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A Piece of Soul — R. W. Fassbinder

(After the viewing of a selection of his films in Zagreb — February)

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death and the commemorative retrospective the author of this essay evokes Fassbinders distinctive life and directorial style and his creative evolution from the earliest phase, when he cooperated with the ’Aktion-theatre’ in Munich, both as actor and director, to his last film Querelle and the eponymous TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz. The author focuses on Fassbinder’s thematic preoccupations and the characters of outsiders that create Fassbinder’s distinctive film world, in an effort to show how Fassbinder’s subversion of the image of an ideally structured Germany as a paradigm of the Western democracy, tolerance and economic welfare is still an actuality.
Fassbinder’s early films were dominated by microcosms inhabited by pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals... The motif of xenophobia was also frequently present and it would eventually become one of the director’s basic thematic preoccupations. The phantom of animosity and intolerance towards strangers haunted the whole opus of this unconventional author. It first appeared in the screen adaptation of Fassbinder’s first drama Katzelmacher (Stranger), and was present in many movies from the ’70s. It was expressed explicitly in the movies Everyone’s Name is Ali and Fear Eats the Soul (1974).

Omnipresent alienation in a supposedly normal city life and faceless existences in a dull monotony became the following motifs that Fassbinder lucidly and meticulously presented to the viewers. He dissected the alienated civil consciousness with precision and unsparing, but low profile criticism in order to show the gradual destruction of his hero’s psyche. This destruction manifested itself in outbursts of apparently unexplainable and unmotivated violence (the best example of this was Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?). The microcosm created by his hand, Fassbinder striped to the core of its decay.

The turning point in Fassbinder’s creative development came with melodrama. Narrative pattern of melodrama turned out to be the best medium for his analysis of naïve, fragile, and often helpless characters. Fassbinder was also a skilful illustrator of female psychology. (Maybe precisely because he was a homosexual!) In the masterpiece Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Fontane Effi Briest, a subtle creation with an almost Bressonian mise-en-scene; Mother Kuster’s Trip to Heaven, characterized by Brechtian overtones; and lucidly shot Marriage of Maria Braun, Fassbinder created a gallery of female characters unrivalled by any other author. Furthermore, movies Lili Marleen and Lola offered some spectacular elaborations of intimate worlds of their heroines, while Veronika Voss presented maybe the most artful analysis of melancholy and neuralgia on film. His women were strong and got along in the men’s world, but only on the surface. The truth was that they were fatally predetermined by the hopeless lack of love and understanding around them.

Fassbinder’s storytelling talent that enabled him to tell simple stories of complex human relations put him in the group of a small number of storytellers of the 20th century who created an alternative history of their communities. Wolfram Schutte was quite right when he said at Fassbinder’s death: ’Our Balzac is dead.’ Indeed, it could be said that Fassbinder created a distinctive, underground micro historiography of Germany where he incorporated all the key social layers into one amazing mosaic. Such socio-psychological structuring of characters was unknown in the context of film narration in Germany, moreover it was rare even in the fictional and essayist prose, not to mention some of the best works of the national theatre in the second half of the 20th century.

Marijan Krivak

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Film, reviews, context: Alone by Lucas Nola
Pornophiles Sexuality Attacked by Feminist Criticism
On Cabbages and Kings — Musings at the Lord of the Rings
Kenneth Anger’s films

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