Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder


Rainer Werner Fassbinder launched himself into the German film scene as though from a catapult, making ten features between April 1969 and November 1970, impressive works that already evinced the sociological rigor and mastery of form that would define the highest-profile career of any director in the New German Cinema. At the same time, these early films stand apart from those that came after: enlisting the talents of collaborators simultaneously involved in Munich’s Antiteater (anti-theater) performance group, of which Fassbinder was a founder, they are all made in a detached, experimental style informed by the sensibility of that group’s work. At the end of this phase, the filmmaker abandoned this austere approach in the interest of reaching a wider audience, and he is now best known for the more accessible films that followed, splendidly grim, Hollywood-inspired melodramas that bring a visual realism couched in the verities of everyday West German life to a genre known for its glossiness and symphonic emotional crescendos. But the films he made at the beginning of his career are compelling in their own right; political and personal, confrontational and moving, they showcase the provocative artistry of a filmmaker who, before his premature death at thirty-seven, dedicated himself to bringing to light uncomfortable truths about his country’s legacy and postwar complacency.

West German cinema was moribund in the fifties and early sixties, unable to find its footing even two decades after World War II. More than three-quarters of its domestic audience had been lost to television. Furthermore, the industry was barely on the international radar, as it tended toward Heimatfilms (homeland films)—simplistic, provincial movies extolling the virtues of the German nation and intended strictly for German audiences. It was a moment ripe for shaking up by a new generation of artists, and on February 28, 1962, that moment was definitively seized. During the annual International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, a group of twenty-six young filmmakers, inspired by the Free Cinema movement in England and the New Wave in France, demanded a new kind of German cinema. They did this in the Oberhausen Manifesto, a sort of call to arms for new filmmakers to make engaged, daring cinema, and to demand support from the government to do so. “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new,” proclaimed the signatories, who included Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, and Peter Schamoni. Though the tone of the manifesto was urgent, it would take three years of lobbying government cultural commissions for the movement to bear fruit. The group finally saw twenty films given full or partial public financing between 1965 and 1968, as well as the founding of state film schools in Berlin and Munich in 1966. The early films that were made under the aegis of this cinematic revolution—such as Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless and Kluge’s Yesterday Girl (both 1966)—were critiques of the conformity and apathy of German society. What these radicalized filmmakers demanded wasn’t necessarily what viewers wanted, however: with few exceptions, these films, made cheaply because of the meagerness of the government funding, proved unpopular, even alienating, to mainstream audiences, and as the sixties came to a close, the New German Cinema seemed to be ending almost as soon as it had begun.

Into this climate swaggered Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Born in May 1945, just weeks after Germany’s surrender to the Allies, he was considerably younger than the filmmakers who had been part of the Oberhausen group and the others who had sprung up in its wake. The rebellious child of divorced parents, Fassbinder was a repeat boarding-school runaway who, as an adult, would often describe, with a mix of bitterness and blitheness, a childhood defined by neglect. His interest in film was forged early, as he retreated to the movies almost daily, watching mostly American films, often of the gangster variety. His first step toward a career in the arts was his 1964 enrollment in Munich’s Fridl-Leonhard acting school, which he loathed for what he viewed as its oppressive, dogmatic atmosphere. While there, he kept his sights set on cinema; his goal, after he graduated in May 1966, was to be accepted into the new German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, to which he submitted an 8 mm short titled This Night as part of his application. He was rejected but decided to make movies on his own, convincing his first lover, Christoph Roser, an out-of-work actor with a little money in the bank, to fund them. The results were two French New Wave–inflected shorts, The City Tramp (1966) and A Little Chaos (1967), the former inspired by Eric Rohmer, the latter by Jean-Luc Godard. Both were turned down by the Oberhausen festival.

Fassbinder became increasingly involved in theater over the next couple of years, though filmmaking was always in the back of his mind. Impressed by a Brechtian staging of Antigone, he soon joined—or, as some involved have said, imposed himself on—the Action Theater in Munich, fashioned after the New York experimental group the Living Theater, and began staging plays he had written. The Action Theater wasn’t long for this world, however (the converted cinema in which the group had set up shop was destroyed in April 1968 by a band of radicals who had regularly attended productions, mainly to heckle and vocally propound their own more violent philosophies from the audience—these included Andreas Baader, later of Baader-Meinof infamy); afterward, Fassbinder and others from the Action Theater formed the Antiteater collective, which put on plays—including leftist updates of works by Goethe, Sophocles, and John Gay—at venues around Munich. This troupe, which included Kurt Raab, Peer Raben, Irm Hermann, and Hanna Schygulla, would supply the core members of the crew that would help Fassbinder realize his filmmaking dreams. As with theater, Fassbinder was interested in pushing cinema into darker and more confrontational and political realms.

