Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1 Review

One of the major figures of the New German Cinema of the 1970s alongside Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlöndorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was perhaps the most outrageous and controversial, both in his private life and his brief but prolific career as a filmmaker. Narcissistic and self-loathing; idealistic yet brutally harsh; openly homosexual but also once married, Fassbinder poured those contradictions into his work, writing and directing plays for his own Munich theatre group; producing, writing, directing, acting in and often editing his own films, leaving behind a legacy of around forty films (and a 15-hour television movie serial Berlin Alexanderplatz) in little over a decade before his death from a drugs overdose in 1982.

Arrow Pictures have collected 17 of R. W. Fassbinder’s films over two boxset collections which form a comprehensive, or at least representative, overview of the director’s filmmaking career. The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1 contains nine of the director’s earliest films made between 1969 and 1972 and although they cover only four years of the director’s work (and don’t even cover all the films made during this period), they show the remarkable progress that was made in a relatively short time from the early low-budget, quickly-shot films of the French Nouvelle Vague-inspired Franz Walsch gangster trilogy to the director’s justifiably more celebrated, accomplished and individual mid-period films.

Although the films in this set show a number of obvious influences - slavishly referencing Godard, Pasolini and Genet to name a few – those influences become less obvious and the underlying themes remain fairly consistent throughout. Principally, Fassbinder’s early films deal with the relationships between men and women and, whether heterosexual or homosexual, they consequently deal with such themes as idealistic love, jealousy, hypocrisy and betrayal. There are a lot of sexual situations, nudity and pornographic imagery in these films, but rarely any genuine tenderness. The men are brutes who act tough, slap their women around, but are generally insecure and have complicated relationships with their mothers. The women are generally strong, have to put up with a lot, but are unrealistic in their expectations of men and overconfident of their ability to control and influence them. Relationships then tend to be brief, self-serving and based on commerce and exploitation, since any sense of purity of feeling, trust or idealism is often cruelly crushed.

Fassbinder’s presentation of these dark melodramas is varied, but also consistent in their attempts to underplay the powerful emotions they depict. Initially, a distancing effect is attempted though noir techniques and Nouvelle Vague stylisations, but while still adhering to the director’s famed principles of low-budget shooting and fast turnarounds, gradually these would give way to more personal and effective expression achieved through theatrical lighting, Douglas Sirk-like colouration, the use of sound and the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus. Above all it would be left to Fassbinder’s regular coterie of actors from his Antiteater theatre group (Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, Irm Hermann, Margarethe von Trotta, Harry Baer, Günther Kaufmann and many others) to blankly and unemotionally undercut the dialogue, all the more effectively underlining the cold harshness and cruel bitter pragmatism of their actions, and highlighting those moments of deep hysteria that do break the surface.

The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1 is released in the UK by Arrow. Volume 1 is a nine disc set covering films from 1969 to 1972. The films included here are:

Love Is Colder Than Death (1969)
Katzelmacher (1969)
Gods Of The Plague (1970)
The American Soldier (1970)
The Niklashausen Journey (1970)
Rio Das Mortes (1971)
Beware Of A Holy Whore (1971)
The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972)
The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1972)

Reviews of each of the individual films can be found on the following pages 2, 3 and 4.

The majority of the discs are barebones, single-layer disc with perhaps only a trailer, but The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant are on DVD-9 discs with extensive extra features. The set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

The quality of the transfers on the early black-and-white films is variable, but generally adequate. Love Is Colder Than Death is surprisingly in 1.80:1 widescreen and anamorphically enhanced, while the remainder of the films are 1.33:1 full-screen. The grain and greyscale tones on both it and Katzelmacher however leave something to be desired, with whites in particular often appearing a little glaring. Bearing only a couple of tramline scratches and minor dirt markings, it’s tempting to put any failings down to the low-budget nature of the productions, but a Trailer on Katzelmacher suggests that the film should look much better than it does here. Presented in 1.33:1, Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier are improvements, with deeper blacks and better clarity and only a few minor marks are visible. There’s a little bit of wobbling on Gods of the Plague, but confined to one or two scenes, this would seem to be a flaw within the original elements.

