Rainer Werner Fassbinder remains one of the most prolific directors of all-time; he made over 40 feature films and even a 15 hour mini-series adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz until his untimely death of a cocaine and barbiturates overdose in 1982 at the young age of 37. Along with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders he was one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema of the 1970s even though stylistically they couldn’t be more different. Herzog always had a preference for the surreal and extreme and Wenders for the road movie in all its different forms. Fassbinder was obsessed with classic Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s especially the work of Douglas Sirk whom he became good friends with later on in his career. He did play around with genre such as film noir and science fiction but he always came back to the melodramas he loved so much.
Arrow has released a Blu-Ray boxset of some of his key works which is available only from their webstore. The films are going to be released separately eventually and the first batch are Fear Eats The Soul, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Marriage of Maria Braun and a double bill of The Merchant of Four Seasons and Beware of a Holy Whore. The first wave relies heavily on his early melodramas which he turned out at the a stunning average rate of around 4 a year. The only later film The Marriage of Maria Braun which by that point he started working with more international cast/crews and his film’s became increasingly more visually interesting. Fear Eats The Soul is the film which bridges these two distinctive periods of his work. His earliest features have an overt Jean-Luc Godard influence which don’t completely work with the exception of The American Soldier because his calling was always the melodrama and not hip gangster flicks.
Beware of a Holy Whore along with The American Soldier (sadly missing from the Arrow blu-ray releases) is one of Fassbinder’s first great films. Most filmmakers in someway or another make their8½ at some point in their career but Fassbinder made his relatively early on. Fassbinder had a horrible experience making the western Whity so he made a film about a thinly disguised version of himself named Jeff (played by Lou Castel) who is attempting direct a film. The cast and crew are holed up in a hotel and they drink a lot of Cuba Libras and the cast and crew screw each other’s brains out. The production is completely falling apart all round them, the time when the film material finally shows up it’s too late. It’s one of the best features ever made about how not to make a film and should be required viewing for any wannabe filmmaker. I would say most film productions are more like the one depicted in Beware of a Holy Whore then aren’t.
The Merchant of Four Seasons was the first Fassbinder I saw years ago and to remains one of my least favourite of his films. It concerns Hans who has spent time in the French Foreign Legion and on his return he becomes a fruit peddler but his family disapproves of his life. He suffers from depression and alcoholism and when he recovers from a heart attack his business takes off. However he falls deeper into depression and into drinking himself in obliteration. Hans is a really horrible person who beats and cheats on his wife and treats his family and daughter like dirt. You have very little to grasp onto identify with the lead character and it’s just a rough 90 minutes watching his man fall apart but unlike something like Lost Weekend it lacks a real cinematic aesthetic to make it something special. Despite all this it’s a solid drama which is worth seeing because it was the first Fassbinder to find international acclaim.
Fassbinder also wrote many plays early on his career but due to various factors he stopped writing plays in the mid ’70s. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is the most successful adaptation of one of his plays even if it remains very “stagey”. It concerns a fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) who is an ageing woman who has a live in maid/assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann) who she treats terribly. The dynamic changes when von Kant falls madly in love with Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla) who is a young woman from Australia who Von Kant suggests become a model. She moves in and it’s fine for a bit but naturally with all of Fassbinder’s love stories it all ends in tragedy. It’s a daring piece of melodrama for 1972 which deals with lesbian lust and sadomasochism.
Fassbinder was openly bisexual and had many relationships with men and women. He even married Irm Hermann who was fully aware of his sexuality and their relationship was stormy to say the least, he would beat her. He also married Ingrid Caven despite hating the institution of marriage. Most of his varies male lovers appeared in his films such as Günther Kaufmann, El Hedi ben Salem. Two of his male lovers Armin Meier and El Hedi ben Salem would commit suicide but Fassbinder didn’t find out about Salem’s suicide till years later. Fassbinder’s complicated relationships is probably best represented in In a Year of 13 Moons which he made right after the suicide of Armin Meier. It’s also probably his bleakest film and his best work which is sadly missing from Arrow’s slate.
Fear Eats the Soul along with Querelle and Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of Fassbinder’s most well-known works. It’s an homage explicitly to Douglas Sirk’s magnificent film All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes would make his own homage to both All That Heaven Allows and Fear Eats the Soulwith his equally magnificent Far From Heaven. It’s one of Fassbinder’s most accessible and most tender film, it’s a love story between a Moroccan worker Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) and a middle-aged german woman. There is both a racial difference and a 25 age difference which disgusts the majority of the people around them. Fassbinder made the film in little over a week as kind of throw away film but in the process made one of his moving and powerful films which continues to enrich audiences who watch it all these years later.
The Marriage of Maria Braun is one of a trilogy of films Fassbinder made near the end of his life about post-WW2 Germany. It’s about the title character Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla) whose husband goes off to fight the allies and she is told he is killed and she marries a black American soldier. However the husband who is thought to have been killed returns and Maria kills her American Husband but her previous husband takes the blame. It’s a film about the soul of Germany in the post-war landscape, she may be wealthy and beautiful but her soul is completely black much like the soul of Germany at the time. She becomes a mistress of rich industrialist while her first husband is still in prison. It was the commercial break through Fassbinder had always wanted and was a surprise after the failure of his first English language film Despair earlier in the years.
Naturally with Arrow’s releases it completely stacked to the rims with features of all kinds. Every disc with the exception of The Merchant of Four Seasons / Beware of a Holy Whore has a documentary of at least 50 minutes in length. Fear Eats The Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braunboth have feature-length documentaries. Interviews, commentaries, trailers are also included but no booklets are included in the individual releases but the boxset version has a lengthy hardback book.