Daniel Walber August 27, 2013
Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed 44 films in 18 years. If you take out the shorts, the numbers are still crazy: 39 films in 14 years. That figure includes both theatrical features and TV productions, some of which run well over four hours (and one conspicuous 15.5 hour behemoth). Don’t even bother thinking about what that really means, you’ll just get dizzy. But this is Film.com, where no project is too ridiculous (editor’s note: my bad) . Throwing caution to the winds and abandoning all commitment to my emotional well-being, I watched (almost) all of them.
What did I learn? Firstly, that the sheer quantity of films isn’t the most extraordinary thing about Fassbinder’s body of work. His trajectory is something else, and no two films are the same. The early works are reminiscent of the French New Wave, filtered through American Film Noir and spiked with the acidic flair of Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Early,” by the way, means roughly 1969-1971. Then there’s the discovery of Douglas Sirk and a shift toward melodrama, which is perhaps the most widely discussed period in Fassbinder’s career (roughly 1972-1976).
Yet that characterization is reductive. In those years he also made a science fiction epic, two play adaptations for television, and a couple of absurd comedies. Then, from 1977 through his death in 1982, he set out to redefine about forty years of German history and break new ground for queer cinema. There’s the BDR Trilogy and “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” but also “Despair” and “Lili Marleen,” “In a Year of 13 Moons” and “Querelle.” The word genius should not be used lightly, but that’s because it should be reserved for artists like Fassbinder.
All of that being said, variety isn’t everything. Paradoxically, these 44 films are also very much cut from the same cloth. Much of this is due to Fassbinder’s dedication to actors, casting the same people over and over again. Many of them play nearly identical roles, though perhaps it would be better to consider their characters variations on a theme. The five films included in Criterion’s essential new Eclipse set feel like spending a week with a repertory theater company. It would be unfair to judge Fassbinder’s entire filmography as a body of work, but equally wrong to examine a particular film without taking all of the rest of them into account. Which is exactly why I’m about to do both at once.
There are 36 films on this list. I have excluded all of the shorts: the three made before Fassbinder’s first feature, his segment in “Germany in Autumn,” and the 43-minute TV special “Like a Bird on a Wire.” The mini-series “Eight Hours Are Not a Day” is unavailable with English subtitles, as are “The Coffeehouse” and “Theater in Trance.” Everything else is ranked below.
36. “Katzelmacher” (1969)
The early films are a weird bunch, to be sure, but some of them find their way to meaning better than others. “Katzelmacher,” Fassbinder’s second feature, introduces a Greek migrant worker named Yorgos (played by the director himself) into a group of uptight Germans. It’s like a surprisingly unsexy remake of Pasolini’s “Teorema,” pointed at an entire class rather than a single representative family. The result is a clunky assortment of scenes that are mostly interesting as career foreshadowing.
35. “Pioneers in Ingolstadt” (1971)
“Pioneers in Ingolstadt” is a fascinating midpoint, sitting squarely between Fassbinder’s early ensemble satires and the melodramas of the following year. This makes it a very exciting watch for fans, and probably nothing too thrilling for anyone else. Based on a 1926 play by Marieluise Fleisser, it’s a scathing critique of the role played by local militia in a small city. Made in 1971, Fassbinder’s film becomes a layered commentary on both the Nazi period and the re-militarization of West Germany in the 1950s. It’s also got one of the best Irm Hermann performances, as a snide young woman whose social ambition takes her in exactly the wrong direction.
34. “Martha” (1974)
There isn’t really a bad Fassbinder film. Most of them are very well crafted, creatively designed and expertly acted. “Martha” is one of the best by that metric, Margit Carstensen and Karlheinz Bohm selling the parts of a shy former librarian and her viciously abusive husband with plenty of vigor. The problem is that, at the end of the day, Fassbinder doesn’t do a very good job at giving any sense of why he chose to assault the audience with over an hour of brutal domestic violence. There’s plenty of flourish, but something doesn’t quite connect under the surface.
