Painting the Art of Life: 12 Shots from Films by R.W. Fassbinder

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“I hope to build a house with my films. Some of them are the cellar, some are the walls, and some are the windows. But I hope in time there will be a house.”

(R.W.F. photographed by Daniel Boudinet, 1978.)

In honor of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was born on this day in 1945, here are images from a dozen films of his that I have seen. Each shot, so artistically composed because Fassbinder had a meticulous eye for detail, could stand on its own apart from cinematic context and tell a story as well as any painting or drawing could. Light, shadows, color (or stark black-and-white), set design,  camera angles and the uses of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame are all important parts of Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène, as are the costumes and makeup worn by his actors. Whether depicting a waltz in the desert, a melancholy rendezvous in an empty outdoor café, a decadent dinner party or a lively cabaret performance (by a character who is an updated version of Lola Lola from The Blue Angel), Fassbinder’s creativity is always evident. Each entry also lists the director of photography, or DP, for the corresponding film.

Thanks to his distinct and inimitable style, the structure of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “house” is long-lasting.

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Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) – DP: Dietrich Lohmann

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Whity (1971) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) – DP: Dietrich Lohmann

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The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – DP: Jürgen Jürges

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Fox and His Friends (1975) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Chinese Roulette (1976) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) – DP: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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Lola (1981) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

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Veronika Voss (1982) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

The RWF Quintet: Gottfried John

Gottfried John in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)

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If there had never been an actor with a face as memorable as Gottfried John’s (1942-2014) before, perhaps only Rainer Werner Fassbinder could have imagined him. Like so many of the men who worked with Fassbinder, John had unusual looks and yet was unmistakably magnetic. Standing at a lanky 6′ 3½” and with a nose, eyebrows and lips that you couldn’t soon forget, John cut a distinctive figure in Fassbinder’s films and TV work between 1972 and 1981. In fact, John was one of the few among Fassbinder’s regular collaborators who had a decent career as a character actor in productions made elsewhere in Europe and across the world, appearing in Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978), the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995), the Quay Brothers’ animated films Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995) and The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes (2005), the Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe thriller Proof of Life (2000) and the British WWII movie The Gathering Storm (2002, TV).

John’s role as the photojournalist Niemeyer in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is only partly sympathetic; in many ways he is as bad a seed as Mrs. Küsters’ daughter, Corinna, with whom he becomes romantically involved. Niemeyer takes advantage of the main character’s plight by insinuating himself into her life, using the first opportunity he gets to invite himself into her apartment for her a seemingly endless photo session (chronicling every aspect of her home life) and interviewing her about her husband’s death, which he later spins into negative press that shames the Küsters family and drives Mrs. Küsters away from her daughter, son and daughter-in-law. Niemeyer is ultimately one of the only characters who shows genuine concern for Mrs. Küsters, though, when she becomes embroiled in a perilous situation at the end of the film.

Gottfried John in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

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Fassbinder gave John a much more complex role in In a Year with 13 Moons, in which he plays Anton Saitz, a Holocaust survivor and millionaire entrepreneur who is the object of protagonist Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weishaupt’s unrequited love. Years before the start of the film, Anton’s casual comment to lovesick Erwin (played beautifully by Volker Spengler) that it was “too bad you aren’t a girl” was the catalyst for an impulsive, life-altering action: Erwin’s decision to have a sex-change operation, subsequently taking the name Elvira. As the viewer sees in the two days during which the film’s action takes place, Anton was not worth the trouble; he never cared about Erwin/Elvira and does not recognize Elvira when she visits his office building, despite their having once known each other very well. The mood in the scenes with Anton veers between absurdly farcical (the character is obsessed with one of the musical numbers in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis musical You’re Never Too Young (1955), forcing his chauffeur and other underlings to reenact the performance from the movie) and tragic (Anton agrees to go to Elvira’s apartment, but ends up having sex with her best friend, Zora, thus destroying Elvira’s hopes). Like the Douglas Sirk films that Fassbinder loved so much, In a Year with 13 Moons is heavily melodramatic, but the viewer cares because Fassbinder put so much thought into his work, and even a character as reprehensible as Anton Saitz can be made watchable because of how Gottfried John played him.

