Elsaesser, Thomas. “Introduction: A Work Upstaged by Life?” In Fassbinder's Germany. History Identity Subject, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, 7–12. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996.

Introduction: A Work Upstaged by Life?

Thomas Elsaesser

from Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject by Thomas Elsaesser

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In the cinema of the post-war period, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a unique filmmaker. Between 1969 and 1982 – barely more than a decade, which is all he had to make his mark – he transformed the very idea of the German cinema, because by writing himself into German film history, he had to rewrite its history. Yet in the years since, the work he directed has, though not exactly vanished, undergone a strange transformation. A few of the films have entered the canon. FEAR EATS THE SOUL, THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT and THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN are among the landmarks of European cinema and have secured him an undisputed place as film artist and auteur. But in the process, the work as a whole has become invisible, consumed by Fassbinder's life. What drew the gaze of audiences, but also distracted it, was the enigma of the man who had made these perplexing, provocative but absorbing films: the scandal of openly flaunted homosexuality, the purported self-abuse and the abuse of others seemed to fuel an awe-inspiring productivity, as if a Faustian pact had been sealed with sulphurous thunder. Especially since his death, his lifestyle and the posthumous revelations about it have invariably upstaged the films, it seemed if one wanted to understand the films, one had to look at his life.

He possessed a uniquely creative, but also self-destructive force, yes; but what of his force as a filmmaker for Germany, as a filmmaker about Germany? The biographical literature on Fassbinder has its place, tracking down the anecdotal antecedents of incidents in the films, and often giving the reader a pungent taste of the atmosphere of hate, spite and violence which Fassbinder seemed to inspire and by which he was surrounded.1 But by concentrating on the pathological and sensationalist aspects of the Fassbinder story, too much space is given to revelations, hearsay and anecdotes about his private behaviour and public posturing. If understandably, perhaps, Fassbinder's former collaborators unburden themselves in their memoirs, airing grievances or long-held grudges with observations that are often sharpened by the keen eye of jealous love, and a language spiced with the hamed memory of hurt, then less directly involved authors ought to take a step back. Some of the English-language studies have tried to put Fassbinder on the Freudian couch, in order to explain his treatment of friends and lovers, his compulsive creativity and his highly manipulative, sometimes generous, often sadistic ways of staying in control. Even where not exactly looking for the key, the single 'Rosebud' clue to Fassbinder, they tended to find a sense of unity of the man and his films in his life, what propelled and compelled it. And since the life was as extravantly spectacular as it was tragically brief, it lends itself especially well to metaphoric or symptomatic interpretations. Among such psychoanalytic approaches, those that focus on Fassbinder's troubled relation with his father and his penchant for humiliating his mother's look-alike are neither the least interesting nor the least plausible, especially since the director himself has often volunteered such explanations himself.2

Yet Fassbinder's own candour in this respect is revealing: he finds it amusing to speculate on the connections between his childhood memories and his films, or to spin some broader cultural reflections from them, but there is little sense of it tapping into his unconscious.3 For the biographer, on the other hand, the films become source material, raided for clues.4 They are the record, so to speak, of his acting out, re-enacting and staging the traumas of his childhood: the supposed lack of love from his mother, the feelings of worthlessness and impotence in the face of those who ran his life when he was a child. Fassbinder's adult life and his films, according to this model, are comprehensible as twin tracks whose imaginary meeting point and impossible vanishing point are a return to a childhood blighted by parental discord, political disarray and a manic-depressive personality. Correspondingly, his relations with the people he attracted, used or tolerated in his company became the testing ground and the 'raw material' from which he fashioned the fables of his films or drew the often lurid colours of his characters' feelings. The meaning of both life and work becomes coherent, in such a model, because they are bound together either by an allegorical relationship or a compensatory link. As Ronald Hayman puts it 'film was a form of therapy in which he could project his identity into the glamorous men and women who spoke his dialogue and obeyed his instructions'.5

