June 10, 2007

Fassbinder's legacy @ 25.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder "Why are you journalists always claiming Rainer was gay? He was never gay, and I would know." It doesn't matter whether Juliane Lorenz, head of the Fassbinder Foundation meant, when she blurted this utterance to critic and documentarian Hans Günther Pflaum in 1992, that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was not gay in the strictest sense or that behind all that famously polysexual activity lurked some closeted heterosexual. The comment, quoted in Christiane Peitz's longish piece on the battle over RWF's legacy for Tuesday's Tagesspiegel, suggests either a skewed sense of reality, a reluctance to face that reality or a full-blown attempt to replace it with a self-serving myth; it's, plain and simple, a nutty remark. Pflaum himself asserts that Lorenz was trying to eradicate a good chunk of RWF's identity. Producer Michael Fengler recalls that Lorenz upped the ante at a gathering marking the 10th anniversary of RWF's death that same year. Not only was he not gay, she insisted, he rarely dabbled in drugs. And yet it was Lorenz herself who found Fassbinder dead on a bed littered with notes for his next film 25 years ago today. The combination of a hefty dose of sleeping pills and cocaine would have been too much for the most robust of hearts.

Updated through 6/14.

Instead of a collection of neatly cropped Sunday think pieces marking today's anniversary, the German papers have been at it for over two weeks now, thanks to a cat fight that's spread to an all-out mud-slinging brawl drawing in dozens of combatants. I outlined the parameters of the battle in an entry on May 31, a week after Katja Nicodemus's dam-busting interview for Die Zeit with Ingrid Caven, RWF's first and, as we can pretty much safely conclude now, only wife. Two observations, having eagerly drunk from the font of press coverage ever since. First, not a whole lot of new news has broken; instead, isolated details have accumulated, adding texture and a bit of depth to the two opposing versions of what all's gone down since June 10, 1982. Second, as many have remarked, this "family argument," as the papers have taken to calling it, is nearly as fitting a tribute to RWF as any retrospective or exhibition. As the DPA's Wilfried Mommert notes, Fassbinder always claimed that every director makes essentially the same film over and again and that, as RWF put it himself, "For me, it's about the exploitation of emotions, whomever's emotions are being exploited. It never ends."

That said, I thought a few notes on the brouhaha might be in order, particularly since that first entry focused on the accusations coming out of the Caven camp, formalized in an open letter signed by 25 people who'd worked with RWF in some capacity or other. Juliane Lorenz has since spoken up in her own defense, most notably in a letter to Die Zeit (not online) and in an interview with Hanns-Georg Rodek of Die Welt. In a radio interview, Nicodemus notes that, in her Zeit letter, Lorenz simply ignores many of the charges aimed her way, most notably, that crucial sticker, her supposed marriage to RWF.

Despair To back up, the picture that emerges from several accounts opens with Lorenz as an assistant to editor Ila von Hasperg. Lorenz is 19 and the film at hand is Chinese Roulette (1976). Despair (1978) becomes the fateful turning point. The editor was Reginald Beck, 75 at the time. On the evening before the premiere, with Beck already tucked away in bed, Fassbinder decided, almost on impulse it seems, to reshape the film entirely. Lorenz and RWF got to work and the new version was complete by 10 am the next morning.

Few deny that the working relationship evolved into something more, but how much more depends on who you ask. We know the two of them took a whirlwind trip to Florida at some point. Lorenz has revised her version of what exactly happened there a couple of times. In one telling, Fassbinder proposed, she accepted and they were married in a ceremony recognized by US law; she had a certificate and everything, but in a flippant gesture, she gave it up to the wind through a car window. Another telling has a Justice of the Peace in Fort Lauderdale asking for a blood test, Fassbinder refusing and the Justice carrying on with the "show," but insisting they go through the ceremony again at some point to make it official. Which they never got around to.

