Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who would have turned 75 this past May, used the frames of the movie and television screen to create a pervasive sense of entrapment. Claustrophobia permeates the worlds his characters inhabit – characters who are sometimes trapped in space but always trapped in their social roles and in their unfulfilled desires. In their introduction to R.W. Fassbinder: Film Stills, 1966-1982, which showcases 190 luxuriantly-reproduced stills from most of Fassbinder’s 44 films, Juliane Lorenz and Lothar Schirmer claim that Fassbinder created a Bildsprache (visual language) which has become a Weltsprache (world language).1 Indeed, Fassbinder’s films now have a much wider international following than they did at the time of his death in 1982, when home video, the medium by which most of his twenty-first century viewers experience his work, was in its infancy. Films that became classics in his lifetime, such as Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1973) and Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria von Braun, 1978), have only grown in stature; while films Fassbinder made for German television, Welt am Draht (World on Wire, 1973) and Martha (1973) have emerged from limbo, decades after the filmmaker’s death, to take their place alongside his most beloved work. Fassbinder’s Weltsprache needs a glossary, if you will, because of his canon’s vastness, variety, and, even now, relative inaccessibility. (I have never met a living soul who has seen the two-part television-film version of Bolweiser broadcast in 1977; while a number of Fassbinder’s films from his key period of 1972-1973 circulate only as low-quality bootlegs.)
Film Stills offers a selection from the much larger compendium of stills, Die Filme (2015), also assembled by Schirmer and Lorenz, a sort of catalogue raisonné, with comprehensive credits and numerous stills (1368, the back cover reports) from all of Fassbinder’s films, both theatrically released and televised, including a few omitted from Film Stills, apparently due to the surviving prints’ poor condition. The smaller size and larger images of Film Stills relative to the mammoth Die Filme, make for an intimate experience. (Die-hards like me will need both books.) In his birthday message to Fassbinder’s shade, John Waters encourages readers to experience Film Stills, as more than, well, a book of images: “Looking through this book readers will feel like straight guys panting over their favorite pin-ups in Playboy Magazine only instead of hot babes, they’d be revisiting their first memories of a Fassbinder movie which is a new form of eroticism in itself” (p. 224). One could assemble a 190-image book of film stills within Fassbinder’s films – that is, freeze-frames, or, more commonly, moments when the actors hold their positions for a few seconds, as in a tableau vivant. My own memories of seeing Fassbinder’s films center around such still moments – a preoccupation I discovered in the process of choosing stills to reproduce here.
Some of my own strongest “memories of a Fassbinder movie” date from the winter of ’95 in Berlin, when Martha, which, due to copyright issues, had not been seen since its initial broadcast on Westdeutsche Rundfunk in 1974, premiered in a restored, 35mm version, to crowds of “Fassbinder cultists” – Waters’s term – and curious moviegoers alike (p.224). Film Stills’s last still from Martha revisits the film’s final moments, which grimly parody the conclusion of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, when Jane Wyman’s character awakens, in a hospital room, to the embrace – and to the sight – of her beloved Rock Hudson, the surgeon who has just cured her blindness. Martha, on the other hand, awakens to discover herself paralysed, after a car accident in which her sadistic husband, Helmut, may or may not have pursued her when she fled their marital house – on 21 Douglas Sirk Street (!) – and she screams when the nurse utters Helmut’s name. Cut to Martha, placid and doll-like under strong sedation, leaving her hospital room in a wheelchair pushed by Helmut, as Isaac Stern’s violin swells on the soundtrack. The door of the open elevator into which Helmut backs Martha with the frame itself: the married couple gazes blandly towards the camera for a few seconds, as if they already inhabit the cramped space in which they will dwell (to quote the title of Cornell Woolrich’s source-story) “For the Rest of Her Life.” This moment of stillness is interrupted, visually, by the elevator door which cuts across the foreground, sealing Herr and Frau Salomon in their marital tomb. In the end, Martha has made what Georgia Brown calls “the deadliest compromise, suicide of the spirit”; there is no other possible compromise for her.2