Filmed for television on 16mm, the original elements also perhaps account for The Niklashausen Journey looking simply dreadful. The image is dark, murky and soft, while colours are over-saturated. A few scenes towards the end exhibit what look like curious concentric circles on the camera lens which cause the image to ripple slightly on movements. Rio Das Mortes would also appear to be shot on 16mm and is also quite grainy, but although there are some flaws, they aren’t as pronounced and seem to be down to the original elements and the rough editing process.

The quality of the remaining three lushly coloured films however is very impressive. Presented on a single-layer disc, there is a mild level of grain on Beware of a Holy Whore and the image tends to a softer feel, but the colour and tone of the film is marvellous. The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant come on dual-layer discs, but although equally impressive in the rich presentation of the colours and are clear, clean stable prints, they also display minor imperfections. Skin tones are not quite perfect, shadow detail isn’t all there and there are niggles with transitions causing minor noise-reduction shifting. Indirect light sources cause flicker on The Merchant of Four Seasons and on my checkdisc of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant there is a bit of digital break-up on a small portion of the screen (36:32). One scene (around the 56 minute mark) also shows lesser quality than the rest of the print. Without any real marks, dust spots or damage however, the latter three films here look fantastic.

The audio tracks are all Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and not particularly high quality, somewhat dull, booming and occasionally muffled. As this often depends on the locations, any such issues would appear to be down to the quality of the original no doubt low-budget recording. It’s the older films that are most lacking, but the quality improves with the more recent films. If they are never quite what you’d call impressive, they are at least clear, dialogue is fully discernible and there is little sign of any analogue background noise.

English subtitles are optional on all films. They are in a white font and can be clearly read through each of the films. Only in one short scene of Beware of a Holy Whore, when they are places on top of the grille of a car, can they be difficult to make-out.

Trailers are included for Katzelmacher (3:04), Gods of the Plague (2:46) and Beware of a Holy Whore (2:32).

The Women of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (58:40)
Based around 1992 interviews with the women who played an important part in the majority of Fassbinders films, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann and Margit Carstensen talk about the roles they played, how much of Fassbinder was in them and how much of the actor. Essentially, although strong women, each of them in some way found themselves submitting to the charisma of the director and became his creature – something that eventually caused personal problems. They speculate on the contradictory aspects of Fassbinder’s personality and character that they still cannot fully comprehend. This is a fascinating feature, the interviews in-depth, the women all highly intelligent and analytical rather than merely relating anecdotes.

Life, Love & Celluloid – A Journey and a Film Retrospective (1:29:35)
On the other hand, this documentary, made for a1997 retrospective of Fassbinder’s work at the MoMA in New York is an absolute bore. The programme, showing all of the director’s work, was at that stage the first major exhibition of its kind – America showing more interest in Fassbinder than Germany. Accordingly the film attempts to get a wider view of the links between America and German filmmaking - which has links going back to Murnau, Lubitsch and Lang – speaking to studio executives, film programmers and ordinary immigrants. There are also long clips of Hanna Schygulla performing Fassbinder cabaret songs and scenes performed from Fassbinder’s plays, but the whole documentary is over-long, tedious and unfocussed, diverging into irrelevant areas.

End of the Commune (47:17)
Joachim von Mengershausen’s film is a fascinating document of the origins of Fassbinder’s theatre and early film work. Focussing on Fassbinder’s Antiteater (Anti-Theatre) group, the film follows them through rehearsals, group discussions and the disagreements over their policy and principles. It also follows the group to the 1969 Berlin Film Festival for the premiere of Fassbinder’s first film Love is Colder than Death. Greeted with boos and catcalls, the showing is followed by a hostile press conference which draws evasive and provocative responses from the director.