Why does this matter? Because, when Fassbinder died, all rights to all his works went to his mother, Liselotte Eder. Soon enough, Lilo Eder would discover that the definition of "a work by Rainer Werner Fassbinder" is far more porous than would be the case for a filmmaker adhering to bourgeois standards of job descriptions and such, but we'll get to that. Eder found herself tangling with a variety of claims, and so, created the Foundation in 1986. Lorenz "played" the Ehefrau to the hilt, as some witnesses report, and what's more, Eder seemed more than happy to buy into the performance. She may have lost a son, but at least she still had a daughter-in-law. In 1991, the year Peer Raben would go to court to secure his co-authorship of several works from the early Anti-Theater days in Munich, Lorenz, with Eder's blessing, took over the Foundation.

Now then. Back to the question of giving credit where credit is due when it comes to a Fassbinder film, TV series, radio play and so on. With regard to anyone's account, we have to keep in mind that it'll be based on a memory of what exactly happened when during one of the most ferociously chaotic and creative storms in cinematic history. Five words: 40 films in 13 years. What's more, this was Germany in the 70s, a time when RWF's generation was anxious to define itself as one opposed to fathers and mothers who, whatever role they played during the Nazi era, were not just tainted by but drenched with catastrophic evil and failure. In all accounts of the making of Fassbinder's oeuvre, the metaphor of the extended family - a substitute family for many involved - appears again and again. The Fassbinder clan was not alone, either. You find this social phenomenon in histories of communes, writers and artists' groups, even "WG's," Wohngemeinschaften, large apartments or houses shared by like minds of about the same age. Among other things, too, of course, it's this group dynamic that differentiates Fassbinder's films from the early works of Wim Wenders, with his existential wanderers, and Werner Herzog, with his crazed loners raging against belligerent nature.

Fassbinder brought his fevered working methods from the Anti-Theater days to his films. Everyone did a little bit of everything - or, more often, a lot. Everyone moved lights, held a mic, assisted the director, assisted each other. The point was to get it done. Fast. 50 set-ups in one day of shooting? Not an unusual number, as Harry Baer - actor, director's assistant, production manager, etc, etc on nearly all of RWF's films - recalls in an emotional open letter to Fassbinder, wherever he may be, in today's Tagesspiegel. In their letter calling for Lorenz to step down and to essentially dissolve the Foundation and hand its assets over to the Deutsche Kinemathek, the 25 signatories accuse her of erasing names from film credits - and from history. To some degree, Lorenz can counter that not every stone lifted can or should be credited. But some see a few names systematically shut out while Lorenz's never fails to appear.

Lili Marleen I find two passages in Rodek's interview particularly intriguing. In the first, Rodek simply mentions that RWF had lots o' love and many loved him back. Lorenz: "Hanna Schygulla is the only one of Fassbinder's women I fought hard to have a good relationship with, and we love and respect each other now. Though I didn't like her in the beginning because she was always in the films. When it came to Lili Marleen, I could barely stand it anymore, and Rainer laughed and said, 'Juliane wants to cut out the lead actress. But she can't!' After all, I myself am not free of... of..."

Rodek: "Jealousy?" Lorenz: "Sometimes I ask myself what it was. She was mature, beautiful and smart, and when the two of them worked together, they produced this unbelievable magic."

Hello? Every sentence is loaded; every other sentence is a confession. At any rate, Lorenz does like to point out the names of those who have not signed the letter from the 25. Besides Schygulla, there are Rosel Zech, Barbara Sukowa, Armin Müller-Stahl and others. The signatories, she snarls, are second- and third-tier players scrambling to grab a piece of the legacy before their own time's up as well. In some cases, this is obviously way off, but in others...

