himself involved in a mystery surrounding Dr. Katz’s psychiatric clinic, where Veronika is a patient.

Shot in black and white by Xaver Schwarzenberger as gloriously as Lola was shot in eye-popping colour, the influence of cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo (, La Notte, L’Eclisse) is not too difficult to discern, nor are the obvious allusions to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, with period stylisations that extend to the on screen titles and the wipes between scenes. The appropriation of other director’s styles and influences is nothing new with Fassbinder, who nevertheless always manages to imprint his own themes and personality on the material, using them only as a point of departure and reference. The director’s familiar themes can be seen in Veronika Voss’s story of exploitation in relationships, in the drugs and alcohol dependency, and in a life and a talent going off the rails.


As well as bringing in his own themes, Veronika Voss also intends to make a statement about Germany in the mid 1950s, and there – to my admittedly limited knowledge of the period – it doesn’t have the same impact as The Marriage of Maria Braun. The image of Germany’s pre-war glamour seen as a faded movie star is marvellous, but the metaphor isn’t really extended much further than that. As in Lola, Günther Kaufmann can be seen in the background as an American soldier, here helping Dr. Katz dispense morphine to help Veronika and others like her deal with the pain, but again the image lacks nuance and finesse. The story runs along rather well however, with Fassbinder marvellously managing to harness so many personal issues, political statements and cinematic influences and references, but in the process Fassinder’s own personality seems to get lost in the film and each of the elements seem to cancel the other out, leaving Veronika Voss as little more than a smooth, beautifully-made thriller.


Video
Like Lola on the first Artificial Eye Fassbinder set, Veronika Voss is given another superb transfer that the magnificent cinematography deserves. Presented progressively and anamorphically at 1.75:1 on a dual-layer disc, the black and white tones are near perfect, with nice levels of detail and no cross-colouration elements to intrude on the purity of the monochrome image. The whites are possibly pushed in some places, but perhaps that is intentional. The limitations of the transfer can be detected in places however, particularly wide shots, where the image has a tendency to soften with the grain, showing some shimmering or perhaps dot-crawl. Barring a rare dustspot, there are scarcely any marks to be seen anywhere on the print. It’s not perfect, but almost as good as you could hope for in Standard Definition.


Audio
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is excellent. Voices are clear, with have nice tone and reverberation, the music has warmth, and sound effects are strong and well mixed.

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

Extras
Trailer (3:11)
The film’s original Theatrical Trailer is presented anamorphically.

Interview with Xaver Schwarzenberger (7:12)
The director of cinematography talks about how much freedom and input Fassbinder gave him in regard to the look of the film, as well as providing technical background on how it was achieved.

Interview with Peter Märthesheimer (4:54)
Märthesheimer reveals that the story was based on a real actress, Sybille Schnitz, who also died in unusual circumstances. He finds Veronika Voss to be Fassbinder’s most lucid and beautiful film, noting how closely the director held to the original script he developed.

Interview with Rosel Zech and Juliane Lorenz (29:35)
In conversation with Lorenz, the editor of the film and many of Fassbinder’s later work, Rosel Zech talks about her experience as a stage actress, the problems she encountered working in film for Fassbinder, and how they overcame them to make the entire film in an incredible 24 days. Lorenz reveals details of what was achieved in the editing room and recounts the problems with the rushed print that was sent to the Berlin Film Festival, where the film nevertheless won the Golden Bear.

Continued on Page 3.

In A Year Of Thirteen Moons (1978)

In A Year Of Thirteen Moons marks a high-point and a turning point in Fassbinder’s career, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s inextricably connected with his personal life. 1978 had just seen Fassbinder complete his finest film to date, The Marriage of Maria Braun, the culmination of all his influences and ideas fashioned through his own sensibility and unique working methods into something remarkable. The year however also saw the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier, with whom he had just broken up, and the personal impact on Fassbinder, if it can be judged by the content of In A Year Of Thirteen Moons, was profound, plunging the director into a deep personal crisis that would result in his own death three years later. The resulting film is consequently perhaps Fassbinder’s most complete work of personal introspection expressed as the finest work of art – and inevitably, that makes it a very dark and complex film indeed.