Harry Baer Interview (40:52)
Having worked with Fassbinder over most of career, which he describes as the 14 most exciting years of his life, initially as an actor and then as Assistant Director, Harry Baer is able to provide a wide overview of the recurrent and autobiographical themes that occur through his work and examine how they are developed over the years.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early films, presented here in The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection Volume 1 are certainly uneven, some of them deeply tedious, pretentious and derivative of other revolutionary directors of the period without achieving the moments of imaginative genius that can be found even in Herzog, Pasolini or Godard’s least successful experiments. Nonetheless, collected as part of a set they provide a fascinating chronological path towards Fassbinder’s more notable work – seen here particularly in The Merchant of Four Seasons and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant - as well giving some insight into the director’s revolutionary theatrical roots, which are well represented in films like Katzelmacher and Rio Das Mortes. With transfers approved by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, most of the films are presented in their preferred ratios and are of reasonably good quality. The interviews, documentaries and retrospective analysis of Fassbinder’s work are in-depth, informative, fascinating and well worth your time.

Reviews of each of the films in the set can be found on the following pages 2, 3 and 4.
Love Is Colder Than Death (1969)

Although there are certainly elements of typical Fassbinder characters and themes in the director’s first full-length feature film, Love Is Colder Than Death is more of a curiosity that will delight fans for the influences it reveals, but seem rather slow and pointless to anyone else.

Raoul Walsh and the French Nouvelle Vague are perhaps surprisingly the main influences here in this black-and-white B-movie gangster film. Rohmer and Chabrol are given a nod in the opening credits (there is even a character called Erika Rohmer referred to in the film), but the most obvious reference is clearly Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part. The story involves two gangsters Franz (Fassbinder) and Bruno (Uli Lommell) who join forces to strengthen their position against a larger crime syndicate. Franz is a small-time crook who is pimping his girlfriend Joanna (a mostly naked Hanna Schygulla), but under the influence of Bruno, Franz comes out of hiding and they embark on a violent crime-spree. However, a love-triangle inevitably develops between them that is to have serious consequences.

Love Is Colder Than Death is certainly quite knowing in its references, the situation between the sexes in particular being typically Godardian. A sample of the dialogue between Bruno and a girl on the train for example runs as follows – Bruno: “What are you thinking about? Sex?”, Girl (slipping dress provocatively off shoulder): “The revolution”. Fassbinder plays it largely straight however. Slowly paced with numerous long silent tracking shots, sparse stripped-back set designs and direct, flat, unemotional dialogue, the film is certainly stylish and accomplished, but ultimately an inconsequential piece of work. Despite the fact that Fassbinder has nothing much to contribute here, the characters are retained for another two Godard noir tributes creating a Franz Walsch trilogy.

Katzelmacher (1969)

The Nouvelle Vague stylings are still there in Fassbinder’s second feature film, but Katzelmacher sees Fassbinder coming closer to finding his own voice. Based on one of Fassbinder’s own plays and shot in low-budget black-and-white, the film is made up of everyday situations and conversations between young men and women incapable of expressing what they want from life or seeing beyond their limited horizons. Fassbinder was doing the indie slacker movie long before Funny Ha Ha.

The film is made up of a number of largely static encounters between a group of young German couples and the discussions they have with each other. The girls are competitive, wishing to prove that they have the best man, and bitching about which of the others is a slut. The men meanwhile discuss how their respective girl’s boobs measure up and how to keep them in-line, usually with a few slaps around the head. They are competitive with each other about which of them have had the most sexual experiences. Their unchanging everyday certitudes are challenged however with the arrival of a “Greek from Greece” (played by Fassbinder himself), a Katzelmacher (a derogatory term meaning undesirable immigrant worker), who is taken in as a lodger by one of the couples in the housing complex. His presence brings out the characters’ worst sides and sees their insecurities turn into racist attacks.

