Juliane Lorenz and R.W. Fassbinder

Among her numerous other achievements, Juliane Lorenz compiled Chaos as Usual, a fascinating book about Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the form of interviews with many of his collaborators. Reading it is a curious experience. Like the protagonist of a Welles noir, Ms Lorenz delved into the past of a Great Man, the most important German filmmaker to have emerged since the ’20s, a larger than life figure who also happened to be her mentor and companion in the last few years of his tragically short life. For all of the vertiginous array of perspectives that the book provides on Fassbinder, he remains strangely elusive. People seem blinded by his legend, adoring, overawed, sometimes wounded or perhaps self-consciously skeptical. More often than not he is depicted as an enigma, a puzzle that the interviewee is contributing a piece to by offering up testimony of his or her relationship with him. If there is one conclusion to be drawn it is that contact with Fassbinder was frequently a life-changing event.

This is nowhere truer than in the case of Juliane Lorenz. An assistant editor barely out of her teens when she met him, he practically swept her off her feet. Their relationship was not only personal but also creative. At the age of just 20 she found herself taking responsibility for the incredibly complex, baroque and sophisticated montage of Fassbinder’s often underrated Nabokov adaptation Despair (1978). It was the beginning of a highly distinguished editing career that would not only encompass all of the dazzlingly prolific Fassbinder’s films up until his death in 1982 but also an ongoing collaboration with another genius of the German cinema, Werner Schroeter. Since 1992 she has also been head of the Fassbinder Foundation, an admirable organisation dedicated to preserving and promoting Fassbinder’s cinematic legacy. The Foundation will soon expand to take care of Schroeter’s oeuvre as well.

On October 18th 2003 Ms Lorenz took time off from editing a new film for Oskar Röhler and flew in to Dublin for a Q and A with the audience at an Irish Film Institute Fassbinder retrospective. The Fassbinder that she spoke of with such affection seemed refreshingly human when compared to the gossip and mythologising that his name so often provokes. While it is true that probably no one ever knew him better than she did, it is also true that she came into his life at a time of personal and professional change. She describes him in their years together as a happy man with a great sense of humour who had largely outgrown the angsts of what she refers to as the “wild generation of ’68”. To say that this obsessively hardworking filmmaker had “relaxed” would be going too far, but she believes he was a “less tense” person in his final years. When she began working with him the extended “family” of actors and other collaborators that he had constantly surrounded himself with in his earlier years had to a large extent dissolved. He had settled down to enjoy a stable, very private heterosexual relationship. He was working on larger-budget projects with an international audience in mind. To illustrate the developments in his aesthetic outlook, she humorously recalls his dismissive response to her enthusiasm over his early masterpiece Katzelmacher (1969) when she first saw it.

In spite of the fact that theirs was obviously an extraordinary love story, Lorenz correctly emphasises Fassbinder’s professionalism and extraordinary artistic achievement over the reams of gossip that exist about his private life. The important thing in his life was his films and it is there, she insists, that one can find out who Fassbinder really was. As she put it: “People always like to speak about his life because they have their own ideas, because it’s so extraordinary to be extraordinary. But the extraordinary thing was his work.” And much of the work completed in Fassbinder’s last period was indeed extraordinary. These years saw the creation of, among others, his BRD trilogy – The Marriage of Maria Braun (Die Ehe der Maria Braun, 1979), Lola (1980), Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, 1982); an epic television adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) that Fassbinder considered his greatest achievement; and the sublime Querelle (1982). While it is undoubtedly a tragedy that he died soon after Querelle at the age of just 38, it is also difficult to imagine him ever improving on that exquisitely haunting final masterpiece. If, as with Pasolini, his early passing has left us with the nagging sense that we have been robbed too soon of a cinematic mind that would have had much of great value to say about our troubled times, we can comfort ourselves that at least he went out on a note of soaring creative triumph.

In spite of her busy schedule, Ms Lorenz granted us an interview immediately after the public Q&A session. In person she is youthful, humorous and infectiously enthusiastic about Fassbinder’s work and the art of cinema in general.

MLC & CN: What is your background? How did you get into filmmaking?

JL: My stepfather was a filmmaker, not a very important one, but he started as a filmmaker. He took me with him to cinemas. I had a family member who introduced me to art more than my immediate family did. I got into art, into seeing films, going to exhibitions when we moved over to the South of Bavaria where I went to high school. When I was finished I went to Munich, started studying without knowing what I really wanted to do – maybe films, I had a lot of ideas. But I was very young at that time and I didn’t study for long. Then I had to get some practical experiences and so I started being an assistant editor. Again, only for half a year, I didn’t do a lot. And I started by editing two documentaries. This was all between my 18th and 19th birthdays, all in one year. And then I met Rainer.

