What a pleasure it has been to wallow in the 16-film Fassbinder retrospective this past two weeks. For various reasons it’s not been easy to see his films in the theater, but now that distributers Janus hold this selection of (very nice) subtitled prints, one can hope that they’ll resurface more frequently.
The second half of the series kicked off with an great oddball double bill of Satan’s Brew (1976) and Fear of Fear (1975). Just as Beware of a Holy Whore (1970) seemed like a stock-taking, before Fassbinder (melo)dramatically upped his game, so is Satan’s Brew a bit of self-examination before his expansion into international co-productions. It’s Fassbinder’s only outright comedy (although he’s usually much funnier than generally given credit for), with the fantastic Kurt Raab as a megalomaniac poet and unconscious plagiarist, desperately trying to get money any way but by actually writing. He’s beset by dependents, including Margit Carstensen as a grotesque admirer, and his writer’s block is broken only when he learns the exquisite pleasure of submission. The pitch of the film is so hysterical as to be not to all tastes, but it’s pure Fassbinder, making comedy of tragedy, and satirizing his own artistic position with savage glee.
Raab and Carstensen also appear in Fear of Fear, she as a housewife going quietly insane, and he as the neighborhood madman. One of the great things about Fassbinder’s films is the constant reappearance of so many faces – a star system in which individual actors gradually reveal their particular screen personalities, and bring echoes of previous (and indeed later) roles to each new film. Raab here is like a reprise of his Herr R (in Why Does Herr R Run Amok? ), as though he’d never killed anyone, driven mad by banality. The same, perhaps, is happening to Margit Carstensen: it may be because she’s pregnant; it may be due to her ghastly in-laws; but it seems to be more than these, more, even than fear of fear, and it is Carstensen’s superb and restrained performance that makes believable this terrible fear of something one cannot name.
The banality of workaday existence is also what breaks Hans in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), who slips into a blue funk just as things seem to be looking up. He’s another Biberkopf born loser, with a sour mother and an uneven marriage, pushing his fruit cart around an inexorable downward spiral. The film marked Fassbinder’s move into Sirkian melodrama, in an attempt to get the audience onside, and aided by the stolid, meaty presence of Hans Hirschmüller, and a rare, semi-sympathetic role for Irm Hermann, he succeeded.
Fassbinder’s earlier films displayed a more self-conscious art-house tendency, most obvious in the loose trilogy of genre-dissecting gangster films. It’s fascinating how the situations and tropes of Love is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plague (both 1969), and The American Soldier (1970) are worked over from one film to the next, almost to the point of absurdity. The first was a bold, Straubian debut, a little uneven in tone perhaps, but which showed Fassbinder’s early form and career-long obsessions almost fully formed. Gods of the Plague virtually remakes it, but the emotional web between ex-con, close male friend, and prostitute lover(s) is deepened, and the camera style greatly enriched with drastic noir shadows and creeping movement. This reaches its apogee in the final installment, almost its breaking point, as the cinematic references pile up, and the danger of succumbing to emotion is presented in its starkest terms (building to a fantastically bold ending).
Many of Fassbinder’s films lend themselves to groupings in this way, but he officially designated only one trilogy, getting to specific grips with the ramifications of his nation’s fascist past and post-war economic recovery. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) played in the first half of this series, and the BRD trilogy was completed by the heady double bill of Lola and Veronika Voss (both 1981). Each takes a distinctly different approach: where Maria Braun’s international success was due in part to its classicism of form, Lola is turned into a fantastic cabaret/carnival by an insane number of colored gels; while Veronika Voss is a beautiful throwback/homage in black and white, overcome by the glaring snow-white apartment/sanatorium in which the morphine-addicted Veronika is kept almost a prisoner, the absence/abyss into which she yearns to sink (and inevitably evocative of the blizzards of cocaine then disappearing into Fassbinder’s bloodstream).
The treatment of the socio-economic period also varies: in Lola, shining blue-eyed Armin Müller-Stahl, Coburg’s new building commissioner, seems almost too good to be true, a harbinger of progress and moral rectitude (he even goes on dates to church). He’s made a sucker of by the town’s top whore, however, the vital Barbara Sukowa, along with the cheerfully amoral Mario Adorf, and in time he too learns the pleasure of being a victim. The bad guys win. As they do too in Veronika Voss, although this second film actually doesn’t have a great deal to say about the 1950s, beyond implying the need to suppress any direct connection with the Third Reich: Veronika is a still-beautiful but has-been UFA star (inspired by the real life of Vampyr (1932) star and later Goebbels favorite Sybille Schmitz). That she is “rescued” by a sadsack reporter conjures echoes of Sunset Boulevard (1950), but in fact it’s more like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), a woman’s picture, where men are irrelevant, and the most powerful relationship is between Veronika and her sinister female doctor.
It’s been a tremendous series, and the American Cinematheque is to be highly commended for getting Fassbinder back onto the big screen, where he belongs. So much so, that one yearns for the chance to see some of the other titles in the theater (what a trip must Querelle  be!). There’s one final opportunity, this Thursday 14th, to catch his most-loved title, the nigh-on perfect Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) at the Egyptian, along with the decidedly odd and deliciously black Chinese Roulette (1976).