Reading the work in the light of the life is a strategy which achieves coherence only at a price. If the life explains the films, and the films explain the life, then not only is each the foil for the other, but each makes the other transparent: to the point of tautology. The crucial issue the biographical or psychoanalytic approaches have obscured, if only by taking it for granted, is what makes Fassbinder important in the first place: his films, the resonance they have found, the topics they engage. As Wilhelm Roth remarked, reviewing Die 13 Jahre des Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Seine Filme, seine Freunde, seine Feinde

[Peter] Berling omits nothing, he describes how Fassbinder tyrannized his friends, details the rows and power-struggles with his collaborators, the squabbles over money, the sexual promiscuity, the alcoholic excesses, and finally the suicidal addiction to cocaine. Oddly enough, all these revelations do not seem to damage Berling's (negative) hero Fassbinder. The book becomes a requiem, (maybe an unintentional) mourning work for a wasted and mis-spent life. The paradox remains that out of this life came masterpieces. On this, Berling has nothing to, say.6

The final sentences have several implications. They can lead one to ponder one more the paradox Roth alludes to: given the self-destructive course of Fassbinder's life and the physical demands of his filmmaking, the enigma is not how did he manage to produce '42 films in 17 years*,7 a question most commentators elevate to the status of central paradox - but rather, how did he produce 'masterpieces'. This, however, begs a second point. What is a masterpiece in Fassbinder's work, and did Fassbinder set out to make masterpieces: questions demanding precisely the kind of critical study of which the Fassbinder literature is so short.8

I would instead rephrase Roth's paradox: the gap left open by the biographical accounts is not only that of a coherent account of Fassbinder's films in sequence,9 but an account of the films' coherence, which is to say, of the complexity of their underlying design, of the successive transformations of their basic themes. A case could be made for seeing the late films as rewriting the early films in a different idiom, and with a different historical reference: THE THIRD GENERATION (1979) rewriting GODS OFTHE PLAGUE (1969), for instance. Put like this, such a project has an old-fashioned, not to say 'retrograde' ring, seemingly wishing to reinstate the 'author' as the locus (and the work as the material manifestation) of an intentional plenitude, whose stages and intricacies it is the task of the critic to reconstruct.

In one sense, this imaginary telos is implicit in any single author study. The temptations such reconstructive fantasies hold for a writer continue to have a powerful attraction for readers. In another sense, the presumed plenitude is far from proven. I do not discuss the work in its totality, or even all the patterns or coherences that might traverse it. I shall be satisfied if this study indicates their direction. My (mis)readings are intended to encourage (re)viewings and (mis)readings, just as they have been prompted by others' (mis)readings. [f I were to give a name to the fantasy that has sustained my interest, it would be the possibility that the design underlying Fassbinder's films, and the sense of their rather extraordinary purposiveness (some of the projects pondered for a lifetime like BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, others conceived on the hoof, like LILI MARLEEN10), did not mature in modernist isolation or creative solitude. Rather, it must have developed against the pull of an entourage of very demanding friends, lovers and associates; it must have taken shape in the face of the chaos of his personal life; it survived the logistical challenges of 'independent' but nonetheless 'commercial' film production; and it could realize itself in spite of the vagaries of film finance and film distribution in West Germany. In other words, not dividing life from work, but totally intermingling; not 'autobiographical' fusion, but the ability to keep things separate when and where it mattered. I shall come back to this point in my final chapter.