The RWF Quintet: Ingrid Caven

Ingrid Caven in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)

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It is hard to imagine what it was like for Ingrid Caven (b. 1938) to be married to an artist as temperamental as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (Their union lasted from 1970 to 1972.) Like Irm Hermann, another actress who was Fassbinder’s on-again, off-again girlfriend in the 1960s and 70s, Caven had to deal with the personal and professional troubles of living and working with such a talented but highly unstable (and sometimes vicious) man. I wonder, because I’m not sure: did Fassbinder write characters specifically for Caven, and if so, why were they often – if not always – unlikeable?

In Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Caven plays Corinna Coren, the cabaret-singing daughter of the main character (Brigitte Mira). When Mr. Küsters kills himself, self-centered Corinna thinks nothing of exploiting her father’s death to promote her own career by returning home to Munich, giving interviews at the cemetery and in her parents’ apartment, and capitalizing on the recent tragedy in order to book concerts in local establishments. Corinna spends most of the film applying makeup and either putting on or taking off clothes, investing far more time and effort in her appearance than in the feelings of her mother and other family members. Every gesture is an act to advertise herself; even when she enters a relationship with a photojournalist, Niemeyer (played by Gottfried John), it is done only to get her name in the paper. Caven’s performance is one of magnificent barbarity, although one must admit that when she sings, she does have a captivating presence. Fassbinder could find external manifestations of poetry even in a character with an ugly personality.

Ingrid Caven in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

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Unlike many of her previous characters, Caven’s role as the prostitute “Red Zora” in In a Year with 13 Moons is not glamorous. She is not dolled up with immaculate makeup, although she still has the ultra-thin Marlene Dietrich eyebrows that Fassbinder favored for his actresses. Zora, who is the one close friend of protagonist Elvira/Erwin Weishaupt in the film, spends the entire film wearing blue jeans and a ratty faux-fur jacket, tight and tacky choices that underscore the nature of her profession. Fassbinder, who shot the film himself, photographs the character/actress in unflattering ways, making his forty-year old ex-wife look tired, almost haggard. Because Zora is one of the few people in the world who cares at all about Elvira, the role initially seems like a departure from the usual unpleasant roles that Fassbinder had Caven play. Once more, however, she must eventually do wrong by another character; no “hooker with a heart of gold,” Zora commits an unforgivable act of betrayal by having sex with Elvira’s great love, businessman Anton Saitz (Gottfried John). Zora knows that Elvira experiences terrible psychological crises as a result of her confusion over her sexuality and her inability to sustain certain personal relationships, but like so many Fassbinder characters, Zora only bothers to pay attention when it is convenient for her; by the end, we know that there is only emptiness underneath her weary face.

The RWF Quintet: Volker Spengler

Volker Spengler in Chinese Roulette (1976)

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If one had never seen a film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chinese Roulette would not be the place the start. It is the kind of deadly-dark comedy that not every viewer can tolerate, except those who appreciate Fassbinder’s cynical brand of humor and his interest in the lives of socially/sexually exploited characters. In Chinese Roulette, the two halves of an unhappily married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Christ (Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen), meet by accident at one of their sumptuous vacation homes in the German countryside, each spouse having gone there with his/her lover (Anna Karina and Ulli Lommel, respectively). This get-together was orchestrated by the couple’s disabled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who sees through each parent’s façade of fidelity and resents them for well-masked hatred of her and her permanently crippled legs.