Lorenz makes another point that does have the ring of truth about it. To back up, Rodek offers that there were three phases in Fassbinder's career - Anti-Theater; the early films and recognition in Germany; the international breakthrough with the late films - and that she enters the picture at the beginning of the third and final phase. And she takes Rodek's offer and runs with it. She'd ask Fassbinder, she says, why he wasn't giving a role to this or that actor who was prominent in earlier films. "'I couldn't think of anything for him.' That was his right, wasn't it?" Elsewhere, she's elaborated: The anger many direct at her is misdirected. It would be more appropriately aimed at Fassbinder, but who could bring himself to rail against a fallen hero?

The other issue that usually plays out in Lorenz's favor in the papers is the undeniable fact that she has poured untold amounts of time and effort into the restoration, preservation and, periodically, revival of Fassbinder's work. Some commentators have gone so far as to claim that Fassbinder would be forgotten by now if it weren't for Juliane Lorenz - a claim I find patently absurd, but the fact that some can even imagine such an eventuality speaks volumes about what the Foundation has accomplished in the past 20 years or so.

Even so, Lorenz's critics not only outnumber her supporters - and, in the case of Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, for example, whose scathing letter runs right alongside Lorenz's in Die Zeit, can, in terms of cultural capital, outspend them as well - they also agree that the underlying problem here is structural and can be fixed. Unlike the usual Stiftung in Germany, the Foundation is set up in such a way that the only authoritative body it has to answer to is the Finanzamt, the German Internal Revenue Service; one person and one person alone - never mind that this one person has a proven record of truth-bending borne of raw ambition - oversees the legacy of the most important German film director of the postwar period. There is something wrong, very wrong with this picture.

Berlin Alexanderplatz To wrap, a few pointers for those who can read German. I've blathered on and on here, but haven't even gotten to the matter of the Foundation's restoration of Berlin Alexanderplatz and the DVD release - on the Süddeutsche Zeitung's label, Süddeutsche-Zeitung-Cinemathek. Naturally, it's hardly a surprise to find a defense in the SZ of the decision to turn on the lights, so to speak, in the process of the digital restoration. Fritz Göttler's trump card is the fact that the cinematographer on the film, Xaver Schwarzenberger, oversaw the restoration "from beginning to end." But Göttler kind of blows it when arguing that leaving Alexanderplatz "in the dark" - as, it should be noted again, Fassbinder wanted and fought hard for - "would be like a museum hanging its Picasso in a darkened gallery." Please.

A far more rewarding read on the DVD is Jürgen Kasten's in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. I'll translate just a bit:

The radicalism of the direction of the figures, unfocused takes and the disturbingly dark lighting values led to a veritable television scandal when it was first broadcast... In Berlin Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder is concerned with the filmic representation of an inner world. The space in which Franz finds himself is abundant but skewed almost all over. A dusky semi-darkness lays over everything, smearing out the bodily contours. There doesn't seem to be any clear delineation between inside and outside, body and surroundings. The director had filters placed in front of the camera so that most of the shots would take on a delirious haziness.

Two more reports on the "family argument": Joachim Güntner in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Cristina Nord in the taz.

25th anniversary pieces: Harald Jähner in the Berliner Zeitung; Ina Bösecke in Junge Welt; and, in Die Welt, a brief but eloquent appreciation from François Ozon.

Update, 6/12: In today's taz, Andreas Busche tries to get Rainer Rother, director of the Deutsche Kinematek, to fan the flames. What does he think about being called out by the 25 signatories to take over the Foundation's assets? Perhaps disappointingly for media junkies but, overall and in the long run, pretty smartly for everyone involved, Rother basically answers: Very flattering, but that's not exactly our charge.

Not that he dismisses the possibility entirely. It's just that the Kinemathek has so very much to do and so very few means to get it done. Specifically, 60,000 euros (about $80K) and no more are dedicated to film restoration and preservation. Granted, the Deutsche Kinematek is not the only film archive in Germany; film museums in Düsseldorf and Munich operate similarly - and with similarly miniscule budgets. This necessitates a policy geared toward saving films that are in the most immediate danger rather than taking a film historical approach. In other words, Film A may be more "important" than Film B, but if Film B is about to dissolve altogether, they'll save Film B first.

