14 June 2017
Watching Fassbinder Now
I've written a lot about Rainer Werner Fassbinder here at The Mumpsimus, and a few years ago created a video essay about his early films when Criterion released five of them as part of their (apparently discontinued) Eclipse series of bare-bones releases. I keep meaning to write more about RWF, to create new video essays (on Fassbinder and the recently deceased cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; on queer Fassbinder), and I will eventually, but for now I simply want to point out that U.S. viewers, at least, now have access to a big selection of Fassbinder films via TCM's new streaming site, Filmstruck, which replaced Hulu as the home to Criterion's streaming service.
I'm giving Filmstruck a test ride, and so of course have delved into the Fassbinder titles. (And I'm not alone in that: here's a good new piece from Brandon Soderbergh on them.) There's quite a lot that hasn't been available in the U.S. for a while, most notably Querelle, which is streaming in a beautiful print that really conveys the vivid colors that are such a feature of the film's design. I've dreamed of a full Criterion edition of Querelle for years, as many of its home video releases have been of low quality. With luck, the availability of Querelle on Filmstruck signals a possible, eventual full Criterion release, which would be valuable simply for the addition of extra features, something Querelle really would benefit from, not only because it's a tremendously strange, even alienating movie, but because there's a documentary that makes a natural companion to it: Dieter Schidor's The Wizard of Babylon, made during Querelle's filming and including interviews with members of the cast and crew. (New essays, etc. would also be helpful — I would to see, for instance, Steve Shaviro write a new essay on the film, since his take on it in The Cinematic Body is so great, but he's moved beyond a lot of what he wrote in that book since.) Anyway, it's great to have Querelle available in all its vivid, languorous glory.
Much about Fassbinder's work remains remarkable — his extraordinary productivity, the great number of masterpieces, the ingenuity — but what consistently amazes me is the force and immediacy of his best work. I have no way to tell whether his films feel as radical now as they did when they first appeared, but they very much feel radical now. They unsettle common-sensical aesthetics and assumptions (those ideas of what a movie should be and do, how actors should act, how sounds should sound, how images should be made), but more than that they utterly scoff at conservative values and liberal pieties both. Thomas Elsaesser writes well about this in Fassbinder's Germany: "Fassbinder's 'strong' female characters (Maria Braun, Willie in Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss) refuse victim thinking, not least because it presumes to create empathy at the price of exonerating them from a responsibility which no solidarity among victims can efface. But the status of victim also locks the subject into binary reciprocity, which ... Fassbinder's cinema constantly tries to break open, radicalize or displace. As a consequence, it may be possible to see the utopian dimension in Fassbinder's films about Germany not primarily, as [Kaja] Silverman argues for Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the ideal of masochistic ecstasy, but in the insistence — here true to the tradition of the anarcho-libertarian credo Fassbinder always professed — that the couple as a love relationship can only exist when it recognizes its place in other circuits of exchange."
There is nothing safe when entering Fassbinder's oeuvre, nothing easy, nothing predictable. That, for me, is what makes it a worthwhile, necessary adventure. It's particularly valuable now; no filmmaker I know of so effectively dissects the ways that personal power and political power intersect, synergize, exploit, and oppress. That's an analysis the contemporary world needs more than it ever has. Fassbinder's work adds dramatic and aesthetic force to such an analysis, and in its structure puts us as the audience in the position of having to both think and feel our way through the problems he highlights. It's no surprise that Brecht was a significant influence on Fassbinder when he was young; his genius was to fuse Brecht with melodrama, the French New Wave, queer culture, and other influences, creating films that live long beyond their immediate moment.
Most of the movies I discussed in my post on where to begin with Fassbinder are available at Filmstruck. Though I wrote that five years ago, and have spent much more time with the films since, as well as seen various folks encounter them for the first time, I think the basic recommendations are still solid. Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and The Merchant of Four Seasons remain excellent starting places.
Though Filmstruck doesn't indicate it anywhere that I can see, if you go to Settings --> Audio, you can access commentary tracks for many of Criterion's films, including Maria Braun and Merchant of Four Seasons; Maria Braun's with Wim Wenders and Michael Ballhaus is especially good, and beyond the three I recommended as starting places, you absolutely must watch Veronika Voss with Tony Rayns's commentary. (Because it's Tony Rayns, who is amazing to listen to. Filmstruck should have an easy link to access all films with Rayns commentaries. When Brighter Summer Day came out, I not only watched all 4 hours, I then re-watched all 4 hours with Tony Rayns's commentary. He's that good. Also: Criterion's edition of the glorious Chungking Express has been out of print for years, and now the film is not only available via Filmstruck, but it's available with Rayns's commentary. But you'd never know that from the site itself. Search Filmstruck for "Tony Rayns" and nothing comes up. They have a goldmine they're not telling anybody about. [End rant.])
There's lots more to explore — classics, including what I sometimes say is my favorite Fassbinder, Fox and His Friends (along with the extra features from the recent Criterion release; Michael Koresky's essay from the DVD/Blu-ray insert is available on the Criterion site, as most of the text essays for Criterion films are) and the gorgeous, stately Effi Briest (one of the all-time great adaptations of a novel to film); as well as weirder, lesser-appreciated films such as the ferociously satirical Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven and the utterly bonkers Satan's Brew. And much more. There's never been a better time for Fassbinder fans in the U.S. (many, though not all, of these films have been more easily available outside the U.S. for a while — at least half of my Fassbinder DVDs are from England or Australia. Yes, I'm obsessive).
The one surprising absence from Filmstruck is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder's magnum opus, which is still available as a Criterion DVD. (If you have a line in your yearly budget for the Barnes & Noble 50% Off Criterion sales [one likely next month], Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the best things you can use that money for.) It's surprising only because Criterion has at least some of the rights to it. In terms of what's absent that it would be nice to have, but which Criterion doesn't ever seem to have had rights to, off the top of my head, I'd say: Martha, In a Year with 13 Moons, and The Third Generation, all major films, and Lili Marleen, which is not by any means a particularly great movie, but it's important within Fassbinder's oeuvre.
My great hope, though, is that with the recent restoration of Fassbinder's mini-series Eight Hours Don't Make a Day that it will appear soon, as until it was shown at the Berlinale in February, hardly anyone had been able to see it since it first aired.