It’s almost a cliche to say that Fassbinder is one of the most daunting fillmakers to get into. Not only is he uncompromising in his depiction of cruelty and manipulation but he produced over forty films and plays in his lifetime. Fassbinder’s body of work is impenetrable not just for its size but for its consistency - where many filmmakers may have a large output with a few key gems, Fassbinder has no obvious entry point; you could make a good case for at least twenty of his feature films and telemovies as being his masterpiece. But if you truly immerse yourself in his work you’ll find one of the most exciting and rewarding filmographies in cinema history. The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder are not just a collection of individual films but their own cinematic universe of sorts. Part of the joy of exploring Fassbinder is seeing the reoccurrence of various themes, styles and his stock company of actors reappear and transform. While several of these works are masterpieces in their own right Fassbinder as a filmmaker is more than the sum of his parts and rewards the curious and persistant.
For those interested in exploring this unparalleled filmmaker in preparation for our production of Blood On The Cat’s Neck we’ve selected five films that place this mid-career play in the context of his film career. This is not a comprehensive survey of Fassbinder - it ignores many of the late career films that many count among his best - but a series of films that that draw a line from the origins of the Action-Theatre and Anti-Theatre companies he headed and the lush melodramas that would come to define his career in the cinema. Here is our list presented in chronological order.
Fassbinder experimented with multiple forms while heading Munich’s Anti-Theatre but if he had a signature style in his original plays it was a montage-like series of tiny vignettes that explored a particular theme or set of characters. He first hit upon the form in 1968’s Katzelmacher before expanding it into the more fragmented and surreal Pre-Paradise/Sorry, Now and Blood On The Cat’s Neck. While critics have suggested this style betrays Fassbinder’s loyalty to cinema over theatre, this adaptation of the play of the same name shows that its an equally jarring approach to storytelling on screen as it is on stage.
Katzelmacher consists of ten bored, lower middle class characters with seemingly no purpose in life other than to manipulate and gossip about each other. This routine is broken up and then accelerated by the arrival of Greek immigrant Jorgos played by Fassbinder himself. Few films capture the spirit of ‘the banality of evil’ better than Katzelmacher, in fact it itself can be downright banal to watch at times. In a risky strategy, Fassbinder lets the boredom and aimlessness of these characters exist unembellished to show the kind of life that breeds the racism Germany was still trying to understand in the wake of World War 2. While one of the most difficult films of his to watch, Katzelmacher - with an ensemble cast drawn entirely from the Anti-Theatre - is one of the most significant links between his work in the theatre and film.
Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)
There are a lot of films about filmmaking and they are usually either layered exercises in meta-humours or reflections on the personal struggles of a filmaker and their art. Beware A Holy Whore is not one of those films. Set in a French villa, Holy Whore depicts a troupe of actors and a crew waiting around as the director is delayed, investors pull out and filmstock doesn’t arrive. With the actual filmmaking itself being constantly delayed we are instead treated to the cruel and unhealthy relationships that rise and fall amongst the cast and crew.
Clearly based on Fassbinder’s own company this would be an utterly self indulgent exercise if it wasn’t so funny. Fassbinder brutally satirises his own reputation as an erratic bully and everyone else is playing versions of themselves or each other. While there are some very clever filmmaking tricks throughout, the focus is on deconstructing the utopian 1960s dream of a communal approach to life and art. Apart from its humour and insight into Fassbinder’s company, Beware of a Holy Whore is one of the best showcases of the strong ensembles his background in theatre gave him access to.
The Merchants of Four Seasons (1971)
In 1970 Fassbinder went to a retrospective of German-turned-American director Douglas Sirk, known for his lush colourful 1950s melodramas marketed to suburban women. Dismissed by critics upon release, Sirk began to be reappraised as possessing a distinctly socially conscious eye underneath the beautiful surface of Eisenhower’s America. While Hollywood ‘women’s pictures’ may have seemed like the last thing that the German enfant terrible would draw from, Fassbinder finally found a fusion of direct emotional appeal and political consciousness that suited his particular outlook.
While Merchant of Four Seasons isn’t as lush or deliberately evocative as Sirk as some of Fassbinder’s more well known films from the 1970s it’s a fantastic transitional point and a good cross-section of Fassbinder’s radical marxist background and the melodrama trajectory he was heading on to. The film depicts the gradual unravelling of a lower-middle class returned soldier who now works as a fruit seller. Unlike a lot of the more black and white socially conscious films of the international new wave, Fassbinder complicates the social pressures he depicts with an equally important gendered dynamic between husband and wife that sees power shift between the two. The combination of melodrama and lower-class, course and often unlikeable characters would crop up in Blood On The Cat’s Neck, also created in 1971, while still wrapped in the avant-garde framework that defined his early work.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)
If The Merchant of Four Seasons was a dip of the toe in melodrama then Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is when Fassbinder truly jumped in. While Merchant’s interpersonal power games were set against the backdrop of real locations like city streets and fruit stalls, Bitter Tears limits itself entirely to the confines of the titular fashion designer’s ornate apartment. This limited structure betrays the fact that Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is adapted (more faithfully than Katzelmacher) from one of Fassbinder’s plays and it has become his most performed play and one of his most celebrated films. But it’s theatrical origin should not make you underestimated it’s successes as a piece of cinema, with Fassbinder’s camera creatively zooming around and exploring every corner of Von Kant’s living doll house.
Bitter Tears is also one of Fassbinder’s first explicitly queer works, a theme that would dominate his later career. Instead of the angry young men of his earlier efforts, the cast here are entirely female and revolve around the relationships between Petra, her mistress and her beleaguered secretary. Of course Fassbinder’s women are as brutally cruel and manipulative as his men and the film attracted controversy for such a negative depiction of lesbianism at a time when any depiction at all was rare - although it’s probable that the whole plot was lifted wholesale from one of Fassbinder’s own love triangles with two other men and that the gender swap was made to showcase the women in his ensemble and take full aesthetic advantage of Petra’s career as a fashion designer. Despite being an unpleasant and ugly two hours, the film remains an incredibly rare depiction of a complex queer relationship between women that doesn’t shy away from the role social class plays. It’s uniqueness in this respect might explain why the film is still celebrated and the play is frequently revived.
World On A Wire (1973)
Throughout his own short lifetime and in the decades after his death, few remembered World On A Wire as a particularly important film of Fassbinder’s. A three and a half hour telemovie, the project was essentially lost for forty years until it was restored in 2015 and quickly rose to become a favourite among cinephiles. A sci-fi noir that deals with a “simulated reality” run through a computer, the film plays as a much more cerebral dry run for The Matrix twenty years before that film was even conceived. The rich and creative cinematography is incredible for a television project of its time and gives the flashiest HBO shows of today a run for their money.
While it’s run time may seem daunting there’s an argument to be made for this being a good starting point for Fassbinder’s filmography. For one thing it may be his only film to have a reasonably likeable protagonist. It also bucks his previous experiments by being comfortable following its potboiler narrative and keeping audiences engaged through twists and turns. While Fassbinder would find commercial success through his historical dramas of the late 70s and early 80s this is really his first go at aiming for the mainstream and it’s quite fascinating.
With it’s aliens and pulp fiction framing device, Blood On The Cat’s Neck presents a much stranger side of Fassbinder that never really made it into his film work but with World On A Wire he may have come closest.
WHERE TO FIND:
Unfortunately no streaming services offer any of Fassbinder’s films in Australia. However if you’re in the neighbourhood of our performance space KXT then you can pop over to the wonderful independent video store Film Club, which stocks all of these movies and many more.