Rother seems reluctant to address the Fassbinder matter at all, but my impression is that he's thinking: We're putting out fires here; at least that oeuvre's got a Foundation to care for it, regardless of how well or how poorly it fulfills its self-assigned mission. He sidesteps the Berlin Alexanderplatz controversy as well, calling instead for more overall transparency when it comes to the restoration of national treasures - call in the 'xperts next time!

Busche seems understandably concerned that so little attention and so few resources are given to restoration and preservation in Germany, particularly since other European countries, such as the Netherlands, devote considerably more. Then there's an interesting moment, considering that this is the Tageszeitung - taz for short - which, among all of Germany's papers with a national rather than regional or nichified readership, is politically farthest to the left. "In the commercial sector," he notes, "much more is done for film as a cultural commodity because film is seen there merely as economic capital. This works splendidly in America. Sony, for example, invests millions every year and does excellent conservatorial work." Heavens, where is a taz reporter going to take this question? "Ideally, shouldn't a Kinemathek serve as an intermediary between government, the film industry, filmmakers and private bodies such as the Fassbinder Foundation?"

Ah. Regulated profiteering, then.

Rother: "One shouldn't overestimate the role of the Kinematheks."

Update, 6/13: Joe gathers a collection of posters for RWF's films at Carrie White Burns in Hell. Via James Israel.

Update, 6/14: Jon Pais gathers about three items in one entry for Twitch: A decidedly negative reaction to the Berlin Alexanderplatz restoration; German profs pooh-poohing RWF's relevance to contemporary German film; and Herzog noting that he's got dedicated audiences around the world - just not in Germany. "But I do not look for an explanation; I'm too busy with other things."

Bookmark and Share

Posted by dwhudson at June 10, 2007 2:18 PM


Thanks for yet another amazing entry in this fascinating controversy. As someone who can't read German I find it most helpful and interesting!

Posted by: Daniel at June 10, 2007 4:05 PM

Concerning the vandalism of RWF's "Berlin Alexanderplatz", I am reminded of what music critic B. H. Haggin had to say regarding the alterations to the score of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov". He prefaces his essay with a quote from W. J. Turner, who writes, "the beginning of any live, intelligent interest in any art is the desire to know an artist's work in its pure, unadulterated state as it finally left the hands of its creator."

Unfortunately, too many works of art have come down to us not as the artist intended, but disfigured by "well-intentioned" editors, performers and, in the case of film, studios and distributors. Haggin writes, "those who understand that one mustn't change someone else's painting or poem don't understand that one mustn't change the harmony or texture of someone else's music," to which we can now add Schwarzenberger's presumptuous tampering with Fassbinder's clear-cut intentions. If there was some way of knowing how the image appeared when it was initially broadcast, perhaps viewers at home might be able adjust the brightness and contrast to restore the picture's original look?

Posted by: Jon Pais at June 10, 2007 11:30 PM

Thanks, Daniel.

Jon, I'm not sure that sort of adjustment would do it. According to Kasten, digitalization has given it an entirely different texture. VHS copies of the original broadcast version have been floating around for years, but of course, quality will vary drastically - which is, in an odd way, appropriate. Think of how different the series must have looked from household to household on the family TVs of a quarter century ago.

Posted by: David Hudson at June 11, 2007 12:19 AM

Amazing coverage of a fascinating topic. Thanks for all the effort David!

Posted by: Filmbrain at June 11, 2007 9:22 AM


This is quite simply amazing - and quite important for all of us who are interested in the topic, but who can't read og speak german. This piece should be on the front page of Digg or something.

Keep it coming! :)

Posted by: Karsten at June 12, 2007 8:29 AM

Many thanks, Karsten. And of course, I'll be keeping an eye on any further developments, too.

Posted by: David Hudson at June 12, 2007 11:46 AM