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Bully Superstar

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s luxury of abjection

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman. 200 pages, Semiotext(e). 2023.

There are only two ways to begin an essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder: with sex or with death. Everything else is scenery. This one begins with death. At the 1982 Venice Film Festival, a pirated copy of Fassbinder’s death mask reportedly made the rounds of hotels and cafes, smuggled in a plastic bag like a kilo, like takeout. Juliane Lorenz, a film editor moonlighting as Fassbinder’s wannabe widow, commissioned the mask after the director died at thirty-seven—prematurely, but still right on cue—that June. (Stroke was the official cause of death, his indefatigable cocaine diet a likely comorbidity.)

Lorenz had envisioned a reverent artifact, something like Goethe’s varnished nineteenth-century death mask, but what she got was less dignified. By the end, Fassbinder was bloated and unkempt. His uniform of sunglasses and fedora looked like Stasi drag and did nothing to hide his lifelong pockmarks. (Pickle Face was the schoolyard taunt.) Neither did the scraggly beard that seemed plagiarized from the hapless men of Ukiyo-e prints. And, yet, the death mask must have exerted a fetishistic pull. Imagine Venice’s glitterati ogling it in their luxury suites as they chain-smoked. Finally, they had come face-to-face with Europe’s last wunderkind in a stillness that was entirely anathema to him.

This anecdote was cribbed from Love is Colder Than Death, Robert Katz’s 1987 biography. Many critics rebuked that book for being too salacious, which is like lamenting the aroma from a sewer. Why go to the mud if you’re afraid of a little mess? (Some trivia: Unlike Mapplethorpe, a coprophagy fiend, Fassbinder’s anal fixation favored insertion rather than excretion; Katz notes that the director was introduced to fisting at the Anvil in New York and exported the pastime to Munich.) Katz’s book is so seductive precisely because it’s sleazy—part hearsay, part vendetta, part boozy confabulation. Writing in the London Review of Books, critic Mark Lawson decried it as “a classic slob biography,” the kind of takedown that charms unrepentant rubberneckers like me jonesing for a blow-by-blow of Fassbinder’s tailspin. Lawson continued, “A vital element in such a project is the contrast between subject and biographer: the dull, ascetic and probably jogging yuppy sees in the fluid-spilling and abuse-fluent wreck his own antithesis and is fascinated by it.”

Ian Penman’s book isn’t so much about Fassbinder as it is a memoir of living alongside his films.

Katz’s book exemplifies one approach to Fassbinder: the hermeneutics of death. Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, by the British critic Ian Penman, offers the alternative: an erotics—of cinema, of memory, of the gradual wreck of history. The sensuality of Penman’s book is inseparable from the music of his prose. Listen: Fassbinder is the “bully superstar of a looming new decadence.” The 1950s, the decade of the director’s childhood, were years of “deprivation and wild surmise.” As Fassbinder juddered toward his final hectic obliteration: “Sudden crying jags, mad hungers, humid sweats. Sleep now a grand prix or slalom; a shark chasing its own turbulence.” Penman’s book isn’t so much about Fassbinder as it is a memoir of living alongside his films. Not a fan’s tribute, then, not a critic’s buttoned-up appraisal, but something with the gnawing compulsiveness of victim testimony.     

Penman first conceived of the book in the early days of the pandemic lockdown. (Yet to be written is a study of how quarantine downsized literature, rendering it more insular, more nostalgic, coquettish with ghosts.) He had the understandable urge to rewatch most of Fassbinder’s forty-four films, notebook in hand, but quickly abandoned that ordeal in favor of a text that’s “dissolute” and “utterly partial.” He completed a draft in about three months—roughly the amount of time it would have taken Fassbinder to film seven or eight movies. (The Merchant of Four Seasons was shot in eleven days.) Composed of 450 numbered fragments, the book reads like biography dropped from a high window: smithereens of that cataclysmic German life strewn with Nazi ruins and Penman’s own punk and drug-dazed requiems. (If I resort to metaphor to describe the book, that’s because it’s so elliptical. You think you have a handle on it, but then it billows askew.)

