A Rainer Werner Fassbinder season runs at BFI Southbank, alongside a series of Fassbinder’s favourite films, in April-May 2017
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinephilia was narrower than, say, that of Jean-Luc Godard, and one wonders, given the German’s prolificacy, just when he had the time to watch so many films, especially since he lived before the advent of DVD or even the ubiquity of video. (He reportedly died while watching 20,000 Years in Sing Sing on television.)
Acute if occasionally perverse, Fassbinder’s taste naturally ran to extremes – of emotion, style and vision. Not for him the subdued or elegant, the delicate or refined. Whole terrains seemed not to exist on his cinematic map: much of Asia, Scandinavia, Latin America. He rarely listed silent, experimental or documentary films among his favourites and spurned or ignored vast stretches of French cinema. Über alles for Fassbinder was Hollywood cinema, particularly paranoid noirs, baroque westerns, crime films and highly wrought melodramas. The 1950s was his favourite decade, no doubt because its nuclear anxiety, cold war paranoia, familial fissures and social constriction made American cinema prone to the florid and corrosive.
The literally explosive endings of both Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) – echoed in the big bang that ends The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) perhaps? – suggest how immoderate were Fassbinder’s predilections. Taken together, his most beloved films summon a dire vision of the world. (Those that don’t, such as Vasily Shukshin’s Red Elderberry and Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto, seem more like mild enthusiasms.)
As with any director’s list of favourites and influences – well, maybe not Robert Bresson’s – it is easy to discern thematic patterns and obvious debts. Like Godard, Fassbinder flaunted his influences through homage and citation – to Jean-Pierre Melville, Bertolt Brecht and Godard in his early crime films, to Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky in The Third Generation (1979), to many American directors throughout his career.
He employed actors he adored who were associated with other directors: Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine and Macha Méril from Godard’s early films, for example, Jeanne Moreau from countless beloved movies, Magdalena Montezuma from Werner Schroeter’s cinema and Lou Castel from Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965). In his omnivorous way, Fassbinder paid the grandest homage to his mentors by refashioning their films to make some of his own – Suspicion (1941) and Gaslight (1944) in Martha (1974), The Blue Angel (1930) in Lola (1981), All That Heaven Allows (1955) in Fear Eats the Soul (1974), The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) in The Marriage of Maria Braun, Sunset Blvd. (1950) in Veronika Voss (1982).
Often, the influence is more apparent than paraded, a matter of mere affinity. The recurring theme of entrapment, especially of women, in his cinema is readily noticeable in many of his favourites (especially Sirk’s). The small-town corruption in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Michael Curtiz’s Flamingo Road (1949) informs Fassbinder’s Lola, and the ‘female buddy’ bonding – and (mostly) its opposite – in such movies as The Revolt of Mamie Stover, All about Eve (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954) certainly shaped Fassbinder’s own woman-centred cinema. And the scrims and screens, mirrors and windows, counterfeit colours and contrived lighting with which Fassbinder filled his frames to suffocate his sufferers are clearly derived from Josef von Sternberg and (again, especially) Sirk.
Unsurprisingly, Fassbinder tilted towards films that critique or indict, directly or by subterfuge, such conventions as marriage, the family, tradition, romantic love and professional success. Of Howard Hawks’ films, for instance, he admired most what he called “the gay stories”, and though he found Hitchcock’s work politically reactionary, he loved Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Suspicion, no doubt for their nasty sense of the instability of the bourgeois universe. Bresson’s Le Diable probablement (1977), which Fassbinder ferociously championed against its many detractors, offers one of the most drastic visions in all of cinema, proceeding syllogistically to illustrate that the world is hopelessly ruined.
Flamingo Road (1949)
Director Michael Curtiz
“She cast her scarlet shadow on Flamingo Road!” cried the posters for this Deep South tale – the “she” being Joan Crawford, who plays carnival dancer Lane Bellamy to the hilt and then some. Stranded in a steamy backwater, Bellamy crosses paths with corrupt big boss Titus Semple (a deliciously malignant Sydney Greenstreet) who tries to run her out of town. Instead she ends up in a succession of houses: at Lute Mae’s juke joint as a hostess and entertainer, in jail on a trumped-up morals charge and finally in posh digs on Flamingo Road, where married, respectable life beckons, until a new scandal reveals that her scarlet shadow packs a pistol.
Fassbinder greatly admired Michael Curtiz, whom he called “cruelly overlooked” in an essay on the director. He loved Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), but placed the comparatively rare Flamingo Road above those familiar classics, in his top four films of all time. I swear that Fassbinder recreates the opening sequence of this film at the start of Fox and His Friends (1975), where a salacious circus gets shut down by the police. (The film’s mirror-mad mise-en-scène is another giveaway).