Rather glum, talky, static and filled with horrible characters, Katzelmacher doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it’s a brilliantly observed, deadpan comedy from Fassbinder examining the ridiculous hypocrisy in relationships, the commerce involved and even including an early reference to homosexuality in one of the characters. Stylistically it doesn’t always work, but the point is effectively made and there are enough inspired, hilarious moments to make up for any minor weaknesses.

Gods Of The Plague (1970)

The second part of the Franz Walsch trilogy brings back several of the characters and actors from Love Is Colder Than Death. Although the three films in the series are connected, there is no strict continuity, with actors changing roles and characters killed in one film reappearing to be killed again in the next.

Here in Gods of the Plague, Franz comes out of prison transformed, David Lynch Lost Highway style, into a different person, played by a different actor (Harry Baer). He looks up his former girlfriend Joanna (Hanna Schygulla again), now a singer in a nightclub called the Lola Montez, but finding life outside his prison cell now unbearable he leaves her for Margerethe (Margarethe von Trotta), looking to hook up with his friend the Gorilla (Günther Kaufmann). Together with another friend Jo, they attempt to hold up a supermarket.

Fassbinder attempts to inject some heavy-handed and at the same time empty political commentary in the style of Jean-Luc Godard, railing ineffectually against consumerism (“Criminals are our gods, capitalism is a plague”, the film’s trailer proclaims, explaining the significance of the title). The tone is slightly bleaker and darker in Gods of the Plague, the film aspiring to noir existential ennui - but in reality it’s just tedious.

Continued on Page 3.

The American Soldier (1970)

The same characters, the same locations and the same noir gangster stylisations are recycled again in the third part of the Franz Walsch trilogy, shuffled into a new configuration. The principal character this time is Richard von Rezzori (Karl Scheyd), a German-American hitman who has returned home to Munich after serving as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Hooking up with Franz Walsch (back to Fassbinder), Ricky is directed to the Lola Montez, where his ex-girlfriend Inga now works as a nightclub singer. There he meets Magdalena (Katrin Schaake), who sells pornography there as a cover for providing inside information on the whereabouts of all the local criminals and their most recent activities.

Although the story, the characters and the locations are familiar, the tone again is slightly different from the first two films, Love Is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague. Ricky, in a parody of American tough-guys, is a mean, hard-drinking character, slugging constantly from a bottle of neat whisky permanently attached to his left hand. The right hand is reserved for slapping around and tossing aside the women who are irresistibly drawn to him and, having been hired by three corrupt policemen to help clean up the town, for brandishing the gun with which he disposes of the local criminals. Taking a lead from Godard again – Alphaville this time – Fassbinder doesn’t so much pay tribute to the American noir as attempt to deconstruct it and bring to light an invented gay subtext, and in the process it slips into parody – a very bad one indeed.

Again, it’s hard to see what is to be gained by this other than as a purely academic exercise, which is great for Fassbinder, but less entertaining for the viewer. Certainly there are intriguing influences revealed and references made in each part of the trilogy that come to fruition later in the director’s career – notably in Berlin Alexanderplatz and here in The American Soldier where a distraught hotel chambermaid (which in itself has shades of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) gives an almost full outline of Fassbinder’s 1974 film Fear Eats The Soul - but it hardly justifies the painful experience of sitting through this dreadful film.

The Niklashausen Journey (1970)

Whether Fassbinder’s earlier films and their evident Hollywood and Nouvelle Vague references took themselves seriously or not is questionable, but there’s no such excuse for The Niklashausen Journey’s pitiful attempts to be politically meaningful. Godard again is the model aspired to, Fassbinder mimicking the French director’s experiments with the form in Weekend and Sympathy For The Devil - laying bare the artifice of the nature of filmmaking in a Brechtian manner, while putting across crude political slogans in the revolutionary spirit of the times.