His first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death, was shot in Munich in twenty-four days in April 1969; it was funded by money Fassbinder had made by taking acting gigs, as well as some contributed by Hanna von Rezzori, an heiress to the Bosch hardware fortune and patron of the arts. In the leading role, Fassbinder cast not one of his loyal Antiteater players but Ulli Lommel, whom he’d acted alongside in Schlöndorff’s TV adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal. In Love Is Colder Than Death, Fassbinder employs a chilly, detached aesthetic—inspired by the experimental work of Godard and Jean-Marie Straub—to subvert American gangster movie clichés. Lommel plays Bruno, a worker for a crime syndicate who is instructed to convince a small-time hood, Franz (Fassbinder), to join the outfit. The simmering tension of the film comes from its underlying eroticism, as the evident attraction between Bruno and Franz—and between Franz’s girl, Joanna (Schygulla), and both men—creates complications. All romantic possibilities are ultimately beside the point, however, as the nihilistic Love Is Colder Than Death presents such pursuits as futile, culminating in a betrayal and a botched robbery.

The film also thwarts conventional audience identification with its protagonists. They are like mannequins, posed in static tableaux, often in stark, white rooms. Fassbinder’s camera rarely moves as it surveys their follies in self-consciously long takes. But his attitude toward them never seems patronizing; rather, he distills behavior into gestures, and language into basic, childlike words. In a 1969 interview, he called these characters “poor souls . . . who didn’t know what to do with themselves, who were simply set down, as they are, and who weren’t given a chance.” Though Fassbinder was influenced by Hollywood and French New Wave depictions of the criminal underworld, there’s no glamour to the lives of gangsters in his world—he sees them not as cool rebels but as symbols of capitalist exploitation, victims of bourgeois society, and therefore as trapped in the muck of the everyday as everyone else. Fassbinder said early in his career that his films fell into two categories: “cinema films” (self-referential genre pieces) and “bourgeois films” (social critiques). Though Love Is Colder Than Death was an example of the former, it was also contending with the class and money issues important to the latter.

Other first-time filmmakers might have been discouraged by the response Love Is Colder Than Death received at its Berlin Film Festival premiere in June 1969. Not Fassbinder. Though jeered at onstage by an audience put off by his film’s distant, clammy aesthetic, he clasped his hands and shook them over his head in a gesture of victory. And he plunged into his next film—an adaptation of his 1968 play Katzelmacher—with an avidity that would set the pace for the rest of his career. Though that Berlin audience didn’t know it, an important star of the fledgling New German Cinema had been born.


Shot over the course of nine days in August 1969 and released just two months later, Katzelmacher was the first of what Rainer Werner Fassbinder called his “bourgeois films,” discomfiting critiques of the middle class that would soon also include Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) and Rio das mortes (1971). In Katzelmacher, the specific target was the persistence of xenophobia and intolerance in Germany at the time—a subject that unavoidably recalled the country’s shameful past. Though the Holocaust is invoked here only as allegory, that history had been largely absent from German movie screens to that point.

Katzelmacher concerns a group of aimless twentysomethings in a depressed Munich neighborhood who spend their days sitting on stoops, gossiping and feeling sorry for themselves. As in Love Is Colder Than Death, Fassbinder relies on static frames and long takes (by both aesthetic choice and economic necessity) to evoke torpor and desperation. We see these hollow characters—including Marie (Hanna Schygulla) and her gloomy criminal boyfriend, Erich (Hans Hirschmüller); Elisabeth (Irm Hermann), who is fed up with her loafing live-in lover, Peter (Peter Moland); Paul (Rudolf Waldemar Brem) and his desperate, clinging girlfriend, Helga (Lilith Ungerer); Rosy (Elga Sorbas), who turns to prostitution, ultimately charging even her boyfriend, Franz (Harry Baer), for sex—in crummy apartments, a restaurant, and on the sidewalk, often in pairs, arguing with one another, taking advantage of each other for sex or money. The inertia of this world is disturbed by the arrival of Jorgos (Fassbinder), a taciturn Greek immigrant who moves into Elisabeth’s flat and threatens the locals simply by being different. Rumors fly about his sexual prowess and Communist sympathies; aggression against him builds to an inevitable violent attack. Only the naively romantic Marie stands by Jorgos.

The fifties economic miracle in Germany had led to an influx of over two million foreign workers by the end of the sixties, and the resentment and exploitation that often greeted them angered Fassbinder, who had as a teenager been friendly with many of the immigrants who lived in his father’s boardinghouses. He saw such treatment as a form of everyday fascism. But even if Fassbinder clearly shows sympathy for Jorgos’s plight, Katzelmacher (whose title is a derogatory Bavarian word for a foreigner, especially one from a Mediterranean country) is clinical in tone, a formal exercise that reflects a social reality in the most unadorned style possible. Fassbinder depicts modern Germany as being in a state of catatonia, perhaps held there by the ever-present burden of history. The camera rarely moves, and when it does—in a recurring series of tracking shots following pairs of characters as they mechanistically stroll down an otherwise abandoned street, accompanied by a repeated Schubert piano piece—it feels purposefully unnatural. Fassbinder is calling attention to cinematic form as well as social injustice and petty inhumanity.