The film is set in 1978, the year of an uncommon astrological phenomenon that is reputed to portend a troubled year for people of a particularly delicate sensibility. That person in In A Year Of Thirteen Moons is Elvira Weishaupt (Volker Spengler), a man who has undergone a sex-change operation in order to please a former lover. The break-up of Elvira’s relationship with her lover Christoph (Karl Scheydt) leaves her in a confused state – neither a man nor a woman, she is unsure of who she is, what has driven her to the situation she finds herself in, nor where she is expected to go. With her friend Zora (Ingrid Caven), a prostitute, Elvira tries to rediscover herself, going back to the place that, as a child abandoned by his parents, the young Erwin was brought up by nuns, and she also tries to contact her former lover Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), now a successful businessman, the man in many ways responsible for her present condition.

Gone are the knowing references to the films of Godard and Sirk, gone are the regular collaborators like Michael Ballhaus and Peer Raben that Fassbinder could rely on to interpret his vision, and in place of them, Fassbinder makes a film that is wholly his own personal vision. And in terms of creating an emotional environment for the complex situation Elvira finds herself in, that vision is a very dark one indeed. Most disturbingly, Elvira relates the story of her marriage to a butcher’s daughter, the birth of their child, and the events around the journey to Casablanca for the operation that changed her life, against the background of a slaughterhouse, graphically showing the slaughter of live cattle. The same way of relating location to an emotional sense of place is used throughout – not always as extreme as that, but with the same sense of appropriateness. Instead of a score from Raben, Fassbinder uses other musical pieces, from Mahler and Roxy Music to Connie Francis and early Death Metal, and the choices are highly effective. The same sense of collage is also employed in another remarkable scene where Zora is watching the television, flicking the channels between the relationship horrors of a Maurice Pialat film (Nous Ne Viellirons Pas Ensemble), a documentary on Pinochet, and a televised interview with Fassbinder himself.


Such self-referencing is neither gratuitous nor self-aggrandising, but a mark of how personal the material is to Fassbinder. It’s also a mark of his true worth as an artist, being capable of taking a deep personal crisis and making a true work of art from it. In A Year Of Thirteen Moons is certainly one of Fassbinder’s bleakest meditations on love and on loneliness, on what it means to be deeply confused about one’s sexuality, afraid of being used and rejected in relationships, of being unloved and unable even to love oneself. More than being just a personal statement about the director’s own complex, contradictory impulses and sexuality, the film has a much greater point to make about relationships and society today.

Video
In A Year Of Thirteen Moons probably suffers from having to follow the gorgeous transfer for Veronika Voss. The video quality on this film is variable, but good in the main. Colours are certainly vivid – perhaps rather more vivid than you would like to see in the slaughterhouse scene – particularly in exteriors and more brightly lit scenes. There are however quite a few scenes shot in dark interiors, and they can be quite murky. This could probably be put down to the lighting, which as ever in a Fassbinder film - particularly in this one where he is credited with the camera work – is naturalistic and quickly shot. Most of the issues however are probably related to the quality of the DVD master, which shows cross-colouration artefacts, edge-enhancement, an edge of grain and some softness. Little of this detracts in any real way from the overall quality of the material, which is clear, stable and free of any serious marks or damage.


Audio
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 is adequate, but not impressive, having a rather dull tone. The dialogue however is clearly distinct and the important music soundtrack is still effective.

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

Extras
Trailer (3:30)
The anamorphically enhanced trailer is included, but gives away rather too much of what happens in the film.

Interview with Werner Schroeter (19:21)
Schroeter give a fine appreciation of the film and of Volker Spengler’s performance and, in his eccentric manner, talks about his own personal relationship with Fassbinder.