The format is revealed from the outset, three characters discussing the need for revolution, and, like Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character in La Chinoise questioning whether it can be brought to the people through Brechtian-influenced theatrical representation. Fassbinder doesn’t go for little revolutionary tableaux in The Niklashausen Journey, but clearly has the same beliefs as Godard’s naïve part-time revolutionary. Set in medieval times with anachronistic elements, Pasolini becomes an important influence here as well, Fassbinder attempting to blend religion with Marxism through a messianic figure turned revolutionary.

Being German however, Fassbinder has a different outlook on popular revolution, seemingly seeing it as necessary to combat the dangers of Fascism and post-war German bourgeois attitudes. The director however has none of deep-rooted convictions of Godard or Pasolini, nor their inventiveness and ability to express deep outrage through a wilful self-destructive approach to filmmaking – at least not yet – and imitating them is not enough. The falseness of his position is most evident in Fassbinder’s own presence in the film. Never a great actor his attempts to glower meaningfully at the camera and nod sagely at the simplistic pronouncements while permanently drawing on a cupped cigarette fail to carry any real conviction. Embarrassingly derivative and naïve in its political outlook, The Niklashausen Journey is an aberration and – thankfully - unlike anything else in Fassbinder’s work.

Rio Das Mortes (1971)

Fortunately Fassbinder would dig himself out of this creative dead-end and return to the individual promise shown in Katzelmacher with Rio Das Mortes. Another rough and ready, low-budget comedy with seemingly average acting performances, it’s nevertheless typically perceptive about the inner nature of men and women and proves to be effortlessly funny.

Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) wants to get married to her boyfriend Michel (Michael König), who she has been with for a long time, but Michel has other ideas and intends to travel to Peru with his friend Günther (Günther Kaufmann) who has just turned up. The two men don’t really have any idea why they want to go there, what they are going to do or even have any idea of the cost involved – but soon discover that it far beyond the means of an apprentice tiler. Failing to get discouraged, they do a bit of research and start looking for friends and acquaintances who might be willing to finance their “expedition”.

There is no logic, rhyme or reason behind Michel and Günther’s dream of going to a place they know nothing about, other than it being an impractical, hare-brained male obsessive impulse that they will carry through to its illogical conclusion. Hanna meanwhile has other ideas that she has discussed with her female friends and her mother that are similarly impractical when dealing with the reality of her relationship with Michel. The whole idea is rather silly – both the half-hearted scheming of the characters and Fassbinder’s idea of it being a film - but the director hits on essential behaviours between males and between females that are incompatible with each other and the whole thing works marvellously.

Continued on page 4.

Beware Of A Holy Whore (1971)

Godard is the model aspired to again - Le Mèpris this time - in Fassbinder’s film about filmmaking and being a filmmaker, Beware Of A Holy Whore, Fassbinder even going as far as to travel to Sorrento (standing in for Spain), where an international cast and crew are in place to shoot a Lemmy Caution film starring Eddie Constantine. The production however has run into difficulties.

The influence of Fellini’s 8 ½ also hangs over the film, as the roving camera floats over the assembled cast and crew – a bunch of eccentrics, queens and neurotics waiting for the arrival of the director and production problems to be sorted out. Sitting around bored with nothing else to do, inevitably everyone drinks heavily and gets into trouble, conducting affairs with each other’s partners. When the director Jeff (Lou Castel) finally turns up however and tries to get the production moving, his disruptive, tyrannical presence only succeeds in intensifying the problems, bitterness and jealousies that are flourishing.