To note the pitfalls of the biographical or auteurist approach does not commit one to the opposite extreme. A purely formal reading, which treats the films as self-sustaining and auto-reflexive artefacts is of course possible, and during the 1970s, Fassbinder was often cited as exponent of an anti-illusionist, modernist or Brechtian counter-cinema.11 Such interpretations did much to make him popular among student audiences, but they also risked an abstraction: from the context of production, and from contexts of reception other than the 'productive misreadings' Fassbinder at the time shared with other directors of the New German Cinema.12 The challenge in this study, then, is to keep in view a number of conflicting and shifting contexts: the economic factors that require a filmmaker in a given country to promote himself as artist, star or rebel, irrespective of his own inclination; the fact that a film may attain notoriety because of its subject matter and topical interest and thereby typecast its director; the possibility that the main resistance a filmmaker can oppose to the commodification of his work is to thematize the question of exchange value. Put differently, what is at issue in the chapters that follow are several kinds of reciprocity: between the films and their mode of production, between the historical moment they were made and the conditions under which they were made, between their chronological sequence and their chronological reference. Important, for instance, about the life of Fassbinder is its historicity: how it relates itself to and interprets itself through the history and society of West Germany. Fassbinder's films take this relatively short period of a single decade and build on it a series of concentric circles and reverberating echoes, encompassing the pre-history and the aftermath of modern Germany's greatest catastrophe. Also relevant is the fact that Fassbinder was one of the few directors of the New German Cinema whose films were seen by Germans, and who was able to enter into some form of dialogue with both a public and a public sphere, a dialogue Fassbinder fostered, incidentally, by the astute self-advertising rumour-machine already mentioned. Equally important, Fassbinder seems to have consciously pursued a number of parallels between his personal life and German history, inviting allegorical cross-referencing of biographical and autobiographical elements in his films against the foil of German history, rather than his childhood and its imagined or real deprivations.

The accounts I offer of particular films, such as FEAR EATS THE SOUL, THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS, DESPAIR, THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, LOLA, VERONIKA VOSS, LILI MARLEEN, IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS and BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, hopefully provide the necessary detail for setting out how a film can, at one and the same time, have a degree of internal coherence, form part of an ongoing authorial project, and intervene in a number of public histories. In the course of these chapters, I shall return to the question of whether such an approach makes sense not only of a given film's stylistic strategies but also of its inconsistencies. Implicitly, the chapters will assume that interpretation can illuminate the peculiarly intimate and yet highly mediated relation that obtains between Fassbinder's life and his films. Overtly, however, the main impulse has been to keep the films distinct from the life, if understood as the network of personal ties, erotic dependencies and power-play in which the adult Fassbinder entangled a large number of individuals of either sex, and to see the films across the life, understood as the forces that shape a professional existence and condition the possibilities of working as a film director in Germany in the 1970s. This is a methodological as well as a moral choice. The former I have tried to set out above, notably by redefining the idea of a 'life in history', as it affects both films and filmmaker; the latter is a constant theme throughout the book. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the benefit – and pleasure – I have drawn as reader, critic and historian from the memoirs of the members of Fassbinder's entourage, such as Harry Baer, Kurt Raab, Peter Chatel and others, notably those interviewed by Juliane Lorenz. My debt extends to those scholars who have tried to sift rumour from fact and have begun to document these 'facts', notably Hans Helmut Prinzler, Hans Günther Pflaum, Wilhelm Roth and Michael Toteberg.13

As the response to a Fassbinder film has always been a mixture of intrigued amazement, appalled fascination and disarmed frustration, it seems likely that strategies of seduction played a prominent part in his life as well as his work. For reasons which hopefully will become clear in the course of the book, psychoanalysis - rather than being the clue to the life, of which the work is the symptom - may help, thanks to such notions as identification, transference or narcissism, to clarify some dimensions of the film experience and the psychic structures that make it possible. Where Fassbinder mobilizes these structures, he also modifies them, in order to address! undress! seduce! produce a particular kind of spectator. This, at any rate, is part of my argument, after examining the most obvious dynamics that bind together the filmmaker-narrator, the characters and the spectator in Fassbinder's film: that of frame and view, of the different looks and their obstructions, of voyeuristic participation and exhibitionist display. Together, they mark out so many apparently impossible spaces and delineate such distinct fields of the visible that neither the notion of self-reflexivity nor the charge of self-indulgent virtuosity can gain critical purchase. I have attempted a multiple reading of this obvious but finally quite opaque feature of Fassbinder's work, relating it to a topology, a set of tropes as well as to a history. It clearly formulates a 'view' of cinema and of the act of cinematic representation as a fact of private and public existence. It implies a notion of the body in visual and audio space that offers a reflection on the temporalities human perception now inhabits. Most decisively, Fassbinder brings into play such a powerful sense of what it means for men and women to be visible to each other across different kinds of looks, not all of which are attached to an eye, that one comes to understand how human relations - the sole substance of Fassbinder's dramas - can be driven by a startling and even terrifying honesty: a deeply paradoxical situation, given that the cinema so manifestly belongs to the order of appearance, of the simulated and the self-alienated. Evidently, some of my interpretational moves rely on positions debated around questions of subjectivity, the image and the look, but in the course of traversing these by now well-trodden fields of Lacanian film theory, I shall also offer an account of Fassbinder's work that resists this theory, by pointing to other structures which do not so much invalidate as resituate the previously identified issues within a particular history and an ethics of exchange and interaction.

