Colder Than Death

"Rainer Werner Fassbinder"
A retrospective. At the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market), July 25 through Aug. 2. Call 621-6120. Also at the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley, through Aug. 31. Call (510) 642-1124.

At the beginning of Gods of the Plague, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's second feature, a handsome if rather weedy male emerges from prison and repairs to a coffee shop. A Wagnerian blonde swims down the bar to him and soon Harry Baer is dangling passively in Lilith Ungerer's arms. The aggression and weakness here are just two of the mixed emotions Fassbinder's films provide, a brew served up with cruelty, humor, and acidic intelligence. Viewers wanting more can immerse themselves at the Castro Theater starting this Friday, the opening day of a two-week, 32-film Fassbinder retrospective. Many of these works are quite rare, while many more will be welcome rediscoveries.

A more nearly complete series of Fassbinder films -- the 40-plus features, multipart TV series, and miscellany produced in a deliberate, reckless rush from 1969 to 1982 -- has been ongoing at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley for some time now, and continues through August. While in some ways as redolent of his era as disco, flared jeans, and free sex, Fassbinder's work has not been as evanescent; it still speaks to us today with its impressive blend of compelling storytelling (in the post-1971 films, anyway), daring formal experimentation, and inquisitive intelligence that challenged conformist shibboleths of every sort.

A few examples: His early films Katzelmacher (1969) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) depict without editorializing the hatred directed against foreign immigrants to the New Germany, while Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother KYsters Goes to Heaven (1975) tell the sad tale of two very different innocents (a carnival worker, an old woman) mercilessly exploited by all and sundry. Although the very early The Niklashausen Journey (1970) endorses terrorist tactics in the name of the impending Revolution, The Third Generation (1978) sardonically unmasks the role such Maoist playacting had in strengthening the right. Fassbinder's late, glossy trilogy The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Lola (1981), and Veronika Voss (1982) casts a harsh eye at the high human cost of the postwar German "economic miracle."

Lola, which opens the Castro series Friday on a bill with Maria Braun, is a good place to begin to see Fassbinder as a visual artist, a filmmaker. By 1981 Fassbinder's career-long penchant for long takes had waxed fluidly serpentine, while Lola's eye-boggling color scheme -- everything is a lurid pink or blue or both -- points the highly stylized direction Fassbinder's career would likely had taken had he lived past 1982. (Fassbinder's last film, Querelle, is even more artificial, an airless, studio-bound box.) Lola, like many but hardly all of Fassbinder's films, is animated with tremendous narrative energy, pushed along by surprise shifts out of focus in midscene, a trick that propels us into a new scene just as we register the end of the last. A sarcastic tale of love and corruption, Lola gains much from the music of Fassbinder's regular composer, Peer Raben, whose work evolved from the insinuating noodles of the early films into minisymphonies of great emotional power. Lola, like most of Fassbinder's works, is also superbly acted down to the smallest stock part (hypocritical mayor, dizzy secretary). The film's stars (Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf) in particular excel as the points of the film's central triangle. Unfortunately, about three-quarters of the way through, the characters stop acting like autonomous human beings and become puppets in a deterministic parable of universal sin -- didacticism being always and forever one of Fassbinder's weak spots.

Adorf and Mueller-Stahl worked only once for the director. This is unusual, as Fassbinder's films were generally cast with the various members of his remarkable stock-company, from the potato-faced Gottfried John and raccoon-eyed Kurt Raab through to Hanna Schygulla, the angelic blonde who usually played the part of "movie star" in Fassbinder's constellation -- in Maria Braun, in the hugely entertaining melodrama Lili Marleen (1980), and also in what is perhaps the filmmaker's most formally perfect film, Effi Briest (1974). Fassbinder addicts will have great fun spotting all the recurring faces as the series continues. Look! There's Irm Hermann -- the pasty-faced, put-upon drudge whose actions place the perfect capstone on the compelling chamber piece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). One of the more interesting actors is Fassbinder himself, starring as Fox and visible in many other films, most amusingly dancing a herky-jerky frug with Schygulla in Rio das Mortes (1970).

Another pleasure of the total immersion in a body of work this series offers is theme-spotting from film to film. Fassbinder sifted complex notions of love, loyalty, betrayal, corruption, politics, and sex over his 14-year career. Yet for all the intelligence on display, to me Fassbinder succeeds the most when his heart can be spotted, bleeding and beating, on his sleeve -- embodied in the performances of Brigitte Mira as tired old women in Ali and Mother KYsters, in Schygulla's performance in Effi Briest, and in everyone's work in the sublime Berlin Alexanderplatz. (The 15-1/2-hour TV series will show at the PFA -- for free -- over two days, complete with dinner breaks, Aug. 30 and 31.) By contrast Fassbinder's worst films, early misfires like The Niklashausen Journey aside, are those in which his scorn for convention overwhelms his latent compassion -- in this category go the heavily satiric Satan's Brew (1976) and Despair (1977). Perhaps the director's finest hour is Volker Spengler's performance as the transsexual Erwin/Elvira in In a Year With 13 Moons (1978). Spengler has changed his sex after a chance comment made by a man he loves, but has lived to regret it. Fassbinder's early intuition that the world is a slaughterhouse is graphically confirmed by an excruciating tour of one. The gruesomeness is balanced by the empathy Fassbinder extends to Elvira and the grotesque humor of her predicament. Bleak, honest, grimly funny, Fassbinder at his best created many fine films, some of them, as he once said about Douglas Sirk's melodramas, among the most beautiful in the world.

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