Nothing Left to Lose
Why no filmmaker ever lived as hard or as fast as Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder runs Oct. 28 to Dec. 23 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This weekend, enjoy 35mm screenings of Fassbinder’s masterpieces Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (October 28), The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant (October 29) and Katzelmacher (October 30) on 35 mm.
“Someone who wants to liberate himself for a new society must go down to the deepest depths of this society,” said the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder to an interviewer on the last day of his life. “Someone who does that, in whatever way, is fascinating. That’s obvious.”
Fassbinder was ostensibly talking about the title character of Querelle (1982), the daring and wildly stylized adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle de Brest that the German director had just finished shooting on a Berlin soundstage. But his words are equally evocative of the fascination he elicits from generations awed by what he achieved as cinema’s preeminent manifestation as both wunderkind and enfant terrible.
He certainly held up his end of the bargain by living fast and dying young. Fassbinder had just turned 37 with another of the birthday parties that had become must-attend events in the German film world. (One regular claimed they “always ended unpleasantly — either in a hysterical gay mood or in a drunken stupor.”) Alas, Fassbinder was unable to leave behind a requisite beautiful corpse. As Rick James once put it, “cocaine is a hell of a drug” and the director was a man of great appetites. One member of his inner circle claimed that the big reason Fassbinder wanted such a lengthy shooting schedule for Berlin Alexanderplatz was not so much its 15-hour duration, as the steady stream of production funds that he could use for drugs.
Fassbinder left the world with an enormous body of work that reflects not just German society before and after the Third Reich but his own memories, dreams, neuroses and obsessions. He may not have been the first great artist to fuse his life with his work, but no one else whipped up the same unholy shitstorm while yielding results as great as The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), The Third Generation (1979), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) or Veronika Voss (1981). And those are just the masterpieces from his final four years. He drew the best and worst out of the men and women he pulled into his orbit, a suitably volatile cast of characters that ranged from regular leading ladies like Hanna Schygulla and Ingrid Caven to El Hedi ben Salem and Armin Meier, lovers-turned-actors whose lives were consumed by tragedy after Fassbinder tossed them out of his circus. That the director had the energy to be at the center of this destructive yet artistically exhilarating maelstrom is proof of just how much a person can get done if they hardly ever sleep.
His longtime assistant Harry Baer claims that an “overdose of work” is what really killed Fassbinder. His final tally of completed works: over 40 feature-length films, 24 stage plays, four radio plays, three short films and assorted productions for television including Berlin Alexanderplatz. In an 1977 interview featured in Fassbinder: To Love Without Demand, a new documentary directed by Christian Braad Thomsen, the director himself wonders about the impact of his “compulsive,” possibly uncontrollable productivity. “I only thought I was existing when I was working,” he laments.
A Swiss filmmaker and longtime friend who played minor roles in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and Lili Marleen (1980), Daniel Schmid was frank about Fassbinder’s deterioration in his final weeks in a candid interview with Roger Ebert. “He liked to play the passed-out one in public,” said Schmid, “but now he had really lost control. He was bleeding all the time from the nose, from cocaine, but he said he would buy one of those plastic noses like you hear the Hollywood stars have.”
Schmid was one of many Fassbinder intimates (coined “Fassbinder People” in Love is Colder Than Death, an infamous 1987 biography by Robert Katz and producer Peter Berling that minted the legendary filmmaker in the sleaziest manner imaginable) who spoke about the man with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment, as if shell-shocked by their experience. Indeed, several now-elderly FPs still bear signs of Fassbinder-induced PTSD. Irm Hermann, a former clerk who made her acting debut in Fassbinder’s 1967 short The Little Chaos, has often spoken of the physical and psychological abuse she suffered over the course of their 19 features together serving as an actor and assistant director. In one notorious example, he berated and humiliated her in front of the crew until she gave him the tears he wanted in one scene of Berlin Alexanderplatz. “Basically, I was his possession,” she says chillingly in Thomsen’s documentary. “If you’re possessed by someone, you put up with a lot.”
There’s a sense that Fassbinder’s genius excused behaviour that would’ve been unjustifiable in anyone else. Yet for many of the people whose lives he dominated, he could be just as remarkable for his vulnerability and sensitivity as for his callousness. It’s easier to see that Fassbinder in the 21-year-old who Hermann and Schmid describe meeting in 1966, a shy yet already charismatic movie-mad young man with pockmarked skin who desperately wanted to get into the Berlin Film Academy. (He was rejected twice.) Full of instability and uncertainty, Fassbinder’s early history suggests why he’d feel compelled to form so many of his own quasi-families, only to blow them up.