33. “Rio das Mortes” (1971)
The best part of “Rio das Mortes” is a brief scene in which Fassbinder and Hanna Schygulla dance to Elvis in a dingy Munich bar, mostly unrelated to the plot of the film. Yet this comedy of ignorance does have some success, particularly in the central narrative of two young men convinced that simply traveling to the Rio das Mortes in Peru is a guaranteed way to get rich quick. They aren’t even aware that Rio das Mortes is actually in Brazil.
32. “Women in New York” (1977)
Much has been made of Fassbinder’s love of Sirk, but other American “Woman’s Pictures” loom almost as large. “Women in New York” is a very faithful remake of George Cukor’s “The Women,” aside from the fact that the production design makes it look as if the whole thing has been moved to Mars. Carstensen gives the rare comic turn in the Rosalind Russell part, while Barbara Sukowa takes on Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen in her first collaboration with Fassbinder. It doesn’t really match the original in verve, but it’s worth a look.
31. “The Stationmaster’s Wife” (1977)
Now, perhaps I am unfairly judging “The Stationmaster’s Wife.” The original version for German television is twice as long as the theatrical version released in the United States, and you can tell. The longer cut focuses on the stationmaster himself, the cuckolded Bolwieser (played by the always unhinged Kurt Raab). The shorter film switches the focus to his wife, Elisabeth Trissenaar in her first major role for Fassbinder. Both actors are great, but it does feel like a film cut in half. On the side, Udo Kier does some of his best work as a deliciously sleazy hairdresser.
30. “Despair” (1978)
“Despair” would make for a great double feature with Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter,” both of them starring Dirk Bogarde as a one-man-metaphor for Germany’s descent into Fascism. Yet “Despair” isn’t nearly as good as Cavani’s leather-bound classic. Fassbinder doesn’t quite know what to do with Tom Stoppard’s English-language script, and it was his first time working in a language other than German. Bogarde is great, as is Klaus Löwitsch as his doppelganger, but it’s otherwise a little forgettable.
29. “Love Is Colder than Death” (1969)
Fassbinder’s first feature is also the first film on this list that I’d call genuinely exciting to watch. It’s very French New Wave, down to the spirit with which it appropriates the images of the American gangster film. Yet its playful sexuality moves beyond its influences and hints at intriguing things to come. It also shows a Fassbinder who knew his way around a soundtrack right out of the gate. There’s a brief scene in a supermarket set to what can only be described as an electronic-opera mash-up, eerily satirizing commercialism in 1960s West Germany.
28. “Gods of the Plague” (1970)
All men are brutes, all women are lunatics. At this point in his career Fassbinder hadn’t yet fully taken apart that assertion, an argument that could probably be used against “Gods of the Plague.” Its style, though, makes up for its simpler approach to character. It remains under the heavy influence of the French New Wave, but there are moments that feel much more like a Richard Lester film than anything Gallic.
27. “Whity” (1971)
“Whity” isn’t really a Western. It pretends to be a Western, of course, but it would be more accurately described as a Pasolini bourgeois family drama set in a giant house in the American desert. It’s nice to see a Günter Kaufmann in a leading role, even if it’s in a movie without all that much talking. Fassbinder’s take on American racial politics is predictably strange, further obscured by some really bold make-up choices. However, it manages to find a voice in spite of its palpable strangeness.
26. “The Third Generation” (1979)
“The Third Generation” a comedy about terrorists, sort of like a cross between “Carlos” and “Four Lions.” This being the late 1970s, the cell in question is made up of bourgeois anarchists who plan to kidnap a rich businessman. They have the total incompetence of the guys in “Four Lions,” but Fassbinder goes much darker. Its humor isn’t exactly the laughing kind, finding its groove more in the twisted smirk of a man who sees the corruption and folly of both capitalism and its revolutionary opponents.
