Fassbinder: Politics and Patrons in Berlin

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1970

On September 5, 1977, the Red Army Faction, a militant left-wing group, stepped up its attacks on the German government by kidnapping industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer. Through Schleyer, the RAF demanded the release of its leading members being held in Stammheim, a maximum security prison. With the crisis that had simmered all summer long now heating up in the fall, Volker Schlöndorff, Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and other filmmakers began working on an immediate response, an omnibus film practically made on the fly.

While they wrote and shot, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, calling for the release of the imprisoned RAF members, hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181 on October 13. In the wee hours of October 18, a special task force stormed the plane in Mogadishu, freeing the hostages and killing all but one of the hijackers. Later that same night, first-generation RAF members Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Andreas Baader were found dead in their cells in Stammheim. Germany in Autumn was completed in time to premiere at the Berlinale on March 3, 1978.

Starting this weekend, and on each Sunday through December 18, Berlin’s Wolf Kino will present Political Fassbinder, a series of six films paired with conversations with guest patrons, most of them born after Fassbinder’s death in 1982. The films will screen with English subtitles and discussions will take place in what curator Brigitta Wagner calls “flexible German.” Filmmaker Julian Radlmaier (Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, Bloodsuckers: A Marxist Vampire Comedy), who began his career as an assistant director for Werner Schroeter and has translated and edited work by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, will start things off by talking about Germany in Autumn.

In his twenty-six-minute segment, Fassbinder grapples with the ongoing crisis in feisty run-ins with his mother, Lilo Pempeit; his ex-wife, Ingrid Caven; and his boyfriend, Armin Meier. “What’s astounding here is the way Fassbinder balances a sensational, even prurient portrait of the artist as a frightening mess with a belief and commitment to free, open discussion,” wrote Evan Kindley at Not Coming to a Theater Near You in 2010. “No aspect of the director’s life, the film implies, was unaffected by the political situation in Germany; but, by the same token, no aspect of it was completely consumed. His ties to the national crisis, the so-called ‘outside world,’ are always mediated by his personal neuroses.”

The series then reaches back to Katzelmacher (1969) and proceeds chronologically. Translator and filmmaker Ted Fendt (Classical Period, Outside Noise) will discuss the film in which, as Michael Koresky wrote in 2013, “Fassbinder depicts modern Germany as being in a state of catatonia, perhaps held there by the ever-present burden of history.” With Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the story of a lonely widow and a much younger Moroccan migrant worker who fall in love, Fassbinder achieved “an ideal balance between emotional involvement and critical distance,” wrote Chris Fujiwara in 2014. The guest patron for Ali is Burhan Qurbani, who grew up in Germany as the son of Afghan parents and, in 2020, directed an adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz set in the present.

Toby Ashraf, a critic who founded the Berlin Art Film Festival, will discuss Fox and His Friends (1975). When Ira Sachs revisited the film in 2017, he noted that he had “forgotten how harsh it was in terms of its critique of gay culture and gay subculture—and that was a little bit surprising to me. But it also has sympathy and empathy within it, and I think that that’s the thing he’s able to do simultaneously: to be cruel and kind.”

Novelist, musician, and filmmaker Susanne Heinrich (Das melancholische Mädchen) will host the evening devoted to The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), the first film in the BRD Trilogy of films critiquing Germany’s so-called “economic miracle.” As Kent Jones wrote in 2003, Fassbinder’s biggest international hit is “powered by [Hanna] Schygulla’s languid, mesmerizing persona and bathed in it.”

For the screening of Fassbinder’s follow-up, The Third Generation (1979), Wolf Kino has invited Juliane Lorenz, the founder of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and an editor who worked on fourteen of Fassbinder’s films. Lorenz not only edited but also briefly appears in The Third Generation, a film that brings the series full circle. The RAF’s first generation—Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, et al.—has given way to a gaggle of goofball terrorists who are unwittingly manipulated by a powerful industrialist. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has called The Third Generation a “hectic, funny, prismatically intricate political thriller” whose “cinematic references (to Bresson, Tarkovsky, and, especially, Godard) are clever and apt.”

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