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: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Love Is Colder Than Death (1969)

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…And finally we come to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) himself.

If the essence of Jean-Luc Godard’s stylish but icy brand of cool could be bottled up and liberally sprayed on a younger filmmaker’s debut at the tail end of the 1960s, the outcome would have to be Fassbinder’s first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death. The young auteur’s cinephilic passions (the film is dedicated to directors Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Marie Straub, among others) justify why the three main characters in Love have such intellectual perspectives with regard to government management and capitalism. These disaffected criminals use philosophical contemplation and rationalizations as excuses for their shared lives of petty crime and their subsequent enjoyment of the benefits from the money that they have stolen. (By the way, this clip of the mixed reactions to Love Is Colder Than Death when it was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival is worth seeing for some historical context and a sense of Fassbinder’s outlook on his life and work.)

As was sometimes (perhaps often?) the case in Fassbinder’s films, he did not credit himself as a member of the cast. What he contributed to Love Is Colder Than Death was not so much “acting” as it was “performing”; Fassbinder performed certain attitudes for the camera without really displaying emotion, except maybe contempt (a very Godardian state of mind to occupy). Regardless of this analysis, Fassbinder is never boring to watch. In real life he seemed to consider himself unattractive, even ugly, but there has always been something inexplicably appealing about his onscreen presence and in the way he delivered dialogue (particularly when he snarled insults), making him irresistible to the viewer’s eyes and ears. Plus, of course, he wore leather jackets like nobody else.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Fox and His Friends (1975)

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Six years later, Fassbinder gave a remarkable lead performance in Fox and His Friends. At the time, much was made of the fact that the leading characters were gay men (described as “homosexuality without tears” on some posters), but Fassbinder saw his narrative a different way, stating at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival that Fox “is certainly the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem. In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different, it’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s the story I always tell.” In Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder is the dumb, gullible lower-class guy who falls for Peter Chatel’s sociopathic sophisticate, and the results are heartbreaking. Simple yet extraordinarily effective.

Despite what I wrote earlier about Love Is Colder Than Death, it should not be surprising that, when he chose to do so, Fassbinder could play a naive, well-meaning character, the antithesis of the type he had played in Love. He had written characters like “Fox” before, such as the roles played by Brigitte Mira in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975). Fassbinder understood people and was probably acutely sensitive to psychological pain. It’s true that the stories about what a nightmare Fassbinder could be on and off of his film sets are well-documented – he was emotionally and physically abusive to his male and female partners, probably preferring to hurt them first before they could do it to him – and his various addictions (alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, sex) fueled his violent manias and furious work ethic (he churned out more than three dozen films and TV productions between 1969 and 1982). But evidently Fassbinder could channel his fears and insecurities, even do full-frontal nude scenes like in Fox and His Friends, and just once be a tenderhearted guy looking to love and be loved in return… even if it only lasted as long as the cameras were rolling.