Interview with Juliane Lorenz (20:55)
Lorenz provides interesting information about the personal circumstances behind the film – a film that came out of the depths of guilt and personal crisis. She discusses how the various aspects of the film were handled by Fassbinder, from the script, to editing and use of music.


Panel Discussion Berlin 1992 (45:59)
A large panel, including Volker Spengler, Karl Scheydt, Peter Märthesheimer, Elizabeth Trissenaar and Juliane Lorenz, discuss the film with an audience. It’s initially a bit random, with Spengler reluctant to make any comment, but soon turns into an involved and interesting discussion that takes in the controversial aspects of Fassbinder’s lifestyle at the time with differences of opinion on what the director’s intentions were.

Continued on Page 4.

The Third Generation (1979)

Surprisingly, after all the ground covered in his career thus far, Fassbinder’s 1979 film returns to the Godardian post-modern noir thriller style that was evident in his earliest films, specifically the three Franz Walsch films, Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), Gods Of The Plague (1970) and The American Soldier (1970). In The Third Generation, Franz Walsch (Günther Kaufmann) returns to society, not from a spell in prison, but from a stint in the Navy and travels to Berlin to look up an old girlfriend, Ilse. Ilse, he discovers, is a heroin addict, living with a bunch of middle-class self-styled anarchist terrorists.


Fassbinder has certainly moved on from those earlier films, and, having contributed to the political docudrama Germany In Autumn (1978), and preparing to work on his post-war dramas of The Marriage of Maria Braun and the television masterwork of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the themes of The Third Generation are very much tied to German history and the modern society that has been engendered by the ravages of war. The sins of the fathers here are indeed visited on the third generation, which is made particularly evident in the grotesque caricature that is the Gast family. Grandpa Gast (Claus Holm) is an old Nazi longing for the old days, his son Gerhard (Hark Hohm) is an authoritarian father and probably corrupt police officer, while his grandchildren Susanne and Edgar (Hanna Schygulla and Udo Kier) are members of a radical terrorist cell, trading secret passwords and making clandestine plans for robbery, kidnapping and assassination with the rather vague aim of having all political prisoners released. Like their colleagues however, they are unable to escape the social conditioning of their middle-class upbringing, and their exploits and aims are consequently naïve and their behaviour is somewhat eccentric.

Evidently, Fassbinder plays this as a farce, having members of the group assume ridiculous false names and wear outrageous disguises, believing themselves to be involved in some kind of spy thriller. Any sense of seriousness is also deflated by the titles of each chapter which, puzzlingly, reproduce samples of graffiti from the men’s public toilets in different parts of Berlin. Making fun however of a rich middle-class intellectuals playing with radical politics and terrorism is nothing new – it’s there in Francesco Maselli’s Open Letter To The Evening News and in Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise (Godard evidently a major influence on Fassbinder’s early films) – but Fassbinder has a larger and still relevant political point to make about the self-serving nature of terrorism as a tool for the state, politicians and industrialists to use for their own ends.


It’s a subject that Fassbinder had approached in an original manner - to say the least – in the portmanteau 1978 docudrama Germany in Autumn, but here he plays the same material as a comedy. One can imagine the controversy the film would have caused in its making a joke of a subject that the German people were taking very seriously indeed, but even so, the approach doesn’t really serve the material well, and the points made are obvious and somewhat heavy-handed. As a farce, there is obviously no need for subtlety, but the tone is uneven and the comedy that the director promises at the start of the film never really materialises. It’s not that Fassbinder can’t do farce and parody - Satansbrew (1976) sees the director at his most uproarious when making fun of himself - but it just doesn’t seem appropriate here. The Third Generation is however at least beautifully photographed and well-played by his regular group of actors, supplemented here by Udo Kier, Eddie Constantine and Bulle Ogier – all playing with a fine sense of straight-faced irony. The continuation of the Franz Walsch story however doesn’t really improve on its earlier incarnations.

