Why Did Herr Fassbinder Run Amok?

An epic retrospective sheds new light on German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Some artists can be likened to onions, with layers to be peeled away and an essence to be discovered within. Others are explorers who make uncharted discoveries. In his short but astoundingly packed career, film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was both of these, and neither. An artist who pretended to be an outsider while clearly creating great art, he had layers, to be sure. But they were all visible at once, out on the surface. And what he discovered was not always welcomed by other people, especially his fellow Germans.

For a solid chunk of time in the 1970s and '80s, Fassbinder was sui generis--his own auteurist adjective, like "Chaplinesque" or "Hitchcockian." His concept of moviemaking was maddeningly idiosyncratic in shape, owing little to previous film styles. And his favorite themes were drawn as much from the worst melodrama as from the deepest pain of ordinary life. Let's face it: He was a defiant irritant, willing to risk shame or ostracism for the sake of something new. And looking now at the Walker Art Center's massive, month-long Fassbinder retrospective--including the initially raw, and then highly stylized dramas he made during his short life--we can rediscover a genuine original.

He was full of contradictions and tensions, in his work as well as his private life. I actually saw Fassbinder once, at a film-festival party in his honor that was sponsored by a German cultural agency. The place was packed enough and I was timid (and young) enough that I didn't dare speak to him, but even within the crowd his manner lived up to his reputation. He was in a white suit that may have been fashionable and crisp two minutes before it went on a sales hanger, but which was now rumpled and dated. Under it he wore a florid shirt that must have been polyester, given the era. He was also giggling and visibly drunk, in front of a willing audience. I suppose any stranger who'd wanted a brush with fame could have walked up to him and received a short insult to treasure forever.

But that insult could have come in German, French, or English. And the person who would have delivered it was also--if the voluminous accounts of friends and collaborators can be believed--a sensitive one, uncomfortable with fame but obsessed with movies. As a person and an artist, the plain-looking Fassbinder was the loutish sophisticate--the awkward man who not only dreamed of, but was able to produce, exceptional art as well as rude insults.

There has always been good reason for a Fassbinder retrospective, but the obvious good reason for this one is that his films are available again. Various holders of the video rights to his work were not always assertive in promoting their titles to the new market that appeared after his death in 1982; and the American audience that would otherwise seek out his films at arthouses or specialized video stores was turning to American independent works instead--some of them, like Jim Jarmusch's, Todd Haynes's, Richard Linklater's, or Allison Anders's, being just as economical and odd as Fassbinder's had been. This German iconoclast with his own private obsessions did not exactly inspire these American directors, but he certainly set a standard for their kind of movie.

Fassbinder was born in 1946, which put him precisely in a postwar generation of Germans unfairly saddled with a national reputation they had not earned. He was born to a doctor and his wife, but then the doctor left and the boy grew up with his mother, often being sent off to the movies to give her some peace at home. While the nation was experiencing its wirkschaftswunder--an "economic miracle" of postwar recovery and prosperity--Fassbinder himself was thinking of art, realizing he was gay, and dropping out of school. The metaphor is unfortunate, but he really was "out of step" with his fellow Germans, and he must have realized fairly quickly that he didn't mind.

Refused acceptance two years in a row to the Berlin Film and Television Academy, Fassbinder eventually took his own road and started cranking out movies. During each of 10 chunks of time between August 1969, and November 1970, he wrote, directed, and completed a feature. Ten films in 15 months sounds absurd, and some of them do in fact look like rehearsals for each other. But they all demonstrate a growing accretion of what made up the Fassbinder style: storylines condensed to the extreme, approaching either parody or purity. Camerawork fixated on long takes and the occasional "zinger" zoom shot. Humble location sets. Actors who were aware they were posing, or (at worst) bad actors filling in portions of an idea. Minimal dialogue, borrowed in part from proven genres (American gangster movies, family melodrama, or the French New Wave). Extended ensemble scenes, with poses or body language being as much a part of the message as the dialogue.

These are raw little films, but hardly unpolished. In The American Soldier (screening Thursday, September 25 at 7 p.m.), about a German-born Vietnam vet who comes back to his homeland for a contract kill, the pacing of shots and the character choreography make a crisp package for superficial, imitative material. In Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (Thursday, September 18 at 7 p.m.), much of the same precise banality instead presents a story with a simple but shocking ending: An aloof draftsman who bears the boorishness of his family and friends, but offers no comment or criticism in return, finally slips out of sanity, coldly and with little advance warning.

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