25. “I Only Want You to Love Me” (1976)
Men are stubborn dolts, but only because their fathers are unloving jerks. At least that’s the most reductive way to describe the thesis of this very surprising TV movie. It wouldn’t necessarily make sense to call it a feminist work, but it’s informed by those ideas and uses some of them quite intelligently. On its own, this could be described as a performance-driven work that thrives off of Vitus Zeplichal’s presence. Yet every Fassbinder film is “performance-driven,” and the charm of “I Only Want You to Love Me” only really emerges once you’ve realized how quiet and humble it is in comparison to the director’s other melodramas. If he had ever tried to direct a Neorealist film, would look like this.
24. “Querelle” (1982)
“Querelle” is a good movie and a bad movie at the same time. Fassbinder’s solution to the earlier problem of adapting someone else’s English-language script was to write his own, which didn’t exactly go well. It didn’t help that the original novel was in French, though the trivia that Catherine Breillat helped with the translation of Jean Genet’s “Querelle de Brest” is one of my favorite tidbits. “Querelle” is strongest as a collection of brutally powerful homoerotic images, making most of the dialog practically irrelevant. Jeanne Moreau is a boozy success, and Brad Davis brings a sweaty, brutal and paradoxically innocent sexuality that deserves legendary significance. Genet would be proud.
23. “The American Soldier” (1970)
“The American Soldier” may have the best final shot in a Fassbinder film, though that’s probably a whole other list. Karl Scheydt was the perfect choice to play Ricky, a German/American soldier who has returned from Vietnam and taken a job as a hired assassin. It’s the best of Fassbinder’s riffs on noir, and his most original take on the American gangster. Also, one of the side characters takes the time to tell the whole plot of “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” four years in advance, which is fun.
22. “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?” (1970)
Fassbinder titles are the best, and “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?” is the most brilliant of the lot. It might not have the flair of “In a Year of 13 Moons” or the bonkers sensibility of the episode titles in “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” but it has the most impact on the ensuing 80-odd minutes. When will he run amok? Well, you have to wait and see. It’s also early example of Fassbinder’s love of color, including perhaps the best combination of furniture and clothing in his entire filmography.
21. “Satan’s Brew” (1976)
As I mentioned before, Kurt Raab is always a little bit deranged in Fassbinder’s films. He’s usually just a minor creep, hanging about to look menacing and perverse. In 1976, he got a whole film do project that as loudly as possible. The whole cast plays along, with two unforgettable against-type performances from Margit Carstensen and Volker Spengler. A grand homage to Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty,” “Satan’s Brew” is as difficult to describe as it is to understand. Yet that is the secret to its success, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride turned upside down and injected with plenty of uncomfortable sex.
20. “Bremen Freedom” (1972)
It’s perhaps unfair to even compare “Bremen Freedom” to Fassbinder’s other, more expensive theatrical and television productions. The budget must have been miniscule, and it’s really just a filmed play on a small stage in front of a giant green screen. The drama in question is by Fassbinder himself, inspired by the bleakest moments in August Strindberg’s oeuvre of revolting Scandinavian marriages. A parable of feminism avant-le-nom, Carstensen’s Geesche Gottfried spends most of her time plotting violent schemes to achieve the financial independence that 19th century Germany would never voluntarily give to a woman. It’s proof that if Fassbinder were still living, he and his best actors could probably make fabulous work with only a cell phone camera and some curtains for a dress.
19. “Chinese Roulette” (1976)
1976 was a weird year for Fassbinder. There was the conventional melodrama of “I Only Want You to Love Me,” whatever “Satan’s Brew” is, and this evil little attack on bourgeois family that feels like something by Carlos Saura or Luis Buñuel. “Chinese Roulette” is the name of the wicked game the family plays for the last 20 minutes of the film, and you’re guaranteed to secretly want to play it with some of your closest and most hated friends.