All about Eve (1950)
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz
We all know an Eve Harrington. Some of us know several. Fassbinder recognised the type, inserting a sly reference to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s delectable tale of backstabbing ambition in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). When Bette Davis, swathed in cigarette smoke and insecurity, makes her famous crack about buckling up for a bumpy night, search for the seatbelt on your cinema chair. You’ll need it.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Director Nicholas Ray
Joan Crawford, beyond butch in jut jaw and lean jeans, her eyebrows twin Mount Fujis, faces down arch-nemesis Mercedes McCambridge, hellfire in a dress. Everything in Johnny Guitar – clothes, colours, names, locales – seems heavily coded (watch what happens to Crawford’s white dress and to Mercedes McCambridge’s black-veiled hat) to serve Ray’s sexual and political allegory. “Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited for me.”
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Director Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton dredged this nightmare from the collective unconscious of America’s Depression heartland. Fassbinder fell hard for its mixture of demented Americana, Andersen fairy tale, German Expressionism, symbolist painting – that rhyme of seaweed and Shelley Winters’ streaming hair! – and weird D.W. Griffith homages (Lillian Gish as a seraphic saviour lugging a shotgun). Despite its copious Christian symbolism, The Night of the Hunter manages to incriminate marriage, the family and religion as sources of horror. No wonder Fassbinder loved it!
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
Director Raoul Walsh
Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) is an obvious influence on Chinese Roulette (1976) and, though there is no hard evidence, I’m convinced that his The Revolt of Mamie Stover served as the template for Fassbinder’s similarly titled The Marriage of Maria Braun and its tale of a striving woman (here, Jane Russell as “flaming Mamie”) rising in the world by wile and guile, profiting from the devastation of the Second World War.
Business is what Mamie is built for, and once in Honolulu – rendered in garish colour and Cinemascope – she takes up as a “hostess” in the dancehall called The Bungalow, whose proprietor Bertha Parchman – what is it with 50s cinema and those crazy names? – is played by a steely Agnes Moorehead (a favourite actress of Douglas Sirk).
Written on the Wind (1956)
Director Douglas Sirk
Fassbinder deified German émigré Douglas Sirk, “someone,” he said, “who loves people and doesn’t despise them like we do”. Fassbinder’s bitter chronicles of familial disintegration, such as The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), reflect his perception of this lurid 1950s update on the House of Atreus, a portrait of a clan of Texas-tea billionaires with walk-in closets to house their countless skeletons: “In Written on the Wind, the good, the ‘normal,’ the ‘beautiful’ are always utterly revolting; the evil, the weak, the dissolute arouse one’s compassion.”
When the child died before the parent, Sirk wrote this moving tribute to his offspring: “Today I have lost a good friend and Germany a genius. I would never have thought that the evil day would arrive when I, so much older, would be writing these words of mourning for this thirtysixyearold [sic] man. Fassbinder has left an amazing oeuvre of more than forty films. As magnificent in their form as in their theme, Fassbinder’s films were for a long time controversial, and hopefully will stay that way. For only those things that can survive opposition have the power of permanence.” In that last marvellous sentence, Sirk could have been speaking about his own films.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Director Orson Welles
Orson Welles’ marimba-propelled tale of mendacity turns its every improbable shot, from the opening long take forward, into a feat of seedy sensibility. Cantina queen Marlene Dietrich growls at the bloated, chocolate-chewing police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles): “Your future is all used up, why don’t you go home?” A big tawdry pleasure machine, Touch of Evil is enlivened by a game-show cast of international has-beens, wannabes and yet-to-bes, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver and, most bizarre of all, an uncredited and androgynous Mercedes McCambridge who whines “I wanna’ watch!” as a gang of hopped-up leather boys circle round Janet Leigh’s virginal bride in an isolated motel room.
Vivre sa vie (1962)
Director Jean-Luc Godard
Fassbinder claimed, “I’ve seen it 27 times … it is the most important film I’ve seen in my life”, and paid homage to Godard’s 12-tableaux masterpiece by casting Anna Karina in Chinese Roulette. Influenced by Bresson, Brecht and Roberto Rossellini – a trio Fassbinder also admired – Vivre sa vie features two of Godard’s most famous sequences: Karina weeps as she watches Falconetti suffer in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and dances, in her one moment of unalloyed joy, to a jukebox commanding her to “Swing! Swing! Swing!”
The Damned (1969)
Director Luchino Visconti
Fassbinder singled out Luchino Visconti’s Wagnerian epic, set, like Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), during the rise of the Third Reich (though at the opposite end of the class structure), as his all-time favourite movie, which he claimed to have seen more than 30 times, declaring it “perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theatre”. No doubt Fassbinder’s love of The Damned led to his casting of Dirk Bogarde in Despair (1978), another tale of industrial-familial intrigue set during the ascent of the Nazis.
The Devil, Probably (1977)
Director Robert Bresson
Fassbinder inserted an extended homage to Bresson’s film in the credit sequence of The Third Generation. Hanna Schygulla calls it a “sad film”, and indeed it is, inexorably tracking the last months in the life of a young Parisian in search of his own demise, who rejects the conventional solutions offered by politics, psychiatry and religion. Fassbinder stormed off the Berlin Film Festival jury when it appeared that The Devil, Probably would not win the top prize.
This article is an edited version of programme notes for TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto