The Indulgences of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Indulgences of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The Indulgences of Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Ian Penman’s study of the German filmmaker’s work elucidates his “cocaine communism”—an aesthetics and politics of revolution and pleasure.


While many of us, stateside, squandered the salad days of our pandemic bingeing Tiger King or revisiting The Sopranos and Girls, Ian Penman hunkered down in his London flat with German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s daunting catalog, only to find that “being stuck inside an airless room for what might be an eternity is not the best formula for watching films about…people stuck inside cheerless rooms tearing lumps out of each [other] for what might well be an eternity.”

There is no question that Fassbinder’s characters—lovesick addicts, recidivist criminals, unrepentant Nazis, bourgeois anarchists—are more likely the sort that one would be grateful to have some space from regardless of circumstance. Gary Indiana, who knew RWF (as he was called in the West German tabloids), eulogized him in Artforum as “a fat, ugly sadomasochist who terrorized everyone around him, drove his lovers to suicide, drank two daily bottles of Rémy, popped innumerable pills while stuffing himself like a pig, then croaked from an overdose at 37”—all of which is true on paper, but fails to fully account for the obscene appeal of the man and his work. Fassbinder was a petty tyrant, a profligate addict, a slippery provocateur, and a fair-weather friend, yet few filmmakers before or since have employed the cinema as a venue for social critique and stylistic innovation quite as aggressively as he. An unbridled workhorse, Fassbinder directed over 40 features while also acting in other people’s films, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the stage, and making the mess of his private affairs somehow newsworthy. The breadth of his oeuvre, realized in such a short time, rivals that of Jean-Luc Godard, whom, along with Bertolt Brecht and Douglas Sirk, the Bavarian chose as a surrogate father.

Born one month after Hitler’s death, Fassbinder had a knack for arriving as one epoch led into the next. At 21, he joined the Munich Action-Theater, whose directorship he assumed within two months, rebranding the already radical company in the wake of May 1968, appropriately enough, as the Anti-Theater. His early black-and-white films, which he began making the following year, extend the distancing techniques of his stage work to include the not dissimilar irony, politics, and social-realism-in-quotation-marks of Godard, who had by then entered his Maoist period. The hardly clandestine rehabilitation of the Third Reich by postwar liberal democracy was Fassbinder’s overarching theme, and in only 13 years, he explored it in almost every genre, from pastiches of 1950s melodrama and adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov and Jean Genet to gangster movies, a science-fiction series for television, gothic horror masquerading as sex comedy, and a spaghetti western to boot. Each work is unmistakably his, and not only because he frequently appears in them: As with the classic Hollywood auteurs, their admirers in France and Italy, and his co-pioneers of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, Fassbinder’s signature is legible in bold across a wide range of material. This singularity of vision in spite of the camera’s wandering eye causes Penman, in Thousands of Mirrors, to consider whether Fassbinder’s “inability to imagine another world may be at the heart of everything he did and all he achieved”: Whatever the scenario, every Fassbinder film, like Penman’s criticism, is about its author no less than the matter at hand.

Penman started writing for New Musical Express, the UK rock magazine, as a teenager in 1977, the year punk hit London. In the history of culture journalism, he cuts a figure not unlike the enfant terrible at the center of Thousands of Mirrors, a project that Penman had procrastinated on for the better part of four decades prior to the pandemic, when he “decided to try and write the way Fassbinder himself worked: get straight to it and get going right away.” His first book-length essay, drafted between early March and June 10, 2022 (the 40th anniversary of Fassbinder’s death), Thousands of Mirrors resembles the director’s 14-episode adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin’s novel of the Weimar Republic, insofar as Penman finds it “especially hard going,” “not the outright masterpiece it could and should have been,” and, likely because of this, a “spiritual autobiography.” Thousands of Mirrors may be Penman’s, as the book inclines him to wax nostalgic, rue past failures, and mull over his own mortality: The night that Fassbinder died was, coincidentally, the first time that Penman tried heroin—and the next day, he reports, “the first obituary I ever wrote.”

One of Penman’s signature moves is to expand far beyond the confines of the topic assigned, and in Thousands of Mirrors, he emulates the structure of Walter Benjamin’s 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Composing his propositions in numbered paragraphs, Benjamin continued an aphoristic tradition of German letters that dates back to Martin Luther, at least, with notable entries by Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Franz Kafka. The gimmick well suits Penman, who previously implemented it as a formal device to organize his best piece of writing to date, “The Question of U: The Mirror Image of Prince,” from the 2019 collection It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. Likewise, Thousands of Mirrors constructs a patchwork theoretical history of “the post-1977 period we (hesitantly, reluctantly, gingerly) call post-punk” through sequential fragments and false starts, eclectic reading and introspection.

What emerges is an intellectual memoir of Penman’s own Teutophilia, from New Objectivity and krautrock to psychoanalysis and the Verfremdungseffekt of swastika-waving punk. Of Fassbinder, a proud homosexual who alienated the gay community of his day as much as he upset the conservative sensibilities of the Bundesrepublik, Penman wonders, “scrolling through a social media timeline of sexual fluidity, tantrums, locked-in lives, queer pol, trans activism, cinematic nostalgia and seven types of ambiguous dysfunction…how come Fassbinder isn’t hailed as king and absolute ruler of this wild and tattered kingdom?” While Fassbinder’s work has hardly left the spotlight (Criterion has given him his own imprint, and his hits are routinely screened in repertory), the challenges posed by the difficulty of his films, the effrontery of his opinions, and the more prurient aspects of his biography continuously threaten to marginalize his status.