18. “Nora Helmer” (1974)
Admittedly, now that Jinkx Monsoon has performed “I Will Survive” as Nora in a long-forgotten sequel, this 1974 TV movie is no longer the single greatest adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Yet don’t let that stop you. Fassbinder runs with the obvious imagery of a doll’s house, but it works because of his commitment. He shoots Carstensen through glass, curtains and open doors and dresses everyone up in light, almost pastel costumes that add a frustrated preciousness to early 20th century married life. It’s in desperate need of a fancy restoration and rerelease, so someone should get on that.
17. “Effi Briest” (1974)
For me, the eternal question is this: “Hanna Schygulla or Margit Carstensen?” And while my answer has always been the latter, “Effi Briest” is the first triumph that makes the case for Schygulla as Fassbinder’s best actor. Theodor Fontane’s novel is considered one of the great trifecta of 19th century infidelity, beside “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina.” Yet the story is such that a lesser actress would let her fade away – not Schygulla. Additionally, this was Fassbinder’s first experiment with his unique style of adaptation. The blend of narration and quotes, and its bold use of structure and timing elevate the book instead of simply copying it.
16. “The Merchant of Four Seasons” (1971)
Most other Fassbinder films have an inspired sense of color, but none of them quite match “The Merchant of Four Seasons.” From the fruits that Hans (Hans Hirschmuller) pushes in his cart to the humble but boldly hued clothes that he and Irmgard (Irm Hermann) wear, it’s hard not to be entranced. This simple, unpretentious grandeur extends to the story itself, which makes no bones about its melodramatic core. It also has one of the best endings on this list, unexpected and fascinating.
15. “Lola” (1981)
“Lola” is the weakest of the BRD trilogy, but that’s only because “Veronika Voss” and “The Marriage of Maria Braun” are among the best films ever made. Of the three it’s also the most boldly sexual, which is what comes from (very) loosely remaking Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel.” What sets it apart from the 34 films behind it on this list is the way it uses that sexuality to cleverly disguise the cynical political critique at its core. Feather boas just make corruption a little bit more fun.
14. “Jail Bait” (1973)
This obscure little TV movie has more nudity than any other Fassbinder film. That is not why it’s so great. Eva Mattes and Harry Bär give startling performances as two teenagers who legally shouldn’t be together (she’s 15, he’s 19). Of course, there’s no doubt they’ll keep it up anyway. Their love (which is mostly sex) leads them down a road to criminality and ruin. Fiercely sexual and uncompromisingly melodramatic, its exaggerations go a long way to show that heterosexuality is just as much a performance as the non-normative passions in Fassbinder’s other masterpieces.
13. “The Niklashausen Journey” (1970)
At what point does a cynical performance of religion become religion? “The Niklashausen Journey” is the most surprising of allegories, grafting a 15th century legend onto the politics of late 1960s West Germany. Revolutionary rhetoric is mocked via Catholic ritual, but the reverse is also true and by the devastating finale it becomes clear how the two are essentially the same thing. Yet even that is only a small part of what Fassbinder chooses to illuminate in this early work, among his most thrillingly weird.
12. “Fear of Fear” (1975)
On paper, “Fear of Fear” is only one of Fassbinder’s chamber-play melodramas. It is, however, probably the best. Comparatively restrained in everything but its representation of madness, it’s a masterpiece of everything but ambition. Carstensen is unsurprisingly exceptional as the paranoid housewife losing her senses, and her pill-popping is refreshing no matter how many other valium-peppered films you’ve seen.
11. “Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven” (1975)
Brigitte Mira was amazing. As a character actress, turning in subtly inflected performances as traditional older women, she was unmatched. As a protagonist she was much, much more. “Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven” is a political parable and an emotional victory, a coming of age film for the social consciousness of an older woman. Not for a second does Mira’s age take on novelty or gimmick, and her adoption of Left Wing politics is played without unfair ageist comedy. Its twinned endings, meanwhile, are an unintended revelation.
THE LIST CONTINUES WITH THE TOP 10 FASSBINDER FILMS ON PAGE 2.
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