For Penman, Fassbinder is a kind of behemoth phantom poised between modernism and whatever came after. Indeed, there’s a transitional quality to his whole filmography. The early movies—Love is Colder Than Death (1969), Gods of the Plague (1970)are not-quite-knockoffs of French New Wave, especially Godard, and especially Band of Outsiders. But even here are flickers of the Fassbinder signature: stagey blocking, explosive talkiness, the woozy pacing of a hangover. Next came the almost back-to-back masterpieces of The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), films in which Fassbinder channeled his idolatry of Douglas Sirk into finely stilted melodramas. Then, in a hurry, came the messy mid-career spree: Satan’s Brew (1976), Chinese Roulette (1976), Despair (1978). The tonal vertigo and absurdist pathos of In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) is followed immediately by the grandeur of the BRD trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981),and Veronika Voss (1982). In this late triptych, Fassbinder refracts the sordid psychodrama of postwar Germany through his own sadomasochistic fantasies—national history reimagined as a not-so-nervous breakdown. I haven’t even mentioned the made-for-television stuff yet. 

So, the director was a lone-wolf Hollywood in the gray backwash of seventies West Germany, although maybe I condescend; in 1964, no less an arbiter of cool than Time referred to Munich as “easily the most exciting city” in the country. (Penman: “There was a moment in the mid-to-late 1970s when West Germany felt like the crucible of almost everything you might want to be interested in or diverted by.”) And it’s not quite accurate to insinuate that Fassbinder worked in a vacuum. The New German Cinema was well underway by the time he released his first feature. In 1962, Alexander Kluge and cohort unleashed a manifesto declaring, “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new one.” Fassbinder’s own list of the most important directors in Germany included himself in the top spot, but also figures—Werner Schroeter, Wim Wenders, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, among others—who were already staking their claims to greatness and arthouse fandom.

“Why exactly is it [Fassbinder] has been so dishonored by not being turned into a monument?” Penman asks. Perhaps one answer has something to do with the pleasure-to-pain ratio in Fassbinder’s vast catalog. Few other filmmakers of comparable mystique can be as spectacularly tedious. Exhibit A: The fifteen-plus-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a TV miniseries adapted from Alfred Döblin’s cacophonous 1929 novel. No matter how luscious the cinematography or full-throttle the performances, there’s an unevenness to Fassbinder’s oeuvre that necessitates all kinds of disclaimers. “There are moments of high drama,” Penman writes, “but also long cool shallows; sublime self-possession but also cartoonish self-parody.” There’s also Fassbinder’s queerness, which was encoded from the beginning and became more overt as the years ticked by, climaxing in the baroque faggotry of Querelle (1982), adapted from Jean Genet’s novel. (Penman can quickly convey a film’s flavor: Querelle is an “apocalypse of style”; Despair, adapted from Nabokov’s novel, is the equivalent of “Lalique crystal, or a Faberge egg.”) Fassbinder’s queerness isn’t innocuous or affirming. It isn’t campy. It isn’t even especially subversive. It’s just another dreary fact of life—like a job, like a debt.

Sentimentality isn’t Fassbinder’s bag. “He made films, he said, that were intended to show that emotions people felt did not exist at all and were only a kind of sentimentality which we thought we needed in order to be properly functioning members of society,” the Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen writes. I’m reminded of a line from Maria Braun. It’s an offhand quip, delivered by a barmaid, that nonetheless cuts to the quick of Fassbinder’s moral universe: “Emotions aren’t the truth. Love is a feeling between the legs.” Penman reads this cynicism as the spirit of the age: “The base mechanics of post-war reconstruction are lurking behind every relationship.” If Fassbinder’s world is transactional, then it’s also counterfeit, in the way that exploitation always demands make-believe. Either the exploiter lies and flatters and cajoles, or the exploited pretends their debasement was a misunderstanding—or, worse, that a different fate is possible.

Penman is right to note the lurid artificiality of Fassbinder’s films. West Germany was a manufactured state crawling with grifters and whores, everyone lying to themselves, leeching off an impossible dream of normalcy. An atmosphere of banal violence and petty chicanery prevailed. It was a country in denial about its own villainy and so embraced a culture of benign industriousness, blinkered euphoria. This was aided by the very real “economic miracle” of the Konrad Adenauer years, but what lay behind that boom was a nation of closeted executioners and apologists, entire cities once brainwashed, a population of conspirators buoyed by their sudden redemption. Still, the spoiled promises of fascism lived on in the petit bourgeois. Think of the elderly cleaning lady, Emmi, in Fear Eats the Soul. On her wedding day, she and her new husband (an immigrant, no less) celebrate with dinner in what had been Hitler’s favorite Munich restaurant. Or Veronika Voss, the faded UFA starlet rumored to have once bedded Joseph Goebbels, now hooked on morphine and desperate for a comeback in a society that has no use for her. Nearly all of Fassbinder’s characters deceive themselves. Those who seem to have a legitimate purpose are still inscrutable. I’m thinking of the enigmatic man in In a Year of 13 Moons who was fired from his job because he has kidney cancer. He now haunts the street below his office, watching the sixteenth floor for eight hours a day, five days a week. What’s the riddle of his awful wisdom?