Katzelmacher achieved only minor box-office numbers—unsurprising, perhaps, considering its austerity. But the film earned Fassbinder acclaim from critics across the nation, as well as nearly a million marks in prizes and state subsidies. Only four months after Love Is Colder Than Death had provoked audiences’ ire, Fassbinder was already recognized as one to watch.


The acclaim for Katzelmacher was all the encouragement Rainer Werner Fassbinder needed to never look back. Between November 1969 and November 1970, he shot eight more feature films, wrapping up what is considered the initial phase of his career. The first of these, Gods of the Plague, which premiered in April 1970, was a return to the self-consciously evoked gangster milieu of Love Is Colder Than Death. Although some of his collaborators viewed Fassbinder’s drive to create as pathological (“It was totally insane. We didn’t need any speed in those days. All we needed was a dose of Fassbinder,” said actor Harry Baer), the quality of what he was churning out was remarkable. As with Love Is Colder Than Death, Fassbinder categorized Gods of the Plague as one of his self-referential “cinema films,” as opposed to his more social-realist “bourgeois films.” Like that earlier film, it’s a sparely plotted crime story full of simmering psychosexual energy, but it shows a marked development in visual style and dynamic composition.

After getting out of prison, Franz divides his time between two women—Joanna (Hanna Schygulla) and Margarethe (future trailblazing New German Cinema director Margarethe von Trotta)—while hoping to reconnect and pull off a robbery with Günther, a beloved friend despite the fact that he shot and killed Franz’s brother. Getting wind of this job, the possessive Joanna betrays Franz, leading to a bloody conclusion for both Franz and Günther. Gods of the Plague is particularly striking for the casting of its main male characters. For the lead role, the director hired Baer. When he was preparing to make Katzelmacher, Fassbinder had remembered the handsome young actor from his short stint as a drummer and part-time performer for the Antiteater collective, and tracked him down at the coal mine he was working in to cast him in a small role; Fassbinder even affectionately changed his last name from Zottl to Baer (German for “bear”). As Gods of the Plague’s hard-boiled ex-convict protagonist Franz Walsch (also Fassbinder’s pseudonym as a film editor), the laconic Baer is filmed adoringly. Yet in the part of Franz’s close friend Günther, a.k.a. Gorilla, Fassbinder cast an actor he fancied to the point of obsession. In Günther Kaufmann, the son of a black American GI and a white German woman, Fassbinder saw a social outcast with whom he identified and to whom he was desperately attracted. Undeterred by the fact that Kaufmann was married with two children, Fassbinder proceeded to woo him with film roles and expensive gifts. The complicated, subtly eroticized relationship between Franz and Günther in the film, which fluctuates between romantic and brotherly, reflects that of Fassbinder and Kaufmann; by comparison, the male-female relationships in the film are passionless. During the shooting of the following year’s “cinema film” Whity, set in the American antebellum Deep South, Kaufmann’s withholding of affection sent Fassbinder over the edge, resulting in a legendarily disastrous production.

Behind-the-scenes psychosexual motivations aside, Gods of the Plague is a beautiful, even tender, film. There is a newfound adventurousness to Fassbinder’s visuals, including tracking shots and zooms; an elegant employment of multiple planes within frames; and an expressive use of mirrors and set design. All of this fluidity, however, is in the service of another study in inertia; Gods of the Plague ultimately illustrates the futility of romance and the inevitability and ignominy of death.


In December 1968, Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote and staged a one-act play for the Antiteater called The American Soldier, inspired by the 1958 American film noir Murder by Contract. When, in 1970, he made his third crime film, he used the title and skeleton of this play but radically revised the narrative. The American Soldier onstage had been Fassbinder’s first experimental journey into a sordid gangster underworld; The American Soldier on-screen concluded an unofficial trilogy of Fassbinder’s “cinema films” that deconstructed noir tropes. Treading the line between satirical pastiche and engaging crime narrative, it is his boldest and most fragmented film of this type, a metacinematic take on a genre known for its pitiless violence.