The present book is meant to be used, and therefore a number of 'critical' appendices are added, designed to aid such a possibility, even though they are not intended to replace various reference guides to Fassbinder. I have included an extensively commented filmography, which combines a brief synopsis of each film with its place in several kinds of contexts and preoccupations. A selected bibliography of books and other major publications on the director and his films gives an overview of the growing literature. Besides a brief biographical sketch, there is also a synoptic table of some of the key dates of his life and major political events that seem to have been important points of intervention and reflection.

This volume represents some twenty years of thinking and writing about Fassbinder. Although I never met him personally, and only saw him from afar at the Berlin Film Festival at irregular intervals between 1975 and 1981, I 'followed' Fassbinder's films ever since 1971, when the Goethe Institute London gave me a chance to show THE AMERICAN SOLDIER and WHY DOES HERR R RUN AMOK? at the Gardner Arts Centre of the University of Sussex, well before any of Fassbinder's films had received a public screening in Britain. Some time after his death, the idea of a book took shape, and my subsequent pieces on Fassbinder were written with such a project in mind. In the end, it was not until the centenary of his death in 1992 that I started to rethink Fassbinder's Germany. Where previously published essays are reprinted (as in the case of DESPAIR, LILI MARLEEN, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ and the final chapter), they have been substantially revised. I have indicated in the bibliography the original places of publication, and I gratefully acknowledge the editors' and publishers' permission to incorporate this material here. My thanks for assistance and many acts of kindness are also due to Mieke Bemink, Desmond Christy, Joan Copjec, Karel Dibbets, Caroline Gauthier, Gerd Gemtinden, Milena Gregor, Juliane Lorenz, Andreas Rost, Sally Shafto, Jane Shattuc, as well as the library staff of the Goethe Institute in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Munich.

Amsterdam, August 1996.



Two additions are Peter Berling, Die 13 Jahre des Rainer Werner Fasshinder. Seine Filme, seine Freunde, seine Feinde (Bergisch Gladbach: Gustav Lilbbe Verlag, 1992) and Wallace Steadman Watson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art (Columbia, S.c.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996). The latter reached me too late for full consideration or consultation of its substantial primary research.


Limmer 1981,43-55.


For instance, Fassbinder's fantasy about re-writing the myth of Phaedra, with father and son ending up together, or his project of a film about (Freud's) Moses, "choosing" his people. Limmer 1981, 60-61.


See Appendix 2 for a brief biographical sketch.


Hayman 1984, 11.


Wilhelm Roth 'Neues (") über Fassbinder', epd Film 1/1993, 12.


The subtitle of Bernd Eckhardt, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Munich: Heyne, 1982).


Peter Chatel, one of Fassbinder's long-time collaborators who kept himself outside the 'inner circle' is fairly categorical, and thus fairly typical: 'I don't think he ever made a film one could call a masterpiece. The masterpiece are all the 41 films, the life, and everything together. The films are the waste products of this life.' Interviewed in RaabJPeters 1982, 292.


This is what Roth himself has attempted in his 'Kommentierte Filmographie', which together with Hans Helmut Prinzler's filmography and bibliography makes up the central part of the standard reference work on Fassbinder, Peter W. Jansen and Wolfram Schütte (eds), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1992).


'The fact that I made LILI MARLEEN is more of an accident'. Fassbinder in an (uncredited) interview from 1980, quoted in Ernst-Christian Neisel (ed.), Werkschau: Programm (Berlin: Argon, 1992),78.


David Bordwell has some pertinent remarks on KATZELMACHER in his Narration and the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 286-289.


See my 'Primary Identification and the Historical Subject', in Phil Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 548.


The filmography appendix lists the full references to these sources.