In his films, ugliness reclaims beauty until the two become indistinguishable, fused in the aesthetic luxury of abjection.

The family is another bogus scheme. Or, more to the point, a rehearsal for subjection. “Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression,” the director once said. Fassbinder’s own family life was marked by an absent father (a physician, a landlord, a dilettante) with whom he was at perpetual odds, and a tubercular mother who had a teenage lover and moved the family to Munich’s “prostitute row” when Fassbinder was six. “He is never quite certain who is family and who is not,” Penman writes, adding that Fassbinder was “born into a world of shadows, ruins, suspicions.” Those who knew the director speculate that this early disconnection accounts for his constant adult entourages, the studio of homegrown stars—a grubbier version of Warhol’s Factory—that he tyrannized and betrayed. Hanna Schygulla, Ingrid Caven, Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Brigitte Mira—these were the surrogates, mostly female, of what Penman calls “a garish, dysfunctional, squabbling, unreconciled, LGBT+ family.” The dysfunction spasmed into two suicides, both of them Fassbinder’s lovers: that of the Moroccan actor El Hedi ben Salem in 1977, and the German actor Armin Meier in 1978. (The latter allegedly killed himself after not being invited to Fassbinder’s birthday party.) It’s no accident that Thomsen, in his study of Fassbinder, titles a chapter “Terrorism and the Nuclear Family.” These are synonyms in Fassbinder. To wit: the tormented wife in Martha (1974), held captive in her own home, and the disturbed mother in Fear of Fear (1975), choking on her middle-class comforts. (Margit Carstensen plays both roles in a bravura double crack-up.) 

Penman is particularly attuned to the political frequency of Fassbinder’s work. Germany in Autumn (1978), the omnibus film that Fassbinder and ten other directors made in response to the Red Army Faction’s season of terrorism in 1977, was perhaps his most personal political outburst. “[He] puts his life onscreen, all its chaos and contradiction: his own cowardice and violence, doubts and addictions and tantrums,” Penman writes, describing the provocation of the director’s twenty-six-minute segment, in which he simply talks. Elsewhere, Fassbinder described himself as a “romantic anarchist,” by which he seems to have meant he supported annihilating capitalism, government, and society at large while still reserving the right to charter planes full of cocaine and lavish a lover with Lamborghinis.

In truth, Fassbinder was fascinated by the terrorism of the 1970s and even claimed distant ties to Andreas Baader (of Baader-Meinhof fame), who attended performances at Fassbinder’s Action Theatre. Thomsen goes so far as to suggest that this Munich theater was “one of the breeding grounds of West German terrorism.” Penman, in his telegraphic style, recounts the froth of that period:   

Wider context. Late 1960s/early 1970s. Reclamation of the public sphere. Political demands voiced on the street. Protest marches. Public speech and critique and discourse. Situationists. Maoists. Free Speech movement. Stonewall. Women’s Liberation. Up Against The Wall Motherfucker. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Squats and communes. Drag pubs, after hours clubs and other unpoliced spaces. Unpoliced states. Ways of being in the world. Italian Autonomia. Projects undertaken by non-academic outsiders. Uncredentialed researchers. Small presses. Autodidact waves. Turbulence. Joseph Beuys’s Free University. Conrad Schnitzler and Hans-Joachim Roedelius’s Zodiak Free Arts Lab. Munich Action-Theatre/Anti-Theatre.

For me, Fassbinder’s most transgressive statement is also one of his most infamous. “I want to be ugly on the cover of Time—it’ll happen and I’m glad about it and I admit it—when ugliness has finally reclaimed all beauty. That is luxury.” He never did make the cover, but in his films, ugliness reclaims beauty until the two become indistinguishable, fused in the aesthetic luxury of abjection. (Here a specific scene comes to mind: Martha, her body vividly sunburned because of her husband’s malevolence, lying nude in bed in a seaside room.) “Some terms get their time in the spotlight,” Penman writes, “but it’s somehow never the right time for a celebration of the flagrantly ugly.” Fassbinder didn’t celebrate ugliness but captured it with his camera as you’d capture an act of nature: the grimy interiors, the harassed or hangdog faces of people crushed by life, the fumes of cigarettes, and mirrors, of course. Hundreds of mirrors. Thousands of mirrors. What did they mean? For Penman, “The endless mirrors and reflections in Fassbinder’s films are emblematic of lives without foundation or rooted beliefs.” Thomsen, in his book, puts it more succinctly, almost like a koan: “The mirror contains a warning.” Fassbinder made an art of not heeding it.