Fassbinder’s segment from Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) concludes with his cruelest use of freeze-frame, at the end of a sequence in which he (or a caricature of himself) plays the role of domestic tyrant. In the still from just before this moment that appears in Film Stills, Fassbinder leans his torso over the table, as if ready to lunge at his mother, Lilo Pempeit (or a caricature of his mother) who hunches into her chair, smoking nervously. Fassbinder harangues her about what system of government is best equipped to handle the spate of domestic terrorism West Germany was then experiencing. She finally avers, “The best thing would be some kind of authoritarian ruler who is good and kind and orderly.” As she speaks these last words, Pempeit, who here represents the generations that lived through Hitler’s Germany, looks down coyly and smiles, as if furtively delighted by the idea of a benevolent dictator. Fassbinder, the filmmaker, freezes the frame at the precise moment when she smiles, wielding the editor’s knife like a weapon to expose his mother’s – and by extension, in the logic of this film, all of Germany’s – desire for an authoritarian ruler. (For what it’s worth, I believe this entire sequence is scripted.) In this moment, whose abruptness seems calculated to shock, Fassbinder engages in what Thomas Elsaesser calls a “quasi-terrorist assault on his interlocutors”—not only those in the film, but his contemporary German audience as well.3
A Brechtian at heart, Fassbinder uses the abrupt freeze-frame in Germany in Autumn to alienate viewers from the realism inherent in the film’s documentary style – a style which makes the film an outlier in his body of work. Fassbinder’s more formalist fiction films create a visual Verfremdungseffekt with a multitude of barriers – doorways, curtains, windows, and mirrors, for a start. Not only are characters alienated from each other, but viewers are separated from them by an ingenious variety of physical interpolations, as in this still from Fontane Effi Briest (1974), in which a lace curtain covers and distorts the tableau of Hanna Scyhulla as the title character and Wolfgang Schenk as her husband, Instetten – a married couple increasingly at odds with each other. In the film’s full title, Fassbinder betrays his attitude to his source material, Theodor Fontane’s masterpiece of late nineteenth-century realism: Fontane Effi Briest or Many People Who Are Aware of Their Own Capabilities and Needs, Yet Acquiesce to the Prevailing System in Their Thoughts and Deeds, Thereby Confirm and Reinforce It. Nineteenth-century fiction invented techniques, such as free indirect discourse in narration, for entering characters’ individuality; but Fassbinder wants viewers to see Effi and Innenstet as among the “many” who conform to a “system” that requires an unequal power dynamic in marriage. (Effi’s ultimate inability to conform does not embody her martyrdom; rather, in her death, she becomes the exception that proves the rule.) The lace curtain forces us into a voyeuristic stance as Effi and Instetten, the white statue of a praying child separating them in the frame, argue in civil yet strained tones about whether Crampas – the man who will become Effi’s lover – is a “gentleman” or not. Schygulla, her face distorted by the lace pattern stares off beyond curtain at an unseen object – or maybe at nothing at all.
Fassbinder loved to disperse the human face over the frame by means of mirrors, mirror-like surfaces, frames, windows, and screens of all kinds. Film Stills contains stills of a few such shots, but one could assemble an entire book called Mirrorshot Mayhem, so deep does Fassbinder’s love of reflective surfaces – which are also barriers – run. He makes use of one such surface in Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, 1976), when he places Gerhard (Alexander Allerson) and his illicit lover Ariane (Anna Karina) on either side of a glass cabinet; Gerhard’s daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who has orchestrated a meeting of each of her parents with their respective paramours, stands out of focus in the back of the shot. Ariane’s eyes are reflected three different ways, so she seems to be trapped in fragmented images of her own face even as she looks through the glass at Gerhard. The glass cabinet becomes both cage and mirror; indeed the entire mansion at which most of the film’s action takes place becomes a confined space in which Angela forces her parents to confront their hypocrisy. (For what it’s worth, Fassbinder claimed, regarding Chinesisches Roulette, that “I’m pretty sure that in film history there is no single film that contains so many camera movements, travelling shots, and counter-movements of the actors.” 4 Such elements are hard to reproduce in a book of still images.)