The critic hazards a theory about the cult of Fassbinder when he speculates, “Has the old-time one-off screening of the Venerable Arthouse Masterpiece Event now been replaced by shameless Netflix binging and regurgitation?” But Penman stops short at condemning new media: “Nothing worse than some old soak maundering on about the death of the imagination.” He is wise to leave the defense of cinephilia against corporate malfeasance to his beloved Martin Scorsese, but it is difficult to dispute the reality that Fassbinder’s methods—shooting, high as a kite, before funding has been secured; sleeping with his employees in increasingly disastrous configurations—would be curtailed, at a minimum, by the standards of today’s film industry, for better or worse, to say nothing of the thorniness of his art or persona.

On-screen and off, Fassbinder embraced his idiosyncrasies at the risk of self-mythology, pointing the camera at the unsavory sides of himself to unite identification with disgust, to force catharsis through recognition. The clearest peek into Fassbinder’s nether regions comes in his 26-minute contribution to the 1978 anthology film Germany in Autumn, which combines documentary and fictional footage to capture the political climate of the country in the wake of repeated kidnappings, hijackings, murders, and alleged suicides conducted in the name of the Red Army Faction. Sitting naked on the floor, the filmmaker-as-himself fondles his testicles while telephoning his ex-wife and occasional muse, Ingrid Caven, in Paris; he expresses ambivalent sympathies for leftist terror as he berates his mother, Lilo Pempeit (German translator of Truman Capote and actress in her son’s films), for desiring a “benevolent” dictator, and physically batters his boyfriend, actor Armin Meier (who killed himself two months after the film’s premiere, probably on the night of Fassbinder’s birthday party, to which—it is rumored—he was not invited), for benignly siding with law and order. The German Autumn proves too much to bear on its own, leading Fassbinder to call up his old dealer, but he is only a line or two into a relapse when approaching police sirens jolt him into flushing his stash down the toilet.

It may come as a surprise that Fassbinder’s most directly personal statement occurs in a film over which he had the least creative control, but this apparent contradiction makes Germany in Autumn a perfect example of what Penman calls Fassbinder’s “cocaine communism,” the rare blend of Dionysian indulgence and sincere commitment to revolutionary action that he managed to cough up. Though some of his most scathing portraits—Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven and The Third Generation, in particular—targeted his (supposed) allies on the left, this friendly fire was consistent with Fassbinder’s worldview and philosophy of the self as dynamic and complex, which Penman succeeds at replicating in content as well as form.

His thesis, to the extent that he has one, concerns “the absolute impossibility of summing up Fassbinder,” who disseminated pieces of himself across his characters and films. Like Walt Whitman, if not all of us, Fassbinder “contains multitudes,” the untangling of which causes Penman to rifle through his library in an attempt to apprehend his own fragmented subjectivity. Quoting Benjamin, he sees in Fassbinder “a hypnotized tension between any critique of capital, and his own ardent collector’s pleasure in things. Can you be in thrall to the commodity and suspicious of it at the same time?” The answer is a tacit yes, and in the book’s final pages, he barrages the reader with dozens of citations torn from the author’s overstuffed shelves: Joyce, Duchamp, Lou Reed, and Pessoa; Goethe, Adorno, Derrida, and Artaud. In sum, Penman’s shattered glimpses into his own mind add up to only 450 entries, but their reflections could take a lifetime to trace back to the source.

Neither lurid tell-all (Penman confesses to wearing through several copies of Robert Katz’s 1987 biography, Love Is Colder Than Death, named after Fassbinder’s directorial debut) nor apologia, Thousands of Mirrors elucidates Fassbinder’s art on its own terms, taking for granted William Burroughs’s position that all writing is essentially autobiographical, while mining meaning from—and not excuses for—the life of his subject. Turning inward, Penman asks if the “no future” ethos that Fassbinder shared with punk isn’t “a worldview all too characteristic of and convenient for a certain kind of stunted boy-man, used to fetishizing his own pain, but wholly without empathy for the often far greater pain of others?”

Readers would not be wrong to take this as a sheepish mea culpa, for Penman understands that great art can emerge from the frisson of creativity and monstrosity without romanticizing the difference between being human and humane. Fassbinder’s “comfort zone,” by Penman’s definition, consists of “people in bare loveless rooms, screaming, fighting, arguing, slowly losing their minds, repeating the same mistakes, time and again. A kind of psychotic-break costume drama.” There is, to be sure, more to life than this, but when pressed by actor Karlheinz Böhm—“I know you’re against right-wingers, and left-wingers, extremists. So who do you support?”—Fassbinder responded, after a pause, with some astonishment: “I see things burning, things going wrong, things that stink. To the right or left, up or down, I shoot in all directions.”

Penman does this too—not with Fassbinder’s angst, but with the enthusiasm of a connoisseur. His digestion of the filmography is unsystematic and incomplete, but so was the filmmaker’s career: At the time of his death, Penman notes, Fassbinder left behind unfinished sketches for a Rosa Luxemburg biopic, a remake of the Joan Crawford vehicle Possessed, and adaptations of Pitigrilli’s Cocaine, Georges Bataille’s Blue of Noon, even Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. The cocaine communism that sped Fassbinder to his demise reveals him to Penman as the “ultimate consumer,” a hedonistic omen of the “bipolar 1980s up ahead,” yet his “main message, that life sucks, found sentimental expression in every movie he made,” and it rings even truer today. “There’s no love without pain,” a man tells a woman in Katzelmacher, Fassbinder’s second feature, which is as good a summation as any of the perverse enjoyment to be gained from spending time with the filmmaker’s bleak, hilarious, and moving body of work.

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