It’s not difficult to see the autobiographical elements in all this, particularly with the shambolic, tyrannical, bisexual director Jeff in the familiar leather biker jacket and jeans attire of Fassbinder, and in the clique of the director’s regular Munich actors. Trying to make sense of the amateurish way of making films, Hanna Schygulla explains to Eddie Constantine that this is how he works and it gives the actors a great deal of latitude. Judging by the chaotic results of the director’s films (much of this was indeed inspired by the off-screen activities of the cast and crew on the shoot for Whity) and the manner in which Fassbinder would crash and burn – dying of a drugs overdose at the age of 37 – the film is however probably quite representative of the reality of a Fassbinder shoot. Considering that Fassbinder had certainly not yet achieved a body of work to merit such behaviour, the whole enterprise reeks of hubris, and – as a film about making films – it has little of the multilayered qualities of the above-mentioned models it aspires to. Intended to function in the same way as Fellini’s 8 ½, drawing a line behind his previous work and reinvent his way of making films, it does however serve its purpose and would indeed ultimately yield fascinating results.

The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972)

With an output as prolific as that of Fassbinder, it wouldn’t be long before the director got Godard and the film-noir gangster stories out of his system and created his first masterpiece. It was the discovery of the films of Douglas Sirk that would revolutionise Fassbinder’s approach to filmmaking, working florid melodrama with cold detachment in the director’s customary loose manner and blending this style with themes relevant to his own concerns of social isolation and its roots within family relationships.

Irm Hermann, the Germanic ice-maiden so often found in secondary roles in Fassbinder’s films, is here given the leading female role in The Merchant of Four Seasons and, as the wife of Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller), proves to be the iceberg on which her husband founders. She is however not the only representative of the female sex that has gradually crushed Hans’s spirit in his early life. Denigrated by his mother, scorned by the love of his life, losing his job as a policeman to a seductress, Hans is reduced to being a lowly fruit pedlar, hawking his wares around the backstreets and courtyards of Munich. Driven to drink by his suspicious and constantly critical wife and unable to trust those around him, Hans gradually starts losing the will to live.

The story is every bit as heavy-handed as it sounds, and quite clunky in places – Hanna Schygulla as Hans’s sister in particular only being there to point out the part each of the family members have played in Hans’s condition - but Fassbinder sees no point in beating around the bush and it gives the film a heightened, hyper-real character. The grim sequences of betrayal and hypocrisy leading to deep depression may be somewhat hysterical, but Fassbinder downplays the melodrama with emotional underplaying that explicitly and effectively gets to the root of the very real issues the film deals with.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Fassbinder’s mastery of those notable elements of his early work comes to fruition in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – his theatrical experimentation, his semi-autobiographical subject matter, his bitter outlook on relationships and his ability to shoot quickly and strike while the iron is hot. Reportedly written as a play in 12 hours on a flight to LA and filmed within 10 days, the results yielded surpass anything that had come before, Fassbinder fully finding his own unique voice and expression.

It’s not too difficult to see the theatrical influence of Jean Genet – particularly The Maids – in the one-room prison of Petra von Kant’s gaudy bedroom, where the entire, very talky film takes place. Similarly, even though all the roles have been switched to female ones, it’s not hard to detect the personal situation of Fassbinder within Petra von Kant’s domineering fashion designer who is cruelly divested of her idealistic notions of purity in relationships when she conducts an affair with a young model called Karin (Hanna Schygulla). It’s a theme has been fairly consistent in Fassbinder’s films up to this point, and although the precision of the script makes this theme stronger here, it’s in the perfect marriage of form and content that The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant excels.

Talky and theatrical it may be, but every other element is in service to the playing out of the drama, from the elaborate flow of Michael Ballhaus’s camera, to the backgrounds, lighting, colouration and even the insistent irritable tapping on the typewriter of Petra’s mistreated personal assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann), silently bearing the burden of her silent love or silent hatred for her mistress. Much is also conveyed in the elaborate costumes of the characters which mirror their emotional state of mind, Petra divested of everything at the start and end of the film, glammed up and prowling like a predator for her encounter with Karin, changing wigs to suit her later moods of anger and despair. Even Marlene is permanently in black as if in mourning for her life. The performances – particularly Margit Carstensen as Petra von Kant - are perfectly pitched for just such an environment, languorous, seductive, brutal, explosive and hysterical. Everything, in other words, that would come to characterise the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

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