Fassbinder uses a similar complex of images at the end of Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation, 1979), when the face of Eddie Constantine as P.J. Lurz, the executive of an electronics firm, looks out from a black-and-white television in the foreground, while, in the background and out of focus, Lurz himself sits against a graffiti-covered concrete wall. Although Lurz’s presence on the screen represents a kind of entrapment – he has been kidnapped by anti-capitalist terrorists who force him to recite their demands in a videotaped statement – the film’s viewers know the terrorists are actually being controlled by a mole in their midst who is on Lurz’s payroll. Lurz hopes to use the (staged) kidnapping to drive up the cost of his company’s products. Lurz’s smug expression fills the television screen to remind us that, despite his performed captivity, it is he who holds the pseudo-revolutionaries, who are actually on his payroll, captive. Characteristically, Fassbinder plays on the notion of a face trapped in a screen to interrogate “the Prevailing System’s” ultimate dominance over those who, in the last analysis, only play at subverting it – or, as the director himself said, allow themselves to “be controlled by others like a bunch of marionettes.”5 The image on the opposite page – from a scene which actually occurs earlier in the film – of the terrorists-manqués festooned in masks and brightly coloured paper strips, reinforces the notion that they are infantilised by their true leader, the industrial capitalist.
For all my emphasis on Fassbinder’s ways of framing and even entrapping his characters who, per Effi Briests’s subtitle, stand for “Many People,” I don’t return to his films for depictions of generic individuals, and I don’t believe most other viewers do, either. Fassbinder worked with fantastically talented actors, from whom he elicited brilliant and, in many cases, unforgettable performances as characters whose consciousness of their own entrapment increases their poignancy. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, we believe in the unlikely love between Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem’s characters; just as we believe in the moment, near the end, when Mira’s character cracks, under all of the daily racism and xenophobia which she experiences by proxy, and she rejects her younger husband when she refuses to make him couscous. (They reunite in another of Fassbinder’s subversions of the Sirkian hospital-happy-ending scene: ben Salem suffers from an ulcer caused by the chronic stress of being an outsider in German society.) The stars of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy – Hannah Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, and Rosel Zech – may, for the director, have portrayed allegorical figures in his revisionist history of the post-war German “economic miracle,” but for audiences, they become Movie Stars writ large. Waters crows, “Hannah Schygulla – what a leading lady! You made her so famous she got cast in a Chuck Norris movie – The Delta Force. That’s what I call crossover with a capital C” (p. 224).
As the title character of Lola (1981), Sukowa will always be my favorite “leading lady” of Fassbinder’s late period. In this still – a classic Hollywood-style close-up if there ever was one – Lola, chanteuse and “private whore” to the town’s rich real estate developer, suddenly sees the town’s new building commissioner and her patron’s rival, played by Armin Müller-Stahl, whom she has deceived about her identity, watching her sing in the town nightclub. The still captures a key moment in Sukowa’s bravura performance, when her character’s face shows shock, panic, shame, and disbelief all in a moment, and the lighting on her face flashes from candy-pink to blue, before she reverts, with a kind of wild shamelessness, to her stage persona – or, Fassbinder might say, to her role in in “the Prevailing System.”
The six stills, six moments, belong to my own mental library of Fassbinder’s films. If there are additional stills I wish Schirmer and Lorenz had included in their book, that desire only proves there are as many Fassbinders as there are viewers who are drawn to his work – sometimes in fascination, sometimes in disgust, sometimes in love, but rarely in apathy. To quote John Waters (once more): “From beyond the grave of independent cinema your brilliantly perverse filmography continues to inspire generation after generation of cinema outlaws with its obsessively driven, drug-induced, keen-witted, political incorrectness. You are a cult that still attracts, hypnotizes and joyously damages film buffs worldwide and we, your slavish followers, thank you from the bottom of our wounded little hearts” (p. 223).
Juliane Lorenz and Lothar Schirmer, R.W. Fassbinder: Film Stills, 1966 – 1982, with texts by John Waters, Hans Helmut Prinzler, and Peter Handke, German/English edition. (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2020)
- While the technical term for the images reproduced in this book is “frame enlargement”, I will use Schirmer and Lorenz’s preferred terms, “film stills” and “stills”, in this review. ↩
- Georgia Brown, “A Very Sad Song Sung with Lots of Feeling” in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ed. Laurence Kardish in collaboration with Juliane Lorenz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1997), p. 27. ↩
- Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996), p. 70. ↩
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977, quoted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ed. Laurence Kardish in collaboration with Juliane Lorenz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1997), p. 61. ↩
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978, quoted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ed. Laurence Kardish in collaboration with Juliane Lorenz (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1997), p. 65. ↩