MLC & CN: I believe the first film you worked on with Fassbinder was Chinese Roulette (1976). How did this come about?

Chinese Roulette

JL: It was by accident, to be honest. I met Rainer, but not initially with the idea of working with him. Again, I was very young, very shy. I was trying to get into the industry but I wouldn’t have dared to go Fassbinder directly and say “Can I work for you?” I wouldn’t have thought of it. Through a friend of a friend, I was recommended to help out, to do this and that. And I did it. And then Rainer… He didn’t talk a lot about our relationship in public because it was this little secret and he didn’t want to have somebody at his side who takes too much from his fame. And that was not my thing! But I know from what he said to others and from what he told me later: I was a new generation. When I met him he was in a relationship which was very, very disturbing and he left. He decided I was on his side and that we’d do films together. After Despair he said that I’d go on and do the editing of all his films. And I thought: “He’s crazy!” I mean, I couldn’t understand because I was young and I thought I was not intelligent enough or talented enough and all these things that you think when you are young. But he did it! He just took me, took me into his world! And just before we shot Berlin Alexanderplatz he said “Oh, by the way, we are going to live together!” So it started! And then there were a lot of marriage dates and I always said “No, we shouldn’t marry, it’s not good…” That’s just the way it is! And then he died. And that’s horrible, but somehow he had to leave – that’s what life is!

MLC & CN: I understand that Visconti’s films made a strong impression on you when you were young. What did Fassbinder think of Visconti?

JL: He admired him! He was a great poet of the cinema, he was an unbelievably educated man and his way of telling stories was the way we felt comfortable with, that we admired. I can’t put it in words, I can’t just say that he was a great cinema auteur with a great dignity and passion. He told stories that weren’t told at that time and he was also a great visionary with his camerawork. You can’t enter the cinema world without Visconti.

MLC & CN: In spite of the recent retrospectives, Visconti seems unfortunately to be a little neglected, a little unfashionable today…

JL: He is unfashionable, but what is fashion? There will always be Visconti!

MLC & CN: What is your relationship with Fassbinder’s early work? Were you at all familiar with it when you met him?

JL: No.

MLC & CN: Your book Chaos as Usual seems to me like you were almost doing an archaeological study of Fassbinder’s early years…

click to buy 'Chaos as Usual' at Amazon.comJL: That was exactly what it was because I didn’t know the beginning. And Rainer never talked about it. For him it was the past. But that was his age. Maybe later he would have… I’m now another person, much older than him when he died. I was wondering about all these horrible books that were coming up and all these things that people were saying about him. And I thought: “But how could he have done these films, being this asshole?” So I walked back and asked all these people that he told me about and who I knew were, in a way, influential in his early years. And I think it’s important to have a professional overview. People always like to speak about his life because they have their own ideas, because it’s so extraordinary to be extraordinary. But the extraordinary thing was his work. And how I met him – I was taken into the production factory to be a professional and do my work. And I think this is what was important.

MLC & CN: During the time you worked with Fassbinder, from Chinese Roulette onwards, his films became increasingly complex visually and structurally. Was this a conscious development on his part? As his editor, what part did you play in it?

JL: Of course it was conscious. Every film he made was based on decisions made beforehand as to how it would look. At the time of Chinese Roulette his collaboration with Michael Ballhaus was so intense that that film was really a homage to his camerawork, where they tried to express craziness with angles. With Despair it was first “How do you reflect Nabokov’s story?” It’s about madness, about how somebody is going into another level of consciousness. How do you use film to show this transformation? They decided to use a lot of travellings, also a lot of zoom shots. When he got the offer to do the film, the script was by Tom Stoppard who was, at that time, really like, Wow, a Big Playwright who has just written his First Screenplay. I think it was his first screenplay, I’m not that sure. But he was not that much use. Rainer got this screenplay which was like this [she raises her finger and thumb as if holding the pages of an enormously fat manuscript] and he transformed it. And then Dirk Bogarde was playing the main part. That gave the project weight, which was inspiring. And Rainer was never afraid to keep developing and so he became very experienced. And the editing especially… You’re right, it was a very, very new way of editing and at that time I was not the editor I am today. But I learned editing that night… We really created the film anew in one night because Rainer had an English editor, Reginald Beck, who started the editing but they didn’t get along. I took it over and we created a new story. That was so special – we did it without speaking to each other, but we were somehow adapted to each other and that was always the main point in our professional relationship. There was a time when I got afraid because I was 20 when we did Despair and so I had a big weight on my back and I was not at all mature and experienced. And Rainer gave me strength and, a lot more, made me aware of the power I had as an editor. And that was the main thing that he gave me – as a part of his world, I had to create with him.