This is where the Kast family enters the scene. Mrs. Kast (Brigitte Mira) is the haughty housekeeper at the country estate, and one of the malevolent pleasures she gets out of life is bossing her grown-up son Gabriel (Volker Spengler) around. A “tall and typically lumpy man with small, beady eyes and perennially tousled hair,” as the TCM database’s mini-biography describes him, Spengler (b. 1939) has a striking appearance in Chinese Roulette: doughy skin, very pink lips, shaggy hair bleached blonde, an army-green uniform, black boots. He wanders through the mansion, taking orders from others (usually his mother), sometimes a silent witness to the strange goings-on in the house. Reviewers have occasionally described Spengler’s character as androgynous and asexual, but he does have a fixation on young Angela’s governess, a mute woman named Traunitz (Macha Méril), although the revelation of Gabriel’s love/lust for her feels random and is never mentioned again after the one scene in which he visits her room and kisses her (seen in the sixth image above). Perhaps whether the relationships in this film make sense is a moot point, though; as a storyteller, Fassbinder was interested in actions but not necessarily in logic.

Volker Spengler in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

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The film guide The A to Z of German Cinema (2010) describes Volker Spengler as an actor who “specialized in introverted, damaged, and decidedly odd characters.” While that may sound like a bit of a put-down, the book also notes that his lead performance in Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons “reveals the breadth of Spengler’s emotional range.” Moons is another film that you wouldn’t want to be your first-ever Fassbinder experience, but if and when you are ready for it, the impact will be devastating. Spengler plays a a transsexual woman, Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weishaupt, who underwent a sex-change operation when the love of her life, Anton Saitz (played by Gottfried John), rejected her for then having a man’s body. The film chronicles the last few days in Elvira’s life as she searches for answers: why her lover, Christoph (Karl Scheydt) has been so abusive, beating and belittling her; how her upbringing in an orphanage affected her; what her sex-change has meant to her ex-wife Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar), who still calls Elvira “Erwin,” and her grown-up daughter Marie-Ann (Eva Mattes), who thinks of Elvira as “Papa”; and why, despite all her efforts, she cannot find the companionship she craves. Sexual identity is a key part of the story being told, but Elvira’s tale is one of basic human longing for compassion and reciprocated love. They are needs which transcend the definitions or limitations of a person’s physical form.

Film reviewer Jim Clark wrote about Fassbinder, Spengler and In a Year with 13 Moons in 2004 and had this to say:

“A grieving Fassbinder began this picture soon after the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier (who appeared in eight of his pictures), and it is arguably his most powerful work. It is also his most personal, not only because he wrote, directed, designed, photographed and edited it himself, but because he laid bare his most profound feelings and ideas. With Volker Spengler in the lead, it also features one of the most breathtaking performances in any Fassbinder film. This riveting character study of a transgendered woman defies categorization, as it joins together – on some primal, intuitive level – melodrama, tragedy, and a unique strain of comedy which is both merciless and tender.

… Erwin/Elvira was brought fully to life by the astonishing performance of Volker Spengler, in his first starring role. He had played some intriguing, and bizarre, earlier characters for Fassbinder – including the tormented wannabe philosopher Gabriel in Chinese Roulette and the deranged Ernst who tries to copulate with houseflies (!) in the farcical Satan’s Brew – but nothing prepares us for his breathtaking work here. Spengler reportedly lived this role fully, although not surgically, and even spent most of his offscreen time with Fassbinder. The director’s typical hands-off approach, allowing actors maximum freedom (so long as they remained true to his vision), clearly brought out the best in Spengler. The actor also relished the spontaneity which came with getting final script pages hours, or minutes, before filming. Incredibly, most of the shots were done in just one take.

Although most of Fassbinder’s films focus on one central character, perhaps no other creates such a tight, and multi-layered, bond between protagonist, story and form.”

Volker Spengler continues to act in theater productions in Berlin – in October he was in the two-person play 4.48 Psychosis, put on by the troupe LAWBF (Like a Wild Beast’s Fur) – but there is no doubt that his greatest claim to fame in terms of international recognition rests on his outstanding achievements when working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.