Video
In its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, there’s really not much to find fault with in this transfer of The Third Generation. The film is well lit and composed, and that comes through in the clarity of the sharp, colourful image presented here. Progressively encoded on a single-layer disc, but without any extra features, I didn’t detect any issues with either with compression artefacts. The print itself is also relatively clear of any marks.


Audio
The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s excellent, with clear dialogue and no issues of noise, hiss or distortion. There’s a slight edge of reverb, but this would seem to be down to the original recording.

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

Extras
There are no extra features on the disc.

Continued on Page 5.

Germany In Autumn (1978)

Credited to no less than eleven directors, the docudrama Germany In Autumn is the response of a number of filmmakers to the troubling situation of the “Deutschland Herbst” of 1977. Using documentary footage and creating fictional dramatic situations, the film examines the national mood of suspicion, guilt and paranoia following the abduction of an influential industrialist, Hanns Martin Schleyer, and his murder following the suspicious deaths of three RAF (Red Army Faction) members (also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang), being held in prison for the hi-jacking of a Lufthansa flight. Despite the contributions of a number of directors, Germany In Autumn is not a typical portmanteau film, and blended together into a largely consistent whole, there is little to differentiate the work of one director from another. The exception, of course, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose opening half-hour contribution clearly stands out from the rest of the film.


A number of staged but partially improvised discussions between Fassbinder, his lover Armin Meier and his mother Lilo Pemepit, show the director outraged by the situation and the intolerable attitudes being expressed by the state and the general public, who are at a loss as to how to react towards the terrorist threat. As is the case with Fassbinder’s other politically inclined films, the discussions inevitably turn towards Germany’s past history, and the climate and the attitudes that have carried forward to the modern-day generation by those wishing to erase the past, draw a veil over it, or remain silent for fear of their words being misinterpreted, or for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic or a Nazi sympathiser. Similar thoughts on the past actions of the German state and the spectre of Fascism, as well as on the current climate of fear, suspicion and paranoia, and the impact that can have on any artist, are expressed in different ways throughout the film. Most notably there is a section showing television executives fearful of broadcasting a production of Sophocles’ Antigone, with its ambiguous messages about power, defiance of authority and a scene of burial that has uncomfortable parallels to the current controversy surrounding the burial of the Red Army Faction terrorists. Although fictional, it is certainly all too believable.


Fassbinder however goes further than most. Arrogant and assertive over everyone else around him, he depicts himself as tormented and misunderstood, depressed with the world he lives in, with the people around him and driven to drinking and taking drugs. Fassbinder lays himself bare – quite literally, as there are a number of scenes where he appears completely and full-frontally naked – and it feels like the performance of a tortured artist on the edge of self-destruction. Egocentric certainly, it is however probably very close to the truth and less overbearingly self-important than his self-portrait as a young filmmaker in Beware of the Holy Whore. Most importantly however, Fassbinder’s section is relevant, the director seeing himself as the product, the conscience or perhaps the voice of modern Germany and of those afraid to speak out. It’s an arrogant and egocentric position to take and it’s not one that everyone will find appropriate in a docudrama, but it’s pure Fassbinder and it’s rivetting to watch.

Video
Germany In Autumn is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but is letterboxed without anamorphic enhancement. The feature is on a single-layer disc, without any extra features. The quality of the transfer is reasonably good - basic but more than acceptable when the majority of the footage is shot documentary fashion or relies on stock footage. There is a little bit of grain and a few minor scratches are occasionally visible, with one or two larger marks briefly appearing on the screen. Colours and tone balance all seem fine.


Audio
The audio track is presented Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clear throughout. The soundtrack comes from a number of sources – dialogue, narration, stock television interviews. All are perfectly clear and present no problems.

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

Extras
There are no extra features on the disc.

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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 00:35:15

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