MLC & CN: There’s a cut in Despair that I particularly love and that’s at the start of the scene where Bogarde meets the character that he believes is his double for the first time in the hall of mirrors and it’s so disorientating, you’ve no idea where you are or what’s happening…

JL: Yes, yes! But that is also directing and that is camerawork and that is a concept. We used some shots that were shot very normally and we cut them in a totally different way, we intercut within the shot. The film was three hours, but it had to be two. So we had to eliminate things, we had to get another rhythm. The most important thing about the way I got into the business – which may be unique in all of film history, if I may say so! – is that I was naïve but not stupid and I didn’t know what it really means to edit a film. And if you have a director like Fassbinder who had the chance to create an editor – which he did, I was his material in a way – it’s the most wonderful thing! And I’m now a more mature editor, but still the same editor. I’ll never forget him because he gave me this attitude of “Take your chance, create the film because I directed it and you are the one at the table who has to create it”. Then things happen in a way you can’t describe and sometimes the results come out as beautiful. And sometimes they do not!

MLC & CN: Fassbinder is often described as having had almost superhuman energy. What was it like working alongside this energy?

JL: I had the same! People often ask that, but everybody will give you another answer. There were times when… I mean, Hanna Schygulla – we are friends – she once said to me “Juliane, sometimes Rainer was really an asshole” and I said “But he inflamed us!” I liked his way of pushing us forward because it made me move forward. And it made me think. Without him I wouldn’t have… Really, I don’t know, I can’t say now. But the situation in my early life was that it was him who gave me this push and I loved that push, maybe I needed it, I don’t know. Everybody responds to each other in a different way. My way of responding to him was on one level that he was the man I adored. But he was also experienced and I was young, I was at the beginning. He helped me and he forced me to be aware of everything around. So I have very good remembrances of him. And I couldn’t do this work if I hadn’t been so close to him emotionally. Maybe you’ll laugh about it, but sometimes he still comes into my dreams and we speak – he says “What do you do now?” and I say “How is the world there?” I loved him. And you don’t judge. That’s what I say.

MLC & CN: Since Fassbinder’s death, you’ve worked regularly with another of Europe’s greatest – if less widely known – filmmakers, Werner Schroeter…

JL: Yes. Our next task at the Fassbinder Foundation is to look after and promote Schroeter’s work.

MLC & CN: I was truly delighted to hear that. How does working with Schroeter compare to working with Fassbinder?

JL: I’m asked that very often. I have the same adoration for Werner but, to be honest, it comes out of Rainer’s adoration because he wanted to write a book about Werner, about Werner’s work. And so he took me to see his films. And he was sitting there saying to me: “Isn’t he crazy? I wouldn’t dare to do that!” And I was like “What kind of films are these?!” I didn’t know how to judge them, the early films. I met Werner… Actually I met Werner half a year before I met Rainer – it’s very funny, without ever thinking that one day I would be so close to both of them! Werner is not at all a director in the classical sense of a leader. He is a leader but he is one who gives a lot of freedom to his collaborators. When I met him again in 1984 I was very, very sad after Rainer’s death and I hadn’t been able to find the sort of challenges to develop myself in the German film industry because I was the Fassbinder editor and they were all afraid to work with me because then I could make their films like Fassbinder films! I really had to fight for my work. Then Werner came to me and said “Why don’t we work together?” He was actually the first one who allowed me to develop and go on in another way. I wasn’t used to a director sitting beside me in the editing room – Rainer never did that, he came and he wanted to see results and he said “Okay” or “Think about it again” or sometimes “Oh, my God! Maybe you should…” so I said to Werner “Can you do me the favour of letting me present you with a first cut? But don’t come to the editing room, I’m too nervous, I can’t do that! I have to do the first cut by myself.” I’m doing that with Oskar Röhler at the moment – I said “Oskar, please, let me do it and then you’ll see it and then you can say okay or no. But don’t be in the editing room!” And the same with Werner Schroeter when we did King of Roses in ’84. And it was so funny because when he came and saw the first three rolls I was kind of blocked because Werner never really writes scripts. You have to create the films. But he creates them with his magic touch, of course, and with the actors, he has his own vision. And when he saw the first three rolls he said “I’ve never had that experience before,” and he loved it! And that made me want to go on and finish the film. It might be my feeling as a woman, maybe, to want to present him with something. And I did six films with Werner in that way. I’m much more influential in Werner’s films. Really, I did those films. Not the shooting – of course not, it’s his film. But I do the montage.