“I grew up in a chaotic household where the rules and regulations of other families didn’t apply,” Fassbinder later told Thomsen. The only son of a translator and a doctor, he was a wild, indulged child with a firm mistrust of authority. Largely ignored by his own parents, he found surrogates in other relatives or the guests of the rooming house his mother ran after his parents’ divorce. He’d later inflict his revenge by casting his mother in a series of horribly unflattering roles, like the title character’s mother in Effi Briest (1974).
As a teenager, he went to Cologne to live with his father. They fought so often that the older Fassbinder told his girlfriend to write down every time Rainer threatened to kill him, just so he had a record. Cologne is also where Fassbinder met a fellow youth named Udo Kier at a dive frequented by “truck drivers and secretaries and the first transvestites and people working on the street,” as the actor told Dazed & Confused in a 2011 interview. Fassbinder also met his first boyfriend, a Greek immigrant like the kind he’d play a few years later in Katzelmacher (1969).
Defying the bourgeois tastes of his parents, he found his happiest home in the cinemas filled with Hollywood products, part of America’s campaign of cultural dominance in post-war Germany. (As one character put it in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976) — “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious!”) Fassbinder began writing stories and plays and studied acting after returning from Cologne to Munich in 1963. He made his first Super 8 shorts at drama school (his actress Hanna Schygulla was a fellow student). When his short films and scripts were not enough to get him into the Berlin Film Academy, he joined Munich’s Action Theater, soon transforming a loose conflagration of theatre radicals – which included Baer and future music composer Peer Raben – into his own artistic guerilla unit. He exerted an even stronger control over the Anti-Theater, a new company formed after its predecessor’s space was demolished by Horst Mahler, an associate of Andreas Baader and co-founder of the urban terrorist group Red Army Faction. (Mahler was reportedly acting less out of political motives than the fact that Fassbinder had stolen his girlfriend.)
Since the theatre world was far more prestigious than film in Germany, Fassbinder used it to develop the cachet he needed to attract backers for his movies. His lover financed the making of his first feature Love Is Colder Than Death, whose stark aesthetic, long takes and cold-blooded spin on gangster tropes elicited a divisive reception at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969. “It was shit!” cried an audience member as a smirking, leather-jacketed Fassbinder took the stage after the screening.
Haters couldn’t halt his momentum. Between November 1969 and 1970, Fassbinder wrote and directed nine features. He also had the first of three affairs with men who he’d foreground in his films, despite their minimum – or sometimes total lack – of acting experience. Fassbinder met Günther Kaufmann on the set of Volker Schlöndorff’s 1970 TV movie production of Brecht’s Baal. Fassbinder cast him in Gods of the Plague (1969) and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970). It was probably inevitable for Fassbinder to put his lovers in his films. Since he was shooting all the time, it was the only way he could be with them.
At the same time, he continued to stir the passions of the women in his company. When he impulsively decided to marry Ingrid Caven one afternoon in 1970 after a spat with Kaufmann, Hermann and Schygulla consoled each other by going to a bar and getting loaded. Fassbinder spent his wedding night with Kaufmann, consigning Caven to an adjoining room in a scenario that he’d later use for In a Year of 13 Moons (1978).
“I’m under no illusion that my romantic relationships have been wonderful,” Fassbinder admitted in a 1977 interview with Thomsen. “It’s bad enough that I have them, I can’t deny that.” The attention that he gave his actor-lovers helps explain why he commanded such loyalty. Says Hermann, “I’d define love as a kind of attentiveness and he gave me an enormous amount of attention at one point – ultimately that’s what bonded us, this attention, which no one else gave me. That made me realize who I was."
Real-life resentments and rivalries would continually spill into the films. Partially based on the filming of the previous year’s Whity (1970), Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) would appear to be one of the most nakedly autobiographical of his films, but the mirror that Fassbinder held up was frequently of the funhouse variety. As his actor Kurt Raab later said, “In the many roles we played for him, you could always find a piece of your own personality, but mostly one side the uglier one, of course.” Fassbinder would further confuse matters by often ceding the roles that seemed to represent him most closely. In Beware of a Holy Whore, he gave the part of a film director to Lou Castel because Fassbinder believed he couldn’t elicit the sympathy necessary for the role.
After the breakdown of the relationship with Kaufmann, Fassbinder made the savage The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), which re-cast their romance as a lesbian affair and a quasi-remake of All About Eve (1950). Well aware of the lack of any LGBT representation in cinema at the time, some viewers castigated Fassbinder for presenting gay and lesbian characters who were as vicious and heartless as anyone else in his movies. Naturally, he didn’t much care.