Originally, Fassbinder wanted to shoot The American Soldier in Berlin in the summer of 1970, as a widescreen spectacle paying homage to fifties Hollywood melodrama, and starring Günther Kaufmann, with whom the filmmaker was then besotted. But by the time he started production (with four more films under his belt since Gods of the Plague), strains both budgetary and on his relationship with Kaufmann had led him to reconceive the project, and he ended up making it in Munich on a smaller scale, with newcomer Karl Scheydt in the lead role. With an almost parodic intractability, Scheydt plays Ricky, a German-American Vietnam veteran who, after his return to his birth city of Munich, is hired as a contract killer by a trio of shady policemen. Ricky alternates between performing robotic assassinations, consuming Ballantine’s and steak with ketchup, and bedding a series of women, before visiting his distant mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz) and overaffectionate brother (Kurt Raab).

In Fassbinder’s anarchic world, the police are indistinguishable from gangsters, and violence inextricable from sex—people are shot before, after, or during moments of intimacy multiple times in The American Soldier. The film’s theme song, “So Much Tenderness,” written by Fassbinder and Peer Raben and performed on the soundtrack in a pleasant trill by Kaufmann, provides ironic commentary on an environment seemingly devoid of genuine emotional connection. This coldness is especially apparent in the film’s treatment of women as little more than scenery or objects to be discarded—see the policemen’s moll silently painting her toenails in the opening shot’s foreground or, in the second scene, Ricky kicking a female passenger (Irm Hermann) out of his car and shooting blanks at her as she lies sprawled on the gravelly road.

In many ways, The American Soldier employs a more customary film grammar than Fassbinder’s earlier “cinema films”—close-ups, inserts, reverse shots, moving camera work—but in an aloof, ultrastylized experiment like this, such gestures toward conventionality only make the work more shocking. The film is a disconcertingly unreadable narrative of psychosexual warfare, given to enigmatic digressions, as when a hotel maid (Margarethe von Trotta) stops the narrative cold to tell a story of doomed love (one that would become the plot of Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1974). But perhaps the film’s greatest gambit is its nearly four-minute closing shot, a virtuosic ballet of love and death that contains hints of the outsize melodrama the director would turn to in the coming years.


As the calamitous April 1970 production of Whity proved, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s bat-out-of-hell pace in the first few years of his career took a toll. The set of that film had become a petri dish of insecurity and dysfunction; Fassbinder’s behavior toward his crew had grown borderline tyrannical. Erratic as he may have been, though, Fassbinder did not lose his ability to be self-critical, as is crystal clear in Beware of a Holy Whore, shot in September 1970. A dramatization of what took place behind the scenes of Whity, it is, according to Fassbinder, “a film about why living and working together as a group doesn’t function, even with people who want it to and for whom the group is life itself.” Scathing but almost farcical, it was a sort of summation of Fassbinder’s moviemaking thus far.

Shot in color by the future Hollywood cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who had also filmed Whity), Beware of a Holy Whore is the picture of controlled chaos. As it opens, a film crew is lazing around a Spanish villa, awaiting the arrival of their inscrutable, scowling star (Alphaville’s Eddie Constantine, as himself) and dictatorial, abusive director, the Fassbinder surrogate Jeff (Lou Castel, the frothing antihero of Fists in the Pocket). The film’s initial listlessness recalls Katzelmacher, as the colorfully dressed but expressionless characters have nothing to do but exchange gossip and innuendo. Many of Fassbinder’s usual collaborators (Harry Baer, Ingrid Caven, Ulli Lommel, Kurt Raab) appear in small roles, while being represented on-screen by others, such as Magdalena Montezuma, playing a hysterical version of Irm Hermann (who, to make matters even trickier, dubs Montezuma’s voice). Yet the most damning reflection in this hall of mirrors is Castel’s Jeff, who is constantly hurling glasses of whiskey at people’s heads and at one point falls to his knees and wails at the crew, “You want my blood! I hate you all!”

Fassbinder was interested in making neither a solipsistic cri de coeur nor a behind-the-scenes exposé; he viewed Beware of a Holy Whore as a comedy about something serious: the limitations of collective endeavor. He wondered how a group, however committed to a cause—the film within the film is intended to protest state-sanctioned violence—could ever rise above its own pettiness and interdependency. Because of this larger social question, Fassbinder saw the film as belonging more to his “bourgeois” than his “cinema” films, despite its milieu. It was also the climactic work of the first phase of Fassbinder’s career and an expression of his need to start afresh. “With that film, we buried the Antiteater, which was our first dream,” he later said. “I didn’t know what would happen from then on, but I knew it had to change.”

What happened is cinema history. After shooting one more film in 1970, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Fassbinder and his collaborators dissolved the Antiteater and took a much-needed break. His films had been appealing to increasingly small and esoteric audiences, and Fassbinder wanted to reach more viewers. He would do just that in his subsequent cinematic phase, inspired by the sensuous Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which Fassbinder found beautiful for their emotional honesty and naïveté. In August 1971, he began production on the youthful The Merchant of Four Seasons. Fassbinder’s next journey, then, after his amazing initial creative burst and purge, would be to find his innocence.

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