MLC & CN: But on a film as structurally complex as, for example, Malina (1992), that must be an incredible responsibility…

JL: I like that! An editor should be an artist in his own right. That’s how I’m educated, that’s what my reputation is. That’s not saying: “You are a stupid director!” The director does his work, but he is overweighted with the responsibility of editing his film. He can’t! He needs that distance! For the past five weeks I’ve been sitting at this AVID machine which I never used to do before, now I do – it’s wonderful! I’m very happy that I’ve got into the new technology. I said to Oskar “Promise me to come six weeks after you finish shooting and I’ll present you with something. It won’t be perfect but it will be something that I can discuss because I did it.” I get too much influenced by directors hanging over me all the time! And that’s Rainer’s influence – he said “A director has to say ‘Goodbye’!” And then when he looks at his material again he has a better possibility of seeing what he really wanted because then he has this distance. Most directors are like “I am editing my film!” That’s nonsense! There are very few directors who can really edit their films. An editor has to fight, especially in Germany. I don’t know how it is in Ireland or the UK or in America, I think editors are much more well received. In Germany in the ’70s we had to fight against this “author cinema” where the author said ‘It’s all mine!’ Fassbinder never did. He respected professions.

MLC & CN: Fassbinder and Schroeter both emphasise the collaborative…

JL: Right. We are a team. Elfi Mikesh always does the camera for Schroeter unless she can’t do it… There was one film two years ago, which I couldn’t do either. And we were very happy because we could say to Werner: “Now see how it is for once when you don’t have us to work with!” (laughs). We didn’t have the time, it wasn’t deliberate. We just did Deux (2002), our latest film, with Isabelle [Huppert, star of Malina] again and it is my masterpiece. Deux is my absolute masterpiece. A very complicated film! It is a very complicated film but it is a masterpiece and we know that. We know that but… It was shown in Paris and… Well, there are films that aren’t that normal!

MLC & CN: Thank God for them! Is it true that Schroeter was planning a version of Querelle at one stage?


JL: Yes. He was the first one. Then it was offered to Rainer and it was big problem for Rainer – he asked Werner, because they are friends. And still, of course, Werner thinks Rainer’s Querelle is horrible and his would have been wonderful! His version would have been more naturalistic. He wanted to shoot in Brest… It would have been totally different from Rainer’s. Rainer’s version was an artificial world that he created from the novel and he was not at all interested in the story itself as a naturalistic story.

MLC & CN: That surprises me because Schroeter isn’t exactly a naturalistic director either…

JL: Of course, that’s true. But he had other ideas about using real locations and our Querelle was shot in the studio.

MLC & CN: Can you speak a little about your view of Fassbinder’s continuing influence on world cinema?

JL: On world cinema? As far as I know he influenced the new American independent cinema from the very beginning. His films are still on curriculums; students learn his films at university. His films are now very present again everywhere on DVD. The Sundance Channel has had a four film homage. When we did the retrospective at MOMA in ’97 it was like a big comeback. So he’s always been present in America as this enfant terrible genius, of course. In France and Italy the same. Now the young German generation sees his films, his theatre plays. He’s always being staged, thank God! Because that gives us the money we need for restoring his films. He is a classic, people learn from him. François Ozon, for example – he wrote me a beautiful letter because he wanted to do a film of one of Rainer’s earliest plays, Water Falls on Burning Rocks. He was so exactly discovering the reality in Fassbinder films, this mixture of truth, of serenity, of curiosity. This touched him, he wrote me, when he saw his first Fassbinder plays on the stage in Paris and started to see his films. So much that even 8 Women (2002) is influenced by The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die Bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant, 1972). Some interviewers asked him what were his influences on that film and suggested some films but he said “Oh, no, I thought more of Petra von Kant.” In America, it’s Todd Haynes who refers to him very much. I met his editor not long ago and he told me that on Haynes’ first film they studied Querelle from the beginning to the end. They just used every shot from Querelle in a way! And he’s also very much loved in Beijing! Sometimes I get emails: “Please do not forget us!” And in Russia, even when he was still alive! This makes me very happy. But the thing is that you have to care for these films, for these prints, so that a younger generation can see them again. And that’s what we have to do. I mean, I’m not an institution like the Goethe Institute, but we are the source of his work, we care for his work. And I think that’s the only task I will fulfil in the future, with a few films in between. I love editing and I’m very happy that I can work on the production side, but also on the preservation side.

MLC & CN: What did you think of Ozon’s film of Water Falls on Burning Rocks (Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes, 2000)?

JL: I loved it. I just saw it in New York. I think it’s really funny. And it’s very Fassbinder-like, but it’s Ozon as well. And that is so important. You can’t copy a director like Fassbinder. Who was ever like Hitchcock? Nobody! Who was ever like Bergman? But you can be influenced by them and find your own way.

With thanks to Annemarie Abel of the Fassbinder Foundation and Grainne Humphries of the IFI.

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.

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