Why Did Herr Fassbinder Run Amok?

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

These 10 films pretty much let the world know that Fassbinder was out there, and that he was quite different from the other German wunderkinder like Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, or Volker Schlondorff. And then, with a few more months between projects and bigger budgets, Fassbinder began to deliver the sharper, less campy dramas that purified his style: The Merchant of Four Seasons from 1971 (Wednesday, September 24 at 7 p.m.), about a brutish but well-meaning ex-cop who has returned from the Foreign Legion only to marry poorly and end up selling pears from a cart; and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant from 1972 (Wednesday, September 10 at 7 p.m.), a potentially lurid but ultimately moving drama about love and betrayal among women dress designers.

Petra Von Kant gave a larger part than usual to actress Hannah Schuygulla, wearing a weird metal-bosomed dress, and it's she who finally sold the world on Fassbinder in 1978's The Marriage of Maria Braun (which begins the retrospective on Friday at 7 p.m.), the first of his three films about postwar Germany. Completed by Lili Marleen (Thursday, September 11 at 7 p.m.) and Lola (Friday, September 12 at 9:15 p.m.), this trilogy abandoned the "what if?" fantasies of melodrama and confronted the politics that Fassbinder's critics had long said he lacked. The later films are more conventional in their production polish, but they're still unmistakably his: They dig under the scars and find cracks in the mirror.

The Walker series is top-heavy with the powerful, earlier films and leaves out the few embarrassments that Fassbinder delivered late in his life (like Querelle). But most importantly, it also includes his 15-hour miniseries, Berlin Alexanderplatz (beginning Monday at 7 p.m., and continuing on three consecutive Mondays)--which may be the ultimate statement of his gifts as well as the ultimate test for his audience. Thirteen episodes long (plus an epilogue), intensely focused on some lumpen crooks and hookers in the waning days of Weimar just before Hitler barged in, this epic is a core sample of Fassbinder's essential and contradictory persona: that of a misanthrope who worried deeply about cruel or victimized people. In his own ragged way, he gave an elegant shape to their despair.

The Walker Art Center's Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective begins Friday at 7 p.m. with a screening of The Marriage of Maria Braun, introduced by Fassbinder's former film editor, Juliane Lorenz. On Saturday at 10 a.m. at MCAD, Lorenz will discuss her work with Fassbinder and screen clips from Maria Braun. For more information on the series, call the Walker at 375-7622.

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