Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, 1972, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

August 31 to October 25, 2018

"I'd like to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theatre, Marx for politics and Freud for psychology: someone after whom nothing is as it used to be." (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

The Film Museum opens the fall season with a tribute to a key figure in the history of film: The brief but prolific career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) made him an engine of the New German Cinema and a meteor in the sky of 1970s international cinema. No other independent filmmaker worldwide was as productive and influential. Fassbinder made more than 40 radically personal feature films, from Love is Colder Than Death (Liebe ist kälter als der Tod, 1969) to Querelle (1982), continuing his theatrical career on the side. A wunderkind and declared troublemaker, after his international breakthrough Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Angst essen Seele auf, 1974), he became the embodiment of West German cinema as his rapidly expanding work, inspiring both admiration and controversy back home, developed into a comprehensive cinematic chronicle of the past and present of his country.
 
Fassbinder's self-stylization, his provocative attitude and the scandals caused by his wild lifestyle made him a legend in his own lifetime, while his early death provided the seal of transfiguration into myth: The enfant terrible of West German cinema burned out in a drug-fueled daze of never-ending work, proving true to his saying: "I can sleep when I'm dead." But Fassbinder’s filmic legacy is ill-suited for an embalming in the canon: The universal force, irrefutable originality and fiery passion of his work grant him a timeless relevance. The cruelty and tenderness of his insights about human beings contain a utopian potential, especially compared to the increasingly homogenized cinematic landscape of the present. Fassbinder's films are radically subjective (often barely concealing their autobiographical dimension) but addressed to everyone – the great audience, the whole of society.
 
Fassbinder, who became obsessed with cinema as a child, distanced himself from cultural elitism: "Empty cinemas are of no use to us." Although he never gave up his penchant for audacious experimentation, he understood film as a popular art form capable of stirring up dreams and feelings as well as sharpening our intellect and awareness. His motto was: "Make many films so that life can become cinema." The blurred lines between his work and private life (including close relationships with his ensemble, which yielded international stars such as Hanna Schygulla) resulted in a personality cult which cast a shadow over his work and its stunning variety, going far beyond rightly canonized classics like The Merchant of Four Seasons (Händler der vier Jahreszeiten, 1972) or The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1978).
 
Beginning his career on the stage, Fassbinder took the long road to filmmaking. He caused a stir with his Munich-based theater collective antiteater, founding a troupe of longstanding companions for the non-stop production of his one-man studio: Peer Raben, Irm Hermann, Kurt Raab, Harry Baer, Hans Hirschmüller, Ingrid Caven and Margit Carstensen. His early work, especially Katzelmacher (1969), aggressively demonstrates the plain, clear-cut style he was soon to refine: long takes with declaiming actors almost arranged in space – "the world has become a stage" (J. Hoberman). Fassbinder filled the stage with an unrivaled ambivalence and sense of the world, directly and pointedly portraying the everyday life and despair of his characters in often disturbingly strange tragedies of unrequited passions, at turns cold and ablaze. Under the influence of Douglas Sirk's melodramas, his films became more accessible and succesful after 1971. Just like his role model, Fassbinder used popular forms to criticize the societal status quo responsible for the suffering of his outsider characters. Whether women or homosexuals, petty bourgeois or people on the margins of society, Fassbinder’s characters are trapped in perverse power and relationship structures ("Love is the most effective instrument of social repression."), but they are never just docile victims.
 
The intriguing conflicting nature and urgency of Fassbinder's films makes them appear ageless: a West German Comédie humaine nonpareil (Wolfram Schütte) that, along with contemporary interventions such as In a Year of 13 Moons (In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, 1978) or the terrorism satire The Third Generation (Die dritte Generation, 1979), made ever richer and more extravagant forays into German (film) history, with growing international ambitions. From the collapse of Prussian society (Effi Briest, 1974) to Weimar (Bolwieser, 1977/83) and Nazi Germany (Lili Marleen, 1981) to colorful economic miracle comedy (Lola, 1981), Fassbinder exposed the driving force behind his country and that behind people. Fassbinder, 1974: "At some point films have to stop being films, being stories, and have to begin to come alive, so that people will ask themselves: What about me and my life?"
 
The retrospective is organized in close cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. Filmmakers Nicolas Wackerbarth and Christian Braad Thomsen will be our guests on September 7 and 13, respectively.
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