Attracted to men from outside his world, Fassbinder met a Moroccan named El Hedi ben Salem at a gay sauna in Paris. The director’s new lover would soon show up in minor roles before delivering a heartbreaking performance as a migrant worker who romances a German cleaning lady in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Fassbinder’s masterful re-imagining of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1956). (A series titled All That Heaven Allows: Fassbinder's Favourites runs from November 22 to January 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox and includes films by Sirk, Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles.) Salem’s own drinking problem and penchant for violence precipitated the end of the affair before the film’s premiere. Drunk and distraught by the breakup, Salem stabbed three strangers in a bar in Berlin before fleeing the country. Briefly reuniting with Salem in Morocco, Fassbinder would film him there for a scene in Fox and His Friends (1975). His cast and crew shielded him for years from the news of Salem’s suicide in a French prison in 1977.
Soon after, Fassbinder took up with Armin Meier, a butcher and server he’d spied at a Munich gay bar. The director dedicated Fox and His Friends to him but played the role of the working-class, Meier-like hero himself. Meier would also star in I Only Want You to Love Me (1976), a TV movie that may be Fassbinder’s most searing depiction of the emotional warfare he waged with his parents.
Meier weathered Fassbinder’s increasingly reckless and impulsive behaviour in the mid-’70s, which included the director (who never had a driver’s license) crashing a rented Fiat while in Greece, an accident that sent Meier and Raab flying through the windshield. Cocaine and heroin were increasingly influencing the director’s working methods. Raab claims that the director instructed him to sniff coke to enhance his performance in The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977).
New predilections were evident on-screen, too. Adapted from the Nabokov novel, Despair (1978) was Fassbinder’s first English-language film and biggest international production. Besides outfitting Dirk Bogarde in an anachronistic black-leather motorcycle cap, Fassbinder indicated his enthusiasm for the leather scene by basing his set on the look of the Mineshaft, the notorious New York bar that William Friedkin fictionalized for Cruising (1979). According to a “close friend” who Globe & Mail critic Jay Scott quotes in his masterful piece in 1985, he wasn’t into leather but something “more serious," remarking: “A couple of times, guys he picked up wound up in the hospital.”
Fassbinder probably wasn’t in the best headspace when he pitched famous Austrian actress Romy Schneider on playing the lead in the film that would become one of his greatest triumphs, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). The negotiations culminated in Fassbinder declaring her a “dumb cow” and Schneider calling him a “beast.” Since Schygulla had been cut from the Fassbinder circles since leading a protest over low wages during the making of Effi Briest, it was a surprise when the director gave her the part instead. It’s a massive understatement to say that she made the most of it.
Eventually one of Fassbinder’s greatest commercial successes, The Marriage of Maria Braun also saved Fassbinder’s hide at Cannes in May 1978, when he reacted to the poor reception for Despair by hastily arranging a screening of the just-finished successor to a much more enthusiastic response. That same month was the occasion of Fassbinder’s 33rd birthday party. Devastated over not being invited, Armin Meier downed four bottles of sleeping pills and died. Along with several intense periods of depression for Fassbinder, Meier’s death would inspire In the Year of 13 Moons (1978), a drama about the lonely final days of a long-suffering transsexual.
By now, the director had only four years left himself and to his credit, he did make some effort to clean up. He grew closer to his editor Juliane Lorenz, the second woman he’d marry in 1979, though that’s long been disputed by her rival FP Ingrid Caven. He told Lorenz he wanted to make Berlin Alexanderplatz without drugs and he was apparently healthy enough to play on the football team he formed with the crew. (He called them “the FC Alexanderplatz.”)
In October of 1981, he was subpoenaed for a trial involving drugs in Germany’s entertainment business. When questioned about his own habits, he told the judge, “I have enough energy without using cocaine.” It’s a positively Trumpian assertion, especially since Katz and Berling’s book suggests he was back up to his Herculean intake during the making of Querelle. But in Thomsen’s documentary, Baer emphasizes the impact that his jeopardized Mandrax supply had on the sleep-challenged filmmaker. “Something like that wears your body out of course. If you then add work stress, cocaine, alcohol and irregular meals, it’s obvious your body will one day say, ‘Finito.’
“We’d have had many more good film ideas and would’ve made some great films,” Baer adds ruefully.
Maybe the world could’ve used a few more great Fassbinder movies. Then again, it should appreciate the ones that somehow managed to surface from out of these dark depths. As we learned from “Me And Bobby McGee,” a song that the late filmmaker loved so much he featured it in two different films – “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Today, he remains an inspiration for any artist who longs for the same freedoms he both enjoyed and exploited.